Joe Holland: So, you’ve done a lot of things. You’ve worked in blue-collar settings, doing construction work. You’ve worked in academia. I think you’re a dissertation short of earning your PhD.
Bryan Laughlin: Yeah, I earned an ABD PhD, which, for those who are not privy to the acronyms, is an “all but dissertation” PhD. I finished oral comps on my prospective topic, completed designated research towards my dissertation, and then I cashed out for a ThM and pursued practical ministry.
Joe Holland: So, an ABD PhD and you’ve hung drywall?
Bryan Laughlin: I have hung drywall. Yeah, all that together.
Joe Holland: And you planted a church, where you are lead pastor, you’re CEO of Grimké Seminary, where you’re a professor of different theological disciplines. Tell me how your story has led you to this point.
Bryan Laughlin: I grew up with blue-collar roots. My father was a contractor and builder. We grew up building commercial and residential buildings. So, I started on the job site at five years old. And if you do that kind of work, it is long days, long hours, highly immersive, and, often, it is life on the road. As I got older, life on the road would look like several guys jammed in a hotel room because we got a deal, and it was $25 a night at the Super 8 or something like that. That was very formative in the sense that I was learning about craftsmanship and apprenticeship through on-the-job training. So even though I pursued an engineering degree in college, it was the outflow of working for years in construction. My studies at VCU provided the mathematics and physics for the work I had already been doing on the job site from my earliest memories.
There are so many takeaways, especially in terms of overlap for pastoral ministry. I mean there is the brotherhood and the camaraderie, relationships formed through long hours and a common job task or purpose, working towards that common purpose with people who hold different perspectives, people with different personalities. I learned how to work through all those challenges for a common good. It was highly formative in terms of pastoral ministry and church planting. It was valuable in a lot of ways. And in the midst of all of that, I became a Christian during my senior year at VCU.
I grew up “de-churched.” My dad was the frustrated preacher’s kid of a Baptist minister. I got a lot of Bible as a kid; it was just ingrained, but my parents divorced when I was eight or nine. Then church attendance was weird and grossly inconsistent. I was pretty much out of church except for Mother’s Day, Easter, or Christmas. Then I got to college. At that time if you had asked me, “Hey, are you a Christian?”, I’d reply, “Sure, sure. But I don’t know really much of anything.” But during that time I became a Christian, was regenerated, and began attending a local Baptist church.
I fulfilled the familiar joke, which is unfortunately often not a joke, that I went from conversion to teaching Sunday school (to middle schoolers) within a couple of weeks. I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to do a good job, but I was also so inadequate and untrained. I lost most of my friends when I became a Christian because I couldn’t hang out with them and live the life I had lived before my conversion. It sent me on a very, I don’t know, Pauline journey (Gal. 1:15–24) into every theological book I could get my hands on at the local bookstore—Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, wherever.
I had an engineering degree, but I don’t know how many books I had actually read, to be honest. I was good with the calculator, but I hated English. And then, when I became a Christian, I started reading ferociously, trying to understand what in the world was happening to me. My theology changed with every book I read. And I wish that was not a joke, but I would teach it dogmatically every Sunday to the kids. Whatever I read that week is what I would teach that Sunday. It went on like this for eight or nine years.
Eventually, that routine ended up in me attending seminary. There were some really neat circumstances that led me to seminary, circumstances worth covering in another interview. The Lord just worked it out where I was able to step out of the career I was in go to Southeastern Seminary. It was predominantly residential. My wife and I met there. We were married within six months of meeting and excited about being on mission for Jesus.
I immersed myself in the MDiv program really just to teach middle schoolers the Bible. That’s the true story. I had no aspirations beyond that. I didn’t go to seminary to pastor or to plant a church. But through that MDiv, I was exposed to a ton of rich theology.
