The church has been well-served by pastors who ministered without formal seminary training. John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones are standout examples of men who had impactful and long-lasting ministries even though they never attended seminary. No wonder, then, that the question often arises: Is seminary really necessary? Might it be better to get straight into ministry instead of expending so much time and effort in preparing for ministry?
Jason Allen provides an answer in his book Discerning Your Call to Ministry, but he doesn’t do so without admitting his bias. He is, after all, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an institution that exists to train men for ministry. But he provides a helpful answer nonetheless: Seminary is not necessary, but it is advisable. Let’s track with him and see how he expands on this answer.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Allen says “Paul’s exhortation to Timothy rings through the ages, challenging every generation of gospel ministers to be maximally prepared for ministerial service.” The church has little use for ministerial amateurs. Amateurs are not necessarily those who lack academic degrees or formal training, but men who lack “the knowledge base, skill set, and experience for a particular task—in this case, Christian ministry.” A man with a fistful of degrees can be a rank amateur while a man without a single credential can be a faithful minister of the gospel. Yet in almost every case a man will benefit tremendously from receiving a formal theological education. Allen draws out four reasons why this remains true, and may even be especially true, in today’s climate.
The complexity of our times. While every generation of Christians faces challenges unique to their time, “our generation comes with unique baggage. It is not that the twenty-first century is more fallen or more secular than previous ones, but it may be more complex.” There are new questions of ethics and morality, there are “torturously complex ramifications of sin,” and a cultural elite doggedly committed to undermining Christians and their worldview. In the face of such challenges, “the lost need more than shallow answers from ill-equipped ministers. They need minsters prepared to bring the full complement of Christian truth to bear in a winsome, thoughtful, and compelling way.” This full complement of Christian truth is the core curriculum of any worthwhile seminary.
The centrality of teaching the Scriptures. The church has no greater need than the skillful teaching of the Bible and, for that reason, the minister has no greater responsibility than teaching God’s Word. This task requires “a renewed and informed mind. There is simply no place in ministry for sloppy exegesis, shoddy interpretation, or shallow sermons. One can be a faithful minister without a seminary degree, but one cannot be a faithful minister without knowing the Bible well.” Is seminary the only means of learning how to “rightly handle the Word?” No, but it is certainly an effective and time-tested one.
The consequences of ministry. “There is an alarming inverse correlation between the seriousness of the ministerial task and the casualness with which it is often approached.” We insist on trained professionals when caring for our children, our bodies, our dogs, and even our cars. Yet we content ourselves with very low levels of preparation when it comes to the care of our souls. No minister should be content to remain amateurish in his ministry. “Satan is serious about his calling; ministers must be serious about theirs. The ministry is too consequential to be taken casually.” Does this necessitate seminary? No, of course not. Does it make it advisable? Perhaps so.
The priority of the Great Commission. All ministers are to proclaim the gospel in furtherance of the Great Commission, and this requires “a great burden for the lost, a passion for the glory of God in the salvation of sinners, and an equipped mind to reason, teach, and persuasively present the gospel.” Though we often think of evangelism as first requiring zeal, it also requires knowledge. This is the very knowledge gained through a seminary education—knowledge that can set that zeal on fire.
Our times are complex, the church is in desperate need of men who can skillfully teach the Word, the ministry is too consequential to admit amateurs, and carrying out the Great Commission requires men who have zeal supported by deep knowledge. Is seminary necessary for a man called to the ministry? No, says Allen, but it is advisable. I cannot disagree, and if I had to live my life over again, I would certainly pursue such an education. I often feel and lament its lack.