Is Seminary Relevant? A Professor’s Perspective

johnWe had a good discussion here in the last week as we talked about the relevancy of seminary education for today. Tyler Braun told us why he thinks it is still important, and Matt Cleaver offered some suggestions as to why it has lost its relevancy. Yesterday I was browsing through some blogs and came across this post from Professor John Stackhouse, the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia (visit his blog here). He agreed to let us post his thoughts here for your consideration and to round out this series.

If you survey leaders of megachurches in the United States—if you consider most leaders of the burgeoning house church movement in China—if you examine the leadership of exploding congregations in Africa—you notice one striking commonality: Most of them have little or no formal theological education.

A North American correspondent writes,

“Is theological education necessary for people engaged in occupational ministry? If so, is the contemporary seminary scene the best form for education to occur in the future?

“I have been wrestling a bit with this regarding the emerging church, rising student debt, and the complexity of the postmodern world. I think we live in difficult ministry times that demand excellent formation and education, but it seems the pragmatic opportunities for such education is being limited by market realities.’”

I think this friend puts it well. Every leader does need to be “excellently formed and educated.” Those who seek to lead without being properly shaped as persons and educated as leaders may well attract a lot of followers by dint of charisma and hard work. But the lack of well-formed hearts and well-informed minds will put their congregations and themselves in peril: in peril of narrowness, of shallowness, and of heresy. God certainly has guided the church in the past through people without seminary education—indeed, ever since he called fishermen. But he also provided the early church, and every church since, with educated leadership, such as the carefully-trained apostle Paul.

Does a Master of Divinity degree necessarily produce and then certify a fine church leader? Certainly not. But does theological ignorance and immaturity of spirit somehow improve the picture? Hardly.

Yes, seminaries can and do narrow one’s options, but they are supposed to help students avoid bad choices and make good ones—about doctrine, about piety, about liturgy and evangelism and polity and the rest. Yet sometimes seminaries do narrow the options too much, so that those who are not socialized in such places sometimes are the ones who spontaneously innovate.

Creative people, however, normally have a considerable store of knowledge of a field before they innovate—in a way that produces lasting, influential, and positive results. Anybody can do something merely new in church: that doesn’t require knowledge, insight, or special imagination. Just have everyone who leads the service wear a pink hat, or just have everyone who attends a service keep hopping from one foot to another. (I hope I’m not giving anyone any ideas—.) But lasting, influential, and positive results normally come from people who know a given field well—so well that they can see what needs changing and then how to change it for the better (a terrific book in this regard is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity [Harper, 1996].)

Still, most aspiring pastors aren’t looking to be especially creative, but competent, compassionate, and Christ-like. So do you need to go to seminary for that?

Well, yes. At least, some people do.

Obviously, for at least some kinds of ministry among some kinds of people, a high degree of sophistication is necessary. To be sure, well-educated congregants have the same basic needs as everybody else. But they have other needs as well that require leaders to have thought about a number of things and to have thought through at least a few of them. So those who are considering pastoral work among university or high-tech populations, therefore, will need to take seriously the peculiar intellectual demands of such work.

Yet ministry among anyone can be improved by good theological education: among kids, among teenagers, among the oppressed, among the interested and the confused of any age and situation.

For everyone asks about the problem of evil. Everyone wants to know about how to interpret Genesis 1-3. Everyone wants to know how to take the Bible’s “tall tales” of Flood, Exodus, Jonah’s fish, and Jesus’ resurrection. And everyone wants to know how to find Christ, follow him, and enjoy his company forever—in a way that avoids extremes, or compromises, or imbalances, or pat slogans.

So who shouldn’t get a proper Christian education? (That’s why I like teaching at a place that educates even more laypeople than it does pastors.) Yes, theological school is costly. But, as the old saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

Okay: so far, this is what you’d expect from a guy who earns his bread at a theological school. So let’s recall again that lots of leaders around the world today don’t have seminary education and seem to enjoy God’s blessing. And that’s been true in every era of the church.

You don’t need a seminary education to introduce people to Jesus. You don’t need it to preach the gospel. You don’t need it to administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper. There is much that can be done, has been done, and is being done by simple Christians with a simple understanding—and much that puts our educated, sophisticated churches and leaders to shame.

The point is not, however, whether God uses some people in some situations to do good pastoral work. The point, rather, is whether God is calling some people in some situations to do pastoral work that really does require sustained education in the Scripture, theology, history, liturgics, administration, counseling, and other staples of contemporary seminary education.

The point is whether God is calling such people to join seminary communities in which, for a few years, they can be immersed in an environment of mutually reinforcing teachings and practices that will form them in a fundamental way for a lifetime of fruitful—and, doubtless, also creative—service.

And the point is whether we ourselves want to be pastored by people who have never been taught even the basics of Bible history, of how to interpret a parable, of the history of missionary success and failure, and of what makes for a good marriage. Yikes, I say.

