In a Dennis the Menace comic strip several years ago, Dennis is shown talking with his neighbor Mr. Wilson, who is working in the yard and wearing shorts and a white T-shirt.
Dennis says to him, “Don’t you believe in anything? Your T-shirt doesn’t have any writing on it.”
The young fellow is an astute observer of our culture. Whether they are political statements, business advertising, or religious beliefs, the messages we see on wearing apparel seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, my own closet is full of shirts reflecting school affiliations, support of sports teams, and religious beliefs to mention only a few. Dennis would have little reason to doubt that I believe in something.
On several of my old Memphis Theological Seminary T-shirts is the school’s logo that includes the words scholarship, piety and justice. These are standards the seminary uses for evaluating its mission and ministry as well as for framing how students are to approach their preparation for ministry.
These values certainly provide helpful benchmarks for seminary education, but I think they offer equally good guidance for how all Christians might think of discipleship.
The first value, scholarship, is properly associated with education, with study, with a commitment to learning. The writer of 2 Timothy sagely advised the reader to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”
This verse encourages believers to devote themselves to the study of scripture in order that they can properly understand and interpret it. For both clergy and laity, scholarship is a necessary characteristic of discipleship.
The second term, piety, is not heard often in public discourse. It refers to the act of being reverent, of expressing devotion to God. In Matthew’s gospel, when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind.” So piety speaks to whom it is that we give our love and devotion.
Justice, then, is closely tied to piety because it is a practical extension of our love of God. In the gospel passage just mentioned, after Jesus explains what is the greatest commandment, he says there is another one like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God is expressed, of course, through worship as well as by serving others and, of course, treating all people fairly. Micah captured our responsibility well when he summarized what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
Scholarship, piety, and justice are goals for the person in the pulpit as well as those in the pews. These values may sound abstract, yet another of my seminary shirts boils their meaning down to the simplest terms: scholarship – what we know, piety – who we love, justice – what we do. And even Dennis can understand that.