Do We Really Need Seminaries?

Let me preface what I am about to say with the statement that I had an exceptional experience in a formal seminary atmosphere. In RTS, Jackson, I had the privilege of sitting under some men who were pastors at heart but who were also exceptional thinkers, communicators, and authors. I also made some friendships that have remained with me to this day. I am truly grateful for that time. Further, I teach in a formal seminary context in Ukraine and definitely see the logistical advantages to a formal, institutional model. 

So, with that prefacing my comments below, please do not think that I am advocating an overthrow of the formal, or institutional, model. Yet, having now served Christ’s church full-time for more than a decade, I have come to re-think some of the assumptions that we make when it comes to training men for the ministry…one of which is how that training is to be done. Further, as a Reformed thinker, I have asked myself, is this model consistent with who we are as Reformed Christians or, have we yielded too much ground to Rome — in some ways, I fear that the latter may very well be true.

To begin with, the term “Seminary” comes from the Latin word for a “seedbed.” I have written on this before, but at the very heart of this is the notion that “seminarial” training, by the definition of the word is preparatory in nature and is not meant to be advanced study. Before everyone gets all wound up, let me explain what I mean by this. I am not saying that pastors ought not be scholars — folks, we must be. Our role is to be a teacher of the church, a guard on the wall against heresy, and a trainer of men and women when it comes to thinking correctly about their faith. We must be good scholars — it is a non-negotiable for the ministry as we are “pastors and teachers” according to Paul.

Interestingly, the term “seminary” finds its formal origins in the Council of Trent, a Roman reaction to the Reformation. At the heart of the Reformation was the conviction that the average person in the pews needed to be able to read and understand the whole of the Scriptures for himself. As a result, cities within which the Reformation set its roots found themselves forming schools to train people in theology — the Geneva Academy was a direct result of this mindset (hence, seminary being preparatory for the whole of the Christian life). Rome forcefully insisted that theological training belonged in the Academy, not in the pews (see chapter XVIII). This effectively limited theological training to the priesthood and took it out of the hands of the laymen — the suggestion that theology is too technical and complicated for the average believer (sadly, a view perpetuated in many protestant churches today). 

When you assume that “seminary” is meant for advanced training, you not only discourage the average person in the pews from pursuing such Biblical education, but you end up with a context where the word itself no longer parallels the metaphoric value of its meaning. Think about it this way…here in western Pennsylvania, we have a relatively short growing season due to our climate and the fact that we have the potential of frost through most of May. Thus, if you are going to plant vegetables like tomatoes, the seeds need to be started in protected “seminaries” — seedbeds inside a greenhouse of one sort or another. The seedbed allows them to grow unmolested by the weather until they are ready to be planted in the ground in late May or early June.

Compared to the mature plant, these plants you have grown inside are small and they bear no fruit. It is not until they are hardened to direct sunlight and the winds of the outdoors, are pollinated by the insects and the wind, and have their roots sunk deep into our rocky Pennsylvania soil that the plants grow strong and then bear fruit. Do you see how the analogy of the language works? The seedbed (the seminary) is a protected place of basic training and real growth and maturity will not take place until the seminarian is planted in the world. So, where should you expect the formation of deep theological roots? It happens as the minister goes out of the time of training and into the world, feverishly studying so as to be able to engage and respond to the challenges of his environment. Too often, seminarians today think of their seminary training as terminal and they rarely pick up a theological textbook beyond the days of the formal classroom. The people of Christ’s church (including the pastors) have lost a great deal by submitting to Rome’s model.

The other challenge that goes hand-in-glove with the model established by Trent is that if a man wants to go to seminary for theological training, most often he must sell his home, resign from his job, and move somewhere “else” for that training. This creates, if nothing else, a financial hardship on the family, in many cases, forcing the wives to work outside of the home, and requires student loans. Thus, seminarians often find themselves graduating seminary with a load of personal debt as they enter into a job where typically the salary is not commensurate with the degree of training involved. In turn, many will be paying off student loans for the vast majority of their career.

Further, when a family relocates to attend seminary, this effectively removes the family from the life of the local church wherein his gifts and calling was discerned. This means that the local church which is sending him for training cannot effectively oversee the training he is receiving (should this not be overseen by the Pastor and elders?). This also means that the local church is not directly benefitting from the training this man receives — for example, he is not teaching Sunday School Classes, working with youth, visiting shut-in members, or occasionally filling the pulpit. Furthermore, this perpetuates the unBiblical idea that theological training does not belong in the local church.

This also perpetuates the view that the local pastor is not qualified to train another minister. People justify this by stating that the minister is too busy during the week in his duties of pastoral care to study and teach deep theological truths. But, what if the congregation, instead of the pastor, saw it as their calling to do the majority of the pastoral care under the oversight of the Elders and the Deacons? Would that not be consistent with what Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:12? Is this not the reason that the Apostles instituted the Diaconate in the first place (Acts 6:1-6)? Ought not the ministry of prayer and the Word be the pastor’s first and primary role in the life of the church? And if this is the case, ought not the role of training up new men to serve as pastors be a significant part of that role? Did God not bless the church in Acts 7 when they kept these roles clear? Once again, the bad model of Rome finds itself doing damage to rather than aiding the Church of Jesus Christ.

A Thought…

As I regularly tell my children, criticism isn’t of much value unless it is constructive criticism. So, what are some options that might address the challenge we face?

To begin with, given the electronic resources available to us, we need to make better use of them.  Some schools, like The North American Reformed Seminary (TNARS), have already moved in this direction. This uses resources like online books, lectures on iTunesU, and similar resources, studied with a mentoring model. Vast readings can also be purchased cheaply in online bookstores and can be acquired for free through Google Books, Monergism, CRTA, Third Millennium, and Reformed Books Online to name a few. 

