Are Seminaries Legitimate?

Darryl Erkel

A Critical Look at Modern Theological Education

It must be said at the outset, that to question the legitimacy of our modern seminaries is not to be equated with the mistaken notion that theological training for church leaders is unnecessary. On the contrary, it is imperative that pastor-elders have a solid foundation of knowledge in systematic theology, church history, hermeneutics, apologetics, and other subjects. Thus, our churches must have men who are trained. My contention is simply that the seminary system is an inefficient tool to use in reaching this goal.

In asserting this, I am not suggesting that our seminaries have not produced some good. For many, seminary has been a rich and rewarding experience. Conservative institutions have been on the frontlines fighting theological liberalism and giving reasons for biblical truth. Some of our brightest scholars and theologians teach in seminaries.

Nevertheless, numerous inherent problems exist within the seminary system. Feeling the weight of these problems, some educators are calling for a renewal in theological education while others have simply given up on the hope of seeing genuine improvement. Haddon Robinson, a seminary professor and past President of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary, in an interview with Christianity Today (Oct. 24, 1995), had serious reservations about the future of our seminaries feeling, at times, "an acute sense of despair and a hopefulness for theological education" (p.75). A study in 1994, funded by the Murdock Charitable Trust found that pastors, on average, believe they were "poorly prepared" for their jobs.

The attempt by some in rescuing the seminary through a cosmetic veneer of expensive new facilities, changes in educational curriculum which appeal to a modern age, and business marketing techniques all fail because they do not go to the root of the problem. They are ineffective in exposing the errors and limitations of a system which was non-existent in the apostolic age. While this article is not an exhaustive expose' of today's seminary, it will, nonetheless, highlight some of the major deficiencies in the way pastors are trained.

1. Our criticisms of the seminary system are primarily directed to its ability to properly prepare shepherds who will serve the local church, not upon its ability to train future college professors or academic researchers. Thus, we must ask: Is it really doing the best job in training pastors (not college professors)?

2. As we have already noted, to question the seminary system should not be equated with the mistaken idea that training is unnecessary or that pastors should be ignorant (2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 1:9). Actually, we should want the best trained pastors, but this does not necessarily have to come through the traditional seminary institution. If done properly, we believe that the local church can be even more effective in training future pastors.

3. Training for pastoral ministry should not be viewed in the way that one views training for the legal or medical profession, but should be understood as something distinct, spiritual, and character-oriented. Potential elders are not being called to a "career" or "profession" (as commonly understood), but to a pastoral function which is spiritual in nature! While the world has its ways of training people for a secular profession, this should not be the model for training future shepherds who will spiritually oversee the souls of men and women.

4. Those wishing to attend seminary must usually relocate to other cities and states. Housing and employment must be secured prior to moving. Naturally, this puts a tremendous stress on the seminarian's family – particularly if his wife is expected to financially support her husband and children (or, at least, carry a major load of the financial obligations). If local churches were the training ground for pastors, such problems would either be reduced or non-existent. In contrast to our current practice, the New Testament pattern was for teachers to go to their students, rather than demand that their students travel far distances to be trained (Acts 11:22-26, 13:1, 16:4-5, 18:22-23, 19:9-10; 2 Timothy 2:2; Titus 1:5).

5. The costs to attend seminary are very high. The usual amount is about $2,000 per quarter and, upon completion of the entire program, the student may have billed out as much as $30,000 which, of course, does not include housing and general living expenses. Most often, seminary graduates are in debt for the next five to ten years seeking to pay off their schooling. It tends to put pastors into long-term debts and, hence, potentially discrediting their testimony if they are unable to repay their loan (1 Timothy 3:7). Must learning the Word of God cost so much? To charge people for learning the Word of God, which has been freely given to us in Christ, seems to go counter to the New Testament pattern (Matthew 10:8; Acts 20:20, 33-35; 2 Corinthians 2:17, 11:7-9; 1 Thessalonians 2:9, 3:8; 1 Timothy 6:5). Even if, for the sake of argument, some costs are necessary, must it be this exorbitant?

