My post last week on why you shouldn’t go to seminary sparked lots of discussion and debate. It was the most highly trafficked post ever on this blog, and as you can see from the comments, elicited thoughtful reactions both for and against.
Upon reading that post, one of my good pastor-theologian friends had his research assistant dig out an obscure essay by John Frame, who was one of my favorite seminary profs precisely because of his deep love for Christ and his zeal to serve the church. In the essay, Frame makes many of the same arguments I did in the post. He also proposes a way forward (or backward?) that, if followed, would change the course of theological education in America for the better. Here are some excerpts, abridged for simplicity:
In the early days of American Protestantism, the training of ministerial candidates was carried on by pastors of churches. [Eventually], for some reason or other, theological training was institutionalized, and at the same time academicized. As a result, young men [now] receive no training at all in many crucial areas. Most do not even become good scholars, for they learn the results of scholarship without learning how to think and do research in a scholarly way. Worst of all, it seems to me that most seminary graduates are not spiritually ready for the challenges of the ministry. Seminaries not only frequently ‘refuse to do the work of the church;’ they also tend to undo it. Students who arrive expecting to find a ‘spiritual hothouse’ often find seminary to be a singular test of faith. The crushing academic workload, the uninspiring and unhelpful courses, the financial agonies, the too-busy professors, the equally hard-pressed fellow students all contribute to the spiritual debilitation.
After this frank assessment of the problem, Frame turns to Scripture to establish three biblical propositions: 1) the qualifications for the ministry are spiritual (character, skills, knowledge – all seen through the lens of discipleship to Jesus, not academic prowess); 2) training for the ministry is itself a ministry of the Word; and 3) training for the ministry is the work of the church. On this last point, Frame observes:
Teachers have official status in the church as elders and are entitled to remuneration by the church (1 Tim 5:17). If, as we have argued, the training of ministers is a form of teaching the Word, then such training ought to be carried on by these church teachers. And such church teaching ought (as in the New Testament) to be recognized and administered by the church. A seminary which does not ‘do the work of the church’ does not ‘train men for the ministry’ either.
But the genius – and the danger – of Frame’s article isn’t in his identification of the problem or in his biblical observations. It’s in his bold proposal for a model of ministerial training that would render the current Christian seminary establishment obsolete. Maybe that’s why this essay is buried out of sight, in the relative obscurity of a distant theological library?
I propose that we dump the academic model once and for all – degrees, accreditation, tenure, the works. The academic machinery is simply incapable of measuring the things that really matter – obedience to God’s Word, perseverance in prayer, self-control, the ability to rule without pride, the spiritual power of preaching in the conversion of people and the edification of the church. The actual training, the development of ministerial qualifications, must take place in a non-academy.
But dropping the academic model does not require the dropping of institutional training. Here, then, is my alternative to the academic model. A church establishes a kind of “Christian community” where teachers, ministerial candidates, and their families live together, eat together, work together. It is not a monastic escape from the world; rather, each teacher, student, wife, and child is to be deeply involved in the work of planting and developing churches.
The best candidate for a teaching job at our community is a pastor who has trained elders and congregations so that the work of teaching and evangelism is widely diffused throughout the congregation. Upon first arrival, a student will spend much of the time in menial work around the study center. It will be expected that the student manifest the fruit of the Spirit in the sight of all before being accepted as a full candidate for the ministry. The community will evaluate the quality of the student’s devotional life, contribution to the work of the church, testimony to non-Christians, and particularly the ability to accept correction from elders in the Lord. Intensive counseling sessions will attempt to uncover unconfessed sin and traits of character detrimental to the ministry. The quality of the person’s repentance from these will be observed.
Once the community has verified the likelihood of a man’s call to the ministry, he is enrolled formally in the program. He begins to be trained in evangelism, preaching, and pastoral work. At the same time, the man begins to study the formal theological subjects. Teachers and older students will be constantly involved in the work of supervising the labors of younger men. Wives and children of students will also be subject to training and evaluation. There will not be a set “number of hours” after which a person is entitled to graduation. Teachers and older students will meet from time to time for intensive evaluation of each student’s progress in life, skills, and knowledge. These meetings will determine whether a man will be dropped from the program, promoted to new levels of responsibility, or “graduated” and recommended to the churches for ministry. No person will “graduate” unless the teachers are convinced that he has the character, skills, and knowledge which the Scriptures require of church officers.
But: if we follow this proposal, would this not rob us of the most important centers of Christian scholarship, the academic seminaries? Yes, it would. Such a restructuring of the Christian scholarly establishment would, in my opinion, produce, not a dark age, but a renaissance in Christian thought. Why?
1) Many Christian scholars, under the present system, are tied up doing something they are not really equipped for, namely the training of pastors. It is as if all professors of mathematics were involved full-time in the training of accountants!
2) The integration of theory and practice in Christian scholarship implicit in the above suggestion would help isolate those problems which most need scholarly attention in our day. What a challenge to the aridness of contemporary thought, Christian and non-Christian alike!
3) The current structure is inadequate even to train scholars, for in the academic seminaries the results of scholarship are presented without adequate training in the skills of thought and research, leaving the students easy prey to any fad boasting academic support. How marvelous it would be to have a theological leadership in the church which would not be swept around by every wind of doctrine!
It’s great to realize that in my quest for innovation, I’m simply standing on the shoulders of a giant like John Frame. Apparently his proposal, written in 1984, has gained little traction. Hopefully that is about to change. This is exactly the kind of model we’re shooting for with our Church Planting Residency, and with other Acts 29 initiatives like Re:Train and Soma School.
Any of you thoughtful readers want to chime in?
[Here is the bibliography info – good luck finding an original: John M. Frame, “Proposals for a New North American Model,” in Harvie M. Conn and Sam Rowen, eds., Missions and Theological Education in World Perspective (Farmington, MI: Associates of Urbanus), 369-386.]