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Seminary and Church: Allies or Enemies?

interior of a church at seminary

A seminary is simply defined in this article as an institution established primarily for the training of ministers for the church and other church-related or church-allied or parachurch ministries and organizations. Missionary societies, chaplaincy ministries, religious educators in secular schools, and business fellowships are examples of such parachurch ministries. Seminaries are established to meet the manpower needs of such ministries and churches as a whole. However, a complaint common among seminary graduates is that seminary did not prepare them well enough for the challenges in the ministry. Another complaint is that many things they learn in the seminary are not relevant to the church situations they find themselves in. 

The question remains: Is the problem with the seminary, the student (seminarian), or the church? Most readily blame the seminary for not being “contextual” in her teaching. In other words, the seminary seems to be answering questions the church is not asking, and not answering the questions the church is asking. This implies the seminary fails to prepare her students to “meet the needs” of the people in the church via her curriculum. 

In reaction, many seminary faculty keep revisiting the curriculum in a bid to meet the trending challenges and needs in the church. New courses are introduced on a regular basis while the contents of older courses are reworked for this purpose. Invariably, it is seen that seminaries are trying their best to make their graduates relevant to the church. Not only that, some of them have courses/programs affiliated with universities in order to “qualify” their students for the marketplace. Such affiliated programs seek to make seminary graduates relevant beyond the church setting. Despite all this, it seems to many that the seminary is not doing enough, especially for the church.

Time and again, certain people refer to the seminary as a cemetery because it is assumed that the seminary often kills and buries the passion for ministry in her students. Like Dr. Adetoyese (former head of the Pastoral Studies Department and presently the deputy provost of administration at ECWA Theological Seminary Igbaja) used to say when he was the seminary’s chaplain, “Many students come into the seminary with an empty head and a heavy heart, but they end up leaving the seminary with a heavy head and an empty heart.” Many enter seminary burning to preach the gospel, but they know next to nothing; however, by the time they graduate, they know more than enough to preach the gospel, but that desire seems drastically reduced. 

On a general scale, Dr. Adetoyese is right. We have many such examples around us. However, when we compare the devastating effects of preaching error with passion as seen today in many churches (especially in Africa) with the blessedness of preaching the truth dispassionately (especially its eternal rewards), I believe the latter is better than the former.

That said, if there is anyone who comes to know certain truths in the seminary (as exemplified by his heavy head) and fails to have a heavy heart (i.e., passion for the church and the lost), then the problem is with the individual. The problem is neither the truths nor the seminary which taught the truths. It is the seminarian who should check him/herself in order to know what went wrong. 

When Isaiah came to know the truths about God, himself, and his people (God’s holiness and man’s utter depravity), Isaiah responded to God’s need for someone to send by saying: “Here am I, send me” (Isa 6:8). Jeremiah, in the face of persecutions and shame, concluded within himself that he wouldn’t speak anymore in Yahweh’s name. However, Yahweh’s words were burning in his heart like fire such that he couldn’t keep “calm” (Jer 20:8–10). 

Unless what you are taught in the seminary are not scriptural truths, you cannot but have greater passion to preach these same truths to your hearers. Paul urged Timothy to teach what he has learned from him to other faithful witnesses who will in turn teach others (2 Tim 2:2). God’s word always burns in his servants such that they cannot but be impassioned when preaching. Not only that, we end up igniting that same fire in others.

What could be other reasons for the disparity between what the seminary offers and what the church needs?

I do not claim to provide an exhaustive list of all the tensions that exist between the seminary and the church, nor do I think I can proffer all possible solutions. Nevertheless, let me quickly state some of these problems as I cannot also adequately list them all:

Dispassionate seminary lecturers

Academics call for objectivity and freedom from bias. However, the term “seminary” already reveals a bias. The word seminary literally means a seedbed where plants are nurtured before they are transplanted. The origin of the word is Middle English, from the sixteenth century, meaning “seedbed” or “nursery,” which is also derived from the Latin seminarium, a word derived from men (seed).

This means that seminaries are like temporary soils made for the nurturing of tender plants (ministers-in-training) so they can grow into mature plants that can survive within the church system by the time it is transplanted (upon graduation). This is a biased assignment which, therefore, calls for a biased worker (farmer). The seminary is to have a bias for the gospel and the church of Christ. Seminary lecturers are like farmers responsible for making the plants (students) in their care grow to become stronger and healthier in every aspect of ministry. Seminaries are meant to train ministers of the gospel; therefore, the trainers should be biased toward the gospel. Whatever they do, say, teach, and criticize should be in the interest of the gospel!