One may argue that online study cannot replace face to face interaction with Biblical scholars. And that very well may be true, but there are solutions for that as well. To begin with, of all the Biblical scholars I have known, the vast majority of them would be honored if someone offered to buy them lunch in exchange for the opportunity to pick their brains for 30 or 40 minutes. In a case like this, have 3-4 questions prepared, tell them that ahead of time and don’t abuse their time. Further, many are willing to answer direct emails or recommend books on a given subject.

Here’s the thing, top-notch scholars do not need to be teaching survey classes. In fact, were I to take a wager, most would rather not teach survey courses but would instead prefer to teach detailed studies of a book of the Bible or of an aspect of theology. Let said scholars teach that which is directly related to their fields of expertise and allow students to gain their basic Biblical knowledge on their own. Let institutions have entrance exams to determine Biblical understanding and let professors teach seminar classes in their expertise. It would change the dynamics quite a bit, but were seminars held for two weeks a quarter, the necessity for relocation would be reduced if not eliminated — two weeks of vacation becomes two weeks of intensive study under a world-respected expert in a given field.

Another option is for communities of like-minded churches to form mini-seminaries to cover at least the basics of the Bible and theology. Truly, mature pastors ought also be able to teach deep and complex points of theology, but I also recognize that “ought” does not yield “is” (the moralistic fallacy). Sadly, pastors often see their seminary education as terminal rather than being a seed-bed and thus do not continue their studies beyond their formal institutional schooling. In the case of a community seminary, this also opens opportunities for members who fill the pews of churches to also gain Biblical and Theological training. This then, also provides a central place that can afford to occasionally pay a respected expert to come and give a seminar on a particular subject.

Not only could such a community seminary be housed in an area church, but if there were sufficient interest, it could be housed by a local Christian school — their leadership is often like-minded with a group of area churches and their classrooms are largely dormant in the evenings. The Christian school in Florida, where I served as a teacher/administrator was regularly having the conversation of what it might look like were we to start a Christian college on campus, hosting evening classes for the community.

The question of Accreditation is often raised. To begin with, one must ask what it is that they are trying to accomplish by accrediting. If it is just a matter of accountability, one can accomplish that with a board made up of Pastors and Elders from the like-minded churches establishing the seminary. In many cases, the real purpose of accreditation has to do with student loans that can be achieved from the government. Yet, if education is done in-house and online, it can be done more or less for free or at a nominal cost if there is enough interest (perhaps investing money to build a common library that the students could use or hiring a part-time or full-time administrative assistant to keep things running smoothly or perhaps even to help with grading. The reality is, what right does the state have to dictate what theological education ought to look like? I say that it has none.

And again, presuming cooperation by like-minded churches, the presbytery or classis of each church involved could be part of the oversight of the “mini-seminary.” This gives them direct oversight of what is being taught and how it is being taught and arguably provides for better cooperation between the churches of the differing denominations as well. In addition to accountability, it provides for a smooth transition into the examining committees of each denominational group for those candidates preparing for their ministerial trials. 

Here’s a novel idea, were churches to really embrace this more decentralized model, for those students who have graduated from all of the preliminary classes and survey courses, then churches create roles and jobs for them in the context of the church so that advanced training can take place outside of the seedbed classroom. This form of mentorship and in-depth teaching in small groups is invaluable to both student and congregation. Part of this internship could also include serving in those roles commonly associated with church secretaries, youth pastors, and visiting pastors — placing trained and Biblically mature men into the life of church leadership alongside of volunteers who have hopefully also made aspects of this Biblical training a part of their lives. That way, men graduating from seminary have already been trained in every level of ministry from making bulletins, organizing activities, visiting with the sick and elderly, evangelizing the lost, and the ministry of the pulpit.

Something needs to be said about degrees in this conversation. And while I am considered by much of my family as a bit of an academic, I think that the American drive toward degrees and titles behind their names is a bit overrated. Brothers, I remind you of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:8 about desiring the title of Rabbi — in modern equivalents, “Doctor.” We are Pastors and Elders and Deacons. These are the titles that God has given to the church. This does not mean that we ought not strive for advanced training, it just means we ought not covet the Title and content ourselves with the title of the office we fill. Interestingly enough, for many years, to be called a “Doctor of the Church” was an honorary title given posthumously based on the contribution that the person made to the teaching of the church. Would that not be a better model? Sadly, honorary degrees tend to be looked down upon in western society, though I think they should be valued over and above any degree that you might earn from an institution.

And so, we have both some critiques and an offer of constructive criticism. Will anything come of it? This, I do not know. I am already involved with TNARS because I believe in what they are doing and would love to see the next step taken. In the meantime, most likely, churches will continue sending their best men away to be trained in a seminary somewhere else without the oversight of the Elders who are sending and without the instruction these men receive benefitting the local church in discernible ways. In addition, they will continue to play into Rome’s worldview that theological training is only for a sub-class in the church, not for everyone — a worldview that is utterly alien to the Reformed faith though it has been embraced by far too many within our communion. Yet, think how much stronger our churches would be were we to have a Biblically-committed seminary in every community?

How to get there? Much of the groundwork has been laid by groups like TNARS and other smaller, “community” seminary models like City Seminary in Sacramento or Indianapolis Theological Seminary. Yet, for the next step to be taken, a working model committed to not following down the path of Trent and the institution must be established…somethign that takes both time and money. So, I suppose I should say, if this idea resonates with you and you want to put your money where your mouth is, then let’s start a conversation. Otherwise, pray for the church as we go into a new year and head towards a new decade.

About preacherwin

A pastor, teacher, and a theologian concerned about the confused state of the church in America and elsewhere...Writing because the Christian should think Biblically.

Posted on January 01, 2019, in Pastoral Reflections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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