Is Seminary Education Necessary? Part III, A Critique of Matt Chandler

Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church is my brother in Christ. I respect him and his work for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank the Lord for him, his family, and his ministry. He is a much more gifted pastor and preacher than I. I want to be careful to lead my comments below with these sincere statements of my regard for him as a fellow laborer in service to Christ.

It is also important that I be fair to Pastor Chandler–he does not say that seminary is worthless and that nobody should go to seminary. He is careful to note that he values seminary education under a certain set of circumstances and for a certain kind of person. He writes, “The truth is I think most men need to go to seminary and scholarship is extremely important.”

In this post he wrote in 2009, Pastor Chandler offers his own philosophy of seminary education. In the paragraphs that follow, I will try and answer some of his points.

“There is a recent trend of really sharp, entrepreneurial, driven men skipping seminary all together [sic] and planting churches.

Titus 1.7-9 states, “For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

This passage provides the qualifications for one holding the pastoral office. There is nothing here requiring a pastor to be “sharp,” “entrepreneurial,” or “driven.” The closest things I can see to what Chandler values in a pastor is “sensible” and “devout.”

These attributes do not all come from seminary education. I only bring up this statement of Chandler’s because it shows what he values in the character of a pastor. Those that are sharp, entrepreneurial, and driven are for Chandler, in a favored position in terms of church planting. If this is the standard by which we should evaluate pastors, then seminary education certainly is not at all necessary.

But seminary education does require some sense. It requires devotion. Self control is essential. It also provides a structure for one to remain intellectually faithful to the Bible through scrutiny and accountability. The scrutiny and accountability that comes with seminary education also aids the student in the discernment of what is sound doctrine and what contradicts sound doctrine.

“I don’t have a problem with this at all if those men have picked up the tools they need in other places and are continuing to grow theologically and philosophically.”

Where are these men supposed to “pick up” the intellectual tools that will prepare them for ministry? How do they know what tools to “pick up”? What standards will they use to evaluate the veracity and strength of those tools? How will they know how to properly use those tools if they just pick them up along the way? How will they know what tools they really need and what tools are just neat to have?

What does Chandler mean by theological and philosophical growth? How is that growth, which is intellectual by nature, to be measured apart from scrutiny and accountability? Chandler does not address any of these questions.

“If a guy can handle the Greek and Hebrew, knows at least at the cursory level Christian history and can wrestle through and find answers for deep, difficult theological questions then he might not need a degree from a seminary.”

What does it mean to “handle” the Greek and Hebrew? How does one sufficiently “handle” the original languages of the Scriptures? How does one avoid the exegetical fallacies that usually attend knowing only enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous? How does one even know if he has committed those fallacies in his preaching without the accountability and scrutiny of experts and one’s peers?

What is the “cursory level” of Christian history? Who determines what that level is? Is it enough to know a few important facts of Christian history without knowing how Christian history impacted, and was impacted by, other historical and cultural forces over the twenty centuries it has existed?

How is one to “wrestle” through “deep, difficult theological” questions without strict, standard, and systematic accountability and scrutiny given by experts and peers? Again, Chandler holds to an enormous set of assumptions about the possibility of the person he is describing being able to do all these things–much less even exist somewhere besides in his own mind. And with his closing statement about such a person “might” not having need of seminary education: he is setting a standard that is unattainably high. It seems as though Chandler is making his argument in such a way as to have his cake and eat it, too. He doesn’t want to come across as denying the value of seminary, yet that’s exactly what he does.

“I said might because seminary then becomes an obedience issue between him and the Lord and may still be a very good idea.”

An obedience issue? I didn’t think God commanded anyone to go to seminary. Isn’t that one of the points against seminary education, that Jesus had never been a seminary student, nor had the apostles?

How can God command a person in 2012 to go to seminary when Jesus Himself did not go? When Jesus commanded His followers to do something, He usually did it Himself. (e.g. being baptized, forgiving others, etc.). And if God did, on the off chance, command someone to go to seminary, then yes, I would say it would be “a very good idea” to do it.

Here is another standard Chandler casts in impossible, yet pious, terms. Only in the case of God actually commanding seminary education (which Chandler knows doesn’t happen) is it a “good idea.” But for everyone else, seminary education is not a “good idea.”

“On the other hand, if you don’t have the tools, have a tendency to be lazy in study, can’t handle the languages, know nothing of how to find answers to deep, difficult theological questions except to quote John Piper and know nothing of our rich history then you need to go get some tools. If you are lazy in study and continue to get in front of people and teach, you have much more courage than I do. I would strongly recommend seminary for its accountability and plan to educate you in doctrine, language and history.”

Chandler makes some amazing statements here. What he is saying is, in effect, that people who are driven, entrepreneurial, and sharp do not need the accountability that seminary education provides. They have the tools and the studious habits to sit and read the Scriptures all day long. A seminary education, and the accountability that attends it, is really only for the lazy and the ignorant among us. Wow.

This flies in the face of Chandler’s Reformed theological doctrine. Doesn’t Chandler believe that all human beings are fallen and sinful? In that regard, does not everyone need accountability? Or does Chandler now believe that sharp, entrepreneurial, and driven people are without sin, and therefore, have no need for accountability? Is it possible that sharp, entrepreneurial, and driven people are not what Paul had in mind when he wrote to Titus? And a related question would be, in what category does Chandler think he fits? Has Chandler considered this fatal inconsistency in his thinking?

“We have found that there are those who have been to seminary who are about as ignorant concerning the things of God as a pagan and then there are guys like Josh Patterson who received his THM from Dallas Theological Seminary and is a better, more brilliant man for it. The same can be said for those who haven’t done seminary.”

Chandler is allowing for subjective standards to drive his argument here. What normative conclusions can possibly be drawn from such an incoherent statement as this?

“I started seminary twice and dropped out both times. Seminary felt to me like I was laying a foundation in a house I was already living in. I was working as an associate pastor, traveling and speaking as well as teaching at a large, ecumenical Bible study every week. On average I was preparing anywhere from 3-5 sermons weekly and was living in study. I had an undergrad in Bible that had prepared me to handle the Greek (thanks Dr. Knight) and taught me where to look to find answers to questions that would arise in study. After a great deal of prayer and seeking wise counsel, Lauren and I decided that I would continue to study and learn but not to seek a degree.”

Apparently, not going to seminary has worked out fine for Chandler and his family. I sincerely say, good for him. But his experience is not normative. Just because he perceives that not going to seminary worked out well for him does not mean 1) he knows that his ministry could not have been even better than it already is, and 2) forgoing a seminary education would be a good thing for any other person wanting to be a pastor. How, after all, could Chandler know with certainty that his ministry might not have been more fruitful had he finished seminary? He dropped out. Twice.

Chandler’s advocacy for the non-necessity of seminary education is reckless. I think his argument can be summed up like this: 1) sharp, driven, self-motivators study the Bible on their own and have no need of the accountability of seminary education, 2) lazy, ignorant people need the accountability of seminary, so only they require it, 3) seminary education was not for me. The argument is reckless because it is driven by subjective standards, it is naive and simplistic, and it contradicts his own theological system. It is based on his own particular experience and it has himself as its frame of reference.

Pastor Chandler is a brother in Christ and a co-laborer in the ministry. As his co-laborer, I would urge him to at least re-think and re-tool his own argument, and at best, to re-consider it altogether.

Next–the last installment, and what indispensable tools and content are provided by seminary education.

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