The Goals of Theological Education, Part 3

In those difficult moments when a seminary student begins to wonder, “Why am I putting myself through this?” he must draw strength to persevere by keeping the end in view. In the last post I argued that one overarching goal of his educational experience is the development of a reservoir of knowledge from which he will be able to draw at a moment’s notice as needed in ministry. A second goal, even more important than the first, is the development of character.

It is interesting to note that in the two places in Scripture where qualifications for elders/overseers are given (1 Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:5-9), those qualifications are almost entirely about the moral character of the men being considered. A man whose heart is not oriented to God in sincere love, with a corresponding hatred of sin, has no place standing in a position of leadership in a congregation. He will not be able to lead people closer to God than he himself stands. A man who allows private sin to flourish in his heart, refusing the Bible’s call to repentance, is a man who will either (1) soft-pedal that sin in his preaching, teaching, and counseling in order to protect his own conscience, or (2) preach and teach accurately against that sin while hardening himself against God through utter hypocrisy. Either way, sin that is given safe harbor in his heart infects and weakens his ability to lead others, if it does not ruin it altogether.

But character also matters because ministry will inevitably test a man’s character, as Paul David Tripp insightfully notes:

 You see, there are very important moments in local church ministry when the church is blessed and protected not because the person leading knows all the right things but because that person brings the right heart to the moment. So he is able to deal wisely with accusation, or patiently with those who want to control, or humbly with those who idolize him more than they should. He is not just prepared to teach but also to navigate the land mines of temptation that are at the feet of everyone who ministers to fallen people in this flawed world. If you daily work to guard your heart, you are at the same time making a daily commitment to pastor and protect your people. The two simply cannot be separated. (Dangerous Calling, p. 189)

It is in those times of testing that competent, faithful leadership distinguishes itself from selfish ambition.

The seminary experience has its own way of testing and shaping the character of students. Professors and administrators who model love for God and for others in their own lives and share their lives with students give them a window into what mature character looks like. Demanding schedules with expectations of excellence have a way of shaping the character of a student who must learn how to devote sufficient attention to necessary tasks and meet important deadlines. The liturgical practices of a seminary community, such as its chapel services, play a role in shaping the hearts of those who take part in them regularly.

But seminaries are not churches. And nothing is as important in the development of character as covenantal commitment to a local church. Seminary professors will not give an account for the souls of their students, but pastors will give an account for the souls of their church members (Heb. 13:17). This is why seminary training cannot be pursued as a replacement for local church involvement. Ultimately, it is the local church that lays hands on those set apart to serve in leadership. That means it is, ultimately, the local church that is responsible for overseeing the training of leaders. Every seminary student must pursue his education under the oversight of a local church, and the more his church is involved in the educational experience itself, the better. Seminaries alone are ill-equipped to evaluate and oversee the development of character, the all-important goal of theological training, in their students. That is why the proper role of a seminary is to assist churches, never to replace them.

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