By Dustin Ellington
I recently joined the faculty of ABTS and, given ABTS’s new hybrid format, I’ve been asked several times how I feel about beginning to teach from a distance. As someone who has loved being a New Testament lecturer on the faculty of residential seminaries for twelve years in Zambia and five years in Egypt, and who has cherished being in the presence of students inside and outside of the classroom day after day, this has been an important question to face. Why would I be open to a shift toward hybrid and distance education, in which students are only present part of the time?
In this blog, I’d like to explore one particular source of encouragement as I’ve considered shifting toward a hybrid format and teaching from a distance: the reality that the New Testament itself is full of testimony that real ministry and teaching have frequently happened from a distance, because 22 of the New Testament’s 27 books are letters written for the purpose of teaching and ministering from a distance.
Sometimes people are tempted to think that distance education is not real education. But who would feel comfortable saying that when the apostle Paul wrote a letter to instruct and encourage the believers in Rome, he was not offering real encouragement, ministry, and teaching which would be effective for people’s life and learning?
In the ancient world (not unlike today), a letter was a way of making people present with one another even though they were physically separated. Paul founded churches. His goal was the growth and formation of these and other churches into the image of Christ, with the hope that these congregations would themselves also become centers of ministry and mission. But Paul could not be present with each of these churches physically, because the congregations were widely dispersed and far from one another. So Paul wrote letters to be present with the churches by means of his letters. Through letters and messengers (and the churches communicated to him as well; see 1 Cor 7:1), Paul and the churches were doing a kind of distance education together.
Frequently the distance between letter writers and audiences was a must. However much Paul preferred to be physically present with congregations, he could not visit them when he was imprisoned. And John was on Patmos, separated by water from the seven congregations of Asia Minor to whom he wrote his long letter (yes, Revelation is a letter; see Rev 1:4, 9-11; 22:21). But distance was also a matter of strategy. Ministering from a distance was a way to instruct, train, and encourage key persons and congregations right where they were, in their particular contexts, without requiring that they leave their situations of life and ministry (Titus 1:5). Through social networks, letters could move more easily than individuals. The dispersion of believers throughout the Mediterranean world was of inestimable value for the spread of the gospel.
The letters in the New Testament not only bear witness to the reality that ministry and education can happen from afar. They also suggest some directions for us who are seeking to make sure that teaching and learning from afar will be effective:
For one, we notice that Paul (though not only Paul) focuses not just on knowledge in his letters, but also on his relationship with his audiences (2 Tim 3:14). He shows his love and longing for them (Phil 1:3-8; 1 Thess 2:17-18). He appreciates them (Phil 4:14-15). Paul recognized that ministry and teaching from a distance required cultivation not only of knowledge but of relationship (Rom 1:11-12). The relationship, marked by love, helps the knowledge. Paul did not speak highly of knowledge as an end in itself, but it was of great importance to him when accompanied by virtues such as love (1 Cor 8:1; Phil 1:9; Col 1:9-10). We can bear this in mind as we approach ways of teaching from a distance that cultivate relationships between teachers and students.
Second, we see that Paul very frequently builds upon time spent together with churches in the past, and shares his hopes for time together in the future. He invites his audience to remember periods when they were all together (1 Thess 1:4-10; 2:9-12). Paul founded churches in person, and he visited churches in person as much as he was able. As he writes letters to them, he shares that he longs to see them again, and he prays and tries to see them again (1 Thess 2:17-18; 3:10-11; compare 2 John 1:12). Paul’s words about past and future visits suggest that he tends toward “hybrid” learning more than toward strictly teaching from a distance. Likewise, our own distance education may be most effective when we are building upon past time spent together, and also when we’re looking forward toward future times together.
Third, New Testament letters played an important role in ministry from a distance as the letters moved among various congregations, where the letters shaped relationships within those congregations. The relationship is not only between the writer and the audience (1 Thess 3:12). Congregations were urged to read the letters aloud together (Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:27; Rev 1:3). The letters’ content focused on the practice of the Christian faith in the audiences’ contexts (Heb 10:24-25). As letters were read and discussed among groups of believers, they played a role in the groups’ ongoing formation. In a similar way, when students today share in theological education from a distance, they can grow together as they respond with one another to their course content, and by engaging their local communities in conversations about what they are learning. Their conversations and relationships with one another assist in helping the truth of the Christian faith to get contextualized in each other’s locations of ministry.
In all three of the above, we see that letters involved and served relationships. Paul and other New Testament writers recognized that bonds could be renewed and strengthened from a distance through letters. This is true both of the relationship between writers and their audiences and also between those who read together.
Yet this opportunity for strengthened unions through letters is all the more true of the audience’s relationship with God. The writers of the New Testament wrote because they believed, despite their distance from the recipients, that something would happen between God and their audience as their letters were read, understood, and practiced (2 Cor 6:1-2; 12:19; 1 Pet 5:12). Thus Paul continuously focuses on Jesus Christ; he could mention Jesus Christ as many as ten times in only nine verses, demonstrating that the relationship Paul most hoped to develop through his writing was the audience’s with Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:1-9). Moreover, as evidenced by the pronouncements of grace and blessings on the audience, the reading of the letters was to be an event taking place in God’s presence, an encounter between the congregation and God (2 Cor 1:2; 13:14; Heb 13:20-21; Rev 1:3).
We do well to pay attention to this relational emphasis in the letter writing of the New Testament as we consider how to be effective in distance education. In the least, relational bonds help to keep people in an academic program. But the focus on relationships also brings deepened growth for students in their relationships with teachers of the faith, with one another, and especially with God through Jesus Christ.
The letters of the New Testament are ancient yet living testimony that real teaching, ministry, relationship, and growth can indeed happen from afar. I don’t wish to say that ABTS faculty are exactly like the apostles writing the New Testament, but that the apostles are models pointing out a path before us. Their letters help to demonstrate that what we at ABTS are trying to do is possible, and that it can be real and effective education.
Through their letters, the writers of the New Testament found a way to be present with their audiences and bring God’s own presence to them. The Bible’s plentiful witness to building up and teaching God’s people from a distance is one key reason why I was able to leave a residential seminary and join ABTS as it focuses more on hybrid teaching and learning.
A final note: After finishing this blog, I learned of a previous ABTS post which covers a similar theme and includes noteworthy insights. I commend it: https://abtslebanon.org/portfolio-item/distance-community-formation-lessons-from-paul/
Dustin is an Associate Professor of New Testament at ABTS and a recent arrival to Lebanon and our core faculty.