The Value of Seminary
You’re probably not the smartest guy in the room, but you might think you are. That’s one reason you should consider seminary.
As nearly all women daydream about, last Friday my wife and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary at a seminary graduation. Neither of us had a clue on May 12, 2007 that we’d spend the first decade of matrimony scouring footnotes late at night and writing on holidays. Ten years and two kids later, we’ve somewhat been forced to reflect on the value of that investment. While we might appeal to a number of rationales, the primary role of theological education in my life has been to persistently remind me of my ignorance.
I’ve listed below four adverse effects on ministry preparation, if you’re regularly the smartest guy in the room (or think you are):
1. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, few may question you.
In one of my first seminars at Southeastern, I mustered the courage to comment on a particular author’s presuppositions. Honestly, I had to be fairly convinced of my statement’s veracity to speak up in this room. It’s likely I’d test–driven the comment elsewhere with no reproof. I might’ve even scribbled on my syllabus the assertion’s precise language to ensure I employed the most cogent verb. This was a safe play, so I thought. However, after I boldly questioned this author’s presupposition, my erudite professor questioned mine. After a few gracious yet pointed back–and–forths with him, I realized––as my fellow classmates awkwardly watched my slow yet sure demise––that the comment I asserted so confidently five minutes ago might not have been as insightful as I thought. In fact, in the years since, I’ve come to understand how uninformed I was. Which then caused me to wonder: Had I not been in that room, how many years might it have taken for someone to correct my thinking on that issue? If I’d only surrounded myself with people who read less than me, or read what I read, would I ever have been questioned?
2. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, few people question your theology.
I generally write in the books I read. Occasionally, if I really abhor a sentence, I will violently scratch out, “Boooo!” like I’m watching the Cubs. But, most often, if I don’t agree with something the author wrote, I’ll put a question mark out in the margin.
Ten years ago one of my first seminary professors assigned Tell the Truth by Will Metzger. Today, if you pull that book off my shelf and thumb through it, you’ll find pages and pages of question marks. Metzger kept challenging many of my assumptions concerning salvation and my corresponding evangelistic practices. Had I not been assigned this book, there’s little chance I would’ve continued reading after the ninth question mark. However, if I read that same book this weekend, those questioned sentences would likely be underlined. It’s not only the professors who question your theological conclusions, the assignments themselves often do.
Before seminary, it wasn’t that I’d studied other theological frameworks and found them lacking. Instead, I’d only been informed of one. Rayford Steele’s eschatology brooked no rival. Therefore, I needed people in my life to open the door to rooms of theology I’d live in for the rest of my life.
Seminary teaches you that you’re not the smartest guy in the room. Furthermore, by exposing you to the broader Church’s theologians, and those of Church History, seminary reminds you that there is often someone smarter than the smartest guy in the room.
3. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you might not question yourself.
Arrogance festers in those who’ve not been told regularly by someone they respect, “You’re wrong.” To put my ecclesiological cards on the table, the local church serves as the primary place where older men instruct younger men, sharpen their thinking and living, while challenging their youthful idealism. Thankfully, I’m the 8th sharpest elder in the congregation I help shepherd. But, as a parachurch ministry, the seminary’s role in preparing you for ministry is to join your congregation in exposing areas of weakness. (See Matt Rogers, “Holistic Pastoral Training: Strategic Partnership between the Seminary and the Local Church in the United States,” PhD Diss.) While you might think you’re the best writer or theologian in your congregation, a B minus on that paper you labored over could be the best thing for your soul.
Furthermore, any theologian who emphasizes the scope, depth, and effects of sin must also question whether or not his conclusions as a 25 year old all line up lock-step with the Scriptures. In other words, preparation for ministry demands some exposure to those objectively more prepared than you so that you’ll humbly question yourself. Because if you think you already have it all figured out, you haven’t been in ministry long. Or you won’t be.
4. If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’ll never be smarter.
Of course, 1 Timothy 3 doesn’t require an MDiv. In fact, some of the best pastors I’ve known don’t have one. Furthermore, I’ve met a few PhDs whom I’d caution my family against sitting under. However, should you need to forego formal theological education, know that you’re always piecing together a syllabus. And if you don’t make sure that more knowledgeable and experienced people are giving you assignments, you’ll often read the wrong books, only to reinforce your innate biases. In the end, if you’re never pushed intellectually, that might mean you’re not loving God with your mind.
Ultimately, it’s not about becoming the smartest guy in the room. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who challenge your assumptions, fight pride in your thinking, and thereby sharpen your theology. A stage and a microphone won’t necessarily facilitate the humility needed for the long haul of ministry. Older and wiser men telling you in love, “You’re wrong,” might.
If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you probably aren’t the smartest guy in the room. However, if you think you are, you might be in the wrong room.