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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 176–185 

A Scholar? Or a Pastor?

Gerald Gerbrandt

A good number of years ago I was asked to share with our students at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU, Winnipeg, Manitoba) how I had made difficult vocational or life choices. I vividly remember saying somewhat simplistically that I never had a difficult choice to make. If asked today to address that same question, my response would not be quite so one-dimensional. But at that time, I suggested that my experience might be compared with moving through a large megaphone or funnel. As one enters at the end with the large diameter, it might appear there are many options. As one moves forward, however, those possibilities gradually decrease so that by the time one reaches the end with the small opening, there is no real decision to be made—the alternative options have largely faded away, with the way forward essentially self-evident. I thus didn’t need to make a difficult decision.

I did not choose to become a biblical scholar, but I believe God called me—in God’s mysterious way—to be a scholar alert to what God is saying to the church today. {177}

That image may be quite imperfect. I expect my experience is uncommon, and I may be somewhat naïve. But both how I became a scholar, if one can call it that, and the way my faith and scholarship have interacted, still fit that image for me. I never chose to be an academic—it just happened. I do not recall any point in my life when I experienced a major conflict between my faith and my research or scholarship; they have always intersected well. I am not suggesting my faith journey has been all smooth, or that I have never struggled with serious doubts and questions. I still do. But those doubts and questions have been precipitated much more by life and observing the world around me than by my studies. How can God allow such pain and suffering in this world? Why is it that many who seem to reject God appear to be so successful? Is there even a God? My academic work has served as a resource for me in these struggles rather than as the source of them.

I am sure I do not have a full explanation for why this is the case. Perhaps the way I entered the world of scholarship is one explanation. Ever since early high school I took for granted I would “do a doctorate,” that I would enter a world of scholarship. I was raised in a home that highly valued education. I worked diligently at my studies in high school, leading to good grades. My high school teachers strongly encouraged me to consider advanced studies. My strength and interest tended to math and the natural sciences, so my plan—or perhaps, more accurately, my dream, even if not fully formed—was to become a research scientist, perhaps in the field of medicine.

Before embarking on that direction, however, it seemed natural to take at least one year at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) in Winnipeg. My pastor-father had studied there and was a strong promoter of the school, so this was an easy step. That first year went well, and although I had expected to transfer to the University of Manitoba to return to the sciences after that year, I ended up remaining three years. I continued to expect graduate studies as the path, but I became less clear on exactly what direction.

Two events in the spring of 1968 then changed everything, determining the direction of my life, as well as how I understood what I was doing. Both came as a complete and utter surprise. I was a senior that year at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, unsure of what to do next. I had graduated from CMBC the previous year with a bachelor of Christian education degree. In those days, academic credit from CMBC did not transfer well to Canadian universities and, like many of my fellow students, I transferred to Bethel to complete an arts degree. I came to Bethel hoping to major in philosophy, but due to faculty sabbaticals that did not work. So I ended up taking a general major in social sciences. I {178} confess, I devoted a minimum amount of energy to my studies at Bethel, just enough to pass, with socializing and golf much higher priorities. It was spring, and I had no set plans for even the following year.


Then two bolts of lightning struck me almost at the same time, opening up my future. First, a letter arrived for me from Waldemar Janzen, the academic dean at CMBC. He had been one of my most influential professors at CMBC where he stirred in me an interest in and love for the Old Testament. But since my religious studies requirements for Bethel had been met by my CMBC studies, I was not giving that direction much thought while at Bethel. In his letter Janzen reported that one of the CMBC faculty was initiating a two-year leave of absence that CMBC was trying to fill. His letter invited me to join the CMBC faculty as a junior instructor during the second year of that leave, with the condition that I spend the year in between preparing for this at graduate school. How could I refuse an amazing offer like that?

Around the same time, I was spending a quiet Saturday afternoon in the residence hall at Bethel when the phone rang in our quad, the caller asking for me. It was Roland Goering, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Reedley, California. I had never heard of him or the church, and had never been to California. Nor do I know how he had heard of me. But, much to my shock, without any process, he invited me to come to Reedley for the summer of 1968 to work with him as a pastoral intern. Again, how could I turn down an invitation that sounded so exciting—after all, Disneyland, Hollywood, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were in California. But at the same it also did feel like a genuine call from God.

Pastoral ministry itself was quite familiar to me. I had grown up in the small town of Altona in Southern Manitoba in the home of a pastor of a large congregation. But I had never imagined myself becoming a pastor. I anticipated pursuing academics, and yet this invitation drew me. That summer experience in Reedley turned out to be more impactful than I ever expected. Since I was still single, I was invited to live in the home of Roland and Fern Goering, an amazing pastoral couple who deeply loved the congregation and all the people there. They became my models and mentors. My responsibilities that summer included visiting seniors unable to come to church, assisting with daily vacation Bible school, working at a children’s camp, and some preaching. In each of these I experienced satisfaction and God’s blessing.