I was training for ministry during a cultural moment where there was a recovery of gospel centrality. It was that emphasis that led me into PhD work. As I was finishing up my MDiv, I was like, “I might be a master of divinity, but I have more questions, a lot more questions.” I began thinking that the Lord was leading me to do doctoral work. So that door opened up. At the same time, I started teaching young adults. God gave me a heart for folks that are my age, twenty to thirty-five-ish to just see them come to faith and, and know Christ.
That investment in young adults led me to meet guys like Doug Ponder and eventually led to us being sent out by our church to plant a new church. That was over almost thirteen years ago now. And so, at the time, I was working three jobs, married, had a second child on the way, and was trying to evangelize the city and all the rest of it. Something had to give. So, through several conversations and wise counsel, it seemed that I had exhausted everything I wanted to get out of my academic studies and, at that same time, needed to pivot to focus on my family and church plant. So, I settled for a ThM and focused attention on being a church planter.
Joe Holland: All right. So, if we summarize to this point, you paused the PhD, took the ThM, and spent the next decade pouring into Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, which brings us up to the present. You were on track to earn your PhD but instead, you’re called to church planting. You plant a church; you raise your family; you invest in a pastoral staff; you see people come to Christ and disciples made. But now, here you are the CEO of a seminary and a professor anyway. If we leave out the decade of planting a church, how did you get here?
“The church is the God-ordained body that evaluates, recognizes, and commissions a man for pastoral ministry at the end of the day. No other institutions do that work. So, seminaries are a complement to the church doing the work of ministry.”—Bryan Laughlin
Bryan Laughlin: That’s a great question because a lot of it was kind of accidental, like the whole story so far. I always had a heart for the church because theologically I was convinced that was where the focus of the Bible was. So, I didn’t have the heart for the academy. For example, I think in one of my PhD classes, it was about twelve or fifteen guys. Out of all those students, there were only two of us that were actually planning to go into pastoral ministry. So, even at the time, I was a little bit of an anomaly. But my pursuit of education was towards the end of discipling and preaching God’s word and seeing folks come to know Christ.
So, I never necessarily had an end in mind for being a professor. At the same time, an opportunity to teach fell into my lap. I ended up teaching at Liberty University online as a professor for ten years in the Philosophy Department. So, I dabbled a little teaching in the Academy—one of my three jobs at the time. But honestly, I really just wanted to make disciples.
At the same time, I was discipling men and future pastors at our church. Ironically, before we actually planted, we had a pastoral training program. So, we had two guys in it, guys who are pastoring with us to this day. If you fast-forward a decade, you have a seminary, doctoral work, church planting, discipleship, working a side-gig as a professor, and training future pastors. And then you add in God’s providence which includes my friendship with Doug Logan and you end up at the birth of Grimké Seminary. The seminary is the culmination of a long endeavor that started with my desire to help serve the church by equipping men for ministry.
Joe Holland: So, we used to say, “I want to hear your elevator pitch.” Even though Richmond is a big city, there are not many elevators. But let’s say, “Let’s hear your Uber pitch.” You get in the car. The driver says, “Hey, what’s this seminary about; what makes your seminary unique?” What’s your Uber pitch?
Bryan Laughlin: You’re always tempted to contrast your seminary to other seminaries. But that’s not what we’re about. We’re not here to be niche, to compete, or to be a reactionary seminary. I would just say that one of the dominant characteristics is that we are legitimately church-centered. The church is the center of our organization, of ordination, of training, and of equipping. The church is the God-ordained body that evaluates, recognizes, and commissions a man for pastoral ministry at the end of the day. No other institutions do that work. So, seminaries are a complement to the church doing the work of ministry. And that includes equipping men for pastoral ministry. The seminary should be truly church-centered and church-focused. We say to our students that your pastor is your major professor. He is your primary professor. Any professors at the seminary are complimentary professors to the work of that particular pastor.
Joe Holland: We tell people that Grimké is a non-residential seminary. And another word we used for that is it is an in-context seminary. When people hear that Grimke is an in-context seminary, what should they think?
