by John M. Frame

Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy

Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida

 

I. The Situation

In the early days of American Protestantism, the training of ministerial candidates was carried on by pastors of churches. A young man feeling a call of God to the ministry would associate himself with a church pastor, receive training from him, participate in the work of the parish, perhaps even live in the pastor’s home. I’m not sure why, but eventually this system was felt to be inadequate. Perhaps there developed a shortage of ministers able and willing to take in theological students; perhaps as the literacy rate increased congregations demanded clergy with more formal education–a “learned ministry,” as they used to say. At any rate, for some reason or other, theological training was institutionalized, and at the same time academicized. The use of the academic model was almost inevitable. In Germany, theological education was carried on through the universities, and in fact the university-approach was the only generally recognized model available for institutionalized training in any field.

In 1848, after 34 years of the board of Princeton Theological Seminary, the Rev. Gardiner Spring wrote a book called The Power of the Pulpit, wherein he compared the generation of seminary-trained ministers with the older generation of pastorally-trained ministers. Though Spring had no interest in turning back the clock (realizing the practical impossibility of dissolving the seminaries and returning to the old system) and, indeed, deeply committed as he was to the work of Princeton, he reluctantly concluded that the older generation was notably superior to the younger in pastoral effectiveness and spiritual maturity. He advocated (1) that the seminary faculty maintain close supervision, not only over a student’s academic progress, but also over his social and spiritual development; (2) that the seminary faculty itself consist of men with extensive pastoral experience; (3) that no student be ordained to the ministry until he has spent a time of apprenticeship with an experienced pastor.

1848 is often described in history textbooks as “the year of revolutions,” but Gardiner Spring’s revolution in ministerial education fizzled quickly. Gradually seminaries became more, rather than less “academic” in character.

This development was of course necessary if seminaries were to maintain their academic respectability in a world of rising academic standards. Some, however, presented a theological rationale for this development: Training in spiritual character was the work of the church, not of academic institutions; it was illegitimate, therefore, for the seminary to try to take over the work of the church by introducing spiritual nurture into its curriculum. As for hiring professors with pastoral experience, well, that was sometimes done, and still is. Over the years, however, it has become less and less possible for a man to be both an outstanding pastor and an outstanding scholar; thus seminaries, forced to choose, have inevitably picked the latter. Spring’s idea of an apprenticeship period has lately been revived after a long period of dormancy. Most seminaries now have “practical work” requirements or “internship years”.

Yet no one has succeeded in figuring out how to make such experiences educational, rather than mere exhibitions of incompetence, nor has anyone discovered a practical way of measuring the effectiveness of such programs.

The results of this kind of training have not been encouraging to me.

While the seminary refuses to “do the work of the church,” the church assumes that the seminary is doing a complete job of ministerial training. As a result, the young men receive no training at all in many crucial areas. Often, even in “practical” courses like Christian education and missions, students are trained as scholars rather than as ministers. (The qualifications for the two vocations, after all, are different, though of course there is overlap.) Most do not even become good scholars, for they learn the results of scholarship without learning how to think and do research in a scholarly way. Such “scholarly” training makes students easy prey to every new theological fad boasting academic support.

Further, the “academic” subjects studied are not clearly related to the practical work of the ministry {or even to each other!) – so that the knowledge of seminary graduates often consists in a lot of unrelated fragments.

Worst of all, it seems to me that most seminary graduates are not spiritually ready for the challenges of the ministry. Seminaries not only frequently “refuse to do the work of the church; ” they also tend to undo it. Students who arrive expecting to find a “spiritual hothouse” often find seminary to be a singular test of faith. The crushing academic work-load, the uninspiring and unhelpful courses, the financial agonies, the too-busy professors, the equally hard-pressed fellow students all contribute to the spiritual debilitation. I have known a number of students who have stopped going to church while in seminary and others who wander from church to church in a fruitless search for genuine Christian fellowship, yet unwilling (some of them would say “unable”) to give enough of themselves to others to make such fellowship possible.

