The idea of formal seminary education dies hard. We have trained so many generations of ministers in this fashion that we can scarcely credit any other way of doing it. We also hear, from time to time, of churches which take pride in having an uneducated ministry, and we want nothing to do with that sort of know-nothingism. So we easily slip into the fallacy of thinking that the only alternative to formal, professional seminary training for the ministry is that of informal and unprofessional lack of preparation. Because we do not want our pastors to be poorly educated, we routinely ship them off to a seminary. If a young man expresses a desire for the ministry, then, for all practical purposes, his future plans are set for him. He begins the search to find a seminary that will equip him in finding a pastorate, and then off he goes.
Whenever a false dilemma is presented to us, and this is one of them, we must be careful to avoid being rushed into choosing. Is the only choice really between no education on the one hand, and graduate school education on the other? Of course the ministry should be thoroughly educated, as Dabney effectively argued, but this should not be confused with attending a graduate school.
Outlined here is a case for the establishment of a particular kind of ministerial training under the authority of the elders of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Because it is a particular proposal, specific names, procedures, curricula, etc., will be mentioned and discussed throughout. At the same time, the principles involved are equally applicable in many different church situations. For this reason, the rationale for various proposals will be discussed and defended in greater detail than they perhaps would be in another setting. In this way, the elders of other churches may be able to take advantage of some of the principles addressed here, but with methods more suited to their particular situation.
Some of the positions taken here, either directly or by implication, may strike some as unnecessarily rigid or perhaps even severe. This is not the intention at all. It is freely admitted that various seminaries in the course of their histories have served the cause of Christ ably and well, and that many graduates of seminaries have been among the church’s brightest lights. Princeton had a glorious history, for example. But we are not evaluating the system of seminary training on the basis of such individual achievements. We should rather evaluate our system of ministerial training on the basis of the biblical case that can be made for it, and on the basis of its tendencies and fruit when considered overall. Princeton did have a glorious history, but where is she now? The evangelical church today is in a miserable and wretched condition, and it must be asserted that our process of seminary education has been one of the central culprits. An unbiblical system, however well-intentioned, will not bear biblical fruit over the course of generations.
The fact remains that, for the most part, seminary education in the United States has become the realm of parachurch organizations (this is even generally true of denominational seminaries as well), governed more by the rules of the academy and various secular accrediting agencies than by the rules of the church, which someone once said was the pillar and ground of the truth. No one disputes that parachurch organizations have done good, and in some instances, have done much good. But Christ is the head of the church, and He did not leave the evangelization and discipleship of the world to freewheeling parachurch ministries. The fact that good has been done is a testimony to the goodness and mercy of God, and not a basis for us to continue with a system of ministerial education for the church which is not conducted within the church, or effectively overseen by the church.
A system of ordination has developed where seminaries provide the rigorous “graduate school” education, while the local churches are supposed to determine a candidate’s fitness for ministry. The elders of a local church, for their part, assume that if a student made it through an approved seminary, he must be a fit candidate. The result is that many have found their way into ministry because they have shown a great aptitude for graduate level study and test-taking. The point here is not whose fault this is, but rather to show just one of many ways in which the system we have adopted has set us up for a fall. Human nature being what it is, we may continue to expect much more of the same kind of thing if we continue on the same course. The disease has so far progressed that we now tend to assume that graduate school honors are the qualifications we should look for in a ministerial candidate. Paul’s requirements for a godly ministry are set aside, and we think that it is all right to do this because the man whose marriage and family is a stretcher case (and got that way while he was working his guts out in seminary) nevertheless, has professional certification. He has the right papers on the wall, embossed and signed. This is nothing less than the capitulation of the evangelical church to the bureaucratic mind. Nothing good can come of it, and the sooner we find the way of repentance, the better.
THE BIBLICAL PATTERN
The pastoral epistles have that name for a reason. Because Christians are accustomed to treat the entire Bible as a book of inspirational quotes, we sometimes miss specific instructions which are addressed to particular officers. The Bible is the covenant document of the church, and many of the requirements do not have direct application to individuals.
For example, in the famous passage about the inspiration of the Word of God, Paul says that the Bible builds up the “man of God” so that he may be complete, “equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). This is not addressed to every Christian (although it may be extended to them by analogy). It is addressed to the man of God, the minister-one who is responsible before the Lord for the spiritual well-being of others. This one needs to be able to rebuke, admonish, exhort, etc.
