In this final post on whether a seminary education is necessary to the pastoral ministry or not, I will argue the following. Seminary education is not legally, logically, or even practically necessary for the work of the pastor. But seminary education does provide skills and content that are indispensable to the work of a pastor. Pastors who forgo seminary education place themselves at an acute disadvantage if they try to preach, teach, and apply Christ’s gospel to this complex, multi-dimensional, religiously pluralistic, immoral and self-seeking culture.
What are these indispensable skills and content that can only be learned within a formal seminary education?
1. Accountability and scrutiny. The ability to submit to accountability and scrutiny of one’s work under the eye of an expert as well as one’s peers is not possible outside of a formal education. The acquiring of this skill is not easy, and attaining it does not come naturally. Nobody enjoys being told that their work, which is produced with care, diligence, and emotional investment, needs improvement in some way. The possibility of failure can be frightening. The effort it takes to correct mistakes, logical failings, gaps in knowledge, one-dimensional thinking, bad written and oral communication, etc. can be very difficult.
But gaining the skill of enduring scrutiny and accountability are essential in the gospel ministry. Ultimately, we are accountable to God and our ways are scrutinized by Him personally and under His perfect standards. If we are unwilling to submit to the accountability and scrutiny of professors and fellow students, how are we going to endure God’s?
One also has the opportunity in seminary to hold others accountable and scrutinize their work. There is tremendous benefit in doing this.The accountability and scrutiny that is inherent in seminary education is simply not possible in self-education. True, one can self-educate and then wait until one is regularly preaching from a pulpit to submit to scrutiny. But why do that? The only reason one would elect to follow that path is that it is the one of least resistance.
2. Expert guidance into reliable theology, hermeneutics, philosophy, history, and method. Anyone can pick up the Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin and start reading. In fact, I think every Christian ought to do just that. But if given the choice of reading that classic work of theology alone, or reading it alongside a group of students just like you guided by a scholar who has studied it for most of his adult life–which would any rational person choose?
When reading a work like this, it is not enough just to read it. One must understand the theological, cultural, and historical background to the work in order to appreciate its meaning to the extent it was meant to be appreciated by Calvin himself. Who was John Calvin? Where was he from and where did he live? What was France experiencing in the sixteenth century? What was the relationship between the French kingdom and the Catholic church, from the sixth century to the sixteenth? Who was Augustine? What bearing did Augustine’s work have on Calvin? Why did Calvin quote Augustine as much as he did? What of Augustine’s writings did Calvin not cite as prolifically? What is the difference between Calvin’s theology and Luther’s? Why is this important? What bearing would Calvin’s work have on the religious wars of the seventeenth century? Etc. It is not possible to understand the ramifications and significance and meaning of Calvin just by reading it at Starbuck’s.
3. Sitting under the preaching of a variety of seasoned and knowledgeable preachers. Seminary chapel is a completely unique experience. Nowhere else do you get to hear sermons from such a wide range of preachers. In church, we listen to our preacher week in and week out. Occasionally we will hear a guest preacher, a revivalist, or a missionary. In seminary chapel, students hear from scores of preachers from all over the world. When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to listen to Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Bailey Smith, Dallas Willard, Fred Luter, and many, many others I never would have had the chance to hear in person. Many of them I actually got to meet personally. This is not possible for self-educators.
Even Matt Chandler is a frequent chapel speaker at seminaries, Southern and Southeastern to name two.
4. Camaraderie of like-minded students like you. The encouragement of plodding the pathway with your fellow students is inimitable, and those who would argue against the necessity of seminary would thus deny young ministers this opportunity. The experiences of witnessing together, studying together, struggling through difficult concepts together, being poor together, failing together, succeeding together, pulling all nighters together, collaborating on projects together, graduating together, and ultimately ministering together cannot be had outside of seminary. The fellowship of seminarians who face similar struggles together is formative in the individual student’s ministry and life, both for the present and for the future.
5. Focused preparation for a lifetime of ministry. An M.Div. most places is a three year program. Many people balk, saying, “who has time to commit to that”? This is not an unreasonable question. Three years, or more, are going to pass by anyway. Would you rather have spent those three years in focused and structured training for ministry, or spent them in unfocused, random, undisciplined, and unguided efforts? I realize this may be regarded as a false dilemma. I think not, because of what I said in #1 and 2.
Your three years spent in seminary will not prepare you for any one church or place of ministry. It will prepare you for a life spent in ministry. True, not everyone who completes seminary spends their whole lives in ministry. And it is also true that not every aspect of seminary curriculum is relevant and practical to everyone. But these facts do not necessitate that the notion that seminary does not prepare one for a lifetime of ministry.
So, these are five indispensable aspects of seminary education. There are more than five, but these will suffice to make the argument. They cannot be had through self-education. Is seminary education necessary? Strictly speaking, I suppose not. But seminary education is so important that to turn away from it would be to deny oneself tools and knowledge without which true Christian ministry is impossible.
And that’s this former seminary student and current seminary professor’s two cents worth.