New models of theological education do appear from time to time, and they do give promise of ameliorating at least some of the evils noted above. The “street seminaries” of Chile are an exciting development, but, as C. Peter Wagner indicates,1 they tend to be strong in communicating pastoral skills, weak in communicating biblical content. Francis Schaeffer’s “Farel House” in Switzerland has much to teach us, in my opinion, about how to balance theoretical and practical instruction; but Farel House does not teach ministerial students how to establish and nourish churches. The “Coral Ridge” system of training in evangelism is one which, with modifications, could vastly improve many seminary curricula. Other types of training, even less traditional, such as the Jesus People communes, are also worthy of study. At the other extreme, we should do some more thinking about the oldest “traditional” approach of all — live-in theological education at the pastor’s home. My own proposal (III below) owes something to each of these. But before we adopt any new approach to ministerial training, we must be clear on just what we are trying to do and why. And to do that we must first turn to Scripture.

 

II. Some Biblical Principles

A. The Qualifications for the Ministry are Spiritual

1. Traits of Character: It is remarkable that the qualifications for church officers listed in Scripture (notably in I Tim. 3:1-13, I Pet. 5:1-3) consist mostly in traits of godly character. These traits are the same as those required of all Christians; they are not a special morality for a spiritual elite. (Note the parallel of I Tim 3:lff. to Tit. 2:1ff., the latter passage probably being directed to older men in general rather than church officers in particular.) But a man may not take on the office until he is recognized as having these traits in high degree. These qualities are represented throughout the New Testanent as being supernatural in origin; they are the “fruit of the Spirit’l (Gal. 5:22). Without the Spirit of God, such traits are impossible; without Him, we cannot please God (Rom. 8:8 in context). The character of the minister is a Spiritual gift.

2. Skills: But a church officer is also one who can do certain things. The line between this and the last category is not sharp, for to have a “good character” is in itself to ‘be able” to pray, to resist temptation, to witness for Christ, to act humbly. Church officers, however, have special responsibilities: “tending the flock” (Acts 20:28, I Pet. 5:2; cf. In. 21:15ff.) through discipline and teaching (II Tim. 4:2, I Tim. 5:17, 3:2,4:16). Teaching and ruling are skills that a minister must possess in high degree. And these too are gifts of the Holy Spirit (~om. 12:7-8).

3. Knowledge: Finally, if a man is to teach about God and rule in God’s name, he must know God and know the Word of God (Tit. 1:9, II Tim. 3:14-17, I John 5:13-21). “Knowledge of God,” “knowing the Lord,” “knowing the truth,” in Scripture, are never mere academic attainments. To “know God” in the Bible is to be God’s covenant servant and therefore to be obedient to God (Jer. 22:16).

Thus, the “knowledge of God” is of a piece with the traits of Christian character noted in (1) above. But this covenantal knowledge, of course, involves knowledge of a more pedestrian sort – the knowledge of who God is and of what he has said and done. All distinctively Christian “knowledge,” however, whether in the informational or more broadly covenantal sense, is again the gift of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:11, 12:8).

 

B. Training for the Ministry is itself a Ministry of the Word

We have learned that the Spirit qualifies his ministers with the character, skills and knowledge needed for their work. We must not, however, conclude that these qualifications cannot be taught. The Spirit uses many means to bestow and enlarge his gifts to men; therefore, Scripture urges us both to “strive for” (I Cor. 12:31) and to “stir up” (II Tim. 1:6, cf. I Tim. 4:14) divine gifts.

Scripture indeed assumes that the character, skills, and knowledge requisite for the ministry can be taught, but only in a distinctively ‘Spiritual” way:

1. By Word: The gifts of the Spirit come upon those who hear and obey the Word of God (Acts 10:44, I Cor. 2:4, 12f., Eph. 1:13,6:17, I Thess. 1:5, I Pet. 4:6, I John 3:24, I Cor. 14:37). The Word is itself empowered by the Spirit to accomplish this purpose (I Cor. 2:4, I Thess. 1:5). It is the Word of God that is able to make us “complete, thoroughly furnished unto every good work”(I Tim. 3:17). The Bible itself is verbal instruction in Christian character, skills, knowledge (again, II Tim. 3:15-17). It leads us to Jesus Christ (John 5:46, 20:31) who is the source of all such gifts (Eph. 4:7-16, I Cor.1:30, Col. 2:9,10). God also gives to the church teachers who are able to convey God’s Words to their hearers (Eph. 4:11, Tit. 2:3); these teachers convey “sound doctrine,” i.e., teaching conducive to spiritual health (hygiainos) (Tit.1:9).

