In Michael’s recent posts on what does it take to be in ministry, I noticed that one area that tends to get push back is the issue of seminary and why it would be necessary for ministry leaders, especially pastors and teachers. After all, the pastor/teacher is called by God and charged with ‘preaching the word’, as Paul tells Timothy. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that some opinions actually oppose higher learning on the basis that it might actually detract from some way, on a pure and spiritual learning of Scripture.
I think you would be hard pressed to find any pastor that says they do not teach the Bible. Just about every Christian church I have run across has touted one thing, that they teach the Bible. Or rather their platform is founded on Biblical truth. What is suggested, I think, with this statement is that because a pastor or teacher uses the Bible then truth is presented and thus the commission to ‘preach the word’ is fulfilled to lead the congregants into truth.
For this reason, it is cited that education is not necessary only the call and the ability to teach. But I think a closer look at Paul’s instruction to Titus bear a closer scrutiny. Concerning the overseer/elder he says,
“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it”. (Titus 1:9 NIV)
Whoa! Notice that the instruction is not just to teach Scripture. But the teacher/elder must faithfully transmit a message. What is the message that has been taught? Is it just as simple as picking up our Bibles? I believe this verse speaks to 3 important criteria that necessitate the need for higher education. Also, while this instruction is directed towards the overseer/elder, I think it is generally applicable to anyone who dares to teach others in the Christian faith.
1) Teaching the message: I think it is significant to note that the church we read about in the NT in Acts and as the recipients of the apostle’s letters had only the Old Testament Scripture and the circulation of some of the inspired writings that would eventually be recognized as Scripture. The apostolic witness was key in this new faith because this was indeed the trustworthy message. One of the criticism’s of higher education is that the apostles never went to seminary. But they did not need to go. They received the trustworthy message firsthand. Additionally, the writers of the New Testament were those whom God breathed out His word. They were part of the company of holy men that Peter speaks about in 2 Peter 1:20-21 and recognized that they were indeed writing the very word of God (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
2) Exhorting in sound doctrine: I find it interesting when I hear the argument that doctrine can be placed above Scripture. All doctrine is is a truth statement about faith that is derived from Scripture. But the apostolic message originated over 2,000 years ago. It has gone through 2,000 years of changes and challenges. It’s not that the message has changed but the interpretation and practice has and most certainly influenced by socio-political culture and shifts in eccesiological paradigms. What we know today did not just occur in a vacuum and has been shaped significantly by these varying influences. This has not all been a bad thing. For as Christian doctrine has been challenged, the church has responded through ecumenical councils and confessions to refine what Scripture is indeed saying.
So the charge to the teacher is to exhort (encourage, edify) in doctrine that is formulated from the trustworthy message. But they must know what the essentials of the message are, that which is at the core of the Christian faith providing the root of discipleship so that believers are growing unto maturity.
3) Refute those who contradict: I find it interesting that even at the time of NT writings, we see many opponents to the sound teaching of Christ. Jude was so concerned that he needed to write to the church, “appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). I also find it interesting when some ‘new’ ideas about Christianity emerge, usually from fringe movements that actually are not new at all but recycled old ideas that the church, through the work of ecumenical councils had to rigorously defend. The pastor/teacher is responsible for knowing what that is in order to properly refute it.
The challenges to the ‘faith that was once for all handed down to the saints’ have also impacted the ability to interpret Scripture from the perspective of its original intention. The Bible unveils God’s self-disclosure demonstrated progressively and culminating in Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). It must be understood as a whole unit. But the many challenges to the foundation and interpretation of Scripture, its source and dual authorship have threatened the core understanding of what the Bible even is, let alone how to read and understand it. So the teacher of the Bible can certainly learn the Bible and what it says but not necessarily correlate it to the unified themes it is intended to produce. Moreover, it is possible to apply 21st century thinking into a first century context, so that the original meaning becomes lost in a sea of popularized, contemporary interpretations.
The bottom line is that the teacher is more than just a Bible learner but a transmitter of truth. The truth has been handed down challenged, distorted and even ignored through the annals of history. Those in charge of God’s flock have a responsibility to lead other into a growing relationship with Christ, to train them concerning God’s revelation so that they are stabilized and maturing as believers of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-14).
James White agrees with this. In a recent interview, here is what he said concerning the need to defend the faith
We cannot divide the revelation of God up into parts, some of which are “more important” than others. The apologist must have a full knowledge of the Bible, including its over-arching themes and threads that tie the entire revelation together. I have often been asked what classes I took in college and seminary were the most useful to my work as an apologist, and I always respond, “Greek and Church History.” The believer who knows the Bible as a whole, in a balanced way, has access to the original languages, and knows the outlines of church history, will be ready for 90% of what unbelievers will throw out as objections to Christianity.
What is interesting about this statement, is that he is not talking about pastors and teachers, he is talking about believers. But obviously, someone has to teach them. And should that not be the pastor or teacher who themselves have been adequately trained?
So we get to what makes for legitimate education. It is not a matter of just going to seminary or obtaining a higher education degree. It is about obtaining education that will equip the minister of God’s word to carry out the task representing truth as honestly and as accurately as possible. There are many programs out there that offer degrees but may only reproduce prejudices or even worse, ignorance, concerning the trustworthy message.
Moreover, I have discovered in my short time in seminary that not only do you learn the original languages, doctrinal development, church history and ministry related best practices but the learning also exposes the student to their own presuppositions. And we all have presuppositions. But legitimate formalized instruction should challenge one concerning those presuppositions and influence a greater objectivity in the examination of Scripture. For I do see the danger in not engaging in a formalized educational process, the likelihood of carrying out ill conceived, misrepresented and miscommunicated interpretations. A position might be affirmed by church affiliations but that does not necessarily mean that it is the position that is most faithful to the intentions of the Biblical text.
I would also note that a legitimate learning process would involve the centrality of Christ and uphold orthodoxy of the Christian faith. That means instructors and teachers in that institution are committed to the upholding ‘that which was once for all handed down to the saints’ and providing instruction in context of the complete revelation of God outlined in Scripture.
So this leads to what I believe should be the greatest impetus for legitimate higher learning – humility. A teacher is accountable to God for the instruction conveyed to others concerning the Christian faith. It is why James says that not many should be teachers since they bear the stricter judgment (James 3:1). The likelihood of transmitting error and imposing personal agendas or presuppositions should give one pause lest they shipwreck the faith of another. And it should also give the teacher of God’s word motivation to accurately handle the word of truth. I believe that investing in a formalized, objective learning process is a truly humble response in teaching others what it means to follow Christ and provides a strong case for legitimate higher learning.