If a Christian desires to enter the vocational ministry in some form or fashion, he or she will have the option to pursue theological education. Theological education, or seminary, is a place where Christians come to be equipped for ministry in an academic setting. The purpose of theological education is primarily to equip students with the proper understanding of biblical languages, hermeneutics, and church history. There more could be added here, but these three are largely important because these disciplines are rarely accessible within the church. Before a person decides they want to pursue theological education, here are five thoughts worth considering.
Has the gospel transformed your life and the way you live?
Charles H. Spurgeon was known for quoting the Puritans. In his book Lectures to My Students he quotes Richard Baxter by saying:
“Take heed, therefore, to yourselves first, that you be that which you persuade others to be, and believe that which you persuade them daily to believe and have heartily entertained that Christ and Spirit which you offer unto others.
Before you ever consider going to seminary, ask yourself: do you know Christ? Are you persuaded that He is indeed God? If so, are you pursuing holiness? If a student pursues theological education while shrugging off the pursuit of godliness, he will be faced with a difficult life of church ministry. Once you get to seminary the temptations of sin do not stop. There is not some type of barrier that surrounds the seminary campus and keeps temptations out. If you want to consider theological education, you must first consider if you are in Christ at all.
Are you disciplined in studying the Word and developing a biblical theology now?
If you are not studying the Bible, reading theological books, or growing in your understanding of who God is, then why would you want to go to a seminary where you will pay a pretty big sum for those things? Once you move onto campus or make your way into the classroom, your desire to learn doesn’t just switch on. Putting in the hard hours of study starts before you look at going to seminary. What do your study habits look like? Are you disciplined in studying the Bible? Mack Stiles spoke at a conference in 2013. He mentioned during one of his sessions that if Christians are not evangelizing stateside, once they get onto the airplane and fly over to the Middle East the missionary desire does not just switch on during the flight. The same is true for the seminarian. One must consider their ways to see if they are ready for the difficult, rigorous task of studying for the church. Not to take away from other fields of study, but seminary is the training grounds for future ministers who need to get the gospel and the Scriptures right.
Do you need seminary in order to enter the ministry?
Seminary is not an end all be all for Christians who desire vocational ministry in the church or to plant churches overseas. Before I met my wife, I decided to wait to take seminary classes. I was serving in a college ministry as well as learning from my church's elders. If a church offers theological training within, I believe seminary education is secondary. However, if a church is not providing theological training, then seek out seminary education, but do not depart from a local church. Some ministers today would argue against seminary education for irrational reasons. Theological education paired with the church is more beneficial than experience alone. Many can have double-digit years of ministry under their belt, but if they are not growing in their understanding of who God is or rightly how to divide the Word then what have those accumulated years produced? Do you need to go to seminary? No. Should you go to seminary if you’re able to? Yes. Are you qualified to be a minister of the Gospel if you don’t go to seminary? Yes, if you meet the biblical qualifications. More important than seminary-trained ministers we need Christians who will be disciplined in studying the Word, developing a biblical theology, and covenanting with a local church.
Do you have the support of your local church?
First of all, are you committed to a local church? Commitment is not just having your name on a church roll. Commitment is not simply going to the worship services though we are explicitly commanded to do so (Hebrews 10:24-25). Commitment entails serving with the body of believers in whatever capacity the Lord has gifted you. If you are not using your gifts to serve Christ by serving His church now you’ve missed the point of the Christian life. A Christian who faithfully serves his or her church will naturally find other believers who affirm their call to ministry. When you place yourself in a church community, fellow believers will be able to guide you in discerning your gifts. They will be able to not only recognize your gifting but also encourage you in your desire for seminary. A student who goes to seminary without the support of the local church may wrongfully make the seminary their local church. The local church is the place that God has ordained to train his men and women for the ministry. A Christian should never try to pursue theological education without looking to their local church for affirmation and support.
Do you view seminary as your launching pad for ministerial success?
Dr. Alan Branch, an ethics professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, during a chapel message, has mentioned that seminary is not American Idol. By that, he means that seminary is not a place that students come to be discovered. A fellow brother of Christ has shared with me a similar thought that one of his professors has said: students need to realize that God has raised up certain men in the church to have speaking engagements, book deals, etc. God may not raise up others the same way. We must come into seminary with the contentment of Christ. Paul, the author of Philippians, records about Christ that “though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant.”
For a Christian to come to seminary and not be a servant is silly and demonstrates arrogance. Once we take our eyes off Christ’s example we will become haughty and puffed up. We will think we deserve certain pastoral connections or relationships with professors. Our focus will be more on who we could be, like Dever, Platt, or Piper, instead of desiring to be like Christ. Of course, if God places people in your life who imitate Christ, imitate them. We must never covet the ministries or positions of others. There is not a good end to that scenario including unrealistic expectations and discontentment with the people God may call or has called to lead. What would you do if you worked hard all throughout seminary and came out to be a theologically well-trained church member? I think you would not have lost anything but gained an education that you can share with others. The church needs more sound theological pastors who are sound theological church members. Maybe that is what He has for me. Yet, in whatever place He has for me after being trained in seminary, I desire only to honor Him in His church.