Is Seminary Really Necessary?

I regularly have conversations with young men and women who are trying to decide whether to go to seminary. I’ve noticed a recent trend away from formal theological training, particularly among young men who hope to be church planters or pastors. 

Often they object to the concept of seminary on biblical grounds. After all, Jesus’s disciples never attended some formal school of theology.

Some are more pragmatic in their objections. “[Famous podcast preacher] never attended seminary, and look at his enormous and successful ministry today!”

I’ll acknowledge that seminary isn’t for everybody. However, I do believe that everybody hoping to enter some sort of public ministry ought to first build a foundation of godly character and theological knowledge. In fact, that’s the pattern I observe in the Scripture and in the lives of great leaders throughout church history. Seminary or no, a lifetime of ministry requires preparation. In most cases, it requires years of preparation.

I frankly worry about men and women of exceptional gifting who haven’t taken the time to deepen their knowledge and character prior to entering ministry. In too many cases, I’ve seen giftedness become a poor substitute for Christian character. When that happens, the result is either catastrophic moral failure or a slow loss of ministry vitality. That’s why I wouldn’t make [famous podcast preacher] a model for how to approach ministry training. It’s quite possible that he’s an exceptional case, somebody who is effective in spite of his lack of training rather than because of it.

While seminary training is not a cure for spiritual catastrophe, the training I received at seminary helped me to lay a foundation for a lifetime of effective ministry. Although it’s not the only way to prepare for ministry, it does provide certain benefits that are difficult to find elsewhere. Here are a few concepts I learned in seminary that may or may not have been part of the official curriculum:

1. I learned that I still have a lot to learn. I grew up going to church and listening to sermons. I joined nearly every youth group and college Bible study available to me. By the time I was finishing college, I thought I knew most of what there was to know about the Bible. I was horribly, horribly mistaken. After 4 years and 40+ courses, I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what there is to know about God and His Word. Realizing my own ignorance humbled me and motivated me to be a lifelong learner.

2. I learned how to think theologically. I tried to listen carefully to the way my professors structured their arguments and discussions. I didn’t always agree with their conclusions. In fact, seminary isn’t (or shouldn’t be) primarily about learning what other people think so you can parrot it for the next 40 years. Instead, it’s an opportunity to discuss biblical and theological concepts with others who are grappling to understand them. Although I learned certain facts and a great deal of useful information, what I really learned was how to think about God. I found that methodology was ultimately more more valuable to me than information.

3. I learned that knowledge and application are vitally connected. It’s a huge fallacy to assume that knowledge will always lead to spiritual dullness. When we pursue knowledge as a means of understanding God and representing His character, it actually enhances our ability to obey Him. The oft-discussed “conflict” between head-knowledge and heart-knowledge is actually a false dichotomy. Yes, it’s possible to be full of information while simultaneously being a self-righteous jerk. It’s also possible to be completely ignorant of anything theological and still be a self-righteous jerk. For my part, I’ve found that knowing more about God and His Word provides me with more and more reasons to worship and proclaim Him.

4. I learned how to endure when a task is difficult. In my opinion, this is the least-appreciated benefit that seminary provides. It’s not necessarily written into the curriculum, but seminary taught me how to persevere. It was difficult financially: Shannon and I watched our friends from college buy large houses and nice cars while we struggled to buy enough food for the month. Seminary forced us to examine our priorities: Would we commit to keeping our marriage strong, even though academic and financial pressures tempted us to work constantly? Would we persevere when well-meaning friends and family members asked, “Are you still in school? How long is that program, anyway?” The discipline it required to endure a four-year training program helped equip me for a lifetime of serving Jesus. Seminary isn’t the only way to learn that discipline, but it’s an effective way. There is simply no shortcut to character development, and I worry that too many young men and women are trying to find one. 

