By Timothy Raymond —
For decades, seminary education has endured the slings and arrows of bad jokes, unkind mockery, and downright slander. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard a disillusioned preacher intentionally misspeak, recalling his years in “cemetery, I mean seminary,” I might be able to buy something edible. It would be easy for the average Christian to think wrongly, like Nathaniel did with Nazareth, that nothing good can come out of seminary.
Recently, however, the critiques of seminary have taken on a different form. If you’ve been following the blog chatter, you know that it’s become popular almost to assume that seminary is this dangerous place where young people are continually going shipwreck in the faith. Desiring God is currently doing a multi-part series entitled “How to Stay Christian in Seminary?” and Ray Ortland, Burk Parsons, Bruce Ashford and others have recently offered similar cautions. Perhaps the most disturbing sentence I’ve read in this regard comes from a post entitled “The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary.” Reflecting on the debauchery he witnessed firsthand, the author writes, “I drank far more alcohol in seminary than I have ever drank before or since.” Reading these articles, it would be easy to conclude that any passionate, young Christian who truly loves Jesus should stay as far away from seminary as possible.
Now having spent a number of years in seminary myself, I have a few different reactions to all of this. First, I’m somewhat baffled. Baffled because I think we need to ask the obvious question, “What has so gone wrong that the process whereby we train future pastors, church planters, missionaries, and theologians has degenerated into a crisis of faith?” I seriously doubt anyone believes this is the way it’s supposed to be. As I picture Paul training Timothy, I can’t imagine the latter viewing the training as something detrimental to his walk with the Lord. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we go about preparing men for sacred ministry. And that’s a question I think we need to discuss.
My second response has been one of relief – profound, grateful, relief. Relief, because my years in seminary were a far cry from a crisis of faith. Instead they were four years of concentrated biblical, spiritual, intellectual, and leadership maturation. Rather than being some spiritual “cemetery,” my seminary experience was far more like a retreat at a healthy, spiritually-robust, evangelical monastery. I’m not exaggerating one bit when I say that it only served to advance my walk with the Lord and prepare me for pastoral ministry.
I suspect that this would be true for the vast majority of the men I sat next to in the classroom. I can recall plenty of occasions when I stumbled upon two of my classmates praying together; I don’t recall ever overhearing a lewd joke or boasts of immorality. Instead of weakening our faith, my professors only served to drive us deeper into the Bible and closer toward God. And by the conclusion of my seminary experience, there was nothing I wanted to do more than serve Christ by pastoring His church.
Now as a result of these recent blog articles, I’ve done a good bit of reflecting on why my educational experience was so different from what so many others are apparently suffering through in seminary. In my next few posts, I’ll consider some of the factors that I believe resulted in my seminary feeding my soul as opposed to killing my faith. And I want to be clear as to why I’m writing this series. I’m certainly not attempting to pull off some sort of underhanded advertisement for my old alma mater. Since there’s no sense trying to hide from where I graduated (it’s been in my Credo bio from day one), for full-disclosure I’ll let you know that I attended Baptist Bible Seminary of PA. Like every human institution, BBS is not perfect and surely could be excelled in many ways by other seminaries. Moreover, I’m sure that there are (at least) dozens of good, evangelical schools in the world today that would give the student a likewise sanctifying education.
I will, however, be writing for those of you who may have influence over the design of a seminary experience (e.g., professors, administrators, board members, etc.) and for those of you currently contemplating seminary education. The virtues I’ll be discussing in this series can, I believe, make all the difference in ministerial training. If you have the ability to facilitate these virtues in your seminary, or if you can locate a seminary possessing these virtues, it may go a long way toward an education that encourages holiness and actually prepares men to lead the Church for which Christ died.
To conclude this initial post, let me give you a preview of where I hope to go. If the Lord wills, I intend to discuss the following virtues that I believe have the potential to help keep a seminary Christian (not sure at this point how long I’ll spend on each):
1. A conservative evangelical theology with the Bible as the primary textbook
2. A converted student body with fairly high spiritual and moral standards
3. Godly professors who were experienced pastors or missionaries
4. A commitment to train primarily pastors and missionaries, as opposed to scholars respected by the secular academy
5. Tight accountability to and involvement with local churches
6. Regular chapels which included sermons from pastors and missionaries on the frontlines
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. Tim grew up outside Syracuse, NY and previously served at Berean Baptist Church, Nicholson, PA (member and teacher during college and seminary) and Calvary Baptist Church, Sandusky, Ohio (seminary internship location). Tim met his wife Bethany at college, and they were married in May 2001. Tim enjoys reading, weight-lifting, wrestling with his three sons, and attempting to sleep.