The Miseducation of the Pastor

By Doug Ponder    |    May 30, 2022


Education meant everything to my grandfather.1 To his mind, it was the key to success in life.2 Despite some commonsensical quality to his conclusion, allow me to offer some paradoxical pushback: You will actually never meet someone who thinks education is unimportant. Indeed, you can only ever meet people who think that they think education is unimportant. For when someone says anything to the contrary, what they invariably mean is that a certain kind of education is unimportant for a certain task or role. What they do not mean is that all forms of education whatsoever—even those that do not commonly go by that name—are unneeded.

For example, if an old farmer says, “I only received an 8th-grade education, and I turned out just fine,” what he means is, “I only received formal training in reading, writing, and arithmetic through the eighth grade, and that was all I ever needed to be a farmer.” Such a man may be right in his assessment of his own needs, but he is wrong about the education he actually received. In other words, the old farmer may not have needed more years of what is commonly called “education,” but he does need a better definition of what education actually is. Because the truth is that his education did not stop when he relocated from the schoolhouse to the soybean fields in the summer after eighth grade. If anything, that’s when his deeper education was just beginning.

And so, with all due respect to my late grandfather, I propose that we do away with general exhortations to “get an education.” For all people have been—and are being—educated, whether they know it or not. The only question is whether the education we receive is a good one—one that is not only true, but also tailored to our vocations and suited to our nature as human beings.

Tragically, very many (if not most) modern pastors have been badly miseducated along these lines, and both they and their people are suffering as a result. This particular problem is but one of the contributing factors to the growing gap that exists between the kind of instruction seminaries tend to offer and the kind of training pastors actually require. For this reason, any attempt to recapture a vision for theological education that comports with the means and ends set forth in Scripture must begin with what education is—and isn’t. Only after we understand the nature of education, in general, can we speak (intelligently) about the kind of education that pastors need.

What Education Is Not

Let us begin with what education is not. Contrary to what its Latin roots (e + ducare) might seem to suggest, education is not a “leading out” or a “drawing out” of some innate knowledge or latent faculties in the pupil. In addition to being an etymological fallacy,3 that notion is the kind of rubbish about which G.K. Chesterton rightly warned, “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”4 That is to say, there are some ideas so stupid that only a very miseducated person could believe them.

In another essay, Chesterton explains why the “drawing out” view of education is so misguided. Namely, such a view of education would be the equivalent of thinking that, “Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division.”5 Right. So much for the student-centered educational movement.

But that is only one way that we fail to grasp the nature of education, and it is the less common error in conservative circles, by far. Christians know that education must involve instruction, not through facilitated introspective self-discovery, but through the directed acquisition of information previously unknown, or at least misunderstood.6 Yet it is precisely at this point that we are prone to fall into a ditch on the other side of the road. For almost as soon as we (correctly) conclude that education entails the acquisition of information, we also begin to reduce education merely to information transfer. What I mean is, we mistake the transferal of information—which is a necessary part of any education—for the entirety of what is meant by the educational process. In so doing, we truncate what is meant by “education” to something along the lines of that which can be memorized and regurgitated, but little more besides.

What Education (Actually) Is

In his essay, “The Truth about Education,” G. K. Chesterton famously defined education as “truth in a state of transmission.”7 Someone on the Internet would later turn this bit of wisdom into the following erroneous but epigrammatical quote: “Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead the transfer of a way of life.” Though our anonymous Internet editor failed to record the exact letter of Chesterton’s words, he certainly captured the spirit of them. Education is not merely about the transferal of information (from the knowledgeable professor to the ignorant student); it is about the transferal of an entire way of life.

To be sure—and it must be said a half-dozen times in this article at least8—education is no less than the acquisition of information, but it is always more than that. Yet this still does not put the matter quite strongly enough. For I am afraid (even now) that some will take me to mean, “Make sure to require more than fact acquisition when you teach your students, for education is about more than learning facts.” This is true enough, but what I am actually saying is that all education inevitably includes the passing on of more than mere information, even if that which is passed on is the erroneous idea that “what really matters” are the facts that were discussed in class and regurgitated on the quiz.

