For more than a decade, master of divinity degree programs have faced downward trends in residential enrollment. Spurred by the pandemic, many institutions have responded by offering more hybrid (blended residential and remote) and fully online programs.
It might be supposed that distance theological education is primarily an alternative form of education, a technological innovation, even a concession of sorts. But a review of the New Testament, and specifically Paul’s letters, reminds us that distance theological education has been around since the beginning.
In fact, Paul’s letters offer a dynamic view of distance, embodiment and the collaborative formation of the Christian, providing church and academic leaders today a biblical and theological framework for welcoming hybrid and online learning.
Theological distance learning is not new
The apostle Paul formed early Christian communities all over the Mediterranean even though he was unable to be with them in person much of the time.
More than a substitute for his physical presence or a concession to circumstance, Paul’s letters were an intentional feature of his teaching, allowing him to be “absent in the body yet present in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3). While it is true that Paul sometimes wrote letters because of difficult circumstances (several were written during his own “lockdown” period), he also strongly believed in forming Christians from afar.
Indeed, the fact that a significant percentage of our New Testament canon is made up of Paul’s outgoing mail tells us that theological formation can and does occur at a distance.
Now, Paul’s relationship with the churches he helped form and educate in the faith was, like the state of higher theological education, complex. The apostle visited churches when he thought his physical presence would be helpful for formation.
But by that same logic, teaching remotely allowed Paul to rely on an intricate network of collaborators, including those named as co-authors of his letters, like Timothy and Sosthenes, as well as contacts in the churches’ local communities, like those named in the postscript of Romans.
Additionally, Paul’s absence in the body empowered young churches to raise up their own leaders rather than rely on a limited circle of apostles. For these reasons, some like theologian Russell Haitch have called Paul the “prototypical distance educator.”
Teaching the “body of Christ”
Whether in person or by correspondence, Paul’s commitment to forming Christians and leaders found expression in the image he introduced to the world — the “body of Christ.”
Imagining people as parts of a body, he declares that a body’s feet need its hands just as its ears need its eyes. Members are to treat one another as “indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:22), that all may belong in Christ, in order to keep the body whole and flourishing.
In terms of theological education, however, restricting the scriptural image of the body to bodies in a physical classroom dilutes our understanding of Paul’s formative ministry.
For example, what about all the potential students not able to resign their jobs, sacrifice income in addition to paying tuition, move their families to a new city, and leave their material and spiritual networks behind? Historically, such barriers have especially hindered prospective students of color, those with fewer means, and those in midcareer called to serve churches.
Such would-be students are no less members of Christ’s body, even if the physical requirements of a fully residential M.Div. program create distance between them and their inclusion in theological education.
Hybrid and online degree programs are more obviously forms of “distance” learning, but viewed from another angle, they remove distance. That is, by allowing students to remain in their ministry contexts as practitioners, they enable students to learn in context with immediate application of their learning.
Additionally, forms of remote learning often provide greater access and affordability overall. Welcoming remote learners and the programs that support them actually expands our conception of the body of Christ, while reminding us of the limits of exclusively residential models of formation.
Embodiment and embeddedness
In Christian theological education, the default critique of distance learning is rooted in the conviction that God took on human flesh and dwelt among us and therefore did not meet us via Zoom.
Alternatives to residential learning, it is thought, can lead to separating the soul of teaching from its physical embodiment. However, hybrid and online programs do not negate the “embodied” learning of residential models; they reverse them.
Human beings come from local contexts, which rely on specific material and spiritual networks. The best distance education programs recognize the embedded nature of remote learning, drawing on the strengths of learners’ contexts. Such learning may take the form of collaboration with local practitioners, field education in a local ministry context, and the immediate application and integration of academic learning.
Thus, while some might be inclined to reject remote learning for its “disembodied” feel, there is sometimes a deeper embodiment among remote learners in their contexts. Indeed, the rise of bivocational (or even trivocational) ministry leadership suggests that the situation most remote learners experience reflects emerging realities in ministry today.
Paul imagined that his “remote learners” had everything they needed to grow where they were — intermediaries to deliver and interpret Paul’s teachings, contextual collaborators to equip learners, and a local network of material and spiritual resources.
Certainly, remote learning is not without risk. More agency rests in students’ hands. Instruction does not orbit as tightly around institutional faculty members. More educational ground is ceded to practitioners in widely varying contexts.
Risk comes with the trust and choreography required among faculty, staff, practitioners and students to make learning work. Such trust and its inherent riskiness is evident throughout Paul’s letters. But Paul’s conviction remained steady — namely, that he could teach Christians from afar.
While shared physical space is important for formation, Paul reminds us that just as important are the relationships, networks and influences that compose the contexts in which Christians live and move.
As more theological institutions consider hybrid and online learning modes, new questions arise about the role of local churches and ministry contexts in the formation of theological students.
If churches in the past have been content to send their prospective leaders to faraway schools to be trained, a new era may require theological schools to rely increasingly on churches and their communities to help them equip leaders.
Learning lessons from Paul’s teaching by correspondence can help inspire churches to renew their focus on being equipping communities, allocating considerable resources and energy to the next generation of Christian leaders.
As interest (and, likely, angst) around remote learning continues to grow, we can be assured that we are neither alone nor without scriptural precedents. The original distance educator can help equip us to face the challenges of the future.