“My mind was in their hands”

From the cover of "Hannah's Child"

In his theological memoir, Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes about his decision in the early-’80s to leave Notre Dame and accept a position at Duke Divinity School. Hauerwas had grown weary of the political infighting at Notre Dame and was intrigued by an impending offer from Duke. One factor that made his decision more difficult, however, was the prospect of leaving the small United Methodist church in South Bend to which he and his son belonged, Broadway United Methodist. He writes:

I think I was finally able to accept the position because of the church. After I had come back from the interview at Duke, I told the folks at Broadway about my situation at Notre Dame and that I might receive an offer from Duke. I asked them to pray for us. I then told them that I would do what they told me to do. God knows whether I was serious or not. After I received the call and letter officially offering me the position, I told the church that I now had to make up my mind, and my mind was in their hands. We prayed for guidance. They told me that after much discussion they thought it a good thing for me to go to Duke because there I would be in more direct service to the Methodist Church. They would let me go, however, only if I taught students at Duke what I had learned by being at Broadway. I have tried to keep that promise.

This astonishes me. Forget for a moment that Hauerwas works in a church-related field. (After all, isn’t it safe to say that being holy is hardly a prerequisite for teaching at a theology school?) Here is someone at the top of his field—who, in the rarefied world of theology, is a rock star—trusting the collective faith and wisdom of his local church to decide whether or not to make a high-profile, high-status career move.

In the past, I’ve criticized Hauerwas’s exalted view of the church as hopelessly unrealistic. (If you don’t know anything about Hauerwas, let’s just say that he wants the church to look a lot more like the church in Acts chapter 2 than it currently does.) How are we supposed to be the church in the way the Hauerwas advocates without becoming Anabaptist separatists and turning our backs on the world? Is it possible for the church—I mean, the shabby little local church that argues about the type of flowers to put in the sanctuary—to play such a guiding role in the lives of its members?

But here’s Hauerwas, practicing what he preaches.

I’m not just saying this because my career is in the church, but I want church—my church, your church—to look more like Hauerwas’s church.

What do you think?

Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 176.

3 thoughts on ““My mind was in their hands””

  1. This is an interesting question. I recall that the Holy Spirit told the Church at Antioch, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul ….” It does not say exactly how the Holy Spirit did that. In general, however, I would say I am a little leery of placing my decisions in anyone else’s hands. I don’t know that somebody else has a greater “pipeline” to God than I do, and also I don’t think I can “shirk my responsibility” by casting off my decisions on somebody else–anybody else.

    At the same time, we are told to submit to certain authorities that God has placed over us. (Of course, I think that is always subject to the implied exception that they are not telling us to do something clearly contrary to scripture. “We must obey God rather than men.”) So I guess the question might be whether the “local church leaders” (or a majority of the membership?) are such an “authority”; and, if they are so, how far does that “authority” extend? I can tell you for myself that I have a pretty hard time thinking that I need to “submit” to even the pastor, much less somebody else in the “church hierarchy,” as to hardly any decisions I might make, aside from how the church services are supposed to go. (I think I am doing “stream of consciousness” here!)

    Pondering all these imponderables, I think I come down in favor of, “in the multitude of counsellors, there is safety,” as Proverbs says; i.e., better to listen to other Christians’ advice than launch out on an uncharted course blind; but, ultimately I can’t let a “life-changing” decision about where I am supposed to go or what job I am supposed to take be shifted over to anybody else. (Can that possibly be tied to, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, but as for me an my house, we will serve the Lord”?)

    However, maybe your question goes more to how great it would be to be in a church where I actually felt comfortable that the members would be so in touch with God that I COULD trust them with such a decision. I do have a high regard for some fellow members, but I don’t know that I could go as far as saying “as a whole” that I could “put my life in their hands” in a fashion like that, even if I felt decisions could properly be made in that way. (Finished rambling now.)

    1. So you at least see the challenge here… The kind of church that Hauerwas wants (and I guess I do, too) is one that is at the center of a Christian’s life—versus being near the periphery, like a school, social club, or civic organization. He wants church to matter to people’s lives like that. We are not Christians by ourselves but with one another in community.

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