Wednesday, April 15, 2015
A long-form piece on evangelical and complementarian leader, Erik Thoennes.
Erik Thoennes teaches Bible and theology at the university level. He serves in pastoral ministry. He’s been married to his wife, Donna, for over 26 years, and has four children. Perhaps none of these items seems exceptional, but a survey of his life reveals just how unlikely it all is.
Rewind a couple decades, and you’d find the young Erik Thoennes, who grew up in a single-parent home and wasn’t too interested in learning. You’d also find a young man who excelled in sports.
The drive that fueled Thoennes’s success on the field hasn’t waned, it’s simply taken different shape as he’s applied it to the other fronts of his life.
Thoennes played football, basketball, and ran track in high school, and played college football for Central Connecticut State University, setting school records as a wide receiver.
His success in the college game led to tryouts for two NFL teams, the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. Eventually, he accepted an offer to play professionally in Europe, where he, according to a 1988 article from a local Connecticut newspaper, found “instant fame.” He played there from 1988-91, earning the nickname, “Erik the Warrior.”
Thoennes says his experience playing sports, especially football, taught him the kind of lessons that most young men learn in the home.
“I learned tremendously from sports,” he said. “Football taught me a lot: to be tough, to be part of something bigger than myself, to work hard, to achieve, and to take the backseat for others to excel, to set goals and accomplish them, to be responsible, to plan ahead. It’s amazing the things I learned.”
Thoennes’s commitment to learn on the football field didn’t immediately carry over into the classroom. Early in Thoennes’s time at Central Connecticut State University, though, that changed.
“I learned to love learning when I was in college,” Thoennes said, “and hadn’t done much of it before then.”
This academic spark was lit, of all places, in science class.
“Biology 110 changed my life,” Thoennes said. “My prof was an atheist, but it was incredibly worshipful, so I just learned to love to learn.”
“I had some profs help me catch a vision for thinking deeply and studying hard and the joy that goes with that. So the liberal arts became wonderfully worshipful for me.”
Thoennes graduated with a degree in philosophy, and channelled his appreciation for learning into further education. After his professional football career, he returned to the United States and earned two masters degrees from Wheaton College Graduate School and a doctorate from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
That’s a lot of time in the classroom. In fact, he hasn’t left.
“I sometimes, part jokingly, say to my students, ‘I loved college so much I figured out a way to stay in it the rest of my life,’” Thoennes said.
Now, the kid who didn’t love to learn has been teaching at Biola University for 15 years.
“I expected to be doing lots of other things besides this, but God opened doors and enabled me to have opportunities to teach and continue my education, so I walked through those, and it’s been a joy.”
Thoennes’s love of both athletics and academia have coalesced into frequent research, writing, and speaking on the relationship between God and sports.
He wrote a chapter called “Created to Play: Thoughts on Play Sport and the Christian Life” in the book The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, and has spoken often on the topic.
Recognizing how significant sports can be in the life of so many people, Thoennes is eager to pass on what his experience taught him.
“Sports have the potential to help us build great character,” he said. “Christians tend to either trivialize sports and not see sport as something with great value, or they tend to fall into the idolatry of sports in our culture.”
He knows from experience that sports can be “tremendously character forming, but sadly, that’s not necessarily so.”
Thoennes’s concern for seeing the Bible take shape in people’s lives – rather than just an academic concern for the things he teaches – explains why he’s not content to work only in the classroom.
Thoennes is pastor of Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, California. Just like his turn toward teaching, his entrance into the ministry was less intentional than one might expect.
“I didn’t ever say, ‘I’m going to go into pastoral ministry.’ I just wanted to minister,” Thoennes said. “And, again, God opened doors for that to be a more significant commitment as things went on.”
Just like his love for learning, Thoennes didn’t grasp the importance of the church until later in life. And yet here he is, serving in ministry.
“The church became tremendously important to me when I saw what it was intended to be biblically and experientially,” Thoennes said. “I love church, and it really is the primary context of my life.”
