Two recent doctoral dissertations directly address the issue of Evangelical theological education in post-Soviet societies:
Charter, Miriam L. "Theological Education for New Protestant Churches of Russia: Indigenous Judgments on the Appropriateness of Educational Methods and Styles," Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997; and
Bohn, David P. "The Perspectives on Theological Education Evident among Evangelical Church Leaders in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Russia," Ph.D., Trinity International University, 1997.
Both were completed at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, now known as Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL, near Chicago. Dr. Ted Ward, a specialist in nonformal education, served as director for both theses. Miriam Charter and David Bohn both have extensive experience in the region, particularly Central and Eastern Europe, and both have worked for Biblical Education by Extension (BEE). Both dissertations argue that the best choice East European educators can make is to not adopt the traditional residential Western approach to theological education, at least not without very serious adaptation. Miriam Charter writes, "The most redemptive role for Westerners in the inevitable partnership of East and West in the development of theological education . . . must be one of encouragement, intentionally encouraging . . . educators not to allow the West, unchallenged, to replicate the educational models and styles that they have implemented in countries around the world" (261).
Likewise, David Bohn equates reform in theological education with movement away from formal, residential programs, and instead, the implementation of one or another nonformal model.1 Slightly more than half of his respondents agreed with his survey item that stated, "Post-Communist countries are forfeiting a marvelous opportunity to initiate theological education reform" (120). As he envisions it, reform would involve a "multiple-step approach to ministry" proficiency involving "various educational experiences and 'street' competencies," an approach that has worked well in Latin America and Mexico (297-98). Drs. Bohn and Charter see nonformal education as closer to the church, more practical, and meeting the needs of those already engaged in ministry for whom formal schooling is not an option, not to mention much less expensive (Bohn, 142-44; Charter, 218, 222). On the other hand, it should be pointed out that Alexander Romonyuk, head of BEE Ukraine, shared at a June 1998 conference that the full BEE program in the former Soviet Union now takes eight years to complete, that the drop-out rate is high, and that graduates do not receive recognized degrees. In addition, nonresidential programs typically lack the regular student-to-student and student-faculty interaction of a residential community that can so enhance student spiritual and academic development.2
In spite of the contrast outlined above, theological education in Communism's wake need not be cast in terms of formal versus nonformal. Both have their place and can be complimentary. In 1998 BEE had 6,900 students in Ukraine and 2,000 in Russia, not to mention an array of other smaller denominational and parachurch programs.3 Especially for Russia and Ukraine, where distances are great and formal Protestant theological education is in its infancy, nonformal instruction will continue to be critically important for the foreseeable future. At the same time, strong, highly respected, accredited residential seminaries are fervently desired throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. They are the priority, and notwithstanding some Western pedagogical preferences to the contrary, they likely will continue to receive the bulk of the educational funding and effort for the foreseeable future.
East European Evangelicals desire traditional accredited institutions to escape the sense of still being "outlaws," to gain a "sense of legitimacy," and "to shift the balance of power which now favors the Orthodox church" (Bohn, 253, 324). One Russian Baptist pastor declared he would not "waste his time" in an unaccredited institution: "An official degree is very important because if you don't have an official degree, you don't have any weight, you don't mean anything to anybody" (Bohn, 258). Unquestionably, formal and nonformal programs and academic and practical emphases have their advantages and disadvantages. Often it is a question of balance. For example, academic rigor and recognized credentials can be a means of impacting society, but they also can contribute to un-Christlike vainglory. For Christian educators the promise and peril of learning are best kept in healthy tension. As regards the place of intellect in Christian experience and in theological education, it is helpful to recall what seventeenth century Christian apologist and scientist Blaise Pascal concluded: "Two mistakes: to exclude reason, and to admit no argument but reason."4
Mark Elliott is director of the Global Center, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Religion in Eastern Europe 19 (February 1999), 29-52. Also available online at http://cis.georgefox.edu/ree/art_list.html.
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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report