One of the reasons why a seminary education costs so much is because not all of its funds are used for actually training pastors or missionaries, but for staff salaries, administrative tasks, building projects, religious fixtures and edifices, advertising, and the erection of new schools which, in many cases, may have nothing to do with the furtherance of the Gospel (e.g., a psychology school). The result is a quasi-religious institution that is weighed-down with tons of administrative red tape. In many instances, the seminary may find itself in horrific debt and must turn to questionable marketing or fund raising efforts in order to get itself out of the hole.

6. Seminaries tend to take potential pastors away from the life and concerns of the local church in which they are supposed to serve, and places them in an academic environment of abstract scholasticism – much of which has no real bearing upon their pastoral responsibilities. The seminarian is usually required to take numerous classes on subjects which do very little to promote a godly character (e.g., Hellenistic literature, Greek philosophy, early patristic fathers, etc.). Such courses may be interesting, but are they really necessary for pastors? Are such studies helping to promote godliness and maturity in character, or mere academic intellectualism? Are they truly helpful to the pastor who must deal with sin, marital problems, and a host of societal ills among the members of his congregation? Is it any wonder why so many graduating from seminary are great at theological discourse, but cold or indifferent towards the people they shepherd? Clay Sterrett notes the difference between modern methods of training and the New Testament model:

Modern training is primarily intellectual; New Testament training is primarily spiritual and practical. Modern training emphasizes the classroom; New Testament training emphasizes life and experience. Modern training targets young men and women; New Testament training includes older saints as well (Myths of "The Ministry" [Staunton, VA: CFC Literature, 1990] p.18).

Alexander R. Hay, similarly writes:

To separate those who are to be trained for ministry from normal church life and activity and from the conditions in which their ministry is to be carried on is a serious mistake. One preparing for the ministry of evangelism and church planting needs the church and the evangelistic field just as the medical student needs the Hospital and the clinic. To send out a young man to practice medicine who had little more than theoretical knowledge, who had little practical experience and never even seen a major operation performed, would not be justifiable. It would be hard on both the young physician and his patients! (The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary [Published by the New Testament Missionary Union, 1947] p.488).

E.W. Johnson, in his article, "Extra-Biblical Ecclesiastical Systems," writes:

Schools which are separated from the local church are very apt also to be separated from that real world where the future minister must labor. The cloistered school is no place for the training of the future pastor, unless that future pastor plans to remain cloistered in his study while the world goes to hell (Baptist Reformation Review [Summer – 1978, Vol.7/No.2] p.16).

7. Some institutions require their students to sign an elaborate doctrinal statement which may not even be fully understood by the seminarian. Before the student graduates and before his theological convictions are matured, his is immediately "strait-jacketed" into the seminary's particular doctrinal system (even to the point of having to agree on secondary theological issues, such as Pretribulationism or the twenty-four hour six day creation view). If he deviates from the doctrinal statement, he is usually suspect by the academic staff or, in some cases, dismissed from the school. But why is this necessary, particularly on non-essential matters? The theological student must, to some extent, be permitted the freedom to do his own thinking. He must be allowed to come to his own conclusions (so long as he does not drift into heresy), instead of merely parroting the ideas of his professors who, in some cases, may not be correct at all.

8. Because of the numerous classes required, the complex nature of the subjects being studied, and the need to "cram" for soon-coming exams, the seminarian is allowed very little time for deep reflection upon what he learns. Mike Parker writes:

When one considers the exalted nature of the office and the commoness of youth to be aspiring to it, he must see that seminary is necessarily a compacted experience. Ten, twenty and more years of mature and careful reflection must now be crammed into three! Often, young men who have been converted and exposed to the Word of God less than two years are forced to wrestle with problems which have tested the greatest saints and scholars of all history, and come up with "creative" solutions by exam time in a matter of weeks. Such hurried and forced development has a built-in tendency toward unfounded convictions, faulty foundations, and resultant defective leadership for the people of God. Rather, let a man grow, study, and ponder the Word day and night in the context of normal Christian living without the synthetic pressure of examinations until in God's good time the Spirit honors his diligence with illumination ("The Basic Meaning of 'Elder,'" Baptist Reformation Review [Summer – 1978, Vol.7/No.2] p.42).

