It’s a question that burns in the minds of many young pastors after they surrender to God’s call to ministry.
Should I go to seminary?
There are many good reasons to attend a biblically faithful seminary or divinity school, but there are also many false notions that have grown up around schools that prepare ministers.
Here are five such myths.
1. Seminary Is Cemetery
It’s a tired cliché I’ve heard many times—typically from those who fail to see the merits of a sound seminary education, but sometimes from ministers who think pursuing theological education means the death of devotional life: “Going to seminary is like going to a cemetery—you will leave school spiritually dead.” Sadly, the landscape of theological education is dotted with examples of seminaries and divinity schools who teach things that would shipwreck an eager young minister’s confidence in the Word of God. But the presence of the false proves the existence of the true.
Really, though, how can parsing Greek nouns, learning about the Council of Nicaea, or gaining a deeper grasp of the hypostatic union make me a better Christian? I learned early that perhaps the better question is, How can it not? During my first few days of seminary, one of my Greek professors challenged me not to bifurcate my devotional life from my academic studies. We should make them one. Never, ever should we approach the things of God—whether it’s translating Galatians from Greek to English or writing a paper on the First Great Awakening—with anything less than the highest affections. In the same way a minister ought to make sermon prep a key part of his sanctification, so seminary studies should be approached with a warm heart toward the Lord of Galatians or the First Great Awakening. Never, ever should it become a cold, academic exercise.
2. Seminary Will Make Me a Pastor
One of the most persistent myths a student must debunk early is the notion that theological knowledge is a synonym for the maturity, patience, and godliness that God uses to build a pastor. Theological learning can certainly be an important part of making a pastor, but in the same way basic training doesn’t make soldiers, seminary doesn’t form pastors. Soldiers develop into courageous, strong, competent warriors on the battlefield, and pastors get made in the trenches of local church ministry.
But it would be unconscionable for a soldier to go to war without training, and in the same way, being steeped in the fundamentals of the Christian faith—which includes Bible, theology, and related disciplines—is foundational for becoming a faithful and mature in wielding the sword of the Spirit and shepherding a flock of sheep. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are two parts of a whole that make a man of God.
Besides, seminary without practical ministry experience could lead to a minister building a fictional church in his mind—nothing more than a theological and ministerial Rivendell. And when he enters his first church position, armed with unrealistic expectations, he may be tempted to retreat when the bullets fly, the wounds leave scars, and the battle grows long and intense. He will soon learn that pastoral ministry is not for the faint of heart.
3. Seminary Doesn’t Focus on Real-Life Issues
The Puritan William Ames (1576–1633) famously wrote that theology is the art of living well. There is hardly anything more practical than studying the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man, the atonement, the exegesis of Scripture, and how the church has conducted its business throughout the ages. We practice in accord with our knowledge; we do what we know. If we believe man is flawed but basically good, we will align our daily lives accordingly. But if man is depraved and in need of unilateral transforming grace, our lives will be lived in reliance on the God of all grace. We will teach others to live consistent with either belief.
Building a robust Christian worldview is the first step in living well and teaching others to do the same. Immersing ourselves in the things of God—as Paul commanded his young understudy—will transform us in profound ways. Notice how Paul links information with transformation:
Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Tim. 4:15–16)
4. Seminary Will Teach Me All I Need to Know About Ministry
The man who would become my doctoral supervisor and mentor, Tom Nettles, taught me three 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 Nettles has written thousands of pages and to which he’s devoted more than four decades of careful study and research.
In that moment, I realized two things: (1) It’s a privilege to be learning about the things of God from humble men, and (2) When I leave seminary—and after I’ve studied the Bible, theology, and church history for decades—I won’t even know a tiny fraction of 1 percent of all there is to know. In other words, I will always be a student. Seminary prepares 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, or a counselor how to teach him or herself. Seminary can by no means teach everything you need to know, but it puts strong tools in your box to set you up for a lifetime of matriculating in the school of Christ. The best professors will teach and inspire you to dig for treasure that you will use to make others eternally wealthy.
5. Seminary Is a Luxury, Not a Necessity
I’ve often been reminded that Charles Spurgeon didn’t go to seminary—and yet we know how mightily God uses him even more than a century after his death. But not many of us is as gifted as the Prince of Preachers. Not many of us were reading Puritan books at the age of 12 in our grandfather’s study. Someone else once pointed out to me that Jesus didn’t go to seminary. Not many of us is Spurgeon. None of us is the perfect God-man. For the rest of us, finding a solid, biblically faithful seminary is a necessity—if at all possible.
The biblical admonition is that all called to ministry must study to show themselves approved, workmen who need not be ashamed, able to rightly divide the Word of God (2 Tim. 2:15). And one of the best places to do this is where many godly, competent Christian minds are gathered and gifted to teach how to lead a church faithfully. Sometimes, though not as often as we’d like, that is a local church populated with godly ministers able to teach a wide variety of subjects within the setting of vocational ministry. Often, that place is a seminary committed to teaching God’s inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. I was privileged to study in one such place, and I shudder to think what my life and ministry would look like without those years of rigorous study under capable teachers. I encourage everyone whom God calls to pray for the opportunity to do likewise.
With contributions from 15 veteran pastors, including Danny Akin, Juan Sanchez, Phil Newton, and Scott Sauls, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway) offers real-world advice about the joys and challenges of the first five years of pastoral ministry—bridging the gap between seminary training and life in a local church.