Bryan Laughlin: They should think and be convinced that the biggest portion of seminary training should be done at a seminary student’s local church. That means that the testing ground for your training, as a seminary student, towards pastoral ministry is in your local church, under pastoral leadership, under your pastor’s guidance and tutelage. The seminary facilitates that through online learning and compliments that through immersive week-long intensives, twice per semester. The intensives provide a residential aspect or an in-person aspect to your training in the context of your local church.
Joe Holland: So, we might say that this is a return to an old method of training pastors. In-context theological training might seem new on the seminary landscape as it is now, but pastors throughout the centuries of the church have been predominantly trained within the context of the local church.
Bryan Laughlin: It just seems new, but it is very obvious in the Scriptures. I always like to use the analogy of families. Imagine if the family was to outsource parenting to, you know, caregivers, guardians, and other friends. Over time we’d start to see the negative effects of parents outsourcing the care and nourishment of their children to others. In the same way, the church has, at times, outsourced the training of future pastors to seminaries. And, in some contexts, we are seeing the detrimental effects of that. The correction is to reassert the primary importance of the family and of parents raising their children in the same way we should reassert the primary importance of the church in the discipleship and training of future ministers.
“We need a church reformation around the primacy of the church.”—Bryan Laughlin
Joe Holland: That’s a good analogy. When I started down the path to ordination, I started in one church, went to seminary and was an intern in another church, left seminary and was hired by a third church. So, I was in three churches from when I discerned a call to ministry to when I was serving as a pastor. But the Grimké model often results in men training in their own church, staying in their own church, and continuing in their own church after graduation. Right?
Bryan Laughlin: Yeah, exactly. The norm should be longevity. It shouldn’t be that Papa’s a rolling stone.
Joe Holland: So, if we’re going to narrow down a little bit from the mission and vision of Grimké seminary, we should talk about Sola Ecclesia, our new, online theological journal. So how does Sola Ecclesia complement the mission and vision of Grimke?
Bryan Laughlin: Well, you know, obviously a lot of it is in the name. We typically think of five solas. So we are explicitly including what the Reformation would have implicitly assumed was the sixth sola: the church alone. For the last quarter-century, and in small ways since the time of the Reformation, there’s been an utter gutting of the primacy of the church in Christian living and pastoral training. So, when you place an emphasis on sola ecclesia, on the church alone, you’re really recovering the context in which all of theology makes sense. You can have gospel-centered theology or good Reformational theology, but if it doesn’t have its proper place in the church, then it’ll be to no avail. It’ll have limited fruit borne out by random plants scattered across the landscape. So, to refocus on the primacy of the church really is a recovery of the place of where our Christian lives must be lived. If you read Calvin on this, you know, he is always strong on the centrality of the church.
Joe Holland: So, what you’re hoping is that this emphasis on the church will be the major theme of this theological journal, which also reflects the seminary?
Bryan Laughlin: Right. Exactly. We need a church reformation around the primacy of the church. The church is not doing well these days. That needs to be corrected. We can’t orient around the church as a collection of individuals but rather need to place an emphasis on the community of faith.
Joe Holland: So online, there is no lack of theological blogs, journals, digital and print magazines, and good ones, not just a bunch of mediocre content, there are really good ones. And so, we’re not looking to compete; we’re not looking to duplicate what is already out there. If you were to describe to someone what you think will be the unique voice of Sola Ecclesia, how would you describe that?
Bryan Laughlin: Well, it’s similar to what we’re just talking about. There is a famous speech given by David Foster Wallace called “This is Water” delivered at Kenyon College. In it, he mentions that a couple of fish are talking and struggle to describe what water is. And I would say what’s missing in the landscape at this point is the water, is the emphasis on the church. We have all types of individual blogs and literature and books and conversations and conferences, but they all very much are artifacts in the ocean without any water. And the water is the place in which we swim, live, move, have our being, which is in and through God’s people being a part of the church. So, when you put the water back into the conversation, then it begins to take on a different, feel, a different flavor, a different life, a different connotation, and a different weightiness. I hope our unique voice will be to reemphasize the importance of the local church in Christian living and seminary education.