When it comes to theological education, this means most students enter seminary thinking that what they need above all is to master theological truths,9 when what they chiefly need is to be mastered by these truths. To say this another way, what seminary students most need to learn is the way of life that emerges among those who have received scriptural truths not merely as facts to be memorized, preached, and defended, but as theological givens, as bricks in a foundation upon which they live and move and have their being (1 Cor. 3:10).

It is critical (once again10) to note that this is not some sort of “optional add-on” that we are talking about. All education, simply by virtue of what education is, trains us to live in the world in formative ways. Indeed, every choice—from what to teach (or not), how to teach, who should teach, and where to teach—is inevitably loaded with assumptions about what really matters for one’s life and vocation. It is for this reason that there is no such thing as a “neutral” education, since every way of teaching or learning is built upon distinct views of who we are as humans, what the goal of learning is, and how students should go about attaining that goal.

In view of all this, then, let us slay once and for all that naïve notion that education is merely a matter of information transferal. No, education is always enculturation; it is a process that shapes students to inhabit God’s world in a particular way, as particular people, with particular vocations. And since that is so, should not pastoral training be suited to the nature of the pastoral office?

No Place for Virtue: or Whatever Happened to Pastoral Education?

The discussion about education takes a disappointing turn for the worse when we consider what it might look like for pastors to be trained to inhabit the church as shepherds of the flock of God (Acts 20:28). It is an indisputable truth that the pastoral qualifications given in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Titus 1:5–10, and 1 Peter 5:1–4) are primarily moral in nature. Yes, pastors must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2) and must have a sufficiently strong grasp of sound doctrine that they can refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). These are not minor requirements. But these do not amount to the type of education that we observe in too many seminaries today where, instead of training pastoral candidates to live as shepherds under the Lordship of Christ, we train men to read (and write) papers like: “Toward a Socio-Rhetorical Understanding of the Pastorate: New Testament Ecclesiology in Light of the Ancient Near Eastern Shepherding Tradition of 3QEzek.”

In this way, many seminary-trained men follow a troubling pattern that Anglican missionary Roland Allen observed roughly a century ago. He warned, “The young men so educated are sometimes, by that very education, out of touch with their congregations. They return to their people with strange ideas and strange habits. They are lonely, and they have to struggle against the perils of loneliness. They are not even the best teachers of people from whose intellectual and spiritual life they have so long been absent. They do not know how to answer their difficulties or to supply their necessities. They know so much Christian doctrine and philosophy that they have forgotten the religion of their country. The congregation has not grown with them, nor they with the congregation. They come, as it were, from outside, and only a few exceptional men can learn to overcome that difficulty.”11

All this stands in stark contrast to the pattern of the New Testament itself. Again, Allen observes: “They [pastoral candidates] were not necessarily highly educated men; they cannot have had any profound knowledge of Christian doctrine. It is impossible that St. Paul can have required from them any knowledge of Hebrew, or of any foreign language. . . . It is not probable that he expected or demanded any profound knowledge of Greek philosophy. It is inevitable that he must have been satisfied with a somewhat limited general education, and with a more or less meager acquaintance with the Septuagint and with his interpretation of it, with a knowledge of the brief outline of Christian doctrine set forth in the Epistle to the Thessalonians, and some instruction in the meaning and method of administration of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”12

Startlingly as this may sound, these are not the long rantings of a disillusioned missionary. On the contrary, Allen’s understanding of qualifications for pastoral office matches the description of pastors (“bishops”) as mentioned in the Didache,13 which almost exclusively focuses on the virtues of the men who fill the office. Similarly, the Didascalia Apostolorum primarily emphasizes the character of the man before briefly stating, “But if it be possible, let him be instructed and apt to teach; but if he know not letters [i.e., if he be illiterate], let him be versed and skilled in the word, and let him be advanced in years.”14

Instead of these ancient emphases derived from the Scriptures, I am afraid that we have traded an education that treats would-be pastors as men with souls to be formed for one that treats them as little more than blank slates to be filled. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Google can pass your seminary’s quizzes or your denomination’s ordination exam, you are not training men to be pastors; you are training them to be machines (which they are not and can never become).

