It’s Time to Reconsider Theological Education

By Doug Ponder    |    April 18, 2022


This is the beginning of a series of articles about the scripturally ordered, spiritually vital, yet sometimes tenuous relationship between theological education and the church. Having already broken at least one writing convention, permit me to break a few more: You should know that I write as a product of and a practitioner in both the church and the seminary. I was raised in the church from childhood, and I now lead a church as a shepherd of the people whom God has entrusted to my care. I was also privileged to attend a Christian college and seminary (three times) with some professors who loved Christ sincerely, taught the Scriptures ably, and applied them faithfully. Even now, as I teach in a seminary of a radically different design than the seminary I attended, I remain grateful for my education and for the many professors who poured their lives into mine. I certainly would not be doing what I am doing now if these brothers had not served me then, and for all that, I give sincere thanks to the Lord.

There is more to the story, however. Despite all that I have received from the church and from theological education, there were not a few moments of sadness, frustration, and even righteous indignation along the way. It is true, of course, that in those early years of heady arrogance one always thinks he can do better than the next guy.1 Nonetheless, a few of my early concerns have persisted long after the point in ministry when seasoned practitioners had told me that I would alter my perspective or approach. “Just wait until you’re in the saddle,” they said, “Then you’ll change your tune.” Some of that advice has proven true, I happily admit, but much of it has turned out in hindsight to be exactly the sort of pragmatic justification that I had always feared it might be.2

Even so, this series of articles is not fundamentally negative in its outlook. To begin with, I sense that most people, not least the church, have had quite enough of jeremiads. To be sure, there remain problems to be solved, courses that need correcting, and sins that must be repented of. Yet Christians ought to speak about these matters in faith (believing that every oversight, error, and sin has been forgiven), in hope (trusting that God will right all wrongs in the end), and in love (for God, surely, but also for those whom we labor alongside, remembering that all of us see dimly and know only in part). I trust my readers share the same faith, hope, and love, even at points where they may disagree with me, for I speak as one whose wellbeing is bound together in one family with you. For this reason, I offer the following critiques with the aim of a surgeon, who cuts only in order to cure a condition that, if left unaddressed, would have continued to molest or destroy the beloved.

In the final analysis, this series of articles is less about the state of the church and theological education as they are now and more about what the relationship between the church and theological education can be. Better still: to whatever degree I might be accurate in my assessments of how current realities deviate from scriptural means and ends, this is a series about what the relationship between the church and theological education should be. It is, in essence, a call for all those who are reformed in heart and mind to persist in the difficult but necessary work of always reforming—not the doctrines of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), but the practices, systems, and structures we employ to communicate these truths and to inculcate the necessary practices that accord with them.

That such a reformation is needed seems evident in view of an ever-growing gap between the focus of theological education and the needs of the church, between the kind of instruction scholars give and the kind of training pastors require, and between the abstractions of conceptual theory and the vitality of embodied knowledge. There are several causes for this gap, which I intend to address at length (Lord willing). But the first and greatest task is acknowledging that such a gap exists, along with recognizing that it cannot be closed by anything less than restoring the church to the theology and theology to the church.

The Growing Gap

In this article, I am arguing that a growing gap exists between the kind of instruction seminaries tend to offer and the kind of training pastors actually require. This gap is not new, nor is it something that has gone unnoticed. For one thing, the problem is keenly felt by pastors and their churches, both of whom suffer because of it. More than this, however, the gap is so large that even those whose professional livelihoods would seem to depend upon the church not noticing it have been openly telling us about the problem for many years. Indeed, more than a decade has passed since a major online platform published an article that asked seasoned professors and seminary administrators a simple question that acutely exposed the gap. The contributors were asked, “What one thing would you change about seminary?” Their answers—if we take them seriously—have paradigm-altering implications for theological education in the church.

The first contributor said, “The local church is the most important school for ministry, and the faithful pastor is the crucial professor. The seminaries that serve best will be those who understand this.”3 A second echoed the call for churches and pastors to occupy a central place in theological education, stating, “[Seminaries need] close integration with an expanding apprenticeship program in our best churches, led by pastors who believe in theological education but who will also train our M.Div. graduates in relationship, spirituality, consistency, hands-on ministry, streets smarts.”4 The final contributor suggested an underlying cause for this growing gap between the affirmation of the church’s centrality in training pastors and a model education that inadvertently undermines the same. He noted, “The agenda of evangelical seminaries is set primarily by scholars. Professors decide how students will spend their time; they determine students’ priorities; they set the pace. And guess what. Scholars’ agenda seldom match the needs of the church.”5

Too many seminary graduates are better at writing footnoted papers than they are at embodying the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

—Doug Ponder

It would be tempting to dismiss any (or all!) of these quotes as the ignorant rantings of the anti-intellectualist strain of evangelicalism with its scandalously absent mind. Yet these are the words of learned men with doctorates from Cambridge and Harvard—hardly the top choice of anti-intellectualists. Even more to the point, these are the informed assessments of a seminary president, a globally renowned scholar, and a professor who taught for over twenty years at the largest Reformed seminary in America. These are, in other words, insights that we dismiss at our own peril.