Should every minister attend seminary, then? Not necessarily. I do think, though, that too many people avoid seminary for the wrong reasons. Too many are eager to jump into leadership without taking the time to prepare. Seminary seems like an unnecessary delay, when in fact it provides some important training. The critical issue is this: Have I taken the time necessary to develop my mind, my character, and my spirit so that I can be effective for a lifetime? If you haven’t, then seminary is one excellent way to do so.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Obviously this post is not comprehensive regarding the benefits of seminary. What do you think, though? Is it overrated? Is it necessary? 

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Three Lessons I Learned from Howard Hendricks

“I’m looking forward to working with you. And don’t let ’em give you any gas. I’ve done this for a long time, and believe me: I’ve heard all the excuses. Don’t let ’em give you gas.” 

Thus began my employment as the head grader for Howard “Prof” Hendricks’ Introduction to Bible Study Methods class at Dallas Seminary. For some reason I still vividly remember him saying, “Don’t let ’em give you gas,” partly because the figure of speech made me giggle and was so classically Prof Hendricks. I also remember it, though, because it was his unique way of saying, “I’m on your team. Grading people’s work can get personal and ugly, but I’m behind you and I’ll help you navigate it.” For 2 years I played a very small part in helping Prof with his class, and I still consider it one of the great privileges of my ministry up until now.

What’s more, I’m one of the thousands (really hundreds of thousands) of people whose life was deeply marked by Prof’s commitment to God’s Word and to the idea that personal discipleship can change the world. As I’ve reflected on his life and ministry, I thought I’d share a few concepts that Prof embodied, ideas that have shaped and changed my own life and ministry:

1. Training students to study and apply God’s Word is one of the most significant ways I can invest my time and my life. For sixty years, Prof Hendricks drilled into students the idea that the Word of God is powerful and alive and life-altering. Studying it is not merely an academic exercise, but is one of the key ways we connect to Jesus. When I was a senior in college (before I’d ever heard of Howard Hendricks), I participated in a Bible study that changed my life. I didn’t know at the time that the study was based on the inductive method that he popularized in Living by the Book and through his DTS classes. That study — and subsequently Prof’s class — strongly motivated me to enter vocational ministry and to teach others how to study and know God’s Word.

2. You’re never too old or experienced to learn and grow. Toward the end of my first year working for Prof, he summoned me to his office. He had received some negative feedback from students regarding the grading process, a process I had been entrusted with. In retrospect, I think I probably created some of the problems. But Prof never even suggested that it was my fault. Instead, he said, “We need to find a way to make this whole thing better. How can I explain the assignments better? Can we create some written standards? Will you help me with this?” I was floored and humbled. Keep in mind that the man had been teaching the class for 50 years at this point. I had been working for him for about 8 months. It was reasonable to assume that he wasn’t the problem, yet he approached the issue as if we were teammates and co-workers and decided to use it as a chance to make his course a better experience for everybody.

3.  Even the smallest gestures of kindness can have a huge impact. It’s hard to explain why, but it always made a big difference to me that Prof Hendricks asked me about my family and my studies. He would always stop on his way into class and tease me if I had arrived before him: “Don’t you ever go home? Have you been here since last week?” Then he would ask how school was going, and how my wife was enjoying her teaching position. When I had to miss class for my grandmother’s funeral, he stopped me the following week and took the time to express his sympathy and concern. Prof had taught and mentored some of the best-known men in evangelical Christianity, but he still cared about a 22-year-old student struggling through seminary. I learned that simple things — saying hello, asking about another person’s life — can have a bigger impact than we imagine. Seminary was hard work, and financially stressful, and at times my wife and I were overwhelmed and lonely. Some days, Prof’s encouragement was a huge boost, even if it seemed like no big deal to him. I know I’m not the only one who benefited from his kindness, because I heard him similarly encourage my fellow students day after day.

It’s been so wonderful to read all the stories and tributes to Prof on Facebook today. My experience with him was far from unique. He was a godly man who invested in the lives of many people, and thousands of them have similar stories about him. I’m forever grateful for the life and ministry of Howard Hendricks, and he will be dearly missed. 

Sex and Discipleship: How Should We Talk About Purity?

