Why You Shouldn’t Go to Seminary: Part 2

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.]


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  1. Full disclosure: I am not qualified to evaluate seminaries, as I have not been. I agree with Bob’s assesment, though, of many folks who have come out of seminaries whom I have worked with in the last 11 years of ministry.

    I can’t say I agree, though, with Frame’s model. I would argue that what he describes is quite different from Re:Train and other current indigenous models. It seems a bit legalistic, and despite his statements to the contrary, . . .does seem to be a bit monastic/isolationist/etc.

    I’ll leave room for the fact that I didn’t fully understand his model. . .

    In the last thread, the issue of personal sin was brought up, and I think deserves a bit more time. There are problems with the current model. . .but there would be problems with any model, and since folks are sinners, there will always be those who are unqualified, and not “spiritually” ready for ministry (who is equal to such a task?). Was it the seminary’s fault to graduate such a student? yes. Was it also that student’s responsibility for his own sin? yes. Such a student was, ironically, produced by a church and sent to seminary.

    I would argue for a more hybrid model like teacher’s college, where the last 2 years or year of seminary is done in residence at a church, while he is still in classes and and still receiving guidance and input from his professors (and the pastors at the church where he is working). Kind of like “student teaching”.

  2. By the way, I”m aware that most seminaries have practicum and church ministry as part of the process, similar to what I described.

    I guess I’d be interested in reforming that system and reforming the partnerships between seminaries and churches rather than doing away with seminaries. Both parties need to do better in that regard, and much good could be done in fixing those relationships rather than blowing up the current system.


  3. I’m going to Soma School in October, and our church here in St Augustine, FL (the Frame fam visited a few weeks back – my pastor is a friend of yours, Bob) is basically pursuing the Frame-ian approach. We’ve been planning and researching for the past several months, as I listen to lectures on my iPod each night at work, and read theology, church, leadership, and other books.

    In our research, I came across Frame’s article (the online version) several months back, and it has inspired us to continue on in our pursuit of seeing this local church as a church ready to tackle this. For ‘formal’ training, we’re using books, Third Millennium, iTunesU (RTS, Covenant, etc..), a29 podcasts, conferences, conversations, other churches we’re in relationship with, looking forward to the Re:Train lectures being posted online, and whatever other resources we come across along the way.

    (And of course it all has to be triperspectival in structure and scope.)

    For the past year+, my ‘goal’ has been to pursue meeting the Biblical qualifications for eldership, be equipped through the local church, and, if and when the Holy Spirit tells the church, be sent out to plant a church. As a father of 4, who has always been crazy about the bride, I look forward to being the test-dummy so that others can come behind and ride the tilt-a-whirl of a “Gospel Community College” we’re building at Coquina Community Church.

    I can’t wait to see what others come up with in pursuit of this route.

  4. Zachary,

    If you and Gardner have a firm “learning plan” or curriculum worked out, I’d be grateful if you could send it my way. We are working on something similar and I’d love to not reinvent the wheel. Especially since I wouldn’t do it as well as GG anyway.

  5. I think this is all very thought provoking and makes an excellent point. A friend of mine (who is just about to graduate from Dubuque T.S.) and I had a conversation a few weeks ago about the effectiveness of seminary. His opinion was that everyone, whether called to be a pastor or not, should attend. He said that learning Greek, Hebrew, Theology, Apologetics, Church History, etc, has been invaluable to his personal understanding of and relationship with God. I think he makes a wonderful point, but as you mentioned in part 1, not everyone can afford the money or time commitment to attend seminary. He has not had an easy time with those aspects. All this is to say is that I think your main point is just fantastic, that our churches have lost (in many respects) the ability to do the fundamental teaching needed for us to be true disciples of Christ and need to reclaim that responsibility to build leaders in the faith. It is something we ALL need.

    I really like where you’re going with this, Bob. Our society has become enamored with institutional education and the importance of having that framed diploma on the wall. While it certainly can be a testament to wisdom and fortitude gained from very difficult work, it is severely lacking when it comes to life application. Jesus mentored his disciples and taught them how to minister to people, not in an institution, but out among the rich and the poor, the faithful and faithless, in the temple and on the mountainside. I agree that at the very least, we need to get back to the basics and follow His example.

  6. After realizing seminary may kill me, I opted for a church planting apprenticeship model with an A29 church in Issaquah. I get the opportunity to preach, teach, lead groups, share an office with the pastor/planter, live in the neighborhood of our church, see the joys, pains, victories, etc on a daily basis, sit in on counseling sessions, network with other apprentices in the region (who may be planting around the same time), see how $ works, give my wife a chance to do much of this with me, see the phases of different church plants (initial planning, launch, year one, year 10) since we work with other A29 churches in the region. For me, its been awesome working with a smaller, younger plant because instead of just being the indentured servant/intern, they’ve graciously given me a seat at the table. And maybe the best part; no student loans! Being in this context helps me to apply my theology as it is learned/developed…highly recommended

  7. These are good thoughts, but plan will remain only a plan until churches are willing to hire and support people whose time (or at least long chunks of time) is devoted primarily to reading and study, rather than explicit one-on-one or group discipleship or whatever else more practical ministry. I would love to remain in a church community to get theological education, but there is no one capable or willing to provide it.

