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The Crux

What is Wrong with Seminary?

Am I off-base by touching this sacred cow?

In one of the Facebook groups I frequent, a user posted the following meme:

I decided to poke the bear and say something to the effect that this is precisely why seminaries are a waste of time and money. Now, that wasn't to say that seminary graduates are all bad people, nor did I mean to say that they are terrible servants of the Lord. To be sure, I've met some great people who've graduated from seminary, and some of them were pastors. However, I am questioning whether the leadership model the church has developed over the last 500 years is working, and seminary is central to that model.

After my little comment, several people showed up to defend the seminary, but virtually every response was a human-centered argument. Below are some of the reasons people in the group defended seminary, along with my responses.

Is Seminary All That and a Box of Cracker Jacks?

The following bullet points are the reasons people defend a seminary education while what follows is my response.

  • Pastors learn church history in seminary - Church history isn't all that hard to learn. All one must do is read a few books. Ligonier Ministries, founded by the late R.C. Sproul, one of the great philosophers of the modern church, has a list of recommended reading on church history. Astute pastors can find mentors who have a great understanding of church history and learn from them the old-fashioned way—direct mentorship. Otherwise known as discipleship. But I must ask: Is church history necessary for a pastor? Does a church pastor need to know the root causes that led to the development of monasticism to pastor a modern church? I'd much rather be shepherded by someone with spiritual maturity and wisdom than someone with a broad body of knowledge rolling around in his head. That doesn't mean I don't value knowledge or education. It's a statement about priorities regarding a very important ministry role within the church. The role of a pastor is to equip others in the congregation for ministry. Church history may be a "nice to know" body of knowledge for performing that function, but it's not a required body of knowledge.

  • Pastors also learn Greek and Hebrew - Studying Greek and Hebrew and becoming proficient in them are two different things. I'll go out on a limb and say that most pastors who graduate from seminary do not become Greek and Hebrew experts. They become familiar with the underlying language of the Bible, but that isn't a necessary skill for a pastor. It's a helpful skill, for sure, but pastors need not be scholars. As noted above, their ministry role is to equip the saints for Christian service (and "build up" the church), and knowledge of Greek and Hebrew isn't required for that role. Furthermore, with the bevy of translations available today, no one must understand Greek and Hebrew to fully understand the Bible. Such knowledge may enhance one's understanding of the biblical text, but it isn't a requirement. Even if it were, Christians with such knowledge could mentor those without it, the same way Christian discipleship has always taken place for two thousand years.

  • Pastors learn the theological basics - I'm not sure what these are. No one in the group defined them. But I will say that every Christian should be trained in theological basics. It's the pastor's function to perform that training. Again, this can be done through discipleship and good expositional preaching.

  • Pastors learn sound doctrine from seminary - Our churches are full of doctrinaires who see it as their mission to defend anything and everything that threatens to undermine the sanctity of their precious doctrines. Jesus never said, "They will know you are my people by your doctrine." He said, "By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another." Sound doctrine does not underpin a posture of love. It is love that underpins sound doctrine. Love of God and love of neighbor. Sound doctrine can be taught through discipleship grounded in these two loves and, again, expositional preaching. In a word, if sound doctrine was taught at the local church level, as it should be, would-be pastors would already have a handle on it before they enter seminary, which would then make seminary unnecessary.

