Seminary or Cemetery?

         Things are changing, but there was a day not too long ago when seminary education was viewed in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles as a place you went to lose your faith. A spirit of intellectualism was warned against because it bred doubt and killed vibrancy. And if there’s anything Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are not it’s stolid towers of academia or scientific laboratories. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are nurturers of the heart and advocates of what’s practical. The cool winds of dogmatism are not generally welcome, and especially not a spirit of unbelief. So why send young leaders off to get trained at institutions that seemed to produce such things? Thus seminaries became known as a cemeteries, a place of no return.
     So many independent Pentecostal/Charismatic churches developed other means of training future leaders. In a lot of independent P/C churches this is how it went: You were trained for the ministry via in-house apprenticeships. A young man aspiring to ministry was encouraged to “stick around” and get the vision of the house, the heart of his leadership, and to prove himself faithful. Things are caught more than they are taught. Over a successful tenure the young man would begin to think in like-minded ways with his leadership. The anointing of the mentor would be transferred to his or her protege. This is what’s symbolically called ‘catching the mantle,’ as Elisha did with Elijah’s cloak and received a double anointing. In more aggressive shepherding-movement churches this kind of mentoring can get pretty intense. A servant’s heart is best proven when personal independence is subsumed by the will of leadership. This would provide a way for the young leader to be properly tried and proven, and for the rest of the congregation to observe and affirm the work of God in the individual. Private faithfulness could eventually lead to opportunities for platform ministry. This is what ministry training looks like in many independent Pentecostal/Charismatic churches.
         So when the topic of seminary comes up in such churches it is simply considered unnecessary. Church history, biblical languages, and theology are fine if you’re called to be a teacher. But, if you want to be a pastor it’s not as relevant as getting the predecessor’s heart and anointing. Also, revival has a much higher premium than, let’s say, reformation. There’s a big emphasis on spiritual authority, leadership, and anointing. And honestly, I would agree that that’s all a man essentially needs. He needs to be anointed by God for his role and be able to lead others also. But, if that’s all that is required of a man to be a good pastor, couldn’t we say there are things (such as technical skill) that could even make him better? That’s the conviction I – as a Pentecostal/Charismatic – have arrived at. If we stop and consider (perhaps reconsider) the value of seminary training, I think many more of my tribe would be greatly enriched.

So, in my view, here are 3 major reasons to value a seminary education as a Pentecostal/Charismatic:

  1. Seminary training will help you read the Bible. If nothing else, a good solid class in biblical hermeneutics will do wonders. Because unfortunately, we tend to treat the Bible like we do no other book. We handle Bible verses (even Bible words) as if they are free floating. I think verse enumeration somehow gives us the notion that each verse stands alone. But, a class like hermeneutics reminds us that the Bible reads just like any other work of literature; it reads in paragraphs. And the context may limit the meaning to the verse we so freely utilize. God’s Word is also revealed in certain literary genres, and a course in hermeneutics can help one appreciate how each typically functions. Also, in seminary, you get to learn the biblical languages. This is laborious, but very rewarding work. Put it this way, if you were in love with a woman who speaks Spanish, you would certainly do your best to learn her language, unless you wanted a translator to assist with every conversation you had. Same kind of thing with the Bible. Our translations are well done, but granted, there’s always something lost in translation. And the study of the original languages is the enterprise of recovering all that’s left behind. Taking the pains to learn the language of Scripture is getting as close as we can to the one in whom we love – a serious consideration for anyone who desires to preach the Word on a regular basis.
  2. Seminary training will help you appreciate the church. I definitely recommend attending a good evangelical seminary that is fairly well represented theologically. If you’ve been apart of one church for many years (like me) it’s likely that you are immersed in a sub-culture and may not even realize the depth of that immersion. And it’s a humbling experience to find out that not all Christians think exactly like you — and then to find out they have good reason for it! Wow. To explore the other positions and how they have come to their conclusions has been one of the healthiest endeavors I have ever engaged in as a Christian. It doesn’t mean I agree with them, but how can you disagree if you don’t really understand their position? Understanding breaks down stereotypes. It breeds appreciation, instead of mistrust and suspicion. We can get spiritually smug in our own sub-culture, thinking that we possess the elite form of Christianity and have nothing to learn from other expressions of the church. Now, all this doesn’t mean we have to lose our distinctiveness and turn into theological mush. On the contrary; it sharpens us. Knowing other theological positions helps us understand our own that much better. Karl Barth has said, “The person who knows only his side of the argument knows little of that.” So, in getting acquainted with the beliefs of other evangelicals we come to a better understanding of our own. With no map, there’s no reference point, and thus no identity. With a map, we know our ecclessial context, and understand who we are that much better.
  3. Seminary training will help you acquire technical skill. Seminary is a place to learn the tools of biblical study, languages, theology, church history, how to prepare sermons, how to think critically, even practical tools of ministry. It’s a place to acquire a tool box. And that’s exactly what I came to get. Nothing will replace the time spent in a church setting simply working with and loving people. Although, I have been thoroughly transformed by my time in seminary I wouldn’t necessarily promote it as the place of transformation. It’s an unfair expectation and it’s not a guarantee. Once that responsibility becomes the seminary’s a student is likely to become disillusioned with the institution fairly quickly. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on theory and technical skills. It’s nitty gritty and it can get dry. (Hence the unfair caricature of seminary being a cemetery). Personal vitality and growth in Jesus needs to be owned by the student and fostered in the church. Seminary isn’t going to make that happen, which actually makes for good training for the pastorate, cause guess what? no one will be looking over your shoulder to ensure your transformation. So, everyone that endeavors to obtain a seminary degree should understand from the get go that it is a place to acquire tools, to read, to think, and to reflect upon and articulate a fresh philosophy of ministry. If one’s own relationship with Jesus is underway and if experience in the church is happening, seminary doesn’t have to bear the load of personal transformation. And instead, it can be a place of great acquisition of valuable skills and tools that will help the man or woman of God be thoroughly equipped.
         There are a lot of things that Pentecostals and Charismatics do really well, but why not seminary? Why not? It would even make them better! Yes, our movement is one of the heart; other movements are that of the mind. Presbyterians and Baptists (let’s say) typically have a rich heritage of scholarship. And many of them are becoming more and more open to the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit. So, for us, who traffic in the Spirit to remain on the margins of the academy would be a crying shame. There is much for us to have at seminary. Yes, it costs money and it requires time, but I think Pentecostal/Charismatic churches would be more well-rounded with the things that are available with a good seminary education.
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