    In fact, I think a better thrust for your whole (2) post(s) would be “Churches, why are you subcontracting the training of your leaders to the poorly structured educational environments of Seminaries? Stop being exclusively pragmatic and practical. Make education a central priority and do it yourself!!!” You seem to direct your attack on seminaries and studients rather on lazy churches who make seminaries necessary. You oppose seminary-seeking young curious leaders as if they have an alternative to seminary. If there truly was an equivalent education available at their local church, I doubt many would still want to go to seminary.

  8. As a pastor who has been involved in everything from church planting to pastoring churches in the capacities of senior and associate pastor over the past 15 years, it always amazes me to read the education requirements that so many churches impose upon their prospective candidates. They make this the most important consideration in choosing a new pastor, and if you don’t have that coveted ‘piece of paper’ you will be turned down even though you meet all the Scriptural qualifications and have ‘real-life experience.

    I did spend two years at a bible college and was very well taught and prepared for how to study, teach, and communicate spiritual truth. I was fortunate enough to attend a school where the courses taught were pure bible fare with no ‘filler’ junk. It was a great experience to say the least, but it in no way prepared me for the ‘real world’ of ministry – things like managing a staff, setting up the church corporately, legal issues, and daily operations of a ministry.

    The majority of my training came through doing it day to day and failing many times before I learned how to do it right. I’ve probably made every mistake you can make and by God’s grace continue in the ministry today. There is no substitute for experience and actually doing ministry ‘hands on’. That is the best source of education in my opinion.

    Most churches today seem to be under the impression that as long as a young man has the ministry calling card – the MDiv., he’s the man. Yet in reality, he may not even be called to the ministry. He may be smart, accomplished, but not called by God in the first place, or having no practical experience whatsoever.

    I don’t know for sure when these academic requirements became popular in vetting out pastors, but they are found nowhere in Scripture as a requirement for ministry. Yes we need to ‘study to show ourselves approved………………..’ that’s a given, but the majority of the people God used in Scripture did not meet the academic requirements that churches have in place today. None of the disciples did, and even Paul renounced his religious training when compared to a relationship and close walk with Christ.

    Give me a man who is called and gifted by the Holy Spirit any day over a man who has 15 letters after his name but was never called or has no anointing upon his life. When and if the church wakes up to this truth, God’s power will once again ‘turn the world upside down’.

  9. Bill Manley’s attitude is precisely why the evangelical church is an intellectual laughing stock today, and why I and many others who want THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION, as opposed to logistical experience cannot look to our churches.

    “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

    Too many churches do not have a distinction between those who “wait on tables,” and those whose call is focused on the intellectual/contemplative side of things. Of course “things like managing a staff, setting up the church corporately, legal issues, and daily operations of a ministry” take a lot of time and someone needs to deal with them, but to call these the “real world of ministry” is to have things horribly backwards. These are the means to the real world of the knowledge and enjoyment of God. These are as inseparable in a concrete minitry as grammar and content in a sermon. But be clear on the priorities, grammar is there FOR THE SAKE OF communicating truth. THIS is the real world, and what all else should be oriented towards. As God seems to usually work, those who are gifted in one area are lacking in another (the parts of the body are incomplete), so we should recognize this and create a corresponding division of labor in our churches between those logistically gifted, and those educationally gifted.

    Without this division, the demands of the day will win and the educationally oriented “ministry of the word” side will be the likely one to suffer, leaving us without a mind.

  10. Peter, in the interest of full disclosure: are you a pastor? I agree with many of your assessments and critiques, but your tone suggests a critical spirit.

  11. No, I am a student, and do not plan to become a pastor.

    Sorry if my tone is coming across as critical in a bad way, but I am not someone sitting on the sidelines complaining (which seems to be what a critical spirit is), I am preparing for and hoping to do something about all this in the future.

    This comment page is a polemical context it seems to me, you brought up something controversial (in a purposefully provacative way, which is great), and people are giving their different opinions and arguments for them and responding to (criticizing) others. I am a fan of a more “passionate” discussion/debate a la stereotypical Italians, big parts of the third world, and the black community (speaking from my limited experience), rather than a super reserved and stoic form of discussion/debate, or a super affirmative I-am-afriad-of-hurting-anybodies-feelings form that seems to be more prevalent in some circles. I think the more passionate form reflects the importance of the issues better, better reflects the “impersonal” nature of truth, and is more in line with the history of Christian polemics, which was filled with name-calling, firey condemnations throughout history up untill the time and in the places where relativism has neutered our spirits and has filled the church with a spirit of timidity. Sorry if I failed to live up to this.

    The nature of polemics, tone and so forth is itself is another (yet related) topic, but this video is hilarious and I think is a very healthy point of view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxSZ8DyuC7o

  12. Peter, you seem like a much smarter guy than me. But seriously, what the hell was that last post about? How did you come up with your theory of “passionate” discussion? Did you watch an episode of Fresh Prince, and then the Sopranos? And how is “the nature of polemics, tone and so forth” related at all to the topic at hand?

