When Ministry and Seminary Collide

I never intended to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. It was an avenue that was made available to me by the grace of God, which I began pursuing in January of 2015. One course in particular that transformed my thinking was the Ethics of Wealth and Poverty with Dr. David Jones in the fall of 2015. In this class, I realized the necessity of bridging classroom studies with my personal life and public ministry. It was sobering to think that there can be a huge disconnect between what we sing on Sunday morning and how we work on Monday morning. Furthermore, this revealed the intersection between theological education and vocational ministry.

While training for vocational ministry, students might perceive certain subjects as reserved only for the academy. There is a tendency to see a divide between those who teach and write theology and those who teach and shepherd the people of God. However, theology is more than a classroom endeavor, and pastors should seek to be the leading thinkers for the congregations that they are called to shepherd.

The intersection between theological education and vocational ministry is critical. The virtues of humility and wisdom are especially essential for students involved in both. We must be sure not to see theological education as merely dealing with concepts, or being an end in and of itself. Rather, it should serve as a vehicle to stir the affections of our hearts for God and to equip us to help others do the same.

Why the Disconnect?

How can students become experts in a subject area and yet not themselves be changed by it? Paul David Tripp notices this disconnect when he warns, “Danger is afloat when you come to love the ideas more than the God whom they represent and the people they are meant to free.”[1]

We can trace this disconnect all the way back to Genesis 3. In this passage, we see human sin and rebellion affecting culture directionally rather than structurally. While sin is not as powerful as God’s Word and cannot entirely destroy creation, it can nonetheless misdirect creation. Such misdirection would include linking what we learn in a classroom and what we live in the world. Therefore, theological education can be disconnected from public ministry life.

Satan would love nothing more than for us to see God’s redemptive plan as operating outside of public ministry life. In other words, he wants us to question whether God’s Word can provide authoritative guidance on the “hows” of life. John Frame speaks to this disconnect:

Christians sometimes say that Scripture is sufficient for religion . . . but not for auto-repairs . . . for science, philosophy, and even ethics. That is to miss an important point. Certainly, Scripture contains more specific information relevant to theology than to dentistry. But sufficiency in the present context is not sufficiency of specific information but sufficiency of divine words. Scripture contains divine words sufficient for all of life. It has all the divine words the plumber needs, and all the divine words that the theologian needs. So, it is just as sufficient for plumbing as it is for theology.[2]

Training for ministry can be difficult. We may think that the theological concepts that we are studying have no bearing on our spiritual growth. As Frame points out, though, Scripture is “sufficient for all of life.” We should seek to bring all things under submission to Christ’s lordship.

Humility and Wisdom

First Corinthians 8:1-2 is one passage that is especially helpful for those in ministry.[3] Paul warns that knowledge has the potential to make a person “arrogant, but love edifies.” Every genuine believer is capable and susceptible to becoming puffed up. While you may be able to parse every verb correctly in 1 John or to explain properly Justin Martyr’s eschatology, you can also be “conceited” and full of envy (1 Tim. 6:4). Zack Eswine warns, “We may attend a local Bible study for years. We may finish a seminary degree or fulfill one year in a local-church apprentice program. But this does not mean that one is able to illumine rather than blind, to warm rather than scorch.”[4] All of these practices are great, but we should not forget that they must be accompanied by humility.

The image used in the New Testament of pastors as shepherds perhaps best exhibits the virtue of humility. In John 10, Jesus calls Himself “the good shepherd.” The sheep follow the shepherd without uncertainty (Jn. 10:3-5). Jesus states, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). Jesus is certainly the greatest pattern of a good shepherd, and ministers must also display humility in caring for their sheep. A minister of the gospel should “love his people enough to sacrifice his own selfish interests, his energies and time” for his congregation.[5]

Ministers should not only be clothed in humility, but in wisdom as well. Scripture tells us, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). The way that Scripture describes wisdom is different from our definition of mere knowledge. Wisdom is the ability to apply knowledge to everyday life. The danger, then, as Paul Tripp notes, is that it is “possible to be theologically astute and be very immature.”[6] Therefore, ministers should seek to make the connection between studying theology and applying theology to situations, to relationships, and to their own hearts in daily life.

