Interview: Bryan Laughlin on His Hopes for Sola Ecclesia
By Bryan Laughlin | February 28, 2022
Topic: Applied Theology—Missiology—Theological Studies
Joe Holland: This is the second part of our interview with Bryan Laughlin—CEO and professor of theology and missiology at Grimké Seminary. If you haven’t read our first interview, I encourage you to go back read through it. In it, we covered Bryan’s background, the ministry the Lord has called him to, and the history of both Grimké Seminary and Sola Ecclesia, the theological journal of the seminary. If we summarize that interview as looking backward, this interview will be looking forward. So, Bryan, what are some of your hopes for how Sola Ecclesia will potentially serve Grimké Seminary students, their churches, and the global church?
Bryan Laughlin: I mean, my initial thought is that I hope Sola Ecclesia will reinfuse the theme of the church back into the conversational landscape of theology and biblical practice. I don’t just mean the church as a systematic doctrinal category but the church as the place in which theology is lived out and understood in practice.
So, a big hope for Sola Ecclesia is that it will accomplish the reason for which we created it, to reestablish a genuinely church-centric, ecclesio-centric conversation in the online landscape that typically lacks church-centrality. And in that, we include both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
We hope to avoid the bad kind of bifurcation we often see in theological writing. At this point, many times, writing can be speculative, abstractionist, academic theological discourse that’s removed from the local church and has its own culture, its own conferences, its own conversational habits, and is nevertheless rich theologically. But it misses many applications to how life is lived in the church. And then you have the flip side, which is the raw, the pragmatic, and the practical divorced from robust theological reflection. Many people from the academic side of things will critique attempts at theological application by saying, “You’re just trying to be relevant.” And I’d respond to that by saying, “Well, the gospel is always relevant.” And the person who hears that response often won’t understand what I’m saying. And that’s because the pure academician typically thinks, “You guys are worried about pragmatics; if it works, it’s true.” There is a degree that a focus on practice can serve as a basis for epistemic pragmatism. Without a theological anchor in the Scriptures, that kind of pragmatic emphasis can produce writing and thinking that doesn’t rise above church growth tips, practices, procedures, and that whole stream of literature. That crowd is not first and foremost asking, “Is this theologically true? Is this right?” They’re asking, “Does it work? And is there a market for it?” And so, there is a conversation on that side of things as well. And typically, the twain shall never meet. With Sola Ecclesia, we want to re-establish a rich dialogue where orthodoxy and orthopraxy are wed together in the local church context. This conversation says, “Yes, theology is always good. It’s always true. And it always works because it’s God’s Word in God’s world.”
Joe Holland: You’re looking to keep together two themes God never intended to be separated.
Bryan Laughlin: Exactly. This isn’t some new thing. These two important emphases have always existed together in harmony but are sometimes wrongly bifurcated. You know, many orthodox theological types confuse conversations about propositions and practice with actually doing something. And it’s grossly unfortunate. That’s why even coming out of seminary, I was extremely ill-prepared for actual ministry work. I was greatly prepared for a theological debate with anyone. To use an illustration from my background in engineering and architectural school, there is a big difference between working up the drawings for a building and actually excavating the ground and framing a building.
Joe Holland: I hear you describing what’s unique about Grimke and also about Sola Ecclesia, which we could call the online theological voice of the seminary, what people are likely to hear in what we publish, and the ways that it might sound different from what other people are doing in online publishing. Another unique aspect of Grimké Seminary is how we refer to what we do as an in-context seminary education. Describe to our readers what we mean by an in-context seminary education.
“When we talk about the context of the Christian life, our assumption about that context is that it is the local church.”—Bryan Laughlin
Bryan Laughlin: When we talk about the context of the Christian life, our assumption about that context is that it is the local church—local communities under qualified leadership—in which our lives as Christians are intended by God to be lived. I think roughly two-thirds of our students are already existing pastors. They are already serving in the context of a local church. And therefore, the seminary comes alongside these students to further equip them for the work of the ministry that they’re already doing. The other third is men already recognized in their local context, in their local church, as faithful men. These exemplary men have already initiated a conversation about their potential calling towards pastoral ministry with their pastors. So, they show the aspirational desire toward pastoral ministry that Paul writes about in 1 Timothy 3:1. And therefore, they are in a training program that is walking alongside them to help them assess and recognize whether or not God is actually calling them into pastoral ministry.
Joe Holland: Let’s say there is a guy out there who writes a theology blog. He’s not a part of a local church. He calls up or emails the Grimké admissions staff and says, “I want to go to Grimké.” What is our response to him?
Bryan Laughlin: I would say, “Well, that’s wonderful. Let us help you find a local church in which you can actually love and serve others in a local congregation, where there is a pastor with whom you can work through your call to ministry. Until you’re an active part of a local congregation and being mentored by your pastor, a theological education at Grimké is not a good fit for you.”
Joe Holland: So, pastors who are on-site with our students in churches are pretty crucial to what we see as an effective seminary education.
Bryan Laughlin: They’re essential. Because seminary can only equip; they cannot ordain. The churches themselves, under called and qualified pastoral leadership, are the ones that recognize and confirm a calling from the Lord towards pastoral ministry. The seminary cannot confirm calling; it can only complement part of a student’s education that will be one factor in that student’s overall assessment for pastoral ministry. And so the primary essential body that oversees pastoral development is the local body, the local church. This is very important.
