“I do not have the authority to expel you, so I’m asking you, please withdraw and leave the seminary.” I realized the weight of my words and fully appreciated their potential effect. Only after several lengthy attempts to correct him, learning that he was not plugged into any local church, and then subsequently conferring with the dean did I let them fall so profoundly and heavily on his stunned ears. The young man had preached several sermons in my preaching practicum, each one more disturbing and irresponsible than the last. Finally he crossed the line from unbalanced to untrue and promoted something that I judged to be egregiously wrong, contrary to the gospel, and antithetical to everything Southern Seminary stands for. When he remained resolute in his position and belligerent at my attempts to reprove, I knew that the tragedy of his departure from the truth would be exponentially compounded with a seminary degree. So I asked him to leave, and he did.
While I still grieve that student’s departure from sound doctrine, I have never regretted the severity of my words to him. I could not stop him from preaching error, but it would be far worse if he did it with a degree from Southern.
My primary concern was not that someone would think he received his doctrine from my colleagues or me—though I certainly found that thought disquieting. My greater anxiety was that some church would mistakenly think him qualified to serve as pastor and would welcome him and embrace his false doctrine, simply because he had a degree from a seminary.
When it comes to qualification for ministry, ordination should carry much more weight and provide much greater evidence of a man’s readiness for service in the church than any seminary degree. A seminary alone is not sufficient to qualify anyone for ministry, no matter how faithful the faculty or how hard it tries. A seminary is a rigorous academic program, but that is very different from being a church in which the student can serve and demonstrate his gifts and calling while he is under its teaching, authority, and discipline.
A large portion of my life has been devoted to seminary education, both my own and that of thousands of others. I am committed to quality theological education in the seminary and believe it to be a marvelous way to learn the Scriptures from brilliant and devoted men and women of God whom he has raised up for this purpose. I love seminary and would encourage every young minister of the gospel who has the opportunity to enroll in seminary—especially in a residential program, but that is a subject for another time. I love and believe in seminary education, to be sure. Even so, something important needs to be said.
A seminary is not the church. Jesus made teaching and training part of the Great Commission given to his church. He loved the church and gave himself for it. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. He has set some in the church. The Scriptures don’t say a single word about seminaries, not only because they did not yet exist, but also because they aren’t integral to God’s plan for making his name great among the nations. The church, on the other hand, is God’s plan for global evangelism and discipleship.
To be clear, seminaries—at least Southern Baptist seminaries—operate on behalf of the churches and are, in fact, owned by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminaries, therefore, hold a sacred and binding trust to train ministers of the gospel on behalf of the local churches in which they will one day serve. Seminaries make it possible for churches to offer a depth of theological training in multiple disciplines to those who have surrendered to ministry that they would not have otherwise. Churches have the right to delegate a portion of that training to a seminary and expect that their sons and daughters will be taught by great men and women of God and equipped in numerous ways, but churches cannot and must not abdicate their primary responsibility to train ministers of the gospel and to declare them ready for ministry when the time comes.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with the system, unless, of course, by wrong we mean unbiblical or, at the very least, extrabiblical. To the degree that any seminary circumvents and ignores the very body for which Christ died, forgetting that it exists to serve churches, that seminary has become unbiblical and will produce men and women more committed to a denomination or to a theological persuasion than to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Dry orthodoxy disconnected from local churches leads to death as certainly as a liberal denial of the veracity of the Scriptures.
Since the seminary is an academic institution and not a church, it cannot really observe the student adequately to know if he demonstrates a true sense of calling, and most definitely does not have the right to declare him a God-called minister. That calling will be found at the intersection of desire, gifting, opportunity, and the testimony of the church. I can certainly gauge the gifting and, to a large degree, the desire of a student to fulfill a call to preach, for example, but in the three hours a week he spends with me I will not know anything about the opportunities that he seeks or that the Lord provides for him, and still less will I have the daily opportunity to observe his steadfast perseverance, the “fire in his bones” that testifies of his calling. I cannot gauge his true effectiveness in real life situations. I do not know how he treats his wife, or parents his children, or how generous he is with his resources, or whether or not he struggles with pride or lust. Only a church can do that and only over a significant period of time.