A few days ago I ran across an article discussing how some evangelicals are beginning to question the ways in which we talk about sexual purity in the church. For some, the problem is that Christianity insists on any sexual boundaries at all.

For others, though, the issue is methodology. Do our youth conferences and purity pledges send the message that virgins are inherently better than those with sexual experience? Isn’t it demeaning and unkind to tell people that a “piece of their heart” is ripped out every time they have sex? When we talk about the “irreversible damage” caused by premarital sex, are we denying or undermining the grace of God and His ability to heal past wounds?

As an evangelical, of course, I disagree with those who think we ought to drop the biblical standards of sexual purity. The Scripture is clear that marriage is the only acceptable context for sexual activity. For the sake of Christian singles, then, we have an obligation to talk about chastity, especially when we live in such a sexually charged cultural context.

I do think, however, that we need to be cautious in the way we talk about sex in Christian circles. Let me suggest a few principles to guide us as we approach the issue of sexuality in the context of Christian instruction: 

1. Sexual purity, while important, is only one aspect of Christian character. It troubles me that non-Christians often identify Christians primarily with our views regarding sexuality. Don’t get me wrong — I talk about biblical sexuality on a regular basis with my own children and with the college students at my church. However, I don’t define a mature disciple solely as somebody who abstains from premarital sex or pornography. I know people who are sexually pure, but they demonstrate immaturity in many other areas — they are prideful, unkind, greedy, or selfish. On the other hand, I know mature Christians who still struggle mightily with sexual purity. When we communicate to singles that premarital sex is the worst offense we can commit against God, we’re doing them a disservice. Why? Because Christian discipleship is the process of being conformed to the character of Jesus in every way. Jesus was sexually pure, but the Bible mostly talks about His love, grace, truthfulness, and wisdom. Let’s begin discussing sexual purity in the broader context of what it means to imitate Jesus Christ, rather than as a set of legalistic commands.

2. Sexual purity is not binary. In other words, the pursuit of sexual purity is not simply a matter of whether you have or haven’t crossed The Big Line. Often “purity talks” consist of 59 minutes of shame, concluded by a 1 minute statement about God’s forgiveness. I think we inadvertently leave singles with the impression that 99% of those in the room are totally pure, while the dirty 1% really need forgiveness. In reality, the pure 99% is a myth. All of us are impure. Whether we’ve crossed The Big Line or merely fantasized about it, we all need God’s forgiveness. Purity is a lifelong pursuit, not one that ends on our wedding day, or even on the day we make The Big Mistake. (I’ve known students who have reacted to this binary mode of thinking in some interesting ways. Some of them cross every line short of The Big Line, but proclaim themselves to be “technically pure.” Wouldn’t it be better to talk about purity as a matter of one’s heart and mind and spirit, rather than simply a matter of one’s body?).

3. Large scale instruction is efficient, but not always effective. There is a place for youth conferences and huge events centered around the topic of sexual purity. However, I think it’s often best to approach the issue in smaller and more personalized settings. The best way for young people to learn about biblical sexuality, of course, is through their Christian parents. Many students, though, come from non-Christian homes, or they have parents who dump the task of discipleship onto youth pastors and church leaders. So I think those of us who minister to young people need to prepared to teach on this topic. We need to provide instruction about sexuality in the context of a pastoral relationship. Here’s what I mean: Josh McDowell may be  a more dynamic speaker than I am, but he doesn’t personally know the students in my group. If I take my students to a large conference, I need to be prepared to follow up in a more personal setting.

4.  Junior high is too late to begin the discussion. Critics of the “purity pledge” concept like to point out that only a small percentage of those who sign purity pledges actually honor them. One problem is that by junior high or high school, most students have already decided whether to commit to sexual purity or not. I heard a Christian counselor state that most young people have formed their basic views about sexuality by the time they’re around eight or nine years old. They have basic belief systems about their bodies, their own significance, and their relationship to God. Those belief systems form the basis of their sexual decision-making processes for years to come. Am I suggesting that children’s pastors need to start hosting sexuality seminars for third graders? For the record, I’m not. I am suggesting, however, that pastors ought to equip parents to talk about these issues with their kids, well before junior high. By that age, all we can really do is reinforce the concepts that are already implanted, and perhaps challenge those with unbiblical views to reconsider them.