We already have many critics and opponents of the gospel message from among the Muslims and other non-Christian groups. Seminary lecturers should not join their league. We already have more than enough universalists, theological liberals (who reject the evangelical doctrines), higher and lower critics of the Bible, atheists and agnostics, etc. Seminary lecturers are not to “sell” their philosophies and arguments to their students. The students are still in their nursery stage, and it is unhelpful to expose them to unhealthy doctrines under the pretext of preparing them for doctrinal oppositions in ministry, and leave them on their own.

Lecturers, like parents, should expose their students to such ungodly attacks and also guide them in refuting them. As Paul noted to Titus: “The pastor should be competent to refute those who contradict sound doctrine and silence those who mislead the church” (Titus 1:9–11). 

Obviously, there are many trending errors against core doctrines of the evangelical faith. Pastors are to be made aware of them, but not to the detriment of their budding spiritual lives (remember, they are in the seedbed/nursery where they should be nurtured). Rather, they should be prepared to give a defense of the reason for their faith with gentleness and respect (cf. Pet 3:15). They should be trained to have a sound mind which can readily refute all such errors and philosophies that contradict healthy doctrines.

When seminary lecturers are dispassionate (unconcerned) about the attacks on the gospel, they may end up producing their likes, pastors who don’t care about heresies and false doctrines in the church. This is very unhealthy for the church. Also, when seminary lecturers are dispassionate about missions, evangelism, prayer, daily devotions, and several other spiritual activities, we end up with pastors of the same attitude. This is because like begets like.

When there are lecturers who have the truths in their heads but not in their hearts, the result is what Dr. Adetoyese noted: heavy heads with empty hearts. Such pastors are not healthy for the church. The seminary needs to change this. Lecturers are not to be employed solely on the basis of their intellectual acumen and prodigious academic performance. Their passion for the spiritual vitality and growth of the church needs to be taken into consideration. 

Like Irvin A. Busenitz noted in his article, “Training for Pastoral Ministry,” seminary professors and lecturers are not only to be pastorally trained; they are also to be pastorally “brained.” They should “bleed pastoral ministries and missions in their classrooms, in their own local church ministries, and in their relationships.” Busenitz asserted that the impact would be phenomenal. This means that when those training pastors are themselves “pastors” at heart and in all they do, those they train end up becoming more effective pastors. Students are bound to imitate their academic mentors; thus, when we have seminary lecturers who don’t have deep pastoral concerns for the church and who don’t seek the edification of the church, their students are bound to imitate them and thus share this lackadaisical attitude for the church.

Seminary and secularity

The tragedy of present-day seminary lecturers is their comparison and competition with secular lecturers. In a bid to prove that they are worth the salt, seminary lecturers now try desperately to impact the  universal world of academics and gain the recognition of secular scholars across the globe. This has resulted in a bloated emphasis on academic expertise at the expense of biblical and theological integrity in seminaries. Not only that, we now have some seminaries and their lecturers becoming victims of academic intoxication: a heavy head with an almost empty heart. The end result is a wedge driven between the seminary and the church. This wedge makes seminary lecturers less concerned about how the knowledge they impart to their students is relevant to the church system. Seminary lecturers have a divine mandate not typically shared with university lecturers; therefore, it is unwise for them to compare themselves with others:

Not that we [have the audacity to] venture to class or [even to] compare ourselves with some who exalt and furnish testimonials for themselves! However, when they measure themselves with themselves and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding and behave unwisely. (2 Cor 10:12 AMP)

When seminary lecturers become more concerned with furnishing testimonials (building credentials) for themselves, seeking to make a name in the secular academic world, and comparing themselves with men who are not “called,” so to speak, to train gospel ministers, they give a negative impression about the ministry to their students. They make the students feel inferior to students of secular institutions, whereas everyone is an expert in his own “field.” Students who train under them go out and begin to compare themselves with their members who graduated from secular schools. This never ends well with the church.

Curriculum–character discrepancy 

Another problem I’ve discovered with seminary training is an overemphasis on curriculum content over character values. This fault is from both students and faculty. Whereas the certification is for both character and learning, there seems a greater tilt towards learning than character. This is why someone with an obvious character defect who is intelligent will graduate ahead of someone with a blameless character who failed a required course.