That is why ordination, taken seriously and done rightly, should mean much more than any seminary degree. When a church ordains a man for ministry, the members are testifying that they have observed his calling and they have found evidence of its reality. He has consistently and persistently expressed the desire to fulfill that calling and has also shown that God has provided him the basic skills to do it. In all candor, God is not going to call someone to do something that he just can’t cut no matter how long he persists nor how hard he tries. With the calling comes an enabling, and only the church can observe him closely enough to verify that God has provided what the young minister needs to fulfill the calling he claims.
In addition, the church can provide opportunities in order to bear witness whether or not the young minister will avail himself of and perform those with a seriousness that testifies of his calling. I can make assignments in my class and force him to preach or to perform certain ministries because I hold the power of a grade over him. When he has done those assignments, even if he has done them well, I cannot be sure that he would take the same care and careful deliberation if he were not needing a grade. The church, on the other hand, sees the novice minister in real-life situations and can much more realistically determine his genuine level of commitment.
A seminary is an academic institution and awards an academic degree because a student completed a prescribed course of study. Though we do everything possible to make it a spiritual pursuit and to tie it to a knowledge of Christ and a commitment to the local church, an intelligent Buddhist could fake his way through and graduate from a Baptist seminary. If a student chooses to go through the seminary and do only what is required of him academically, he may perform very well in classes and even graduate at the top of his class. Without true connection and accountability to a local body, however, that student is not qualified as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and would not be qualified to lead a church until he has been faithful in serving a church and submitting to the elders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5). My prediction for such a student would be that he would wipe out in the real world of church life and ministry.
The success of ministry depends on the strength of calling. Academic training cannot ever bestow on a student the dogged persistence and the love for God’s people that he must have in the inevitable beat-down that ministry brings. Low pay, long hours, lost church members, and very little affirmation will often be a pastor’s lot, and at such times his rigorous academic training might actually work against him, contributing to feelings of entitlement and inflated self-worth that tempt him to cut and run. In those dark moments of opposition and spiritual dryness, he had better have something more significant than a seminary degree to keep him faithfully engaged and committed. He needs a fire in his bones, not a diploma on his wall.
On the other hand, I have seen many godly men who never made it to seminary lead vibrant and productive lives for Christ in the local church. As pastors, worship leaders, student ministers, or associate pastors, they exhibit a sense of calling, the skill set that demonstrates that anointing of God, and a passion that drives them to seek opportunities and to improve in their calling.
Put another way, the church can exist without the seminary. It has done so before and could do so again. The seminary, on the other hand, cannot and should not exist apart from the churches. The seminary has been tasked with giving young ministers a theological education on behalf of the churches, and we had better not ever forget that, but a theological education is only part of qualification for ministry.
A little over a year ago I spent a week in Cuba and I saw God moving in ways I had never seen before. Hundreds of thousands a year are coming to Christ and churches are multiplying with incredible speed. Under tremendous deprivation, oppression, and persecution, the gospel is preached and the Spirit is moving mightily. Almost none of the pastors there have a seminary education, but I noted with great interest that almost all of them want one. Even though they are experiencing a revival that is perhaps more significant than any other place in the world right now, they feel that the depth and breadth of knowledge that a seminary education affords could make them even more effective and productive in the ministry.
Can we have both? Can we have a robust, full-orbed, theological education coupled with a passionate, Holy Spirit-anointed commitment to evangelism and church planting? Can we produce ministers who have an intelligent, thoughtful understanding of theology and a heart to walk through the hurts and sorrows of life with a congregation? We can, when the churches accept the primary responsibility for the spiritual formation of ministers and when those whom God has called understand that seminary training can enhance and enrich their service to the church but never supplant it.