I will never forget the farewell the congregation gave me at the end of the summer. After giving me a gift (if I remember correctly, a set of the Mennonite Encyclopedia), a leader in the congregation affirmed my {179} pastoral gifts and called on me to enter into ministry. I was quite moved by the comments. I distinctly remember my response: I have experienced a call to ministry here in Reedley, but the setting to which I feel called is a pastoral ministry among college students.


Any reflection on my role as a scholar begins with and is colored by those two invitations and the conviction that I was called to ministry with college students. I have never understood myself as a scholar first, but always as a pastor/minister who taught and pursued scholarship. Graduate study and research gave me the tools I needed for that ministry. That self-image did not change when my responsibilities shifted from classroom teaching to administration. I always viewed my work as academic dean, where I had the wonderful privilege of meeting with virtually all CMBC students, as pastoral. When I later became college president, my biggest regret was losing the opportunity to develop new relationships with students.

Although they came as a shock, the calls that spring at Bethel College fell on fertile soil. My courses at CMBC, together with countless lengthy conversations with both fellow students and faculty, had turned my attention away from the sciences to biblical studies, theology, and the church. But perhaps just as important was the early influence of my father—a pastor, Bible school teacher, and inveterate church conference attender.

My parents grew up in an era and in a community which considered any study beyond grade eight advanced education. And yet, in contrast to this rural southern Manitoba environment, my father aspired to attend college; in particular, he dreamed of attending Bluffton College in Ohio. But all such plans were put on hold when his mother, who had encouraged this interest in higher education, passed away soon after he completed the eighth grade. This led to a few years of working for neighbors in their fields to help meet household financial needs during the Great Depression. It was some years before returning to school became possible. He first attended a local Bible school, then finished high school, and eventually studied at CMBC.

In our local congregation, he had encouraged many to attend CMBC, and some even to travel to Bethel College. In a larger community still suspicious of higher education, he and my mother both nurtured in me a love for asking questions and thinking carefully about life, key features of higher education. My mother would have loved to study further as well, but that had simply not been possible. Thus, in my home we naturally thought of higher education as a way to serve the needs of the church and not so much what it could do for “me.” That background shaped how I approached my graduate studies after Bethel College. {180}

I spent much of the eleven years after my undergraduate degree dividing my time between working at CMBC—part-time teaching and student recruitment—and my continuing studies. This education took me first to Earlham School of Religion (Richmond, Indiana), then to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS, Elkhart, Indiana), and finally to Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, Virginia) where I earned my doctorate.


No doubt the fact that each of these schools had a strong relationship to the church impacted the way I experienced my training for the role of scholar. At Earlham, I came to know, appreciate, and love the Quakers. One of my professors, Elton Trueblood, drummed into us the phrase “hard heads, soft hearts” as a way of emphasizing the need to combine sharp intellectual analysis with a passion for people. At AMBS, I returned to my Mennonite community and experienced more pastor-professors. They affirmed my commitment to the church, to scholarship, and to teaching. While at AMBS I had the opportunity to fulfill my ministry-experience requirement by serving as a teaching intern at Goshen College with Marlin Jeschke, another wonderful model for me.

Union Theological Seminary (UTS), despite its very different urban and southern cultural setting, was similar. Each of the half dozen or so professors with whom I did most of my work were consummate scholars and contributors to their discipline, and yet absolutely committed Presbyterian churchmen (yes, at this point they were all men). Anyone in biblical studies at the time would recognize and respect the names of John Bright, James Luther Mays, Patrick Miller, Sibley Towner, Paul Achtemeier, and Mathias Rissi. For none of these was biblical studies an end in itself, nor was it their primary goal to make names for themselves. They did become distinguished scholars, but they always exuded a warmth and love for their church, and also for the larger church. Professor Rissi regularly invited us students to his home for Bible study, regardless of our denominational affiliations.

I recognize that if I had done my final degree in a public institution this experience would have been quite different. It is true that, at that time, there were many more professors in public settings than today who understood themselves as ministers. Could my scholarship have been served just as well if I had studied in settings where professors routinely challenged faith and church? I cannot answer that. I never intentionally avoided such challenges but was simply drawn to Earlham, AMBS, and UTS and what they represented. I recognize that who I became as a scholar was molded very much by professors, and later by colleagues, whose primary identity was as servants of the church. {181}

This does not mean, however, that these professors dedicated all their scholarly energies to simplistically defending the theology and traditions of the church, nor that the questions they addressed were only those identified by the church. They were scholars of integrity who did not limit their conversations to like-minded peers. In fact, they were members of the Society of Biblical Literature whose annual meetings drew international Bible scholars from a broad range of religious and philosophical commitments, scholars who gathered to discuss, debate, and sometimes engage in heated arguments. But the faculty at the institutions I attended also shared the conviction that Scripture was indeed a medium through which God communicated with the people of God. Any and all careful, systematic study of that Scripture, then, had the potential to draw out God’s word and to serve God’s people.