The pastor-theologian sees both the ministry and the academy as integral to his faithfulness in the other. The overlap between the two, he says, “helps keep me honest in both places, and it brings more integrity to my role in each place than I’d have otherwise. My students need to know I love the church and that I’m involved in the lives of real people, and it’s good for the folks in my church to know that I’m thinking hard and writing and contributing to scholarship.”
This convergence of scholarship and ministry is clear in much of Thoennes’s work, like in his 2011 book from Crossway, Life’s Biggest Questions: What the Bible Says About the Things That Matter Most, in which Thoennes seeks to bring God’s Word to bear on the totality of life.
Thoennes is not afraid to articulate the Bible’s teachings outside of the classroom and church, either. He’s been known to address issues that place him in the minority position within the cultural landscape. Just Google his name and see people publicly demanding that Thoennes rescind comments about homosexuality.
Rather than getting riled up against opposition to the Bible’s views on such issues, Thoennes knows how to diagnose the root cause of such reactions. “Sin,” Thoennes says, is the reason for the current cultural climate, in which “everyone is doing whatever’s right in their own eyes and letting [their] current desires at the moment determine what they think is true.”
Serving as the chairman of the board of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – and having been a council member and board member for a few years prior – Thoennes is well aware of what confusion on sexuality and gender will do to the cause of human flourishing.
“Anytime we don’t express what God created us to be, he’s not glorified and we’re not satisfied,” he said. “I hate that that’s not happening when we obliterate gender distinctions, or when we do the opposite and don’t see the equal dignity, value, or fallenness between male and females. We’re not fulfilling our purposes when we don’t appreciate the distinction or the equality.”
Biola University, where Thoennes teaches, is located in Southern California, right in the heart of the sexual revolution.
“It can be easy to withdraw and fear being perceived as bigoted and intolerant so that you don’t speak truth because you know it goes against the grain,” Thoennes said. But that’s clearly not stopping him. “I’m not discouraged,” he said.
Thoennes seems unwilling to be overcome by circumstances. Instead, he goes right at them with the same fight that earned him his gridiron nickname, even when those circumstances enter his home.
Thoennes met his wife, Donna, in high school and they’ve been married for over 26 years.
“My wife is an incredibly godly, gracious, amazing woman,” Thoennes said. Donna is also part of the faculty at Biola.
Like the rest of his life, Thoennes’s marriage was not without its unexpected developments. “We assumed we were going to have kids, but weren’t able to,” he said. “We struggled with that for awhile.”
That struggle changed when Erik and Donna visited India in 2005.
“God broke our hearts for orphans,” he said. “We weren’t feeling a big burden to have kids, and really we were pouring out all our parental affection on other people’s children, especially working at a college. God just broke our hearts for the orphans of the world, especially older girls in countries like India, and Asia in general.”
The compassion that overwhelmed Erik and Donna has led them to adopt four children: Caroline (15), Paige (12), Samuel (9), and Isaac (8). Erik and Donna adopted Caroline, Paige, and Samuel from Taiwan, and Isaac – who they brought home in January – from China.
Thoennes’s love for his children, and his burden to see them rescued and protected is in part a reflection of his upbringing in a single-parent home, an experience that he says “deepened my appreciation for what God intends family to be.”
If the Thoenneses have anything to do with it, they will ensure their children experience family life in just that way.
“To see my wife’s amazing love for these girls and mothering wisdom has been a joy,” Erik said in an interview with The Center for Christian Family Ministry at Southern Seminary. “It’s called my manhood out of me in so many ways. It’s tragic to me that adoption is often seen as something women are more inclined toward because they have that nurturing instinct. Men should have a powerful rescuing instinct, a protective instinct that needs to drive us to this more than it does.”
The “drive” that Thoennes felt toward adoption has been manifested in every part of his life. This disposition, which he describes as “an intense, jealous passion for God to be glorified in everything,” is the heart of his life and ministry.
Anything less than such a God-centered vision could not sustain the various and intertwining fronts of Thoennes’s life and ministry as a husband, father, pastor, professor, writer, speaker, and former athlete. Regardless of what new fronts may be added to his life, or what new challenges will arise, there is little doubt that Thoennes will face them with the God-given drive he’s always had, and with a burden for glory of God and the good of others.
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