A version of this article was originally published at Credo.
The man who would eventually become my mentor and doctoral superviser, Tom Nettles, taught me three profoundly valuable words for ministry during my first week as a seminary student 20 years ago: “I don’t know.”
Those words came in reply to a student’s question about Baptist history, a topic on which Tom has written thousands of pages and to which he’s devoted more than four decades of careful study, writing, 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 1 percent of all there is to know. In other words, I will always be a student. Like all good institutions of higher education, 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, a counselor how to teach himself. As I recount in the opening chapter of a 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 valuable in helping me preach and teach God’s Word, but they didn’t make me a pastor any more than basic training transforms Gomer Pyle into John Rambo. Only the battlefield can do that. Still, basic training is essential for readying one to survive the horrors of war.
A head full of theology, church history, and Greek is valuable, but that didn’t make me a pastor any more than basic training transforms Gomer Pyle into John Rambo.
Seminary functions similarly. We pit them against each other—seminary versus the local church, basic training versus battlefield experience—to our own peril.
Teachability Equals Humility
What struck me about Dr. Nettles’s answer 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 is ignorant on this point, what hope is there for me? He followed the statement by telling the student something like, “I’d love to see you go and research that question and come back and teach me.” At some point in seminary, almost all my professors said 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 receive my PhD. As I waited for my name to be called, my mind drifted back to that first week. I had since read thousands of pages and written dozens of papers on topics related to the Bible, theology, church history, and all the rest.
My sinful heart might crave omniscience, but a good and loving God will never give it to me.
Yet I knew I still wasn’t even in the zip code of everything I needed to know. I felt pretty lame—but that was good, for I was certain my eight years of 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’ve prayed God would help me to remain teachable, because teachableness is the firstborn child of humility. After graduation, a friend asked me what kind of congregation I hoped to pastor. I answered, “One that’s teachable.” 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 wrapped in humility?
No matter how many letters follow 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 see our smallness and drive us to view ourselves as lifelong students willing to both listen to and learn from others.
It’s critical for even the best-taught Christian mind to be wrapped in humility.
When we’re tempted to strut our learning or compare our minds favorably to those we perceive as having less cranial firepower, it’s like one ant flexing his muscles in front of another, unaware they’re crouched in front of Mount Everest.
Read Books and People
If anything, those of us who study and teach 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 be a deflating pin: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
In my first pastorate, an older man who’d been a longtime leader in the church 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. Eventually, I made it my mission to win him over and began to visit his home. We talked about NASCAR, college football, fishing, and eventually even the Bible. When I left that ministry, he was among the members who expressed the most 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—and all those book recommendations.”
Our conversations sometimes included him asking questions I couldn’t answer. That man taught me how to love those vastly different from me—not less intelligent, just called to do something else with their lives besides study and teach others what they’ve learned. I was in my early 40s and grew up in a decidedly blue-collar environment, so you’d think I would’ve already known that. But arrogance lodges in every sinful heart, and it turns out I’m not so smart when it comes to learning important life lessons. I’m glad God is patient with his knucklehead sons.