9. Genuine spiritual accountability and discipleship is usually very poor within the seminary context. The professors have many students and it is often difficult to establish close relationships. Moreover, many seminary professors do not see it as their personal responsibility to practice disciple-making. Some are simply too busy studying and writing books. In today's seminary, it is virtually impossible to have a genuine life-style discipleship. The attempt by some schools to form fellowship groups that meet weekly with a seminary professor for one hour, though well-intentioned, does little toward developing deep relationships between mentor and protιgι. But, then, that is not so surprising when one considers that the seminary is merely a product of the institutional church, which has its own problems with accountability and intimacy.

10. Seminary training does not, in itself, guarantee that one will graduate biblically sound in their soteriology and ecclesiology. I have spoken to numerous seminary graduates who were very weak and man-centered in their understanding of such doctrines as human depravity, God's sovereignty, and election. In addition, most of them have never bothered to work out a philosophy of ministry based upon a fresh study of Scripture. Thus, they enter their pastorates almost as uninformed of New Testament ecclesiology as the people in the pews and, as Jesus said, "If a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit" (Matthew 15:14).

11. Most, if not all, seminaries teach and promote the Constantinian or institutional model of church practice. Thus, unfortunately, the same debilitating clerical system and church structures are perpetuated. Instead of helping to cure the problem, the seminary system exacerbates it. This is due to the fact that many of the administrators and professors within our evangelical seminaries, like most of us, have simply assumed that our inherited traditions regarding church structure and current leadership forms are biblically-based. Nothing could be further from the truth.

12. Many (perhaps most) of the professors within our seminaries have never served as shepherds within a local church. They may, indeed, know a great deal about various theological subjects, but if they have never served in a church leadership capacity, they are not going to be of much help to a potential elder in need of a pastoral mentor. In contrast to our traditional methods, Paul clearly established a pattern for training shepherds in 2 Timothy 2:2 which rested on church elders (not college professors).

We believe that training for the eldership should be given by other elders within the local church that they will serve, and with a hands-on, practical approach as opposed to one that is merely theoretical. Furthermore, theological training should primarily be directed toward seven major subjects: Old and New Testament survey; systematic theology; church history; biblical languages; hermeneutics; practical ecclesiology; and apologetics. Any secondary subjects will be learned as potential elders develop intellectually and pursue independent studies. Those who are truly called to church leadership will eventually prove themselves as informed and well-rounded Bible students, since they will be self-motivated to study a vast array of subjects connected to biblical theology. As E.W. Johnson points out, "A minister must be a self-motivated student, motivated by the interest he has in heart for the things of God. A minister who needs the motivation of school discipline, grades and degrees as the drives in his study needs to re-examine his calling to be a minister of God's truth" ("Extra-Biblical Ecclesiastical Systems," Baptist Reformation Review [Summer – 1978, Vol.7/No.2] p.16).

13. Most seminaries continue to promote young and inexperienced men to the churches which look to these institutions for pastors (1 Timothy 3:6). Carl Hoch, Jr., professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, writes:

In the New Testament, they selected their leadership from men of experience. No novice was considered. Since the church was based upon the family and met in homes, it was natural to look to the older, experienced men in the church community for leadership (1 Timothy 3:4-7). Today the church views ministry as a career structure. Education, personal charisma, and managerial skills appropriate for the business world are valued over age, character, and experience (All Things New [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995] p.239).

We are not suggesting that God cannot use a young man, in a unique circumstance, to shepherd a congregation. Church history does, indeed, have examples of young men who were mightily used by the Lord (e.g., C.H. Spurgeon, Robert Murray M'Cheyne). But these were clear exceptions and not intended to be the norm.

14. Much of the seminary curriculum is now no longer centered on systematic theology, doctrinal and exegetical studies, but is geared toward making church leaders into business marketing wizards, administrative professionals, and virtual psychologists, instead of shepherds of the sheep. This is due to a large percentage of our evangelical seminaries being deeply influenced by the contemporary church growth movement.

15. Our seminaries have been a witting accomplice in promoting the ineffectual "pastoral search committee." Instead of encouraging our churches to raise and train its own men for leadership, the seminary system continuously offers their young and inexperienced men to us. Rather than working itself out of a job by equipping churches to educate its own people, most seminaries seem to be doing their best to keep us dependent upon their institutions. They want our money; they want our men; but they do not was us to be independent enough to be able to educate our leaders without their approval and guidance. This impression is subtly, but clearly, conveyed in their advertisements and brochures.