I know seminary costs a lot. I didn’t earn a typical seminary degree at a typical seminary, but my theological education cost a pretty good whack of cash and it took me quite a while, so I sympathize.

Medical education and engineering education also require a lot of money and time, however, and I don’t think that pastoral work is any less conceptually difficult than medicine and engineering. I want my surgeon to know what and how to cut, and I want my engineer to know how to build a bridge that will stay up, and I want my pastor to know how to lead us to become a better church. So the money and time is justified if the education helps a lot toward that goal.

Thus the question is whether, in fact, seminaries offer good, and good enough, education for those whose callings require it. And I would then say that some seminaries do, and some don’t. Some are academically arcane; some are dogmatic and authoritarian; some are sloppy; some are only warm and fuzzy; and some are self-righteous—and guess what kinds of students they tend to attract and to produce? Yikes again, I say.

So this is not a brief for seminary education in general, nor is it a blanket endorsement of every theological school. Heavens, no! But it is an encouragement to those serious Christians, like my friendly correspondent, who wonder if the time and money is worth it. For some people, at the right theological school, it is. And maybe it is for you, too.

In sum, academic snobbery—”Every pastor ought to be a seminary graduate”—flies in the face of church history and contemporary experience around the world. Yet anti-academic snobbery does, too—”No pastor needs to go to seminary, and I sure don’t.” The church has been too richly blessed by well-trained leaders—from Paul to Hildegard, from Augustine to Luther, from Aquinas to Bonhoeffer, from John Wesley to John Sung—for us to cavalierly congratulate ourselves on our avoidance of formal training.

The church today needs a wide range of leaders with a wide range of preparation. Let each of us, then, seek the best education available to us: counting the cost, yes, and also the benefit of it—to ourselves and to all those whom we will influence.

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Jake Belder
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  • Good job with this difficult subject. You have struck a fair balance between anti-academic snobbery and academic snobbery. May both be driven far hence.

    God speed!

  • A very good post! I am just now starting seminary; for a long time, just the idea of it turned me off. I didn’t want to become “one of those people” that over intellectualized the Bible. At the same time, I felt God calling me away from what I am doing now and into full time ministry. In that calling, He clearly led me to start seminary. Not because I had to in order to lead people to Him, but because for whatever He is calling me to do, I need a way more in depth knowledge of His word (the history, the background, etc.). A deeper knowlede that I personally am way too distracted to try and get on my own. For me, seminary is now a must (I am continuously surprised to find myself saying that).

  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In every way acknowledge Him. Christ, by His Holy Spirit, will order your steps. As night is to day you can and will be where you ought in obedience to Christ. The key is not to be Luther, or Paul, or Apollos, but who Christ commands you to be. He is your shepherd, not any man and not any word other than The Word. You shall not want in Christ. Period.

  • Forgive me – I know this post is a bit old, but it popped up on top of a search I did, and it’s a subject on which I feel strongly. I attended both a Christian university for a religion/missions undergraduate degree, and then I attended seminary for a missions masters. People ask me often if they should go to seminary. My answer is usually “If it keeps you up at night thinking you have to do so, and the idea is absolutely driving you mad, then yes, if not, then you probably shouldn’t”. After three years of seminary, I can say that I honestly and seriously question the system. The seminary I attended was highly academic, and left little time for any sort of involvement in outside ministry. The grade point average was skewed high (95%=A), so just passing was an intense struggle. On top of that, nearly everyone has to work to support themselves, because getting financial support is almost impossible for an average seminary student, even those with families. I don’t feel the academic nature of the seminary I went to prepared students for the REAL core part of ministry, which is dealing with people. You learned how to write great papers, and maybe a Biblical language. You studied, worked, slept if you could. There was not much time for being involved in your church. There was not much time for working in outside ministries, unless you could get paid (and with hundreds of seminary students in a smallish town, that was unlikely). Families with a parent in seminary hardly ever saw that parent. I would look closely at the seminary you are attending, and at least make sure they have a focus on practical application through working in ministry (and you at least get graduate credits for it). Look at how you will support yourself and your family if you have one, and don’t assume you will find a job right away. Just like any college town, part-time jobs are scarce. If you have a family, make sure your spouse is feeling like this is what God wants for your family as well. It will affect them as much as it will affect you. Most of all, look for somewhere where you can continue to be active in ministry, and not just read and study all the time, even if your goal is to be a college/seminary professor. I wholly think that Biblical languages are important, and very useful in study, and I am thankful to seminary for that training. The Word is crucially important to ministry, but if your putting your success in ministry before the people in your life, and those He places in your path, then you’ve missed one of the most crucial gifts God has given you. People will often be your greatest Bible teachers, because ministering to people and meeting their needs is what drives us back to the Bible for answers.

Written by Jake Belder