Concluding Thoughts (For Now)

To summarize all that we have said so far, while doctrinal knowledge is undoubtedly indispensable for the pastoral calling (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9), the pastor’s life and character are foundational. And while most (if not all) institutions of theological education would agree with this in principle, they often employ modes of learning that, however unwittingly, tend to undermine this foundation in practice. Nevertheless, the scriptural emphases remain: pastoral education cannot be reduced to “learning the truth,” but must entail learning the truth by the right means (as we have been discussing), for the right reasons (which we will examine in the next article), from the right teachers, and in the right context. Anything less than this may serve to make pastors smart, but it will be of no value in stopping them from being cowardly or cruel or greedy or intemperate (or any of the other vices that account for the vast majority of pastoral failures).

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

  1. Here is why: My grandfather’s mom died when he was five. Left with only an abusive alcoholic for a father, he and his sister were forced to work in the fields of a local farmer while other children went to school. Around age eight, my grandfather was adopted by that local farmer, who put a roof over his head, clothes on his back, and food on the table—without making him skip school to acquire them. But life was still hard for poor rural farmers in Eastern North Carolina, especially after the boll weevil destroyed their crops and the Great Depression destroyed their chances of finding work in some other station. And so, when America entered World War II, my grandfather lied about his age and joined the Navy for the guarantee of “three hots and a cot.” That’s how we describe prison these days, but my grandfather called it improvement.
    He returned from the war a beneficiary of the newly passed G.I. Bill. Those funds helped my grandfather attend a prep school to complete his high school education on his way to accepting a football scholarship at Wake Forest College. Times were different for athletes back then. There were no special dormitories or hidden privileges. My grandfather had just one pair of pants and two shirts to his name. He hitchhiked to school every morning and home from practice every night. And if no one passed by to pick him up, he walked, however, many miles it was from the room he rented to the campus of the school he attended.
    After graduating, he received an offer from Fort Lee to work as a government specialist, where he remained until he retired. That’s how my family ended up in Virginia. It’s also how my grandfather altered the course of life for several generations that came after him. Looking back, I suppose he could have highlighted a number of factors for that change, especially the role of his adoptive parents. But primarily he credited “the importance of a good education,” without which, he believed, he never would have received the opportunities he had in later life.
  2. For the record, I think that’s an overstatement. But there’s no denying the importance of a general foundation of knowledge, together with a commitment to work hard and to marry before you have children. See here, for example:
  3. Here’s looking at you, D. A. Carson.
  4. G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, December 2, 1905.
  5. G. K. Chesterton, “The Truth about Education,” in What’s Wrong with the World (1910). Available online:
  6. This notion is not only explicit in many places in the Scriptures (Deut. 6:6–9; Prov. 22:6); it is also implicit every place that commends knowing the truth (John 8:32) or knowing God as he actually is and not as we suppose him to be (John 17:3). It is likewise implicit in Paul’s lament that his kindred had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:4).
  8. For someone will still say, “Here is a radical who thinks education has nothing to do with information, and that theological education has nothing to do with doctrine!” Such persons only prove that the education they received was not sufficiently good at training its pupils in reading comprehension.
  9. And perhaps a few technical skills, like preaching.
  10. This horse, though dead, must still be beaten.
  11. Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (1912), p. 106. Many thanks to my friend Dustin Messer who first alerted me to Allen’s writings in his article, “Would Paul Send Elders-to-be to Seminary?”
  12. Ibid., 102.
  13. See the Didache, XV.
  14. See the Didascalia Apostolorum, IV.ii.1.
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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