I remember a particular situation that happened many years ago, which has repeated itself a few times. I had a young man that I taught in Sunday school who went to Bible college and then intended to go to seminary. But he had never actually been a part of a local church. So, he asked me to write a recommendation for seminary. And, and I wrote the recommendation, saying, “I do not recommend him for a seminary education. Please do not accept him. He isn’t plugged in as a member. He’s not serving. He’s not submitting to qualified leadership. No one has recognized this calling except for the fact that he’s self-appointed.” And of course, unfortunately, he was accepted by the seminary anyway. It’s laughable because it’s absurd, and it’s also greatly sad. A lot of the failure rate of men in pastoral ministry is due to this phenomenon: men pursuing pastoral ministry through self-appointment rather than local church training, call affirmation, and ordination.
Joe Holland: That clarifies how Grimké is unique as a seminary and how Sola Ecclesia will express that theme. Now, what if somebody reads this conversation so far and responds, “Okay. An in-context seminary education. This happens in a student’s local church, so this is obviously online seminary.” How do you respond to them?
Bryan Laughlin: I’d begin by emphasizing that the online component is for the facilitation of assignments. It’s just a means to facilitate the accomplishment of assignments in the context of their local church. The online component is just the fact that there’s an online interface that guides the student through weekly assignments that are done as that student is serving in or participating in a training program at his local church. Our in-person intensives are a compliment to that in-context training. So no, this isn’t an online seminary. We utilize digital and online tools to facilitate students’ education primarily with their local pastor and subsidiarily through their professors.
What that looks like is twice per semester, the students come to Richmond, Va., for a three-day intensive of in-person, fully immersive class time that is instructional, devotional, prayerful, and relational. We start our days as a student body around God’s Word, and in prayer, we have chapels in the evening, prayer times, meals together, downtime. All of this time together is expressed in formal meetings and informal fellowship. Our intensives provide a rich, complementary environment to the education students receive in their churches.
Joe Holland: So, let’s speak to the person who has never heard of Grimké. This is their first exposure to Sola Ecclesia as our online theological journal. What would be some reasons you would give to that reader to return to SE to read future content?
Bryan Laughlin: What will they continue to hear at this site? Well, I think they’ll get rich biblical and theological content that is distilled in ways that help them love and live for Christ in their personal lives and live in the place in which their personal life should be lived—through a local body of believers, a local church. We don’t just want to teach people how to think biblically; we want to help them learn to live biblically in their church. We’re not just free-floating atoms or individuals as Christians; we are united to God and to God’s people. And therefore, we must live this good news out towards one another.
Joe holland: So the local church, in many ways, is the crucial environment in which the Christian life is lived, the location in which Christ is formed in us. Now, I know that the result, whether it’s intended or not, of some online discourse is that people become dissatisfied with their local churches. We are saying with SE that we really hope if someone’s reading the content that we’re publishing, that it would help both pastors and local church members become more excited about their local church more eager to serve in their church.
Bryan Laughlin: Yeah, it should. SE is intended to drive people into greater sacrificial committed service to the local church. The problem with a lot of the free-floating blogs and literature and the gross proliferation of information through the digital age of social media is that it provides great temptation for what Bonhoeffer called the “wish dream.”1 His whole point is that the dream can be the enemy of the reality. And so, you have all these free-floating Christians that adopt all these utopic visions of the local church and then get dissatisfied when the reality of their lived experience in their church doesn’t match their idealistic dream. A lot of the Deconstructionist movement, or the kind of individualistic thinking that focuses on “me and my church at my house,” is really the outflow of immature idealism. That kind of individualistic and idealistic thinking fails to recognize that we’re called to a people, to set aside our preferences, to set aside our wants and desires, to put ourselves last, and serve a people as Christ did for us.
Joe Holland: That’s great. So, what types of authors should our readers expect to hear from on Sola Ecclesia?
Bryan Laughlin: I would say as a category: seasoned pastor theologians. Men who can think and write in such a way that shows a comprehensive understanding of the gospel from the Scriptures—a rich theology—but who can also communicate ideas and concepts in ways that rightly fit a local church audience, that helps build that audience up and deepen their love for God and his church.
Joe Holland: And even though this site is launching, we already have several articles from our faculty and staff, all seasoned pastor theologians, that attempt to do just what you’re describing. And that leads me to my next question. What types of content should readers expect to read at SE?
Bryan Laughlin: The scope should be as broad as God’s Word as it is applied to God’s world. And so, the types of topics should be all-encompassing across all areas. Of course, we’ll publish articles directly referencing the Bible and its implications to the church. We plan to cover all the various theological categories and themes in a way that is culturally savvy and relevant to the issues the church is currently facing. Jesus is Lord, and this is his world. As Abraham Kuyper said, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” So, therefore, we should write in such a way that acknowledges those thoughts and helps us understand what life under his Lordship in his world looks like in all areas.
Joe Holland: Very good. So, if we’re sitting down again on December 31, 2022, the last day of this year, what do you hope was accomplished with SE?
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”—Abraham Kuyper
Bryan Laughlin: Well, I think one goal is to begin a better conversation. It really is to begin a better conversation around how we can re-center the Christian life (especially in the Western landscape, the American landscape) in and through the local church. The larger discussion needs to have church centrality as its focal point and go from there. Carl Trueman’s most recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, did a great job summarizing this. In it, he traces a lot of the history behind showing how our culture came to idolize the self and how that fact is an egregious blind spot to our culture. I loved the book because it did a great job of diagnosing and showing where we are. And then, I think there was just a smattering of pages at the end that said, in effect, “by the way, the answer is in the local church.” We are looking to expand that conversation. We want to discuss what it looks like to know God and live for him in his world in and through the local church. I think the implications of that discussion are going to be manifold.
Joe Holland: May the Lord make it so.
- In Life Together, Bonhoeffer writes, that “those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves.” ↩