2. By Example: The teacher teaches not only by his word, but also by his life (I Cor. 4:16, 11:1, Phil. 3:17,4:9, I Thess. 1:6, II Thess. 3:9, I Tim. 4:12, II Tim. 3:10ff., Tit. 2:7, I Pet. 5:3). In a sense this is not a second form of teaching, but rather an extension of the first; for “exemplary men” are men in whom the word of God has taken root – men who proclaim it in power (note connection between Thess. 1:6 and 1:5). Further, to follow a man’s example involves acceptance of his teachings (note connection between I Cor.11:1 and verse 2).

3. By Experience: We also learn by doing; we learn to obey by obeying. Sanctification begets more sanctification. When we present our bodies a living sacrifice, we “prove” what God’s will is (Rom. 12:1,2- i.e., we gain knowledge of God’s will and come thereby to approve it) (cf. Eph. 5:8-10, 15-17, Col.1:10, Phil. 1:9, 10). As we use our Spiritual gifts, we receive the “exercise” (gymnazo) needed to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5: 14). We need experience of the Word (Heb. 5:13). Thus, again, this form of learning is not opposed to learning by the Word. Rather, this is how the Word teaches us. As ,we obey the Word, we see more clearly what the Word means, and we develop the ability to live in accordance with the Word. But the Word must not be studied merely as an academic text. It must be studied “on the job.” We must not expect to understand Scripture first and obey it later; obedience and understanding are simultaneous and mutually supplementary. Teaching “by word,” “by example,” and “by experience,” are all ministries of the Word of God. Through these, we learn to obey the Word in the context of life.

 

C. Training for the Ministry is the Work of the Church

We have seen that training for the ministry is by the teaching of the Word of God as it bears upon human life. Who is qualified to teach the Word? The Scriptural answer is clear: teachers of the church. Teachers of the Word are given.the Spirit, and they are given to the Church, as the “body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, in context of 4-16: cf. Rom. 12:5-7, I Cor. 12:27f.). Teachers have official status in the church as “elders,” and are entitled to remuneration by the church (I Tim. 5:17). To educate a teacher of the Word, one must himself be a teacher of the Word, and it is the church which, in the New Testament, recognizes, administers and profits from teaching of the Word. A seminary which does not “do the work of the church” does not “train men for the ministry” either.

 

III. The Proposal

I propose first that we dump the academic model once and for all – degrees, accreditation, tenure, the works. This is not to say that classroom-type instruction is of no value in ministerial training; on the contrary, it is probably indispensable in some areas, e.g. biblical languages. Nor would I allege that the system of grades, hours and degrees measures nothing of importance to theological education. Obviously, other things being equal, a man with good grades in church history will be a better minister than one who failed the course.

The trouble is, however, that “other things” are never equal, and those “other things” are the crucial things to be measured in a man’s preparation for the teaching office. The academic machinery is simply incapable of measuring the things that really matter – a man’s obedience to God’s Word, his perseverance in prayer, his self control, his ability to rule without pride, the spiritual power of his preaching in the conversion of men and the edification of the church.

When a seminary puts its major effort into such things as recruiting Ph.D.’s for its faculty, maintaining “respectable” degree programs (presumably in comparison with Harvard or Yale) , determining the number of “semester hours” to be required of students, it is diverting its attention from its proper purpose.

More important, such seminaries convey a false impression (to the churches, and to their students and to themselves!) as to how the “knowledge of God” is attained. A man does riot become qualified for the ministry simply by writing a number of good papers and memorizing enough material to pass all his exams.

To give the impression that he does, as the theological “academies” do, is to encourage a false pride in learning a knowledge that “puffs up,” (I Cor. 8: 1), a gnosticism that in the past has led the church far from the truth of God’s Word.

Shall we keep the ‘academies” for the narrow purpose of teaching those “classroom phases” of ministerial education, like biblical languages? If we do, then we will have to be sure that those academies are clear as to the narrowness of this purpose. As such they may no longer claim to be preparing or qualifying men for the gospel ministry, or rather they may not claim that their degrees and courses measure such qualification. They may not even claim to be teaching the Word of God in the sense described in II, above. Further to keep such “academies” will inevitably produce a fragmentized theological education. Men will learn their church history in one place, get their spiritual qualifications In another. It will appear that church history is irrelevant to the development of godly character. Finally, even if we do keep the “academies” for this purpose, we still face the major question: How are men to be actually trained for the ministry? Granting that the academies don’t do it, who does?The actual training, the development of ministerial qualifications, must in any case take place in a non-academy. All things considered, in my view, it is better to start afresh.