To be quite clear, I stand firmly on the side of those who insist that the pastoral calling is an inherently theological one, and that, as such, pastors require a rigorous theological education.6 As regards the first part of this claim—that every aspect of pastoral ministry is by nature theological—there can be no substantive objection. Pastors are those who are entrusted with shepherding the flock of God (1 Pet. 5:2), which cannot be done apart from knowing the God who purchased that people for himself (John 17:3; Acts 20:28). In this way, every aspect of the pastoral calling is inescapably theological in nature, and those who do not see this fact often do great harm in the churches where they serve. Indeed, many heresies in the ancient church and today might have been avoided through a robust education in the riches of the church’s theological reflection through the centuries.7

For all those reasons, I take it as a matter of course that pastors need a rigorous education; pastoral ministry is rigorous work. The problem rests with the essential lack of agreement regarding what constitutes appropriate rigor. Here I am not thinking primarily of the question, “How rigorous is rigorous enough?” (though that is a fair question to ask). I’m thinking more of questions such as: “Rigorous enough for what? And who gets to decide? And how and where is the purported rigor discerned or tested?” These questions are significant, and how we answer determines to a very large degree the shape not only of theological education but also of the churches that are led by those that have been trained, assessed, and affirmed by the former. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Yet the fruit is plain for all to see. The result of the gap we have been addressing is that many churches fall into the hands of seminary graduates who are woefully underprepared for the actual work of pastoral ministry. Too many have a better apprehension of Kate Turabian than they have of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostle’s Creed.8 Too many are better at writing footnoted papers than they are at embodying the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3; 1 Pet. 5:2). Too many are capable of winning a theological debate without being able to win a single convert (Acts 17:2–4; 1 Cor. 9:22). Too many have the ability to talk about theology while lacking the ability to discern—let alone the courage to pursue—what God’s people must do at this particular time (1 Chron. 12:32). And far too many have written papers on “The Necessity of a Theologically-Driven Church” without ever having been required to serve in the church—except perhaps for one semester’s worth (!) of “supervised ministry.”

I grant that there are exceptions. I also grant that seminaries were never designed to teach everything necessary for the formation of faithful pastors.9 Nevertheless, the general results we are seeing are not a mystery. With apologies to the author of Hebrews, someone somewhere has testified that every system is perfectly designed to obtain the results it is producing. It is a law of creation that we reap more of what is subsidized and less of what is penalized. This means if we want pastors who are recognizably like Christ (Acts 4:13), we cannot continue to train them in ways that fail to form Christ in them, which divorce their learning from its appointed end, and which remove the educational process from the oversight of the men who will give an account for how they shepherded all those the Lord entrusted to their care (Heb. 13:7, 17)—including the future pastors to whom they should have said, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

An Early Conclusion

In the next article, I will turn my attention to the nature of education itself, since a misunderstanding on this point is one of several factors that contribute to the growing gap between theological education and the church.10 For now, allow me to conclude by briefly sketching where we are headed. The essential call is this: If we are going to close the gap, Christians must return in practice, not just in theory, to a vision for theological education that is consonant with the means and ends set forth in Scripture for this task.

Such a vision is one that understands that pastors are people with souls in need of forming, not machines in need of data input. It is a vision that remembers the nature and goal of theology, which is nothing less than sharing life with the Triune God who made us for himself. Furthermore, it is a vision that not only includes local pastors as a necessary part of theological education but also empowers those pastors to take up the pastor-forming facets of their vocation (1 Tim. 2:2). Finally, it is a vision that reinforces the centrality of the local church in the life of God’s people, enabling—even requiring—seminary students to learn and obey simultaneously, instead of separating extended periods of study from supervised implementation and practice (James 1:22).

Seminary presidents, professors, and scholars already see this need. Pastors themselves have felt in their lives. Churches have suffered because of it. What remains to be seen is whether we will understand the causes of how we got here and how remedying those factors will not only reshape theological instruction for the better but will profoundly edify God’s people for good (Eph. 4:12–16).

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the education and training of pastors. (Next Post)

  1. Hubris hath no equal like a first-year seminary student.
  2. This grieves me deeply, of course, for there is no delight in being right about a matter that harms the church or hinders its witness to the world.
  3. Al Mohler, interview by Collin Hansen, “TGC Asks: What one thing would you change about seminary?” August 13, 2010. Accessed January 25, 2020.
  4. D. A. Carson, ibid.
  5. Richard Pratt, Jr., ibid.
  6. See for example, R. Albert Mohler, “The Pastor as Theologian” in A Theology for the Church A Theology for the Church (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2007), 927–34.
  7. To be sure, many of the church’s heretics were thoroughly educated. But to say that one error could have been avoided by education is not to say that an error of a different could not persist in spite of—or even because of—the pupil, his professors, or the approach of either to the entire project of theological education altogether.
  8. If you doubt this is so, find recent seminary graduates and ask them to recite these from memory. Or, if you dare, ask them to explain the gospel to you clearly, accurately, and concisely.
  9. Indeed, there are dozens of books aiming to supplement seminary education, not even counting a surge of self-published works on the subject. Some of the better known works include: W. A. Criswell, Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors (Nashville, TN: B&H, 1980); John MacArthur, Pastoral Ministry: How to Shepherd Biblically (Nasvhille, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005); Paul Meier and Frank Minirth, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993); H. B. London, Jr., What I Didn’t Learn in Seminary. Audio recording (Focus on the Family, 2003); The Pastor’s Handbook: Instructions, Forms, and Helps for Conducting the Many Ceremonies a Minister Is Called Upon to Direct, Revised ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2006); James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011); R. Kent Hughes, The Pastor’s Book: A Comprehensive and Practice Guide to Pastoral Ministry (Crossway, 2015); Jason Helopoulos, The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry, Foreward by Ligon Duncan (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015); Charles Malcom Wingard, Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry, Foreword by R. Kent Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2018); Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, eds., 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway, 2018).
  10. So also with the other factors, each in turn.
Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder is professor of biblical studies at Grimké Seminary and is a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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