To ‘seminary’, or not to ‘seminary’

This may sound a bit weird if you’re coming to this post completely out of the blue. Allow me to give you a bit of context. A few days ago on Twitter I came across a tweet from Ed Stetzer, which peaked my interest. Stetzer said “I don’t know who need to hear this, but doing a PhD is probably not what you need unless you plan to be a professor. And, I don’t know who need to hear THIS, there are a LOT of people getting PhD and very few professor jobs”. This tweet got me thinking, as did some conversations that I saw following on from that, about academia and ministry.

Following that tweet I saw a few people, forgive me but I can’t remember who, saying that there was a problem of anti-intellectualism in the church today. There were some who were complaining that it’s not wrong to get a PhD when one desires to go into ministry. Nobody was saying that at all. If you want a PhD, go for it. Enjoy! It isn’t my cup of tea, but grab your cup and swig away in all contentment. But it raises a bit of a bigger issue.

I followed up on the original tweet a day or so later, I think. I tweeted this “I’m not too sure that there is so much anti-intellectualism in the church, I haven’t come across it much anyway. But there certainly is an issue with intellectual-elitism. Let’s not create cliques and inner circles folks. Let’s just work for Jesus 🙂 “

I wasn’t subtweeting anyone in particular, if you know me at all you know I don’t hide or run away. But I think that this whole PhD discussion raised a bigger issue. It came to the attention of some that there is a part of the Church (capital C, meaning global), namely that formal theological education is a bad thing. I would say that I’ve heard skepticism in the past, particularly of formal theological institutes. Largely from those with bad experiences. For example, people have known someone who attended seminary and returned like a robot. Or, someone goes to seminary as a ‘normal person’ but comes back spouting more Greek and Hebrew in the pulpit than they do English (or whatever your native language is).

I get it, I really do. However, just because of a few (and the number is small) doesn’t mean that we can cast of formal education all together. Let me tell you a bit about myself…

I was raised in a Christian home and homeschool with a Christian education. I became a Christian in my late teens. I struggled my entire life with academic work. I hated it, that is not an exaggeration. The thought of exams made me queasy. I remember crumpling up my first maths test and shouting whilst throwing it at my math’s teacher at the time (my dad). So imagine the surprise when I became a Christian, wanted to become a pastor and thought that theological education would be a good idea.

From there I took a journey to Bible College for 2 years of full-time study and I’m just coming to the end of a 6 year part-time bachelor of theology. Surprised? Trust me, no more than I am!

I am telling you this for a reason, I promise…

Seminary, and formal theological education, is a good thing. It is important for a man, whose life will be characterised by teaching God’s Word in tons of ways and caring for a flock, to engage in rigorous theological education. But, a degree does not make a pastor. A person can have all the titles before their name they want, without it changing the way they view the people in front of them. If someone did not have a theological degree, I would probably want to know why not (and there are legitimate reasons why that might be the case).

But just because someone isn’t theologically trained at a recognised institute, doesn’t mean that they are stupid or ill-equipped. It probably means that they don’t quite fit the mould that the average middle class church wants. Regardless of your training and academic background, no pastor is excused from dumbing down the truth. Oversimplification is wrong and unhelpful. It doesn’t prepare people well for the struggles of life or give them the evidence they need to keep fighting. Does not having a degree mean that you’re an anti-intellectual? No, I don’t think it does.

On the flip side of this there is another issue. There is a problem that I have come across a lot in Church circles, the problem of intellectual-elitism. I don’t consider myself to be a necessarily smart person. I can debate theology with you for days, because I really enjoy it, not because I get a kick out of being right. There is a branch of the Church (notice the capital C again) that prides itself in having a particular degree, attending a particular seminary or following a certain teacher/pastor. Speaking theological lingo doesn’t mean you’re holier than the little old lady who sits at the back of church.

I’ve been around people who thought they were better than me because of their education and I’ve listened to sermons where people seemed to speak down at the congregation because of the pastor’s pedigree. It’s nonsense. The church isn’t called to be a country club of middle-class lads sipping martini’s whilst talking about the Bible. The church is called to be a wonderful radically different body, the bride of Christ, that is completely different from the world and that constantly points to Jesus. Therefore, to be frankly honest, who cares where you studied or what your grades are. Are you trained well, know your Bible and are equipped to serve the local church? Then grab a Bible and let’s get cracking!

To ‘seminary’, or not to ‘seminary’? I think that people should be trained theologically for becoming pastors. But we shouldn’t entertain cliques where the ‘smart’ folks are on one side of the church and the ‘dummies’ are on the other. Quite focusing on the letters that are or aren’t in front of your name and just focus on serving Jesus well. That should keep us all busy enough 😉

5 thoughts on “To ‘seminary’, or not to ‘seminary’

  1. I think you have balanced the situation well, but the other thing (which is hard to teach) is that one of the roles of such training for Church(worldwide) leaders (generically) is that they pass it on to their fellow church members. The key to this is starting from where those members are – the key to this is avoiding the jargon and shorthand phrases which are essential for scholarly communication of ideas.

    I am aware that this sounds anti-intellectual – it’s not, it’s more that part of the role of that intellectual training should be around communicating it in simple terms. Ironically, the more one understand a concept, the easier it can be to explain it simply.

    I am also aware that as a medic we are just as guilty of this offence; and thats perhaps why it is easy to notice in other professions.

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    1. Spot on. That’s why the role of elders is to equip the saints to service. This happens by the local church taking their role seriously and equipping members both theologically and practically. Sadly, much training in the Church has been left to institutions and the Church has taken a back seat.

      I think there is also an element where not all members want to put in the time to be trained and equipped to serve. Finding the balance between encouraging growth without exasperating people is not always easy.

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  2. Great perspective Alistair! The church should not tolerate intellectual snobbery or elitism. God has called us to be humble, gracious, and kind. You said it perfectly here: “The church isn’t called to be a country club of middle-class lads sipping martini’s whilst talking about the Bible. The church is called to be a wonderful radically different body, the bride of Christ, that is completely different from the world and that constantly points to Jesus.” Thanks again for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post. I do think, from the perspective of the US, that there is an anti-intellectual attitude among many. And as a leader in my church I have had a number of conversations with those we feel that one can just follow the Spirit and pastor a church. This is not entirely out of the realm of possibility but I think we are more effective when we equip ourselves with tools and develop the gifts God gave us, and education is for many a necessary part of that process. Especially for those in Christian leadership.

    Liked by 1 person

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