Posted On July 2, 2019

The Necessity (or Lack Thereof) of Seminary

by | Jul 2, 2019 | Theology

Some no-longer-recent Twitter discussion on at least two different threads centered around the necessity or usefulness of seminary. As one who has gone through an entire Th.M. program without a call to ministry, let alone ever being employed by a ministry, I thought I might add my two cents in long form.

I still haven’t framed this thing.

Is Seminary Essential for Pastors?

We can all agree that “seminary” isn’t listed in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 as a biblical mandate. But we do all agree that some pastoral education is needed. Can that education be acquired to the degree it is needed outside of formal seminary training today? Perhaps we should open the question beyond the “essential” bit and discuss whether seminary, in a general sense, is the best way to acquire the needed knowledge and skills.

Is Seminary Education?

I titled that to be provocative, but in some cases, this could be a legitimate question. Take, for example, the question that more and more people are asking about whether college is education. Faithlife CEO Bob Pritchett argues that college is largely unnecessary. In short, unless your chosen occupation requires certifications that are only available through academia, employers increasingly are looking away from college degrees and towards actual experience. In other words, college does not equal education, although it used to. Pritchett’s field, of course, is software development, where pretty much every skill is now obtainable from home. Moreover, as Pritchett admits, there are some good reasons outside of formal credentials to seek formal education such as not being good at learning on one’s own.

So is seminary education? It’s difficult not to be cynical when historically conservative evangelical seminaries are affirming women preaching to men seemingly without batting an eye. Even so, a hard “no” to this question is unfair to the many faithful professors and students who have been steadfast in the faith. I also must recall my undergraduate days at the University of Arizona, where my political science degree parallels my seminary degree in this way: you get out of it what you put into it. And if this adage holds true, a pastoral candidate who makes an equal effort towards theological education outside of a formal setting, with the right mentorship in the local church in place, may do just as well as someone in a formal seminary setting.

But here are just some things that one might not be able to “self-teach” even with all the internet instruction and books in the world. In the context of seminary, the primary example would be the original languages. I actually got through four semesters of online Greek quite smoothly. I can’t say the same for Hebrew, but that’s a long story for another time and not one from which I would argue that online Hebrew is impossible.

Your particular situation could also call for an alternative mode such as that offered at Forge Theological Seminary, where there is no physical campus, no tuition, students learn from resources already available to the general public, and the faculty is there to provide guidance and motivation.

Is There Something Special About Traditional Seminary, Though?

Some of the same counter-arguments made in Bob Pritchett’s presentation also apply to seminary. For example, one may find a particularly personal, spiritual, and experiential benefit in a dedicating a few years of life almost exclusively in a seminary setting away from one’s local church. One may also argue that the seminary setting provides benefit from a more theologically and culturally diverse community. In this way, a student will have to dig deeper to find reasons for what he believes. And of course, there’s the direct access to well-accomplished professors who will also disagree with the student on some points.

Trading perspectives with people with whom we disagree on baptism, points of eschatology, or even election may be very much beneficial. Even disagreement on clearer issues like biblical complementarity will provide some benefit. But if you’re thinking that this is a two-edged sword, you’re right. Obviously, this varies seminary-by-seminary. Are you prepared to sit in a preaching class where women preach? Do you or your church have conflicts with the seminary’s doctrinal statement? How many “woke” chapel messages can you take without becoming woke or just cynical? And if you’re reading this as a pastor or elder who is considering the question of sending a pastoral candidate to a seminary, are you fully aware of what you’re sending your candidate into, or does it concern you that your candidate might return unqualified? If you’re more the type who is sending yourself, do you have a moral support system back home in this regard?

So is seminary essential? It could be. It’s going to depend on the individual candidate, the seminary itself, how much financial support the candidate is receiving, and a few other potential factors.

What About Those Without a Pastoral Call?

Let’s clarify one thing from the start here: a call to pastoral ministry is not some internal fuzzy one receives at age 17 that literally no one else is allowed to question. A call to ministry must be biblically discerned. I did not understand this at all when I entered, so it caused some significant pain for me later on.