I must appreciate the fact that seminaries punish bad behaviors and obvious offenses. This does not, however, always translate to character formation. It is more like suspension from the school for some time or expulsion in grievous cases. Expulsion only makes the school feel better, sanctimonious, and disciplined, but it doesn’t necessarily transform the student’s behavior. The same can be said of suspension. The student involved may choose to “cooperate” with the school until he graduates, and he then returns to his “vomit” (Prov 26:11). Thus, the school hasn’t made the student better. She has only suppressed a habit she should have cured.

The situation is worsened by hypocrisy: sinners condemning sinners. When seminary lecturers are filled with character defects yet want to “discipline” students with character defects, the so-called discipline becomes ineffective. Pride, rivalry, insubordination, extortion of students, sexual sins, power politics, factionalism, and many other works of the flesh are found in the lives of some seminary lecturers. And this same set of people sit in judgment over students who exhibit works of the flesh. This is what happens when people are employed to teach because they know the curriculum contents but lack the character contents. 

lecturers should not be employed based solely on their certification and their articulation of the course contents. Their character should also be checked against the requisites for pastoring as found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. In fact, seminary lecturers should be placed on a higher moral standard than the students they are to train. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” Jesus said (Luke 12:48). Also, “teachers are to be given stricter judgment,” according to James the Just (Jas 3:1). If we expect pastors to be blameless, devoid of the love of money, not lording over the flock, hospitable, faithful husbands of one wife who also is godly, fathers of godly children, and examples to the members, then seminary lecturers who fail in any of these requirements should be shown the way out till they repent. We cannot have lesser standards for lecturers than we do for their students and expect better pastors.

Pragmatism in the church 

Church members are often after what “works.” They seem to be more interested in questions like, How does this text affect me? than, What does this text mean? Most churchgoers are more about themselves than about Christ. They want their prayers to have direct bearing on themselves. The same applies to sermons, Bible studies, conferences, Sunday school classes, etc. Once it is not about them, it is almost considered a sheer waste of precious time. In short, everything in the worship should revolve around them. Even when they give, it should be in their own interest. This and many more realities reflect the thinking pattern of many members of the average church. God and Christ are not actually at the center of their lives. They only see Christ as a means to their own ends, but they are supposed to see Christ as the end in itself. 

Many members are not satisfied with Christ alone. They want something more and, to this end, they heap up teachers for themselves who will tell them what their itching ears desire (2 Tim 3:3):

  1. Some see godliness as a means to financial gain (1 Tim 6:5, 9–10) and thus they follow teachers who are materialistic-oriented. They go for preachers who emphasize money and wealth in their sermons. 
  2. Some believe that evil forces are responsible for their predicament and they desire such forces to “die.” Consequently, they attend prayer centers where the emphasis is imprecatory prayers, wishing death on their enemies. 
  3. Some are concerned about living a life of fun and they move around looking for the next church hosting a comedian, or having a night of fun-filled singing, or where games are played. They want the “good” life and they seek preachers who provide it for them.

Such churches that are “seeker sensitive”—in that they find out the needs and desires of those they want to reach so that they can attempt to meet such needs and desires—tend to be successful. They grow quickly, or seem to. Pragmatism states that since this approach works, then it is right to use. Here is where I see a gulf between evangelical seminaries and the church.

The church assumes that she knows what is best for her. She thinks night vigils where enemies are killed or seminars where you learn how to make more money or become economically empowered or politically enlightened are what she needs so as to become better or increase numerically. Graduates of seminaries who are eventually employed by the church then pander to these perceived needs of the church. If they refuse to, the church will not only not grow, but even the members she already has will start quitting one after the other. As the saying goes: “He who pays the piper calls the tune”; therefore, pastors put aside all they have learned in the seminary and start meeting the so-called needs of the church. Rather than have sermons on regeneration, justification, etc., and teachings on sanctification, evangelism, etc., pastors resort to preaching on “Steps to Your Breakthrough,” “Keys to Your Financial Freedom,” “How to Be Free from Generational Curses,” “Strategies for Marital Success,” etc.

Why? It is because that is what sells in the marketplace. That is what “works” and makes the church grow numerically and financially. And, since the church is “growing,” then God must have approved of such teachings. This is the misleading effect of pragmatism in our churches today.