In 2 Timothy, Paul also teaches us how the leadership of the church is to reproduce itself. He says:
You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
This is not a requirement that every Christian should disciple others in such a way that they are able in turn to disciple others. When this does happen in an informal way, we are all grateful for it. The Bible does encourage this sort of instruction-for example, the older women are told to teach and instruct the younger women (Tit. 2:3-5). This does not mean that the older women are officers in the church, but rather that a general pattern of teaching and encouragement is to pervade the church, with the more mature leading and instructing the less mature. This happens naturally in the home, and in any community. But this informal work explains only a part of the apostolic instruction to the church.
The charge to Timothy here refers to the duty of church leadership to reproduce itself. What Timothy had heard from the apostle Paul, he was to pass on to faithful men. These faithful men in turn were to teach and instruct others. This clearly occurs within the context of the work of the church. This is how Paul trained Timothy in evangelistic and pastoral work, and he here tells Timothy to go and do the same.
In a similar way, the Great Commission was given to the apostles, but in a way which ensures the commission is self-perpetuating. Christ told the apostles to teach obedience to everything which Christ had commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). This would of course include His last command, that the nations be discipled. This means that the apostles who received the initial commission were to pass it on to the next generation, and the next generation was to do the same. But this commission is given to the church, not to every individual Christian. This means that the leadership of the church is to receive the commission, and the leadership of the church is to pass on the commission.
Our generation is so individualistic that we tend to interpret everything in private terms. The notion that God may have given the government of the church a set of instructions for the preparation and training of future leaders, their qualifications, their duties, etc. is entirely foreign to us. But this is one foreign notion which we must learn to make our own; we must come to speak the language of Scripture again.
As we return to a more biblical pattern of training future elders and ministers, we do not expect a transformation overnight. The current system has a tremendous amount of inertia behind it. As we present an alternative to seminary education, we do not expect seminaries or seminarians to go away-and we are very happy to cooperate with those seminaries which remain faithful to the Word of God. In presenting what we believe to be a more biblical approach, we do not want to inculcate a perfectionistic attitude which demands everything be reformed immediately. This only ensures that nothing substantive will ever change.
Nevertheless, a local church which takes its mission of evangelism and discipleship seriously should be able to fully train leaders for service in the local church. Any calling which is incapable of reproducing itself is incompetent in that calling.
This training is for her own leaders in the years to come. A thriving church can easily assume that they “have it covered” because their current elders are doing a fine job, and their current pastor preaches well and looks healthy. Everyone has trouble imagining what the church will look like in fifty years when none of the current leaders are alive. No one even thinks about it. But Charles deGaulle put it well when he said that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. That day will come whether we want it to or not. A church which does not think of establishing continuity with the future generations of that same church is, in principle, a church populated by short term and anti-covenantal thinkers.
When a pastor retires or dies, the usual tendency is to scramble, form a pastoral search committee and . . . you know the rest of the drill. An outsider, someone who is not in touch with the local and organic life of that particular congregation is called, and he steps into the pastorate. His paper qualifications were impressive, and his pulpit delivery while he was “candidating” was good, but the fact remains that churches which get a pastor this way are basically getting a mail-order bride.
THE GOAL AND NAME
It is a truism that if you don’t name it, someone else will. The intentions can be great, and the plans well laid, but if nothing is done, then people are going to call what you are doing a seminary. This makes it necessary to be somewhat aggressive in calling it something else, and to insist upon calling it that—perhaps to the point of being thought belligerent.
With this in mind we call this course of training a ministerial hall. Graduates of this hall do not receive a professional degree, or anything that sounds like a professional degree. The bureaucratic system which governs the granting of all such degrees is well—entrenched, and any attempt to compete with them while using their terminology is not likely to be blessed. A ministerial hall avoids the assumptions that govern the running of graduate schools. As a hall for study, there is no pretence of “professionalism.”
At the same time, the phrase ministerial hall does indicate a rigorous preparation for the ministry. An informal, casual, and undefined system of education simply will not do. If an apprentice for the ministry were simply to hang around the leadership of a church for several years, he would no doubt learn many valuable things, but mostly he would simply learn “how things are done around here.”
Those prospective ministers who graduate from this hall will receive a letter of commendation, stating that they have performed their work ably and well, and that the instructors and elders overseeing the training of this man have learned enough about him to be able to say he is qualified for the Christian ministry, in his character, history, and gifts.
Our ministerial hall will be called Greyfriars Hall. The Greyfriars church in Scotland was the place where the Solemn League and Covenant was first subscribed, and is a name that is important to everyone who loves the work of reformation.