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By Dustin Miller
Harrisonburg, Va.- It is not often that seminary students get to learn from professors from other seminaries. This summer 15 students at Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS) had the opportunity to learn about biblical spirituality, healing and deliverance ministry from Dr. Willard Swartley, Professor Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s ( EMS) sister seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
“Biblical Spirituality: Healing/Deliverance Ministry,” which ran from June 12-23, combined a number of Swartley’s interests. He originally became interested in the areas of healing and deliverance ministry in the mid-1980s when he was asked by the Indiana/Michigan Conference to be a theological consultant for a person working in deliverance ministry.
Swartley is also very interested in biblical spirituality and making sure that Christians have a proper emphasis when talking about spirituality. “Spirituality stretches out in so many different areas,” said Swartley. “If I believed nothing at all I could do a course in spirituality. If you’re not going to define it more precisely, spirituality may end up moving in the direction of creating your own god,” said Swartley.
“Biblical spirituality means we must really pay attention to biblical theological entities that determine spirituality. For example, what does it mean to be created in God’s image? What was the spirituality of Jesus? If we are followers of Jesus, then we will learn something from His spirituality.” During a week-long study on biblical spirituality, Swartley led the class in studying themes of redemption, covenant relationships, sin and judgment, knowledge of God, and holiness.
Healing and deliverance ministry were the more specific foci during the second week of the class. “There is a widespread interest in healing ministries,” said Swartley. “Healing is a common entity in the secular spirituality movement. Just look at Barnes & Noble bookstore; you’ll find a lot of books on healing and spirituality that have nothing to do with the Bible or Christian faith.”
Healing ministries, according to Swartley, are very conditioned by the culture. In our current American context, we see healing as being related to health care and sciences. It becomes a very complicated subject, partly because we have a strong health care system. “North Americans get lost in what all healing ministry is about. Other traditions say healing is a rather simple concept. It is simply to open yourself up to God’s transcending power, and make ourselves vulnerable before him for healing as God wishes to do in our lives,” said Swartley.
Part of the course was intended to expose students to the different ways healing ministries can be incorporated into public worship. “We don’t talk so much about healing ministry, although I think we’d be surprised if we actually knew how many Mennonite churches have a service of public prayer for healing. This is now part of my own Mennonite experience because in the church where I attend we have had prayers for healing about every six weeks.”
Deliverance is “a sub-component of healing, because sometimes when you are working in a healing ministry you will be confronted with something that doesn’t want you there.” Swartley recognizes that we don’t talk about the subjects of healing and deliverance much. However Swartley said, “There are stories of healing that are otherwise inexplicable except to say God did something, and there are stories in which people have been delivered. There is no way to explain that except to say that God is a wonder in our midst.”
Swartley said that it is important for seminary students to study these topics because as pastors move into the contemporary context, they are confronted with a culture that is more and more open to the spiritual world. Also, in terms of studying healing and deliverance, the areas of pastoral counseling and psychology are often the first to open up to the spiritual realm. “The first person that I was asked to minister to was referred to me by a psychiatrist.”
Third year seminary student Rachel Ringenberg Miller agrees with Swartley’s assessment. “Healing and deliverance ministry is something we rarely talk about, but something that is repeatedly found in the scriptures. This class opened my eyes to the times that these areas of ministry are relevant for today.”
This is not Swartley’s first teaching experience at Eastern Mennonite. Between 1965 and 1978, the writer and teacher spent nine of thirteen 13 years at Eastern Mennonite College, before joining Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) as a professor. He taught there for 26 years before retiring in 2004.
Swartley’s retirement has been anything but quiet. The 2006 calendar year has him teaching three courses and has also brought the publication of his new book Covenant of Peace: The Missing Piece in New Testament Theology and Ethics.
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