A critical point in any doctoral program is choosing a dissertation topic. I do not recall exactly how I chose my topic, but somehow through conversation with my advisor I was led to “Kingship in the Deuteronomistic History” (Deuteronomy to Kings). Here is a typical, arcane topic that virtually no one outside of the narrow field of Old Testament studies would expect to find interesting. And I certainly did not select it because I or the professors thought that it would make some relevant contribution to the church, even if it might serve the discipline of Old Testament studies.

Yet it proved to be a fascinating study, one that has impacted my thinking more than I ever anticipated. The dissertation was an effort to respond to the dilemma posed by 1 Samuel 8–13, chapters that appear to include contradictory evaluations of kingship. A common response to this apparent inconsistency was to argue that the editor of these chapters incorporated older material from different writers, one or more of which was very critical of the notion of kingship, and one or more of which was quite positively inclined.

Two aspects of that proposed solution troubled me. First, this approach appeared to give little credit or respect to an ancient editor who was understood to have incorporated contradictory perspectives without being aware of it or uncomfortable with conflicting points of view. But, secondly and more significantly, this approach focused primarily on a historical question: How did these chapters come to be? It was a question I didn’t find especially interesting.

What did intrigue me was what one might discern from these chapters as part of the larger Deuteronomistic History, and as part of our larger Scripture. In my dissertation, I proposed that these chapters themselves reflect a struggle with the question of kingship and how Israel as a people {182} should be governed. The chapters thus neither enthusiastically affirm this innovation in leadership structure, nor do they utterly reject it. The struggle was a real one. The text has God explicitly interpreting the request for a king as a personal rejection: “for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7 NRSV, passim). Yet God directs Samuel to grant the request of the people, and later God is actively involved in choosing the first king, whether through lot or charisma. How can this be?

I suggested that the clue may lie in the warning God directs Samuel to give Israel about the ways of the king. Kings, Samuel advises, inevitably build up armies; then they tax people to the point where they cry out in protest. Kings are inclined to exalt themselves over other members of the community (cf. Deut 17:14-20). Even as we read this, we remember from the preceding chapters that the absence of kings also is not paradise. Judges 18–21 tells two violent stories of life in pre-kingship Israel, and then attributes this lawlessness to the fact that “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judg 18:1; cf. 19:1; 21:25) and thus “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21:25). In other words, neither kingship nor the absence of kingship ensure faithfulness and justice; each had its potential dangers. The key for Israel in adopting kingship is being aware of its risks, its inherent weaknesses or temptations, and then being vigilant against them.

This reading of these chapters challenged some cherished understandings in the Mennonite world of the day, both in the congregation and in academic circles: kingship, and by equation strong forceful leadership, was wrong and against the will of God. In my early years in Altona we still had bishops, men who were selected by their communities to be vigorous church leaders, sometimes even authoritarian leaders. The 1960s was not only a time when we young people rebelled, but also a time when our parents overthrew this leadership model. Supporting this direction were our theological schools as they highlighted the “priesthood of all believers,” often taken to imply that our congregations should be more egalitarian or democratic. Pastors began to avoid understanding themselves as strong leaders, preferring to be “ministry facilitators.” Even my AMBS professors wondered about me—after all, the rise of kingship in Israel was spoken of as the fall of Israel and compared to a rejected Constantinianism. How could I not condemn it?

Much to my surprise, I have returned to that dissertation many times over the years. 1 What I learned from those chapters in 1 Samuel became a lens through which I came to view leadership and other human structures. It is common in our day to search for the biblical position on an issue. And so we search for the biblical model of leadership, or the biblical way {183} of organizing our religious community, the church. I am not sure such a biblical model exists. Rather, both leadership and the way a community organizes itself can only be effective if it works for the benefit of the people, and this only happens when it is sensitive to, and works with the expectations and assumptions of, a particular social-political setting. Effective and faithful leadership structures thus are context specific.