Intersection Between Education and Ministry

Carl F. H. Henry was once asked by a seminary student to identify the great theological question of our time. Henry replied, “Have you met the risen Lord?”[7] Henry is right: our greatest need is always the need to trust in the gospel and to have a relationship with the risen Lord. The pursuit of theological education is not some kind of abstract game, but is instead a means to stir the heart’s affections for God. It is a means through which we pursue a deeper relationship with the risen Savior of the world.

Those training for the ministry should not primarily see their educational context as a place to gain skills or knowledge. While those pursuits are necessary, the goal should be to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). Furthermore, whatever paper we write or project we present, we should “do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col. 3:17). As Kevin Vanhoozer rightly notes, “Seminaries exist to foster a particular kind of generalist: one who understands all things in the light of the biblical testimony to what is in Christ, keeps company with Christ, acts out the eschatological reality of being raised with Christ, and helps others to do the same.”[8]

Connecting the Gap

I genuinely enjoy studying in seminary. One of the most enjoyable parts of this experience is studying theology in community with other believers. Until recently, however, I must admit that I did not take full advantage of what I was learning in the classroom. I was not using it to help others. We pastors should remember that “wounded soldiers” sit before us every Sunday.[9] Like us, they need to be reconciled to a loving and heavenly Father. They need to be reminded how new mercies are available from the Lord every morning (Lam. 3:23).

There are a few keys to bridging theological education and public ministry.[10] First, preserve your quiet time. Second, invest in a local church (Mk. 1:35). There we learn to work with and get along with people (Eph. 4:1-6). Third, be motivated by grace to pursue holiness in all areas of life (1 Cor. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:22). Fourth, invest yourself in cultivating long-lasting relationships.[11] Friendships are deeply important and can bring great joy to our lives; the Lord has taught me innumerable lessons through faithful friends over the years.[12] Finally, cultivate a passion for the final marching orders of Christ, the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20).

In 1911, renowned theologian B. B. Warfield warned a group of seminary students: “Think of what your privilege is when your greatest danger is that the great things of religion may become common to you!”[13] To those involved in theological education, may we not let these truths become “common” to us and may our lives reflect the words of Psalm 145:1-3, “I will extol You, my God, O King, And I will bless Your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless You, And I will praise Your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.”

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[1] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 42.

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God: A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2011), 218.

[3] All Scriptural quotations and references come from the New American Standard Bible.

[4] Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 107-08.

[5] Robert Picirili, Teacher, Leader, Shepherd: The New Testament Pastor (Nashville: Randall House, 2007), 93.

[6] Tripp, 25.

[7] Aaron Cline Hanbury, “Seven questions about Carl F. H. Henry with Gregory Alan Thornbury,” Towers; http://equip.sbts.edu/publications/towers/seven-questions-about-carl-f-h-henry-with-gregory-alan-thornbury/; accessed March 10, 2017; Internet.

[8] Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 128.

[9] Tripp, 139.

[10] Some of these practical suggestions come from chapel sermons delivered by Dr. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He will often say, “Put not limitations on how and where our King might use you. We truly should pray not, ‘Lord, should I go?’ No, we should rather pray, ‘Lord, why should I stay?!’”

[11] See Jonathan C. Edwards, “Redeeming Friendships,” The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, November 30, 2016; http://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/redeeming-friendship; accessed March 10, 2017; Internet.

[12] A recent study found that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors. See Billy Baker, “The Biggest Threat Facing Middle Age Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness,” The Boston Globe, March 9, 2017; http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/03/09/the-biggest-threat-facing-middle-age-men-isn-smoking-obesity-loneliness/k6saC9FnnHQCUbf5mJ8okL/story.html?event=event25; accessed March 10, 2017; Internet.

[13] Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students,” from an address delivered by Warfield at the Autumn Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, October 4, 1911; in Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 113-14.

Author: Zach Maloney

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