Let us then consider a positive alternative. A church or denomination (cf. II C) establishes a kind of “Christian community” where teachers, ministerial candidates, and their families live together, eat together, work together; where they all really know each other; where their lives (their habits, their tempers, their talents, their loves, their hates, their struggles, their sanctity and lack of it) are known to all. The teachers and older students would thus be “examples” to the newer and the newer would be under the scrutiny of the older. The community is not a monastic escape from the world; rather it is mobilized for the purpose of establishing and nurturing churches throughout its locality. Each teacher, student, wife and child is to be deeply involved in the work of developing churches, through visitation, neighborhood Bible studies, public meetings, street preaching, and then (as churches are established) through Sunday School teaching, preaching church youth work, church administration, etc.

Teachers will ordinarily be experienced in the pastoral and/or evangelistic ministry. The major qualification for teachers is that they be skilled in “teaching teachers” (II Tim. 2:2). Advance degrees and special scholarly competences are desirable also; but realistically, there are probably more skilled “teachers of teachers” without such competences than with them, and most Ph .D. ‘ s are probably quite unskilled at the kind of teaching described in II B above.

The best candidate for a teaching job in our community is a pastor who has trained his elders and congregation so that the work of teaching and evangelism is widely diffused throughout the congregation. Someone in the community, of course, ought to know Hebrew! A teacher such as I have described, however, will ordinarily be able to teach to students the amount of Hebrew necessary for the ministry.

No student will be admitted unless he can make a credible profession of faith in Christ. It may of course be valuable at times to invite non-Christians to participate in the life of the community; but such may never be enrolled in the training program. Applicants must also show prima facie evidence of a call to the ministry (e.g., via testimony of a pastor or session). When he first arrives, a student will spend most of his time in menial work around the building and grounds. He will be expected to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in the sight of all before he is accepted as a full candidate for the ministry. The community wlill evaluate the quality of his devotional life, his “lay” contribution to the work of the churches, his testimony to the non-Christians, particularly his ability to accept correction from his elders in the Lord. Intensive counseling sessions will attempt to uncover unconfessed sin and traits of character detrimental to the ministry. The quality of the man’s repentance from these will be observed.

Once the community has verified the likelihood of a man’s call to the ministry, he is enrolled formally in the program. He begins to be trained in visitation evangelism, going through neighborhoods with a teacher or able older student. Gradually he progresses through other phases of ministry: street preaching, teaching Bible classes at various levels, eventually preaching from the pulpit and finally pastoral work among church members and responsibilities in church administration. He will actually do all these things, in the churches of the seminary constituency. He will assume positions of greater responsibility as he is deemed ready by the teachers and the churches.

At the same time, the man begins to study the formal theological subjects.

I would suggest, first, a month long “intensive” course in Greek, then concentrated study in New Testament content, exegesis, history and theology. During this period, his preaching and teaching would be based on N.T. texts. Next, the same for Hebrew and Old Testament. Then systematic theology, building on the previous studies in Bible. Finally church history and apologetics, analysing contemporary culture in the light of the Word.

Teachers and older students will be constantly involved in the work of supervising the labors of younger men. A teacher will frequently sit in on his student’s Bible class, then evaluate it with him afterwards. As students progress, they will be increasingly asked to help in the work of teaching and administering the program: the skill of “teaching teachers” is also crucial to the ministry. Wives and children of students will also be subject to training and evaluation: many a ministry has floundered because a wife or child has hindered a man’s testimony.

There will be no set “number of hours” after which a man is entitled to graduation. Teachers and older students involved in teaching ,will meet from time to time for intensive evaluation of each student’s progress in life, skills and knowledge. These meetings will determine whether a man will be dropped from the program (either because of doubt concerning his call to the ministry or because of doubt concerning the ability of the program to deal with the student’s problems), or whether he will be promoted to new levels of responsibility, or whether he will be “graduated” and recommended to the churches for the ministry. No man will “graduate” unless the teachers are convinced that he has the character, skills and knowledge that the Scriptures require of church officers.

This idea is just a proposal, a direction in which we might move.

I do believe, however, that it is a Scriptural direction.

