Some denominations, specifically those with a more centralized governing structure, require a seminary degree prior to ordination to ministry. Baptist churches, and those in the baptistic tradition, lacking any centralized denominational authority, leave ordination to the decision of local churches. This means that, for ministry candidates in Baptist and baptistic churches, seminary is an option, not a requirement, for ministry preparation. Since it is an option, it is one that must be evaluated, and I offer here some guidance on how to evaluate it.
“Should I enroll in seminary?” is the question many young men ponder at some point. In answering that question, I want to acknowledge up front that the Bible gives no law here, so there may be any number of factors that might tilt one’s decision in one direction or the other. Wisdom, not moral requirement, must be one’s guide. And certainly, we can name examples of men who were used mightily by God without formal seminary training, such as John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon.
With that said, I want to argue that for those who are preparing for ministry, the question should not be, “Should I enroll in seminary,” but rather, “Is there any compelling reason for me not to enroll in seminary?” Let your default plan be the completion of a seminary degree, and only deviate from that plan if factors of life compel you to do otherwise. I believe this is the path of wisdom, for the following reasons:
1. The call to ministry includes the call to prepare oneself for ministry. Let the weight of James’s warning in James 3:1 sink in:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
One who aspires to a ministry that involves the public proclamation of the Word of God is one who aspires to a task of monumental accountability. It is no small matter to mislead the church of God into error, and therefore the call to ministry cannot be approached lightly, as though diligent preparation is merely an option. It is not an option, but an imperative.
But isn’t it possible to give oneself to diligent preparation without pursuing a seminary degree? Yes, it is possible. But I would argue that the pursuit of a seminary degree, in conjunction with training at a local church (often as a component of the seminary degree) remains the best option for ministry preparation today, as the remaining reasons demonstrate.
2. Seminary provides the structure, accountability, and standards of excellence that are extremely rare outside of a setting of formal education. Yes, Charles Spurgeon had no formal theological education. But he had an unparalleled natural ability, a tireless diligence in personal study, and an immense library of theological resources, all of which set him apart from 99.99% of ministry candidates today. Men like Spurgeon come along once every 500 years. The rest of us normal people have to acknowledge that we need structure, accountability, and standards that experts in the various branches of theological studies can provide us through a seminary. Having earned two seminary degrees, I can confidently say that I could not have begun to approximate on my own the same kind of educational experience that I was blessed to receive from men who are accomplished scholars in their fields. As I neared the end of my college days (having majored in religious studies at a Baptist school), I naively wondered how much more depth there really was out there left for me to explore in seminary. But when I got to seminary, I realized that I had only begun to scratch the surface. It was in seminary that I came to understand, not only that there were numerous things I didn’t know, but that there were even numerous things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know! Vast, unexplored depths of biblical and theological knowledge would have continued to lie untapped in my experience had it not been for the blessed years I had to give concentrated focus to them under the guidance of those who had given their lives to exploring them. Preparation for ministry, whatever form it takes, requires a plan, and a good seminary is an institution that has spent years formulating and executing such a plan.
3. Most Christian leaders in the world have little or no opportunity for a seminary education, which makes it a valuable opportunity for those who have it. In spite of the rapidly accelerating cultural decay of the West, the fact remains that we still have an embarrassment of riches, not only economically, but theologically. We have access to resources, scholars, and experienced ministry leaders in the various seminaries of North America that are able to provide us with a level of training that likely could not be replicated in most places in the world. If you aspire to lead in the church of Jesus Christ, and yet scoff at amazing opportunities that are set before you to prepare to do that well, opportunities that brothers in other parts of the world would seize in a moment if they could, have you done any better than the lazy servant who buried in the ground the talent entrusted him by his master (Matthew 25:26)? Yes, seminary is demanding. It will cost you money, time, and energy. It will become a vocation that occupies your life for a season. But you shouldn’t view that as a burden, but as a privilege. No, you don’t have to enroll in seminary. You get to enroll in seminary!
4. Seminaries can provide public credentials that aid in ministry placement. My fellow pastors and I have the opportunity to help guide a number of young men who come through our church toward placement in ministry. As we evaluate, guide, and recommend for various positions, our thinking about seminary follows these lines: all things being equal, we have much more confidence recommending a seminary trained candidate than a non-seminary trained candidate. Not only will the former have more breadth of reading, more exposure to the whole field of theological studies, more interaction with varying viewpoints, he will also have demonstrated (in 99 cases out of 100) greater diligence and seriousness about his preparation. And, of course, many churches and mission-sending agencies will evaluate candidates with the same kind of criteria in mind, which means lacking a seminary degree puts one at a disadvantage relative to others when seeking a place of service.
Another question that often arises that is related to the question of seminary is the particular kind of calling one may be pursuing. In other words, some callings lend themselves more to the need for seminary training, and some less so. Although the Bible does not spell out the specific distinctions as I will below, I think it may be helpful to think in these categories:
- Vocational ministry: If the primary calling of your life is proclaim the Word of God as your vocation, you will be spending a lot of time doing that very thing. You should prepare as well as you possibly can. Seminary training is highly recommended.
- Bivocational ministry: The only difference between this calling and vocational ministry is that the bivocational minister seeks out a secular vocation to support himself and his family in the absence of being able to do so through ministry alone. The primary vocation of a bivocational minister remains the proclamation of the Word of God, and thus the need for training remains just as important for him as for a vocational minister. Seminary training is likewise highly recommended.
- Lay ministry: If a man regards his primary calling as a vocation other than the public ministry of the Word (e.g., medicine, engineering, law, carpentry, teaching, etc.), and yet desires to serve the church through teaching ministry in a support role (typically as an elder), then I would say that seminary training is not as urgent for him as it would be for those in the two categories above. He will not be the primary biblical teacher/leader in his church, and he will likely need to devote a number of years of his education to preparation for his primary vocation, leaving less time for seminary education. Seminary is certainly a desirable option if it can be pursued, but I wouldn’t press a lay minister as much in that direction as I would one who aspires to vocational or bivocational ministry.
So, if you aspire to lead a church of Jesus Christ (or perhaps are already doing so), I believe the right question to ask is if there is any compelling reason for you not to enroll in seminary. If an amazing opportunity has been set before you in the providential grace of God, your default mode should be to receive it with gratitude and regard it as a stewardship entrusted to you for the benefit of your Master.
For more thoughts on this subject, I recommend Joshua Harris’s article “The 40-Year-Old Seminarian.”