Is Seminary Education Necessary? Part II

In Part I, I listed nine critiques that I have seen of seminary education in contemporary times. Despite the validity of each of those critiques, I am going to argue that seminary education provides tools and content that are indispensable to Christian ministry. While a someone endeavoring to be a pastor does not necessarily need a seminary education to be effective, there are aspects of ministry that require that which only seminary education can give.

First, let me answer each of the nine critiques I offered in Part I.

1. Seminary education is expensive. While the federal government does not offer assistance for seminary education, churches often do. Churches provide huge financial support for all Southern Baptist seminaries through the Cooperative Program. At the seminary where I teach, the Cooperative Program covers half the tuition cost for students who are members of a Southern Baptist church (see here). Half’s a lot! Furthermore, many scholarships are available for students going to Baptist seminaries. These are offered through churches, associations, state conventions, and other sources. Here is one example for residents of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Seminary education is expensive, but it is possible to cover many–perhaps even all–tuition costs.

2. Seminary professors are often cold and out-of-touch. We live in a fallen world, and people are included in that category. No professor acts in a Christlike way all the time. Even the best professors are sinners. The experience of having a haughty professor shouldn’t exclude seminary education any more than meeting a hypocritical Christian should exclude one from following Christ.

3. Seminary curriculum has too much irrelevant material and requirements. This is a matter of opinion and it often depends on what a student wants to do in ministry. What is irrelevant to me may be where the rubber hits the road for someone else. I heard one person say that “98 percent of what they teach in seminaries” is immaterial to ministry. This is simply ridiculous hyperbole, and has no place in any intelligent discussion. This critique is just far too subjective to be applicable to seminary education in general.

4. Lack of seminary education did not hinder Jesus, the apostles, or Matt Chandler. There are many fine people in the history of the church that were not educated in a seminary. Jesus fits into a whole separate category. After all, He never sinned either. Does that mean that every follower of Christ is exactly as Jesus in this regard? Clearly not. Peter won 3000 people to the Lord in his first sermon. He was uneducated (Acts 4.13) as were many of the other disciples. And Matt Chandler–his story is very compelling, and I admit that my own ministry in church was not nearly as populous as his.

But does a lack of seminary education guarantee success in ministry? Is anti-intellectualism somehow a virtue in Christianity? I can think of some gifted Christian leaders who did not have a seminary education. I can think of still more who had no seminary education and the thought of a train wreck is a more pleasant one.

The question that comes to mind at this particular critique is, so what? What bearing does a lack of seminary education have on success in ministry? How does one define success in ministry? Now that’s a question! Was Jesus as successful as Matt Chandler, or John Piper, or Rick Warren in terms of numbers? Was Jeremiah, who preached for forty years and never had a single convert?

This critique suffers fatally from the non sequitir fallacy. Oh, sorry. It means that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. (Those haughty seminary professors! Relax, only kidding.)

5. Many seminarians have terrible experiences in seminary. Is experience by itself a test for what is true? Certainly not. Many people have bad experiences doing many worthy things. But my bad experience doing something that is good is no reason for anyone not to do that thing, even me. The bad experiences of some are not necessarily inherent in the doing of any one thing.

Furthermore, where did these bad experiences originate? Were the bad experiences necessary to seminary education? In other words, is seminary education inherently evil? Is seminary education like going to a strip joint, for example–a thing that is inherently bad, and the frequenting of which necessarily yields bad experiences? I know of no sane person who would affirm that seminary education is inherently evil or bad.

Suffering a bad experience, or a series of bad experiences, is part of the territory of living in a fallen world. How do you respond when you have a bad experience? I have found that my worst enemy in this life is not Satan, not my circumstances, not Obama, not the deacons, not my students, not my wife or my kids. My worst enemy is the guy writing this post. Nobody is a worse threat to my Christian testimony than him.

6. Self education is better because it is accessible and very cheap.Yep. You get what you pay for in this life. And there are a lot of resources out there for you to bone up on your Calvin, your Augustine, your Chyrsostom, etc. And of course, there is your Bible sitting there in front of you. And then, there’s Logos Bible Software and you can build a library of thousands of books right there on your laptop for a fraction of the cost of purchasing print books.

But even if you actually sit down and read every one of those books, and understand them (and understand the historical and cultural context in which they are placed) absorb them, interact with them, and apply them all on your own–which is highly doubtful–one thing you will always lack with self-education: accountability. Seminary education has a lot of flaws, but seminary education holds the student accountable.

Accountability and scrutiny may be the linchpin in terms of the argument against going to seminary. Who wants to be held accountable? Who wants their work to be criticized? Who wants to be told they’re not perfect? Nobody, that’s who.

iTunes doesn’t hold you accountable. Neither does Logos Bible Software. No wonder it’s so attractive.

7. It is not legally necessary to enter the pastoral ministry with a seminary degree. If the pastorate really does not require any formal education for competence and effectiveness as a general rule, then what does that say about the pastorate? We all have tremendous respect for the medical profession. Most of us respect the legal profession, too, although we might not admit it. When we need legal counsel, we certainly do. How do most people view professions that require little or no formal training?

Pastors of churches already suffer from a public appearance of ignorance and sloth. Seminary education isn’t everything, but at least it offers a measure of credibility to a watching world. Are we really ready to add fuel to the fire of the notion that evangelical pastors are ignorant and anti-intellectual? Must we do more to undermine the intellectual credibility of the evangelical pastorate?

8. The old models are obsolete. That’s true. The old model is dying out, but that does not mean that creative minds cannot think of a new model. The old model was very effective at providing churches with educated pastors. It’s on the way out, but that just means we need to consider new models of partnership between churches and seminaries.

9. Many graduates of seminaries are incompetent; many non seminary graduates are eminently competent. Again, this is too subjective a standard by which to evaluate seminary education as a whole.

Subjectivity is at the heart of the critique of seminaries. Subjective concerns simply do not sustain any argument for or against anything.

Next post–a critique of Matt Chandler’s argument that seminary education is not necessary.

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