    Simply because the history of Christian polemics is filled with name-calling and fiery condemnations does not mean we should re-create that spirit. The history of Christian missions was filled with killing and subjugating “heathen” people. Perhaps you think the church should shake off its shackles of timidity and go back to that method as well?

  13. Now that is a fine and commendable response, and it is funny that you seem to be using the tone in your response to me that you seem to be condemning me for defending. So I consider you to be supporting my point of view.

    I was in Italy this summer, and saw some locals disagreeing and raising their voices very loudly, I was in India three months and saw many disputes between neighbors and at car accidents etc, I was in Turkey and saw friends discussing something in a way that in America we would think they were bitter enemies, and other sorts of experiences. No not fresh prince. I am not saying all these things were done in love, though some were, but there was a freshness and honesty to them that I see reflected in disputes throughout history.

    At various times I have been inspired to attempt to collect all the sarcasm, “firey-ness”, and name-calling in scripture so I don’t have to rely on Christian history but scripture itself, but I havent yet. There is a lot of it. Consider that Paul in a debate about circumcision says to the “agitators”, “go ahead and chop your whole penis off”: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

    Would this sort of thing, this tone, etc. fit in with our contemporary language of debate and polemics, or would we condemn Paul for being a meany? If it doesn’t then I think it is our contemporary language that needs to change.

  14. Peter, I will say my piece, and then I’ll leave the last word to you.

    For someone who previously decried the way that evangelicals are seen as an “intellectual laughing stock,” it was interesting that you made an entire set of wide-reaching ethnic and racial assumptions based only on your admittedly limited experience. Pot calling the kettle black perhaps?

    By the way I do agree with you that sarcasm and “fieryness” is found often in Scripture. I even believe there is a place for it today, and that perhaps it is underused because of our cultural climate. However, what I don’t believe is that there is ALWAYS a place for it. Sometimes its a useful tool, sometimes its not, depending on the situation. You seem to advocate harsh language simply for the sake of using harsh language, and because “that’s what Christians in the Bible and in history have done.”

    Instead, maybe you should consider the situations behind the scriptural use of the “fiery tone” that you describe. It is often directed toward religious know-it-alls who are full of pride, and is usually motivated by a pastoral heart that seeks to protect the spiritual well-being of those who might be damaged by believing in certain errors.

    My humble suggestion to you is this: don’t make “being fiery and passionate and sarcastic like other Christians in history” a personal goal to attain to. You will definitely become fiery and sarcastic, but you’ll be nothing like those other Christians.

  15. I appreciate the discussion between the two threads. For a young Christian like myself I assumed that to deepen my education in theology I’d have to go to seminary. I’m glad that you’re out there Bob, as you’ve been instrumental to challenging many beliefs I have.

    It is up to the Christian to find men to be mentored by. I think we should divorce ourselves of the notion that everything must be provided or given. I am in a troubled church that could use a return to biblical christianity, but I have identified several mature brothers to mentor me. They may not know it, but I am pursuing their wisdom. It seems to be the only way I can broaden my discipleship to Christ. I am driven to learn as much as I can, and at times I feel as though I will never learn as much as I want without seminary. However, it doesn’t seem as though God has called me to seminary. He has called me to learn. To, as Bob put it one of his sermons, become the kind of man who would obey Him.

    For many of us in small towns our entire education in Christ must come from Godly men. As has been posited in this discussion, that is the framework the Bible outlines. According to the Word I do not think I am qualified to be a Pastor now. Perhaps, at some point in the future on some point down my pilgramage, I will reach the level of maturity to be a steward of God’s word.

  16. I know this is an old post but I stumbled on the site today.. I have considered seminary off and on over the years. When I was a Baptist youth minister I felt inferior because I didn’t have a seminary education. And most churches wouldn’t hire me full time because of it.

    I then ventured into Recreation Ministry and those requirements weren’t there. Now that I’ve been out of vocational ministry for a while and contemplating planting a church back in my home town I’m drawn to get a seminary education again, but torn about how to go about it.

    I don’t want to pack up my wife and 3 kids just to get another degree and to learn Hebrew and Greek. I don’t see the importance of that at all. To me a pastor doesn’t need to know those things, he simply needs to know how to communicate the truth to the Lost. A piece of paper doesn’t say he knows how.

    My father in law is a long time Southern Baptist preacher. He got his MDiv in the 70s I believe. Sure he knows scripture, but knows nothing about running a church. Eventhough he’s pastoring a small church now after years being away.

    While searching for an alternative I found an online seminary called Rockbridge Seminary. http://www.rockbridgeseminary.org/ They offer a full online seminary degree that seems very practical and seems to take away alot of the garbage courses most seminaries offer.

    It seems like a great option for those of us that don’t want to move across country and want to keep the jobs we currently have or even continue pastoring the church you are in. Truett Seminary also offers a bi-vocational certificate online.

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