 

Postscript, 1979

I wrote the “Proposal” in 1972, and it was finally published last year (Journal of Pastoral Practice II/1, Winter, 1978, 10-17) after being rejected by about six other Christian periodicals. Still, I have had a great deal of valuable “feedback” over the last seven years and have done more thinking about the whole idea. I’m still very strongly committed to the basic argument of the “Proposal,” but I would like to make a few qualifications and additions:

1. I should have made more clear that I see the “new seminary” as a church, not as a para-ecclesiastical organization of some sort. The latter idea would have gone entirely against my argument in Part II. It is a church with ministers and elders and deacons and men and .women and boys and girls: like any other, except that it has a special interest in the training of ministers – a “special program,” if you will. That special program involves it in the planting of other churches (though of course it could do that even without the special program). That special program may be subsidized, helped, etc., by presbyteries and other churches. Yet it is no less the program of a church. The students, then are taught the way all of us are; they are taught in the church.

2. I am somewhat less inclined now toward “communalism;” there are important values to privacy too. And I think that if the church (above) is a good church, the students will share enough of their life together and with their ministers that the church will be able to evaluate.their lives as well as their doctrine. It probably is better to nave a less monastic system than what I described in the “Proposal.” Have students and families live in communities where non-Christians as well as Christians live. That, after all, is the real world. But have them work and fellowship and meet with their fellow believers enough really to bear one anothers’ burdens. That is no more than any church ought to ask.

3. The question I’ve heard most often: what happens to Christian scholarship under this system? How can a church-centered, ministry-centered form of theological training ever produce a Warfield or Bavinck? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that our present system has not done a good job along this line either, cf. p. 2 of “Proposal.” Our theological scholars are largely busy doing something they’re not really equipped to do, namely training ministers.

That’s bad for the students, and bad for the scholars too, for the scholars have little time for scholarship. It is as if all the professional mathematicians were involved full-time in the training of accountants!

My suggestion would be that we could have scholarship-training-centers at churches, analogous to the ministry-training-centers (“Proposal”) . But while the latter aim at training ministers, the former would aim at training scholars (whether ministers or not). Are we returning to dichotomy between theology and church or theology and ministry or theology and life? No. The scholarship-training-center, like the other kind, will be part of a church fellowship. It will seek to serve the church. It will minister the Word, say, in dialogue with non-Christian scholars in a university setting. It would, therefore, teach theology as “application,” as part of life, but would recognize the distinctive gifts and concerns and needs of those who are more academically gifted and/or inclined.

This is not to say that the church’s scholars should never study at universities. There is a place for that too. But most scholars need to be grounded in the Word before they go on to study philosophy or history or Semitics. That’s why many of them now go to seminary before they go to grad school. I’m only saying that instead of going to traditional seminaries, scholars might find it even more profitable to go to the kind of community described in this paper.

 

Postscript, 2001

It’s hard to believe that nearly thirty years has elapsed since I wrote this paper. It’s also fun for me to see what I was saying when I was younger, bolder, more radical. I’ve probably mellowed somewhat since that time, but my heart is still in the “Proposal.”

The paper has not been widely acclaimed, but it has generated enough interest for me to remark occasionally, without any seriousness at all, that it has a “cult following.”

The “situation” I describe in the paper may have been a bit overdrawn then. Today, there are a number of attempts to get beyond the academic model of theological education. Quite a number of churches have their own seminaries today. In my own Presbyterian Church in America, there is Knox Seminary, closely associated with Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and seminaries associated with Spanish River Presbyterian Church inBoca Raton, FL, and Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The latter two sometimes offer accredited courses taught by professors from Reformed Theological Seminary. These make a serious attempt to integrate practical and theological training.

On the other hand, some traditional seminaries do a good job at preparing men for ministry. I probably exaggerated, in 1972, the deficiencies of the seminaries. As of now, I’d be delighted to have my sons study at Reformed Theological Seminary if God were to lead them in that direction. There are, however, other seminaries I’d tell them to avoid like the plague. But we can and should do better.

As for myself, I have always taught at a traditional, academic seminary, and probably will for the rest of my life. That is what I’m gifted to do. I don’t believe I would do very well as a teacher at a school such as that described in the Proposal. I lack the people skills. My skills seem to be exclusively academic, though my interests seem to be largely practical. I live with that tension. And I would not be successful at trying to start a seminary following the Proposal or to raise funds for it.

The economics of theological training is a subject that needs to be explored in this context. I am not the one to do it. But is there some way that the people of God can be moved by a vision for theological education, as they are often moved by appeals for support of missions? Something like that would have to happen, if churches are to become seminaries in the spirit of my Proposal.

 

 


1 C. Peter Wagner, “The Street ‘Seminaries’ of Chile,” Christianity Today (Aug. 6, 1971), 5-8.