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Church or Seminary?

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Pastors need to be trained in and by churches. The local church is the center of God’s work during this age. It is the focus of biblical ministry and the heart of biblical discipleship. It is the pillar and ground of the truth. It is the place for developing character, imparting skills, and maintaining the tradition of biblical faith and practice.

Seminaries teach things that will help pastors, but they can never prepare a man to be a pastor. Consequently, no seminary must ever consider itself either independent of or preeminent over local churches. No, if seminaries are to exist at all, then they must behave as servants and assistants of local churches for the task of equipping ministers. Churches and seminaries must act as partners, but not as equal partners. The seminary should always see itself as the junior partner.

Churches can and do act individually, but they also act in community with one another. When churches work together in an organized way to further their common interests, they often formalize their cooperation. This kind of organized, formalized cooperation is called association.

The existence of associations suggests that seminaries may partner with churches in at least two ways. First, the seminary might operate largely as a ministry of a single congregation (though perhaps offering training to members of other congregations). Second, the seminary might operate under either the authority or the approval of an association of churches. In both of these instances, the seminary can rightly work as a junior partner, assisting churches in preparing men for ministry, while fully upholding the primacy and integrity of the local church as a divinely-ordained institution.

Either of these patterns is faithful to New Testament polity. They fulfill essentially the same task that Paul performed when he took young men out of their local churches to travel with him. These men had already given significant evidence of gifting and desire of ministry. They had learned much in their churches, but they learned more as they traveled with Paul. He educated them in doctrine, trained them in skills, and instructed their hearts. Those who, like Timothy and Titus, labored with him long enough could even be sent to perform pastoral ministry in churches that were distant from their native congregations.

No one can accuse Paul of opposing local churches. Evidently, he even maintained lifelong accountability to the church at Antioch. Yet he did not hesitate to pluck young men out of their native congregations. Furthermore, his entourage was capable of setting its own course and pursuing its own objectives without the immediate oversight of Antioch or any other particular congregation. Each member of the group was presumably accountable to a local church, yet the centrality and primacy of the church in no way impeded the self-direction of Paul’s company.

Since the New Testament does not command the production of structures that are comparable to Paul’s entourage, Christians are not obligated to create them. To forbid such structures, however, is to negate the biblical text. New Testament example does authorize such structures, and Christians ought to be slow to reprove what the New Testament authorizes.

Since they are not biblically mandated, why bother with seminaries? Here, I will give my own reason. I have spent about half of my ministry in local church pastorates. During those years I concluded that the church is called upon to mediate, not only the gospel, but the whole counsel of God—and this to a changing culture. I discovered that poorly prepared ministers had made damaging concessions to the culture that, if pursued to their logical end, would result in the death of biblical Christianity. Consequently, I developed some rather strong convictions about the kind of preparation that pastors ought to receive in order to be ready to confront the challenges.

First came a profound conviction of the absolute efficacy and sufficiency of the Word of God. Given this conviction, I became persuaded that pastors must be equipped to interpret and proclaim the Scriptures accurately for themselves. An effective pastor must be an expository voice and not merely a sermonic echo. What would this take? First, a high degree of competence in the original languages (grammar). Second, a mastery of the art and science of interpretation (hermeneutics). Third, deep exposure to biblical content (exegesis). Fourth, a practiced understanding of the art of organized presentation (rhetoric or homiletics).

Furthermore, I observed that pastors with disorganized minds were highly susceptible to the latest and silliest trends. I became persuaded that pastors had to be equipped both with the skills and content of rigorous theological thought. They had to understand the system of faith at such a level as to perceive, not only how all the parts related to all of the other parts, but how all of the parts related to life. Achieving this would require mastery of the art of reasoning (logic) as well as a comprehensive awareness of all of the parts of the system of faith (theology).

Still more, I perceived that a lack of ordered sensibility left pastors without discernment. Yet much of the devotional talk within contemporary Christianity was trite and clichéd. I came to see pastors standing on the shore where the breakers of historic Christianity ought to be eroding the sands of worldly wisdom, but too many pastors chose to play with shore foam that was half sand. I wanted the churches to recover the full depth and treasure of Christian affection, of the nourishing and sustaining devotion that could be found in nearly every previous era of Christian history. This task required future pastors to be re-introduced to personal and public worship (liturgy).

Still more, I observed that much ministerial naivety arose from an inability to perceive where the trends were going to lead. They did not know where they were going because they did not know where they had come from, where they were, or how they got there. I concluded that this deficiency could only be corrected by a right understanding of the development of ideas, and especially of Christian doctrines and institutions (history).

As I came to perceive the importance of these priorities in pastoral training, it struck me that few or no churches were in a position to provide them. Few pastors have mastered biblical languages, hermeneutics, systematic and historical theology, and Christian sensibility well enough to communicate them to future ministers. Even churches with large pastoral staffs were unprepared to work at this level. I concluded that the only way forward was for seminaries to help churches, and for the two to work in partnership.

To be clear, pastors need to learn much more than I have just described. Most of it can be taught best (or at all) in the context of local church ministry. Seminaries will never replace churches as the center for training pastors. Nevertheless, seminaries do have a role. They can help churches by supplying the preparation that few or no churches can furnish by themselves. We do not have to choose between church and seminary. Having prioritized the local church, we can still recognize a legitimate helping role for the seminary.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Jesus Lives!
Christian Friedrich Gellert 1715-1769), trans. Frances E. Cox (1812-1897)

Jesus lives! thy terrors now
can no longer, death, appall us;
Jesus lives! by this we know
thou, O grave, canst not enthrall us.
Alleluia!

Jesus lives! henceforth is death
but the gate of life immortal;
this shall calm our trembling breath
when we pass its gloomy portal.
Alleluia!

Jesus lives! for us he died;
then, alone to Jesus living,
pure in heart may we abide,
glory to our Savior giving.
Alleluia!

Jesus lives! our hearts know well
nought from us his love shall sever;
life, nor death, nor powers of hell
tear us from his keeping ever. 
Alleluia!

Jesus lives! to him the throne
over all the world is given:
may we go where he has gone,
rest and reign with him in heaven.
Alleluia!

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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