It’s impossible to write about the relevance of seminary in any truly meaningful sense because, if we’re going to be honest, there is no such thing as seminary.
In reality, there are seminaries (plural), and not all of them are alike—some are Protestant, some Catholic; some conservative, some liberal; some Jewish, some Mormon; some Hindu. You get the idea. Even in a Protestant context, asking about the relevance of seminary is like asking about the relevance of a church service. In both cases, relevance depends on whether the Bible is taken seriously, on whether the forms of communication correlate sufficiently with the culture and on whether the leaders running it are practicing what they preach. In some ways, seminary is a luxury. Many pastors in poor countries can’t even begin to think about going to seminary. They have to make do without ever learning Greek or hearing about the heresies in church history.
But at what cost? Certainly not at the cost of church growth. By far the greatest church growth in the 21st century is happening in areas that hardly have church buildings, much less seminaries. The Holy Spirit, not formal learning, raises up new disciples and church leaders. Even in developed countries, some of the most fruitful pastors are ones who didn’t go to seminary. No wonder people ask about the relevance of seminary. Plainly it’s a relevant question.
Other relevant questions come to mind. How much theology do people really need in order to become mature Christians? Can new believers become mature when no one in the church has been theologically trained? Does it matter if Christ-followers have a murky understanding of Christ Himself? What is the long-term cost of having churches led by pastors who are biblically unprepared to deal with all the questions that enter people’s minds once they start examining the Gospel?
To handle Scripture accurately, a person must be trained to think theologically about all that Scripture says as a whole. It takes good theological thinking, for instance, to reach the grand conclusion that Jesus Christ is God. By simply reading Scripture, a person could walk away as an Arian heretic. After all, Jesus did say, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28, TNIV). As a result, the Arians believed that Jesus was not divine. As good monotheists, they simply could not believe that God is triune; for they were fully convinced that God is one—and, indeed, He is. It’s just that God is also three. God is Father, Son and Spirit, yet He (not they) is one. What the church fathers figured out from reading Scripture in its entirety is that God is Himself a “society of love.” It makes sense in light of God’s triune nature for Jesus to have said, “The Father is greater than I” because Jesus deliberately emptied Himself of His equality with God (Philippians 2:6). The church fathers used their reasoning skills, not to elevate Reason above the Bible, but rather to show the reasonableness of Scripture when properly understood.
Here we see the relevance of seminary. Seminary exists for the purpose of teaching students how to think with discernment about God. And thinking is important because the top commandment in Scripture is to love the Lord your God, not only with all your heart, soul and strength—but also with all of your mind (Matthew 22:37-39). Granted, different people have different mental capacities. But that’s beside the point. The point is that each of us is responsible to love God with all the mental capacity we have. Notice this applies to Christians generally. The Bible does not say that pastors are supposed to have an extra love for God to compensate for the people in the congregation. Nor does it say that pastors alone are responsible to teach God’s Word. On the contrary, it says, “And the Lord’s servant must be … able to teach” (2 Timothy 2:24). In other words, being a Christ-follower entails becoming a teacher—not a classroom teacher necessarily, but a Gospel teacher who can sit across the table and explain to someone else the basics of the Christian faith.
Unless a person goes to seminary, it’s hard to know what to do, even with general questions about Jesus’ identity. Is it true that Jesus Christ is fully God? If so, does that mean God is capable of dying? Is it biblical for Christians to sing Charles Wesley’s lyrics, “that Thou my God shouldst die for me?” embedded in his hymn, “And Can It Be?” Did God die when Jesus died? These are the types of questions that pastors eventually face. Unless these questions are well dealt with, they usually erode people’s faith.
Seminary, then, is a learning laboratory in which Christians can learn to think about the logical implications of Christian doctrine. These implications are important because they translate into practical living.
What Christians believe about God shows up in their daily lives. I’ll offer just one example.
While most believers know that God is Spirit, many nonetheless believe that God is male. If you think about it logically, it doesn’t make sense to say that God is male—considering that God doesn’t have a body. Precisely because God is Spirit, He is neither male nor female. Yes, both male and female are created in His image, but God’s image has nothing to do with sexuality. Animals have sexuality, yet they are not created in God’s image. Just because a zebra is male or female does not mean it bears God’s image. God is Spirit! It’s an age-old heresy to assign gender to God. But that heresy is difficult to avoid.
To handle Scripture accurately, a lot of different things have to be taken into account. With regard to the question of God’s maleness, first of all, we need to acknowledge that according to the Bible, God the Spirit is described as a “He” (John 14:16). The Bible, furthermore, makes it clear that God is Father. Yet, we can deduce from Scripture that the masculine language for God is metaphorical. If we insist that God is male on the basis of the fact that God is Father, then we must also claim that because God is Father, God the Father must be older than God the Son. And the moment that we do so, we fall into Arianism. The famous heretical statement of the Arians is this: “There was a time when the Son was not.”
There is one more implication—a costly implication—of falling into the trap of assuming God is male. Though it might be unintentional, Christians who believe this end up telling other people that men are more like God than women are. Tacitly it is said that since men are male and God is male, men have something in common with God that women will never have. In other words, Christians who believe this end up saying accidentally that men are superior to women. I wish everybody knew how many 14-year-old girls are losing interest in the Church because they think Christianity is chauvinistic.
There are countless examples of theological issues that cloud people’s thinking and hinder them from loving God fully. Indeed, a lot of hard questions are raised by 5-year-olds. Where are the parents who are theologically ready to engage these children’s questions? What will happen to these children spiritually if their questions about God are marginalized? What I am trying to say is that when anyone in the Church is stifled intellectually with regard to their thoughts about God, more often than not, it hurts their relationship with God.
So, who needs theological education? Everyone in the Church, even 5-year-olds. And who needs seminary?
A critical mass of people—enough of us need to go in order to become the teachers of the teachers, and the teachers of the parents in the Church. That’s why I tell my students, “You’re supposed to go out and teach others for free what you have paid to learn in seminary.”
Isn’t that what the Great Commission says? “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus put the emphasis on “going” and “making disciples” and “baptizing” and “teaching.” Likewise, that is what the seminary ought to do.
Theological education can aptly be described as one big commentary on the Great Commission. Indeed, the best theological training mobilizes Christians by helping them understand their own baptism. To be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is to enter into the drama of redemption. The marvel of our Lord is that He uses the very people whom Jesus came to save by turning them into ambassadors of His Kingdom.
SARAH SUMNER is Professor of Theology and Ministry at Azusa Pacific University and serves as a regular teaching pastor at New Song Church.