I am not displeased with the way my denomination and its congregations organize themselves today. But I do not believe that this more democratic approach is more biblical than the way this was done a century ago, with our bishops leading the way. Indeed, one could argue that the central Old Testament figure of Moses could more easily be used to support the former model. Every form of leadership and organization is human and imperfect. The desire for change may be selfish or unfaithful and thus a rejection of God (cf. Israel wanting kingship), but that doesn’t make the particular model unusable by God. Each model has temptations and weaknesses that the community must be aware of and attempt to avoid or protect itself against. I often remind myself of this as we discuss changing the structures we live under. I try not to look for the one correct structure but rather ask how a particular structure might work, what the inherent and inevitable weaknesses or temptations of it might be, and how they might be avoided.

It is now nearly forty years since I completed that dissertation. During this time I have remained an active member of my local congregation, teaching and preaching as called upon. During this time I have also taught and related to hundreds of students, preached and given seminar presentations in countless settings, and written articles and even a biblical commentary. The account of how my dissertation impacted my understanding of the church is only one example of how my scholarship affected my life of faith. The reverse question, whether my life in the church has affected my teaching and research is much more difficult to answer. The short answer is, “without question,” even if not in a self-conscious way.

I give an example. When invited to write a commentary on the book of Deuteronomy for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, I was instructed to write as an Anabaptist. 2 I struggled with what that meant. I could include stories out of our tradition that would serve as illustrations in the commentary, and I could research what Anabaptist preachers and writers had said about particular passages. But beyond that I could only write out of who I was. And that was as someone who has very much been part of a community, a community most particularly represented by my home congregation, but also a community deeply rooted in Canada and {184} North America, even as it has a much larger identity as a global Anabaptist fellowship and the world-wide body of Christ. My involvement in the church at its many different levels and in its various forms has shaped who I am, and thus very much impacted my scholarship.

This is true even as my faith and the way I approach the Bible evolved over the decades. As a scholar in the field of biblical studies, I am understandably focused on the Bible in my thinking about scholarship. Just this spring I taught a noncredit course in the CMU 55-Plus program. The topic was the authority of the Bible, with concerted attention to how the Bible came to be and how its authority has been understood over the centuries.

This was an area on which I had previously done limited research. I was struck at how writings gradually came to be understood first as Scripture, or God-inspired, and then as canon, as a limited set of books with that special God-inspired quality and authority. It also became evident to me that, even among those who acknowledged the principle of sola scriptura, the authority of scripture was understood and functioned differently through the centuries.

Through my reading and reflecting about this in class, my love for and confidence in the Bible grew, even as it became increasingly clear that exactly what that authority means cannot be easily captured. It is not the historical details described in the text that are authoritative; it certainly is not the scientific view of the biblical writers that is authoritative. And yet, somehow God has given the people of God this gift of writings through which—if we immerse ourselves in them—God through the Holy Spirit speaks to us. We can only stand in amazement before that God.

I am sure this is not the way I understood the Bible when I began my studies at CMBC, nor is it the way I would have spoken of it upon graduation from Union. My faith has changed and evolved over time. Is this because of my scholarly research? I trust that has played a factor. But every bit as much, the development of my faith has been influenced by my life in the church, my personal experiences, and perhaps even by the aging process.

I am reminded of an emphasis of James Sanders, who speaks of the biblical canon as a set of books that receives its authority by virtue of the life-giving resources it gives the church in changing contexts and times. 3 Its diversity refuses to absolutize any one particular stance, thus allowing the God of Israel and the church—indeed, the God of all creation—to speak through it in different times and places. This understanding of how the Bible is authoritative is not first of all an abstract theological commitment but the historical experience of those of faith.

My life as a scholar fits with that understanding. I did not choose to become a biblical scholar, but I believe God called me—in God’s {185} mysterious way—to be a scholar alert to what God is saying to the church today. God also called me to be a scholar who is a minister of the church with a special love for young adults. I believe that orientation and conviction, consciously and subconsciously, always both controlled and freed my scholarship.


  1. Gerald Eddie Gerbrandt, Kingship According to the Deuteronomistic History, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 87 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1986).
  2. Gerald E. Gerbrandt, Deuteronomy. Believers Church Bible Commentary (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2015). Previously I had written Micah: Better than Rivers of Oil (Newton, KS: Faith & Life, 1985). 
  3. See Sanders’s Canon and Community: A Guide to Canonical Criticism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1984) and From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1987).
Gerald Gerbrandt received his MDiv from Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Indiana) and his doctorate in Bible from Union Theological Seminary (Richmond, Virginia). In 1969 he joined the faculty at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (Winnipeg), which merged with Concord College and Menno Simons College to form CMU in 2000. That has been his vocational home ever since. During his CMBC years he served as admissions counselor, Bible professor, academic dean, and president. He was also president of CMU from 2000 until his retirement in 2012. Today he continues to work at the university part-time.

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