Alumnus of the Year 2004: Willard Swartley

Willard SwartleyWillard Swartley ’59 combines courageous academic inquiry with faithful commitment to Jesus Christ. One of the foremost Anabaptist interpreters of Scripture and EMU’s 2004 alumnus of the year, Willard was the first of his family to graduate from high school and college.

One summer more than fifty years ago, Willard Swartley’s father faced a tough choice— whether to allow his youngest of eight children to continue schooling past the tenth grade. Like many of his generation, the eastern Pennsylvania farmer was skeptical of higher education. Yet it was obvious that his son Willard had a keen mind and would likely follow the footsteps of his older brother Henry— off the farm and into pastoral ministry, with or without a diploma.

An unexpected affirmation of Willard’s gifts for ministry by a church brother convinced his father to allow Willard to continue his schooling. Years later, when he told his mother he’d accepted a job offer to teach Greek, she said, “Well, Willard, I always knew you would be a teacher.”

Pastor, teacher, theologian, prolific writer, editor, Bible scholar, Willard has not forgotten his roots. “Gifts are not self-serving, but are given for use in Now retired from most of his academic duties, Swartley relaxes with seminary students. ministry,” he once wrote. “With the resource of Scripture we can understand the contribution of our lives as rooted in God’s initiative and reflecting God’s purpose.”

From his brother Henry, a pioneering church planter, he was introduced to the joys and struggles of pastoral ministry. “My brother is the only pastor I know who would take a board game like checkers on visits to the homes of local families. For him, playing games was a natural way to remove barriers and begin meaningful conversa­tions with his neighbors.” A t the young age of 19, Willard served for a half-year as interim pastor of a mission congregation in Easton, Pennsylvania. During his student years at EMU, he attended and helped lead the small congregation at Mount Jackson. As YPCA president Willard helped begin a mission church in Staunton. Willard was ordained in 1961 to pastor a small multicultural church, Locust Grove in Elkhart, Indiana.

Willard sees mission and purposeful calling as central to Christian faith. “It has been all too customary for us to consider the world as a community,” he shared in a 1966 EMU chapel talk, “and for us as Christians to call people out of that community to stand alone under God as isolated, fragmented individuals. Whereas it should be just the other way around— that our conception of the world is a fragmented, broken, shattered society and we call people out of the world, which is really no man’s land in ultimate purpose and direction, to a community of purpose and direction under God.”

In the spring of 1975, Willard and his wife Mary led 37 students on EMU’s first Middle East cross-cultural study tour. A scant two years after the pivotal Yom Kippur war, they witnessed the raw emotions of the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict. They traveled to ancient sites and studied the making of the Bible, visiting museums in Paris and London to view second and third-century papyri, original Greek manuscripts. “Jerusalem Term was a life-changing event for everyone who went,” is how Willard describes it almost three decades later. (A reunion of participants is planned on October 9 during Homecoming 2004 weekend.)

After completing his doctoral studies on the Gospel of Mark at Princeton Seminary, Willard shared his learnings with a wider audience in the summer of 1977 at the Mennonite assembly in Estes Park, Colorado. There he led a seven-part series of Bible studies around the themes of discipleship and mission from Mark’s gospel. Presented in tandem with original dramas by Canadian playwright Urie Bender, Willard remembers the combination as “electrifying.” Several lay leaders felt so strongly that his Bible study should be published as a book that they quickly organized a freewill offering at the assembly to finance release time from his teaching load at EMU. Two years later Mark, the Way for All Nations appeared on bookshelves, along with Bender’s dramas in a companion book To Walk in the Way.

His next book, published in 1983, grew out of a Conrad Grebel lecture series. Now in its 17th printing, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women explored opposing interpretations of Scripture and demonstrated the use of the Bible to address thorny issues of church and society. Willard launched the chapter on male and female role relationships by warning his readers, “With this issue we come to a contemporary storm center in biblical interpretation.”

In 2003, after turning down several requests to publish on the church’s teaching position on homosexuality and same-sex relationships, Willard again sailed into a contemporary storm, which he describes as “more contentious than anything the church faced in the 1970’s and 80’s.” His book Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment has been praised by reviewers as combining a high view of Scripture with a “penetrating analysis of contemporary culture, a significant contribution to the church’s larger debate, enriched by prayerful humility, candor and generosity of spirit.”

Those same qualities will again be called upon in his upcoming book Covenant of Peace to be published in 2005. Willard describes it as an “extensive study of the New Testament through the lens of peacemaking, connecting peace with other core topics: God, Christology, salvation, and mission.” His wife Mary, in an unguarded moment, simply describes the new book as his “magnum opus.”

In addition to these four books, Willard has penned scores of articles, essays and reviews for church and scholarly publications, edited ten New Testament volumes of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series and mentored a gener­ation of Bible students, seminarians, pastors and church leaders.

The Swartley’s live in Elkhart, Indiana, a four minute walk from the seminary office where he served as dean and professor of New Testament theology. Mary (C 57) taught business at Christopher Dock, EMHS, EMU, and Bethany Christian, where she served also as acting/interim principal for two years. As Willard puts it, “Mary has played an important role in encouraging and assisting me in my work, especially in hosting students and preparing books for publication.” They have two children, Louisa Oyer (C 83) and Kenton, and six grandchildren.

Willard has served the church and her institutions of higher learning (EMU, Goshen College, Conrad Grebel College, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in a variety of teaching and leadership roles too numerous to list. His gifts are summarized by Dr. Robert Meye, former dean of Fuller Theological Seminary, writing in a foreword to Willard’s Mark book— “historical scholarship joined to Christian devotion, patient observation joined to imaginative application, and sober discipline joined to joyful freedom.”

As EMU’s alumnus of the year to be honored at 2004 Homecoming weekend October 8-10, Willard Swartley models what it means to love God with a strong mind and an undivided heart.

Published in Crossroads, Spring 2004.