Why seminary can never qualify anyone for ministry
That is why ordination, taken seriously and done rightly, should mean much more than any seminary degree.
“I do not have the authority to expel you, so I’m asking you, please withdraw and leave the seminary.” I realized the weight of my words and fully appreciated their potential effect. Only after several lengthy attempts to correct him, learning that he was not plugged into any local church, and then subsequently conferring with the dean did I let them fall so profoundly and heavily on his stunned ears. The young man had preached several sermons in my preaching practicum, each one more disturbing and irresponsible than the last. Finally he crossed the line from unbalanced to untrue and promoted something that I judged to be egregiously wrong, contrary to the gospel, and antithetical to everything Southern Seminary stands for. When he remained resolute in his position and belligerent at my attempts to reprove, I knew that the tragedy of his departure from the truth would be exponentially compounded with a seminary degree. So I asked him to leave, and he did.
While I still grieve that student’s departure from sound doctrine, I have never regretted the severity of my words to him. I could not stop him from preaching error, but it would be far worse if he did it with a degree from Southern.
My primary concern was not that someone would think he received his doctrine from my colleagues or me—though I certainly found that thought disquieting. My greater anxiety was that some church would mistakenly think him qualified to serve as pastor and would welcome him and embrace his false doctrine, simply because he had a degree from a seminary.
When it comes to qualification for ministry, ordination should carry much more weight and provide much greater evidence of a man’s readiness for service in the church than any seminary degree. A seminary alone is not sufficient to qualify anyone for ministry, no matter how faithful the faculty or how hard it tries. A seminary is a rigorous academic program, but that is very different from being a church in which the student can serve and demonstrate his gifts and calling while he is under its teaching, authority, and discipline.
A large portion of my life has been devoted to seminary education, both my own and that of thousands of others. I am committed to quality theological education in the seminary and believe it to be a marvelous way to learn the Scriptures from brilliant and devoted men and women of God whom he has raised up for this purpose. I love seminary and would encourage every young minister of the gospel who has the opportunity to enroll in seminary—especially in a residential program, but that is a subject for another time. I love and believe in seminary education, to be sure. Even so, something important needs to be said.
A seminary is not the church. Jesus made teaching and training part of the Great Commission given to his church. He loved the church and gave himself for it. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. He has set some in the church. The Scriptures don’t say a single word about seminaries, not only because they did not yet exist, but also because they aren’t integral to God’s plan for making his name great among the nations. The church, on the other hand, is God’s plan for global evangelism and discipleship.
To be clear, seminaries—at least Southern Baptist seminaries—operate on behalf of the churches and are, in fact, owned by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminaries, therefore, hold a sacred and binding trust to train ministers of the gospel on behalf of the local churches in which they will one day serve. Seminaries make it possible for churches to offer a depth of theological training in multiple disciplines to those who have surrendered to ministry that they would not have otherwise. Churches have the right to delegate a portion of that training to a seminary and expect that their sons and daughters will be taught by great men and women of God and equipped in numerous ways, but churches cannot and must not abdicate their primary responsibility to train ministers of the gospel and to declare them ready for ministry when the time comes.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with the system, unless, of course, by wrong we mean unbiblical or, at the very least, extrabiblical. To the degree that any seminary circumvents and ignores the very body for which Christ died, forgetting that it exists to serve churches, that seminary has become unbiblical and will produce men and women more committed to a denomination or to a theological persuasion than to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Dry orthodoxy disconnected from local churches leads to death as certainly as a liberal denial of the veracity of the Scriptures.
Since the seminary is an academic institution and not a church, it cannot really observe the student adequately to know if he demonstrates a true sense of calling, and most definitely does not have the right to declare him a God-called minister. That calling will be found at the intersection of desire, gifting, opportunity, and the testimony of the church. I can certainly gauge the gifting and, to a large degree, the desire of a student to fulfill a call to preach, for example, but in the three hours a week he spends with me I will not know anything about the opportunities that he seeks or that the Lord provides for him, and still less will I have the daily opportunity to observe his steadfast perseverance, the “fire in his bones” that testifies of his calling. I cannot gauge his true effectiveness in real life situations. I do not know how he treats his wife, or parents his children, or how generous he is with his resources, or whether or not he struggles with pride or lust. Only a church can do that and only over a significant period of time.
That is why ordination, taken seriously and done rightly, should mean much more than any seminary degree. When a church ordains a man for ministry, the members are testifying that they have observed his calling and they have found evidence of its reality. He has consistently and persistently expressed the desire to fulfill that calling and has also shown that God has provided him the basic skills to do it. In all candor, God is not going to call someone to do something that he just can’t cut no matter how long he persists nor how hard he tries. With the calling comes an enabling, and only the church can observe him closely enough to verify that God has provided what the young minister needs to fulfill the calling he claims.
In addition, the church can provide opportunities in order to bear witness whether or not the young minister will avail himself of and perform those with a seriousness that testifies of his calling. I can make assignments in my class and force him to preach or to perform certain ministries because I hold the power of a grade over him. When he has done those assignments, even if he has done them well, I cannot be sure that he would take the same care and careful deliberation if he were not needing a grade. The church, on the other hand, sees the novice minister in real-life situations and can much more realistically determine his genuine level of commitment.