The Most Important Question

At the end of July, I will complete forty years of teaching at Western Seminary and transition into a new phase of life commonly known as “retirement.” I don’t like that word and prefer to think of myself as “repositioning” for the next decade of my life and ministry. I look forward to some new and different opportunities of ministry, travel, and time with family.

As a Bible prof at Western, I have enjoyed the privilege of teaching each book of the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation—many, many times. What a privilege it has been to study God’s Word and to share the fruits of my study with young men and women who are preparing to serve the Lord. I have learned a great deal from my own study and research, but I have also learned a lot from my students! The questions they have raised in class have challenged me and stimulated me to dig deeper in my search for understanding and to provide biblically based answers to their questions.

There is one question which stands out among all the others which were asked during my tenure at Western Seminary. And this question wasn’t even asked by a student. It was asked by our academic dean, Dr. Jim Sweeney, during an annual faculty interview. I recall that Jim asked a number of questions about my teaching, my family and my overseas ministry. Then before my interview concluded, he asked one more question. “Carl, is there anything going on in your life that would bring embarrassment to Western Seminary if it were known publically?”
It was a question I had not expected. But it may be the most important question I was asked during my career at Western Seminary. It was a personal question. It was a caring question. It was a question of accountability. Jim was telling me that he was concerned not only about my academic life as a prof, but my personal life as a Christian leader. Jim’s question reflects the fact that Western Seminary is more than an academic institution and a training center for students of Bible and theology. Jim was acknowledging that Western Seminary is a Christian community where discipleship and accountability takes place not just with students, but among the faculty and staff as well.

By God’s grace I was able to provide the dean with a “no” answer to his question. Thankfully, there was nothing going on in my life that would bring dishonor to Jesus Christ or to Western Seminary. But this question has lingered in my mind over the years. It was the anticipation of having to answer that question at my next faculty interview that helped me to say “no” to the temptations I faced during that year.
As Christian leaders, we want to live God honoring lives. We want to be the holy men and women that God has called us to be. As Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).” God has given us the resources to live holy, sanctified lives (Romans 6-8). But we can’t do this alone. We need each other. We need the Christian community to hold us accountable, hear our confession when we fail, and pray for us when we are weak.

One of my former students visited my office to give me an update on his ministry. We had a wonderful visit as he told me of how God was opening up a new opportunity for Christian service. Before he left my office I put my hand on his shoulder asked him the most important question that had been asked of me. I asked him if he was keeping pure and steering clear from those sins that are so damaging to our Christian character and ministry. I asked because I cared. I asked because we need accountability in the body of Christ. I asked because we are at war with an enemy who is seeking to destroy us. I asked because I wanted to intercept sin before it could wreak havoc in a brother’s life. I hope my question had the same impact on my former student as the dean’s question had for me.
Asking a Christian leader or someone we admire a question about their personal, spiritual life may not be easy. We tend to put such people on a pedestal, forgetting that they are just like us—men and women of flesh, with the potential for temptation and sin. But it is time for us to begin asking the hard, accountability questions of our friends, colleagues, pastors and Christian leaders. We will do so if we really love them and truly care.