As of today, I don’t know of any evangelical seminary that teaches her students “Keys to Financial Freedom” or “Steps to Breaking Generational Curses,” yet that is what some of her students are teaching the church. Core doctrines of the Bible are left on the shelves of scholars. Such things don’t appeal to their members, so why bother about it? This invariably causes a sort of discrepancy between the seminary and the church. The church has different perceived needs of her own (i.e., what she wants and for which she heaps her own teachers whom she takes good care of) as against what the seminary says are the church’s needs (i.e., what the Bible actually says she needs and for which God has called men and women who come to train in the seminary).

A pastor is thus placed in a dilemma: between obeying the Bible’s mandate as he learned in the seminary and listening to the church’s cry for something relevant to her immediate needs. If the pastor obeys the Bible, he will very likely lose this “selfish” church and her financial support. Whereas if he obeys the church, he will be well-fed by the church and he will even record several advancements!

This dilemma is what many seminaries fail to prepare her students for. The student is often at a crossroad, unable to apply what he had learned in school with what he faces in the church. Consequently, they are told to forget about all they have learned in school and focus on the church’s needs if they will make a headway in ministry.

Misconceptions about the seminary 

As earlier noted, a seminary is a nursery where the seed for ministerial competence is nurtured. We ask for too much when we want the seminary to plant the seed (calling) in her students, which is not her duty. The seminary doesn’t make a man called and neither does she make him gifted for ministry. That is God’s prerogative. What the seminary can help do is assist the student discover his gifts and maximize them.

In the same vein, as a nursery, the seminary can only spoon-feed her students to some extent. The rest is left to the student for optimization. The seminary is responsible to teach the basics (core doctrines) and how to apply them. The student is responsible for applying the basics to specifics (secondary doctrines). Thus, it is grossly unfair to accuse the seminary of failing to teach you what to do when couples are bent on divorcing whereas the seminary already taught you the biblical foundations for marriage. It is just like accusing your nursery school teacher for not teaching you how to read science textbooks when she has taught you most of them and how to pronounce them. The seminary is not to tell you all you have to do in ministry, but she is meant to expose you to the core outline for ministry. It is left to you to build on the outline. The seminary gives you the principles and you develop those principles into practices.

The church–seminary dichotomy 

The wedge between the seminary and the church seems to make it look like the seminary has nothing to offer the church. This is why many seminary graduates say that what they learned in school is irrelevant when it comes to practical ministry. And, this ought not be because the seminary education is supposed to be practical ministry preparation. Furthermore, the seminary is created, in the first place, to serve the purpose of the church. If and when those enrolled in seminary are not embedded with the values, virtues, skills, experience, and information necessary to serve the church, the seminary has failed, irrespective of her other achievements, whether they be affiliation with globally recognized universities, mouthwatering infrastructural development, high-flying academic profiles of faculty members, etc. It doesn’t matter what other things a seminary achieves or acquires,and it doesn’t matter what other things her students and graduates are able to do: once these students and graduates are ill-prepared and ill-equipped for church ministry, the seminary has lost its essence. And, just as Jesus said, the seminary becomes a salt that has lost its taste, which makes it best fit for the refuse dump (Matt 5:13).

Therefore, in order to achieve her purpose as a nursery for church and church-related ministries, the seminary must synergize and collaborate with the church for effectiveness. We must remember that the seminary is a brainchild of the church. Without the church, the seminary is of practically no relevance or use. The seminary and the church need each other in order for each of them to become more efficient and impactful.

For pastoral training to be more effective, it has to be done within a church context. This is just like medical students who are to serve at medical centers while they are still in school. If this is done for a job that has to do with man’s temporal and physical wellbeing and sustenance, we ought to do more for a job that has to do with man’s eternal and spiritual wellbeing and sustenance. Like medical training, pastoral formation should include on-the-job training whereby the theoretical knowledge acquired in the seminary classrooms is applied in the church during the course of seminary training. 

The best way to achieve this is when pastoral candidates are placed within the church context to serve. Activities such as Christian work assignments, internships, practicums, etc., in our Seminaries are good attempts. I, however, desire that the school authorities should look more into these activities and do more assessment and evaluation of the students. All the students should be placed under lecturers for the task of mentorship, supervision, and evaluation, just as we have it when it comes to writing long essays, theses, and dissertations. There should also be a periodic report of each student’s proficiency and improvement. 

This reiterates why we should have only those who are pastors at heart and in their daily lives as seminary lecturers. We can only give what we have! If lecturers are men who dissociate themselves from the church context and don’t feel the pulse of the contemporary church, they will keep training students in ways practically irrelevant to the church. Our seminaries will not be different from Nigerian higher institutions whereby many university graduates of engineering can only work on paper (theoretical knowledge), but cannot work on engines (practical knowledge). Consequently, we will keep having “roadside” mechanics (untrained preachers) dominate the “industry” of church ministry. There needs to be a realignment! Academics and praxis are to walk pari passu in our seminaries.