This is such an important topic, because the stakes are high and most people struggle with purity. I’d love your input: How can pastors and Christian parents approach this topic in a way that is practical, gracious, and Spirit-directed? 

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7 Keys to Understanding Tough Bible Passages

If you read the Bible for very long at all, you’ll run across some tough passages. Sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. After all, we’re separated from the original readers by a span of 2000 years or more. Not to mention the fact that we speak different languages from the writers of Scripture.

I was recently discussing James 2:14-26 with our church’s interns. That’s one of the most difficult passages in the Bible because of the way James approaches the relationship between faith and works. On the surface, he seems to directly contradict the writings of Paul. How do you resolve quandaries like this when you’re reading the Bible? (For a great explanation of James 2, by the way, listen to Brian Fisher’s sermon here.)

Here are a few principles for resolving tough passages: 

1. Pray for wisdom. Studying the Bible is a spiritual task, so it’s appropriate to ask God to help you understand it. James 1:5 seems to be clear on this point — if you ask God for wisdom, He gives it generously.

2. Read the context of the passage carefully. If a passage begins with “but” or “for,” don’t ignore the preceding verses. In many cases (most, in fact), you really ought to read the entire book in which the challenging passage is located. For example, James 2:14-26 is only part of the entire argument that James is making. Once you understand that James’s broader point is about mature faith, the kind that results in a productive and blessed life, then it’s easier to understand why he discusses faith and works differently from Paul. Ignoring the context is like beginning a book on page 57 and complaining that the author expressed himself unclearly.

3.  Ask yourself, “What makes this passage so difficult?” Are there certain words that are hard to understand or to define? (For example, the word “save” in James 2 is tricky — is he talking about going to heaven when you die, or salvation in some other sense? Same with the word “justify.”) Is the passage tough because of a cultural gap between me and the original readers? (1 Corinthians 11 is a good illustration, since we have a hard time understanding the need for women to wear head coverings in church). Do I have theological presuppositions that are preventing me from believing what this passage is saying?

4.  Create a list of interpretive options. For example, James 2 could be teaching us that we can lose our salvation if we lack good works. That’s one option. Or it could be saying that good works are the evidence that our faith is genuine. That’s another possibility. It could be saying that our faith is truly mature and useful when we demonstrate good works. That’s Option 3. There are probably others, as well. As you study the passage, make a list of the different ways the passage can be interpreted, so you can decide between the options.

5.  Use every interpretive tool at your disposal. Sometimes word studies are helpful — in James 2, you would want to examine the meaning of the word “save,” not only in the book of James, but also throughout the New Testament and the Bible as a whole. Cultural background can be helpful, as well — what was the meaning of wearing a head covering in the first century? (This is where commentaries and background books are useful). Compare and contrast your passage to similar ones — what differences do you see between Paul’s discussion of faith in Romans 3-4, and James’s discussion in 2:14-26? Once you have studied on your own, ask your pastor or mentor to help you understand.

6. Decide between options, but be willing to change your mind. Once you’ve researched the options, pick the one that seems most likely. Few interpretations, if any, are without problems. Expect that you will revisit the passage in a week, a month, or a year and study it again. Be open to alternative viewpoints, and avoid the temptation to choose your view based solely on the opinion of a popular pastor or preacher. Keep studying the Scripture and praying for wisdom.

7. Finally, pray for wisdom to apply the passage appropriately. In the long run, the goal is not only to fill your mind with information, but to allow that information to seep into your heart and change the way you relate to God and to others. Wisdom is taking the knowledge you have and applying it to everyday life. When you study the Bible, seek to become a wise person instead of just a smart person.

Here’s a question for you: What are some of your favorite resources (books, websites, other people, etc.) for resolving difficult passages? 

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