Asbury Seminary, The Methodist Church, And The Myth Of Liberal Tolerance

In the fall of 1987, in my first semester of my first year at Asbury Seminary, I met with two ordination representatives from what would ultimately become my annual conference in the United Methodist Church. At the end of the interview, one of them pulled me aside and said, “I’m not telling you that you have to transfer, but it might help you get ordained if you spent some time at one of our official schools. It might broaden your perspective a bit.”


I never did transfer and the ordination happened without too much difficulty, but that conversation sure has stuck with me.

Here’s the backstory: Asbury, while thoroughly Methodist in theology and ethos, is not one of the thirteen official United Methodist Seminaries.  It is much larger than any of those thirteen but from its inception has functioned as de facto loyal opposition:  deeply steeped in Methodist thought yet not bound by all its denominational machinations.

And, as it played out, more conservative & orthodox in the theological education it provides to its students.   What does that mean?  Compared to denominational schools, it holds a higher view of the authority of Scripture, a greater urgency on the reality of heaven and hell, a stronger focus on the uniqueness of Jesus, and a more enduring commitment to historic Christian teaching on matters of sexuality.  You can read Asbury’s Statement of Faith here.

That public commitment to orthodoxy and detailed list of  “What We Believe” is unique among theological schools in the Methodist family.

Why does all this matter and what does it have to do with that conversation way back in 1987?

Because the assumption behind that representative’s advice was this: since Asbury is confessional and conservative, your education is not well rounded enough.  You need to go a more liberal school to grow more tolerant.

As if because our school takes a stand we don’t ever read/encounter/think about opposing views.

In fact, back in September a blog comment  caught my eye because it echoed those same sentiments in reference to Asbury’s president Tim TennentI can only gather from this that the free exchange of ideas is not a value at Asbury.

The fact is, nothing could be further from the truth.  In my time there, we became well-versed with higher criticism of the bible, theologies of liberation, and the tenets of classic 20th century liberalism.  More than a few of us came to regard portions of those perspectives as our own.  From all I can tell, that same educational experience exists today.

Instead of ignoring the forces in the church that would separate our theology from the roots of the Apostles’ Creed, we dug deep into them.

I think the better question is this: at our most left-leaning schools, such as Claremont and Iliff and the recently beleagured St. Paul’s, are students being exposed to top notch evangelical thinking?  Are they sitting at the digital feet of Ben Witherington, Thomas Oden, and, egad, even the Calvinist John Piper?

In my experience theological liberals hardly have a corner on the market of open-mindedness.  Many of them, I suspect, shut their minds a long time ago.

Really, what I long for is the day when the theological landscape has shifted to the point that Annual Conference ordination representatives pull seminarians aside and say, “I’m not telling you that you have to transfer, but you might think of some time at Asbury.  It might broaden your perspective a bit.”