Our churches, when evaluating pastoral candidates, place a greater emphasis upon one's academic accomplishments than one's moral character and spiritual maturity. We virtually ignore (or downplay) the qualifications for elders listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. Such descriptions by Paul are far from the seminary scholar that we usually envision. I am not against theological education but, following the world, contemporary Christianity has "professionalized" pastoral ministry and practically deified academic degrees. In our obsession with formal degrees, we seem to have forgotten that some of the greatest saints in church history have been men without a college or seminary education, including most of the apostles (Acts 4:13) and others such as John Bunyan, C.H. Spurgeon, Robert Murray M'Cheyne, D.L. Moody, A.W. Pink, and A.W. Tozer. E.M. Bounds was correct when he said, "The church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men."

Far too many seminaries in our day are seeking academic respectability from the world's educational institutions. Their goal appears to be one of showing to the world that we evangelicals can be just as "scholarly" and "intellectual" as they. To imagine, however, that the Christian church will ever gain respectability and acceptance from hostile, anti-Christian universities is naοve at best, for all the intellectualism and educational attainments that one can imagine will never impress the unregenerate mind which is at enmity with God (Romans 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14). Rather than seeking academic respectability, our seminaries should pursue academic responsibility and an unswerving commitment to teaching Scripture, as opposed to instruction mixed with elements of both Scripture and psychology, or Scripture and business marketing principles, or whatever popular humanistic ideas catch the fancy of modern Christians.

16. The apostolic pattern was not to train a mass of young and inexperienced men for pastoral leadership, but a few mature and faithful men who would be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

17. We believe that the local church should be the primary training ground for church pastors. While the early church could have turned to outside educational institutions for the development and training of its shepherds, it chose not to do so. Rather, as the great puritan, John Owen, observes: "Every church was then a seminary, in which provision and preparation was made, not only for the continuation of Gospel preaching, but for the calling and gathering, and teaching of our churches" (Commentary on Hebrews [Vol.3], p.568). R. Paul Stevens has written:

The best structure for equipping every Christian is already in place. It predates the seminary and the weekend seminar and will outlast both. In the New Testament no other nurturing and equipping is offered than the local church. In the New Testament church, as in the ministry of Jesus, people learned in the furnace of life, in a relational, living, working and ministering context (Liberating the Laity [Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985], p.46).

Once again, we cite the words of E.W. Johnson, who notes:

The local church is itself a school. If believers are also disciples, then they are students, and the local church is a place for the study of the Gospel. If these local churches under their constituted teachers are schools for the training of God's people, why cannot these schools also train future ministers? Why must these schools be set aside and higher schools be established by men in their superior wisdom for the training of ministers? It is true that the local church has but one text book – the Bible – but what need do we have for schools where Barth and Bultmann are also studied? Do we need these higher schools for the clergy where men finish their education and have completion of their education certified? Can men ever finish their study of the Bible and receive their diploma of having mastered the Gospel? In this school called the local church we never finish our education and receive our degree. We are always learning and studying here, ever fascinated by the knowledge of God and His way of salvation ("Extra-Biblical Ecclesiastical Systems," Baptist Reformation Review [Summer – 1978, Vol.7/No.2] pp.15-16).

Alexander Strauch, an author and elder at a church in Littleton (CO), concurs:

The local church is not only a place to learn Scripture, it is the very best place to learn the skills required for shepherding people. It is in the local church that leaders learn to apply God's book to real-life situations. Thus the local church is to be God's school for the spiritual development of His children and the learning of Scripture (Acts 2:42; 11:26) (Biblical Eldership [Littleton, CO: Lewis & Roth Publishers [Revised], 1995] p.81).

