Thursday, November 15, 2012

Are Seminaries Bad?

Before I delve into this topic, let me preface this by saying I do not believe that it is necessary for a man to attend seminary in order to be qualified for ministry/preaching. Those who are called to preach must be qualified to preach and the qualification process will include some form of training. Please consider the Apostle Paul. Even though he had received training from a prominent Rabbi, he still was in need of instruction before beginning his preaching ministry. This training may be formal or informal. Those called to preach may have the blessing of receiving training from their church, by a mentor or they may have to study alone. Others will have the ability to receive formal training through Bible colleges or seminaries. All will require some instruction or training in order to be more effective in ministry.
                Certainly there is room for criticism in everything we attempt in Christ. And no individual organization is above correction. However, the intent of this article is to come to the defense of the concept of seminaries, not to defend any one or group of institutions. I will limit my response to criticisms that I personally have heard (either as a direct quote or a paraphrase).
1) “The supremacy of the Church negates any secondary organization. Men should be trained by their church.” Who could deny that Christ died for the church and that it is the church that is the supreme institution of God upon the earth? But does this mean that any other organization is forbidden? If so then the Church will need to rethink its support of many institutions outside of the church (such as Christmas & benevolence organizations, mission societies, etc.). 
                What about the “regulative principle of worship” because we do not find seminaries in the Bible? My fist response might be to point out that the “regulative” principle applies to “worship” in the church. Secondly, those who use this argument (universal application that the Church has no freedom to do anything that is not listed in the New Testament) must also immediately cease and desist from Sunday school classes, mid-week meetings, discipleship training, dismiss the treasurer, etc. because these are not in the NT either. My point is that this is a misapplication of the principle.
                But is there an example in the Bible of training for ministers? We should consider the “school of prophets” in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 10:5-6, 10-13, 19:19-24, etc.).Of course, this was not a “seminary” but the principle of establishing a form of training is present in verses like these.
(b) “Men should be trained by the church.” – Again, who could argue with the logic of this statement? Certainly, this is the ideal situation but is it realistic? This assumes that the pastor has the ability to teach/train and has the knowledge himself to impart. It further assumes that the pastor or some other staff/elder is able to train. How much time does the average pastor have to prepare lessons and teach men? Do most pastors have time to spend with men? I think not. I would say that any time a pastor would spend with men recently called to ministry could be very valuable but is this training going to be on the level of training that the same man would receive at seminary?  I doubt it. Direct mentorship is certainly needed and can augment formal training but cannot replace it.
                I have no doubt that men called into the ministry have spiritual gifts that empower them to minister and God can use those gifts to teach other men. I also have no doubt that there is no replacement for experience in ministry and the sharing of wisdom gained from experience would be highly beneficial for men called into mnistry. But realistically, there is no way that one pastor can be as knowledgeable as a faculty of men. What pastor is qualified to teach OT/NT surveys, church history, missions, apologetics, NT Greek, etc.? I further doubt that any church would have sufficient staff to teach in all the areas that seminary can.
(2) “Seminary will mess your head up. Men go off to seminary and they get all messed about the Bible.”
                This phrase makes the assumption that the man who went to seminary had correct theology before attending. The second assumption is that the person making the accusation has correct theology. Granted, there are “bad” seminaries- even heretical ones, but that is no reason to disdain the concept of formal training. There are also very good, solid, Biblical seminaries.
(3) “The Bible says knowledge ‘puffs up.’” Yes the Bible does say that. But the Bible also says “study to show yourself approved…” Perhaps if the person who would snatch a single phrase out of context and try to build a doctrine around that phrase had taken a hermeneutics class and they would have known better. Maybe they would have known that “text without context is a pretext.” Maybe they would have learnt that the context of that phrase was referring to Christian liberty and weakness of conscience of other brothers in relationship to idols.
                But, context aside, we can see that there could be application to the principle that one who receives knowledge could have a tendency to be prideful. What is the answer to this potential problem of pride? The implication of the accusation that “knowledge puffs up” in relationship to the discussion of seminaries, seems to be: “ignorance is to be preferred to education.” I doubt that any would admit that this was the intention of what they are saying but that is the implication. Consider the logic:
a) Seminary provides knowledge.
b) Knowledge “puffs up.”
c) A person being “puffed up” is bad.
Conclusion: Don’t go to seminary.
                This is really flawed logic. If we take this premise (that knowledge should be avoided because it makes us proud) to the logical conclusion, then all study- even reading the Bible should be avoided because such actions might impart “knowledge.” I really don’t think ignorance is the answer to avoid pride. In fact, Paul says that it is love that tempers the one with knowledge to humility and consideration of others.
(4) “Seminary will kill your spirit. People who go to ‘cemetery’ have a fat head and a thin soul/heart.”
“If you can do but one, let your studies alone. I would throw by all the Libraries
of the World rather than be guilty of the Loss of one Soul.”~ Bishop Francis Asbury (Quoted in Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, p. 89)

                Here again we have an assumed premise. The premise is that seminary will “kill” the soul/spirit. This premise is without proof. Certainly we could find men who have been to seminary who are not active or passionate about ministry and we could also find men who are active and very passionate about ministry and Christ. Further, we could find men who have no formal training who are also cold and dead. And we could find men who are very active and very passionate who are ignorant and/or heretical. So the idea of formal training cooling zeal is not provable. This is a false antagonism. I would say that “if” a person is truly converted then the more that they know of God the more motivated they will be in their service and worship. The issue then is not knowledge or seminary but a converted heart and a right view of God. And I would further say that historically this has not been true.
                We can look at men like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen and Martin Luther to see that God has used men who were very well educated and very “academic” to bring about reformation and even revival. I would not deny that God has also used men who were not formally educated but the point is that the claim that education will kill zeal and harm usefulness is simply not true. Knowledge of God drives passion. True theology will fuel not quench zeal. God redeems the heart and the head.
(5)”The disciples did not go to seminary.”
                This is true. The disciples were trained by the Master Himself, but we do not have that opportunity today. It should also be noted that while the Canon is closed God has continued to reveal Himself in the history of the church. We know far more about the church than the disciples did. There have been controversies that arose after the disciples’ lives that have forced the church to hone her theology and practice. We can learn very much from those who have walked in the faith before us.
(6) “Seminaries cost a lot of money.” Amen! This is true. And I believe this is a valid criticism. However, I don’t know of many pastors who have volunteered to skip their pay. I have never heard a pastor tell his congregation that they should labor at their job for free. Why then do they expect those who labor at teaching others to work for free? This seems like a double-standard.
                We should be critical of learning institutions that charge hundreds of dollars per semester hour to support unnecessary buildings, unnecessary administration costs and fat pay checks. Much can be done (and should be) to reduce the costs of seminary and even provide free or discounted training for those who cannot afford to pay. But to demand that all education is free and all educators labor without compensation is unrealistic, duplicitous and over-simplistic. There are no “free lunches”- somebody will have to pay.  
                We (Christians) should critically examine everything we do. We should question the way we do things, why we do them and look for the best means to accomplish the desired results. At the same time, it might appear super-spiritual to criticize seminaries but the reality is that the more training a man of God has the more potential he has to be effective in ministry. The church cannot supply the same level of training that an institution can and probably will not be able to any time soon. 

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