The man who would eventually become my doctoral supervisor, Tom Nettles, taught me three profoundly valuable words for ministry during my first week as a seminary student: “I don’t know.”
Those words came in reply to one of my fellow MDiv student’s questions about Baptist history, a topic on which Dr. Nettles has written thousands of pages and to which he’s devoted more than four decades of close, careful study and teaching.
In that moment, I realized two things: (1) I’ve received a rare privilege to be here learning about the things of God from humble men, and (2) When I leave seminary, and after I’ve studied theology, Bible, church history, and the rest for decades, I won’t even know a tiny fraction of one percent of all there is to know. In other words, I will always be a student. Seminary is preparing me to leverage my lifelong learning skillfully.
That’s perhaps the role above all roles seminary is designed to play—it teaches a pastor, a professor, a missionary, an evangelist, a counselor, how to teach himself. As I recount in the opening chapter of a new book I edited with Collin Hansen, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway/TGC), I learned rather quickly that a head full of Puritan quotes, Greek paradigms, apologetic arguments, and logical syllogisms were extremely valuable in helping me to preach and teach God’s Word, but they didn’t make me a pastor. They didn’t make me a pastor any more than basic training turns a puny private into Rambo. Only the battlefield can do that; but basic training is absolutely necessary in readying one to survive the horrors of war. Seminary functions similarly. We pit them against each other—seminary vs. the local church, basic training vs. battlefield experience—to our own peril.
Teachability Equals Humility
What struck me about Dr. Nettles’ answer in the classroom that day was the humility his three words represented. My initial thought—a good one, in retrospect—was “If a man so well studied and brilliant as him doesn’t know everything, what hope is there for me?” He followed that statement by telling the student something like, “I’d love to see you go and research that question and come back and teach me.” This seemed to me the very picture of humility Peter demands of ministers in 1 Peter 5. At some point during my years in seminary, I heard virtually all my professors say similar things. My sinful heart might crave omniscience, but a good and loving God will never give it to me.
Eight years later, I was set to walk across the stage and received my PhD, and as I stood waiting for my name to be called, my mind drifted back to that first week of seminary. By that time, I had read thousands of pages and had written dozens of papers on topics related to the Bible, theology, church history, and all the rest. Yet, I knew that I still wasn’t even in the zip code of everything I needed to know, and I certainly didn’t everything I wanted to know. I felt pretty lame—but that was good, for I was certain my eight years of seminary training had equipped me to continue learning. Indeed, my years in seminary were life-altering in a thousand ways, all of them good, and I encourage every God-called minister to attend a biblically faithful school if at all possible.
Are You Teachable?
Over the years, I have prayed God would help me to remain teachable because teachableness is the oldest child of humility. After graduation, a friend asked me what kind of congregation I hoped to pastor. I answered, “One that is teachable.” And that has always been my desire. But how much more important that their pastor models a teachable spirit for them? How critical is it for even the best-educated Christian mind to be utterly wrapped humility? It’s not possible to improve on the words of 1 Peter 5:5b: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
No matter how many letters occupy space to the right of our names, we still only know a tiny sliver within a tiny subsection of one or two topics (say, theology or church history) among all the things there is to know within God’s creation. That notion alone should help us to see our smallness and should drive us to view ourselves as lifelong students willing to listen to and learn from others.
Read Books and People
It’s quite possible that those of us who spend so much time studying and teaching the things of God need to go harder after humility, particularly in light of three devastating words from Paul’s pen in 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up.” I love learning, especially about the things of God—it’s why I went to seminary in the first place. It’s why I prize both the pulpit and the classroom. But oddly enough, the more knowledge I gain, the more rarified intellectual air tends to fill the inner balloon that is my ego. But these words should serve as a deflating pin: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
I desperately need humility. I need to know when to say “I don’t know,” and I need to be say it without flinching or fearing. And, for the good of my heart and the people whom God charges me to serve, I need to keep studying until the day the Lord calls me to his side. And if you’re going to make it very long in ministry, you’d better pursue humility and be willing to continue learning from a multitude of teachers whom God providentially places in your path—especially those who seem least likely to teach you anything.
In my first pastorate, an older man who had been a longtime leader in the church clearly despised me at first sight. All my education made me a prima donna in his eyes. Sadly, my attitude early on did little to change his mind. I made it my mission to win him over and began to visit his home. We talked about NASCAR, college football, and eventually even the Bible. When I left that ministry, he was among the members who expressed the strongest degree of remorse. I’ll never forget what he said on my last day at the church: “Once I realized you loved us and that you cared about learning a few things from us, I was happy to hear your preaching and teaching.”
Our conversations sometimes included him asking me questions I couldn’t answer. I can’t count the times I said, “I don’t know.” That man taught me how to love people who are vastly different from me.
I remember a story Vesta Sproul, wife of the late R. C. Sproul, once told about her husband’s love of reading biography which she concluded with an insight that showed his theologian’s mind was wed to a pastor’s heart: “He loved books, but he also loved people because he knew he could learn from people. He loved to learn and he could learn from anyone.” Sproul loved reading biography in particular because they brought into confluence his two loves: books and people.
That’s how I want to be as a pastor and theologian—in deep conversation with books but not bookish in a 1 Corinthians 8:1 sort of way, in deep relationship with people, eager to learn all I can from them. That’s why seminary and the local church form such an effective tandem for raising up and filling out faithful ministers of the gospel.
I’m grateful for both. They have liberated me from absurd visions of grandeur that one day I will, in the words of Paul, “understand all mysteries and have all knowledge.”
Editor's note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.