Concluding remarks

At this juncture, I would like to encourage our pastors. The Yoruba proverb that “He who sends is whom we fear and not who we are sent to” is very relevant in this situation. Paul affirmed:

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (2 Cor 5:9–11a; emphasis mine)

When we remember that our aim is to please God and not our audience, we will stick to the truths we have learned in seminary. When we remember God’s coming judgment on our labors, we will not discard the truths learned in the seminary and tag them as irrelevant. Anyone who tries to please men (our human employers or members) cannot be God’s servant: 

Worse is that such a person is accursed as he is going to preach another gospel which is no gospel at all. … For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1:9–10; emphasis mine)

I cannot deny the fact that there are some teachings in seminary that may not be edifying to the church. I already addressed that in my first point. Nonetheless, those basic truths that are firmly anchored in biblical exegesis should be repeated in the church as often as possible: “that which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust them to faithful men who will be able to teach others” (2 Tim 2:2). This is the mandate.

That attitude of letting members determine the content of our message is alien to biblical ministry. It is the Shepherd who determines what food is the best for his flock. Christ, the Great Shepherd (1 Pet 5:4), has already provided the meal. Ours, as faithful servants, is to rightly share the meal with each member of the flock (2 Tim 2:15). Let it be said of us, like it was said of the apostles, that:

We have renounced disgraceful ways [secret thoughts, feelings, desires and underhandedness, the methods and arts that men hide through shame]; we refuse to deal craftily [to practice trickery and cunning] or to adulterate or handle dishonestly the word of God, but we state the truth openly [clearly and candidly]. And so we commend ourselves in the sight and presence of God to every man’s conscience. (2 Cor 4:2)

This doesn’t mean we don’t contextualize. My last point already shows the need for our God-given messages to be driven home in the hearts of our hearers. While our sermons and teachings are prepared in the fires of thoroughgoing exegesis such that the contents are sola Scriptura, their delivery should be appreciated in our localities and their implications should be grounded in our down-to-earth, real-life daily experiences. We see this in Jesus’s ministry as he used the known (what his hearers were familiar with) to explain the unknown (biblical truths he called “mysteries of the kingdom” [Matt 13:11]), and he showed his hearers how these truths relate to their everyday lives in the home, marketplace, and society at large. Contemporary Christian ministers cannot afford to be different!

In light of the foregoing, I will say that the seminary and the church are allies, partners in this assignment of the gospel, and not antagonists as many assume them to be. If there is any discrepancy between them, the problem is from men/women and not the systems themselves. All the church needs to become all God intends for her are in the Bible, and the seminary helps to reveal them to her.

Pastoral training cannot be market-driven. It has to be Bible-defined and God-driven. Pastoral ministry cannot afford to surrender to the whims and caprices of the pew. Neither can it risk bowing itself to the latest fads of church growth. Seminary education is to continually reveal and reflect the biblical mandates for the church. This may not be popular in today’s world, and it may even be tagged old-fashioned. Yet, it is what seminaries are mandated to achieve. The message of the Bible is not old-fashioned because man’s needs throughout history remain constant: salvation from sins and eternal judgment, reconciliation, regeneration, repentance, and eternal life. What the Bible says about man’s utter depravity and Christ’s finished works are as relevant in our generation as ever before. This is why pastors and preachers cannot afford to let the world and the church dictate to them, just as the sheep cannot dictate to the Shepherd.

Therefore, let the seminary and the church listen to each other and let each one listen to the Bible with the Holy Spirit guiding. I can assure you that the church will be better for it.

***

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Written by
Anthony Oladayo Fáwọlé

Anthony (Dip.Th, B.Th., B.A., M.A.) is passionate about theological education. He is a graduate of two reputable theological seminaries in Nigeria and currently a doctoral student of another theological seminary in South Africa based on a scholarship he recently won.

He is a pastor and a seminary lecturer with a few publications to his credit. He is passionate about education, both formal and informal. He is also passionate about Christian apologetics, as seen in his involvement with other Christian apologists in Nigeria and participation in apologetics conferences.

He is happily married to his dearly beloved wife, Mary.

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Written by Anthony Oladayo Fáwọlé