That aside, let’s handle the specific question. A student goes to seminary based upon a strong inclination to attend, not knowing exactly what comes afterward or just not particularly pursuing pastoral ministry.

Do You Need the Credential?

A student may enter in order to seek not only the knowledge and training involved with the degree but also the actual “credential” that comes with it. In some cases, such as working with some parachurch ministries, an M.Div. might be valuable, but it might also be more than necessary. Then again, the additional coursework involved with an M.Div. also couldn’t necessarily hurt, either.

While we would be correct to avoid seeking a credential with the goal of inflating one’s ego, I submit it really could matter in some non-pastoral situations. Some may be more willing to listen if you tell them you have a degree because they’ll at least recognize you’ve done your homework on particular fields of study. I had a situation not long ago within a parachurch ministry where an unbeliever communicated distrust with English translations of the Bible due to translational differences. I was able to draw not only on knowledge of original languages and textual criticism but also on just being able to say “I have a degree.” This is why I am also currently seeking certification as a chaplain for raceway ministry. The title doesn’t make me any different, but when I approach a situation where a medical patient and family member are aggrieved, I’m more likely to be listened to as a “chaplain” than as a “volunteer.”

If you don’t need the credential, it might be better to find a way to take individual courses and feel one’s way through to see if the need is really there to go through the entire degree program.

Are You Biblically Qualified?

I’m not actually talking about 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in particular here. This is actually just my underhanded way of asking whether you are a man or a woman.

Ladies: learn all the Hebrew, Greek, and systematic theology you desire. Go for it! It’s not “dangerous” for Christian women to learn “too much” Bible and theology as some have stated. Even my own wife attended Dallas Seminary for a time. However, if your degree program is literally telling you — a woman — to preach to men, shouldn’t all that “dangerous” Bible and theology you’re learning tell you there’s something wrong?

If there’s a program that has ladies teaching ladies in class, great. We need women Bible teachers for women to teach and disciple other women. In this day and age, however, I would be surprised to find any great number of such classes where all of the women are fully convinced that Scripture prohibits women from teaching men. Regardless of your own gender, are you prepared to be asked to give feedback in class to women who openly desire to preach to men?

Who’s Paying?

As much as people like to complain about the existence of a $200 leather Bible by tweeting on $700–$1,000 mobile devices, traditional seminaries are still more expensive. At last check, my seminary charged $533 per credit hour, and I took 121 credits. A $200 Bible doesn’t faze me.

In my own situation, I had Naval ROTC pay for my undergraduate degree, served four years to “pay” that off, and then served another three years, which entitled me to the full benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  These benefits included nearly every necessary payment to the school and a modest, tax-free housing allowance. I took full advantage of this and went for the full-blast Th.M. program at Dallas Seminary (basically an M.Div. with an extra year of focused study) rather than a shorter Master of Arts program. I realize that nearly everyone else doesn’t have this luxury, and neither will future military veterans if Mikey Weinstein has his way, so finances certainly factor in for most everyone else.

Despite this luxury, I am also a taxpayer. Sure, I earned the benefit with blood, sweat, and tears, but I still became upset as a taxpayer at times when a three-credit course from which I drew little to no benefit cost $1,599 and a large chunk of my time. You would be more upset than me if you were the student and $1,599 came directly from your bank account. Even with financial aid factored in, the difference between a shorter degree program and a longer one may not mean enough to you for the difference in financial expense.

A Final Word

I earlier wrote about how there may be a particular benefit from a few years of concentrated study. If your experience is like mine, that benefit may not just be about the individual classes or even the general environment of the seminary campus. For me personally, I feel like a large part of my seminary education also took place on social media. As much as people like to knock on getting one’s theology off the internet — often for good reason — fellow believers on Twitter and #prosapologian thankfully provided a necessary means of pointing out holes in my own knowledge and in the theology I was receiving from the seminary.

Finally, be encouraged. The quality of your seminary education does not depend wholly on your particular seminary, and you’re in the hands of a good God who know what He’s doing with you. I find it incredibly easy to be discouraged, even to the point of sin, but our trust needs to be in the God who puts us where we are, not our positions, titles, or credentials. Soli Deo Gloria.

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