  • Pastors learn hermeneutics - Hermeneutics is a fancy word that points to one's method of interpretation. Ligonier Ministries calls it "the science and the art of biblical interpretation." points out that biblical hermeneutics has changed a lot over the last 2,000 years and goes so far as to define the dominant hermeneutics of various church periods. Hermeneutics, of course, is not just applied to the Bible. Stanford University applies it more broadly to other academic disciplines such as art, literature, science, law, and medicine. In the modern church, hermeneutics is used to differentiate one's theological preferences from another's. In fact, the church has been divided and splintered by hermeneutics due to vast differences in approaching biblical interpretation. Seminarians defend seminary education because it allows them to continue dividing the church through hermeneutics by practicing philosophy under the guise of theology. To be sure, hermeneutics is necessary to understand the Bible clearly, and it's much more important today when every literate person in the world has access to the Bible allowing them to perform their interpretation of the text. However, any hermeneutic that doesn't begin with the two loves (love of God and love of neighbor) is wrong from the start. Biblical interpretation is another discipline that can be taught through discipleship as it gets to the heart of what sound doctrine means. Since sound doctrine should be taught at the local church, its fundamental building blocks (hermeneutics) should be taught there, as well.

  • "Seminary broadened my understanding of the faith" - I'm sure it did. Of course, there's value in broadening one's understanding of faith, but can't that happen in other ways? Perhaps, discipleship? Again, this response is human-centered. It focuses on the benefits of the experience to the individual rather than the value of the process to the church.

  • "Seminary taught me how to pray" - This is the response I find most baffling. If an individual must get a formal education to learn how to pray, what does that say about the local church?

None of the respondents to my snarky comment said anything about how seminaries benefit the local church. Rather, many of the respondents seemed to look down their noses at laypeople for being "biblically illiterate". But one must ask, why are Christians biblically illiterate? What are the factors that have led to biblical illiteracy? Could one of those factors be the leadership model of the church itself?

Examining the Leadership Model of the Modern Church

My views regarding this subject are not unique. I'm not the first person to question whether seminary degrees are a benefit to the church. Bob Thune, a seminary graduate himself, also questions whether seminary is valuable to the modern church. His blog post had such a reception that he published Part 2. Tim Challies (a church pastor), quoting a seminary president, concludes that seminary isn't necessary while admitting it is advisable.

Well, let's talk about advisable.

For a little more than 500 years, seminary has been the predominant way of training pastors for ministry. It might have been the best way at one time, but I doubt it. Even so, times have changed. On that note, I'd also like to point out that seminary is better for training theologians than for training pastors. Of course, we certainly need theologians.

Our current model of church leadership takes an ordinary layperson, sends him or her off to a seminary or Bible college for three or four years to study in a classroom, and then assigns that pastor a role in a local church different than the one in which he was spiritually raised. He or she then uses that seminary training to lecture the congregation, supposedly to teach them sound doctrine, while the rest of the congregation sits passively listening and then heads home for lunch and a week of doing spiritual battle all by themselves. Not only do we not see this model in scripture, but there are reasons to question whether it's even effective.

The biblical model for pastoral training is personal discipleship. Jesus called twelve men out of their worldly occupations and trained them to be spiritual leaders without having any formal education. He was their formal education!

After His resurrection, He appeared before a well-trained pharisee He had hand-selected to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, in turn, trained pastors, such as Timothy and Titus, mentoring and discipling them personally (sometimes from a distance during a time when the only means of communication was a handwritten letter).

At no point in his letters to Timothy and Titus did Paul say to pursue a formal education. But he did write to Timothy, "Avoid irreverent, empty chatter and the opposing arguments of so-called 'knowledge', which some professing, have gone astray from the faith."

I am not, in any way, opposed to higher education. It's quite necessary for some professions. I wouldn't walk into a doctor's office without expecting the physician to have a degree in medicine. However, I am opposed to treating pastoral ministry as if it is just another occupation or career option with a path toward retirement. Yet, that is precisely how many church denominations of our modern era treat it. As a result, the church has suffered. We have allowed spiritual wolves in sheep's clothing to infiltrate the church in vital leadership positions simply by requiring them to pursue a formal education that has trained their minds in philosophy without giving them spiritual insight. That isn't true of every seminary-trained person, of course, but it is true enough generally that the church should find alternative ways to train its pastors for the ministry of service and to select such persons based on their spiritual maturity rather than the keenness of their minds.

Allen Taylor is the author of I Am Not the King.

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