Frank A. Viola, author of Rethinking the Wineskin (Brandon, FL: Present Testimony Ministry, 1997), has said:

We may also say that the New Testament church is the school of Christ – the laboratory of the redeemed, wherein the necessary lessons of interdependence, inter-relatedness, suffering, self-denial, forbearance, meekness, kindness, and love are learned. It is the place where living the Christ-life is tested, fleshed out, and mastered. In short, corporate conformity to Christ is the central feature of the purpose of God, and the local assembly is the Divinely-ordained environment for this transformation to occur (pp.109-110).

18. Until the church returns to its responsibility of training its own men for the eldership, the seminary system is, perhaps, a necessary evil. Although it is not God's best, we would not discourage a potential shepherd from attending a conservative seminary if his own congregation has abdicated its training obligations.

19. Finally, we must be willing to ask some honest and hard questions concerning the effectiveness of our modern seminaries: (1) With the abundance of theological seminaries scattered throughout our country, have they truly produced a generation of godly shepherds who are unswerving in their commitment to teaching the full-counsel of God and making certain that the sheep are properly pastored – or – have we, instead, seen a generation of clergymen who are less than fervent in declaring the Word of God; men who are more often concerned with establishing a name for themselves and securing greater financial perks, than in humble, sacrificial service? (2) Have our seminary-trained pastors been marked more by an intense knowledge and devotion to Scripture – or – men who are deeply influenced by the latest trends in psychology and business marketing methods? (3) Have our seminaries produced the kind of men who possess a deep love for the sheep – or – men who are content to remain impersonal and distant from the people they supposedly pastor? (4) Have our seminaries produced men who are disciple-making pastors, diligently engaged in raising and training future shepherds within their congregations – or – men who are steeped in administrative tasks and a plethora of committee meetings that they have no available time to pour their lives into a Timothy or Titus?

We conclude this paper with the words of Alexander R. Hay (former General Superintendent of the New Testament Missionary Union), who provides four principal reasons for the weakness of our modern theological schools:

1. The teaching we give may not be adequate. We may give thorough courses on doctrine and on the general contents of the Bible, but only a brief sketch of such vital subjects as New Testament church order, the gifts of the Spirit, faith, prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit [Note: Since the publication of Hay's book, more seminaries are now providing courses on spiritual gifts and practical Christianity. Even still, this is primarily learned in the context of a vibrant church life, not within a classroom].

2. The claims which we make for our teaching ministry may be too great. To consider that a course of Bible study, however extensive, is an adequate preparation for ministry is a serious error. The teaching ministry provides an essential part of the preparation of the worker, but equally important are personal spiritual equipment and practical experience. This was definitely recognized by our Lord in the method He employed in the preparation of His disciples.

3. We separate the student from normal contact with the church's life and work and with the world, depriving him thus of essential practical knowledge and experience. The result is that the knowledge he acquires is largely theoretical. The local church was the training ground of the New Testament worker.

4. We fail to attach sufficient importance to growth in personal spiritual experience and to see that provision is made for it. Through being separated to a great extent from the church's life and from the world the student is removed from the best position for acquiring personal spiritual experience. It is vitally important that he come to know the practical use of faith and prayer both in personal and in corporate ministry, learning how problems should be prayed through, how the guidance of the Spirit is sought and the victory over Satan's work obtained. Actually, the student is taught to consider such prayer and guidance as glorious spiritual truths that have little practical application. They see the school largely run without them. Our Lord not only taught the theory of prayer, faith and the guidance and power of the Spirit to His disciples, He led them into the practice of these truths (The New Testament Order for Church and Missionary [Published by the New Testament Missionary Union, 1947] pp.485-486).

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Dr. Brettell's comments: I am in 100% agreement with this article. I left my first enrollment in seminary in 1970 after being enrolled for one year. I was among that group who believed that I was not being adequately prepared to function properly in my spiritual gift of Pastor-Teacher. It only took me one year to figure it out. I left seminary to assume my first pastorate in Stuttgart, Arkansas. I subsequently enrolled in seminary a second time and received both my Master's Degree and Doctorate, but all of my study toward my Master's and Doctoral Degrees in no way furthered my doctrinal understanding, nor did it prepare me for what I would face as a Pastor. It gave me degrees and diplomas that are of no value in carrying out my responsibilities as a Pastor. This is not understood by the religious world, but Christianity is not about religion. It's about a spiritual life that cannot be acquired with degrees and diplomas.