Returning Biblical Education to the Local Church
It has always intrigued me that the early Christians made such unstoppable progress despite their lack of a professionally-trained clergy. Perhaps there are some lessons we can learn from them today.
I think, for example, of a church in Hawaii that I was a part of many years ago. It offered classes designed for “laypersons,” and many of us eagerly attended them. I can still remember my lessons as well as my teacher, a Mr. Cook. He was a mentor and a model, and not merely a lecturer. The result? An unquenchable appetite to go even deeper in my studies of the Christian life.
Often I am invited to teach in church-related Bible schools, many of them in the Two-Thirds World. And I am delighted to do so. The local church in America seems to have forgotten its responsibility to disciple its members. “After all, we have our seminaries.” That is a dangerous attitude. The seminary classroom can be a place of magnificent learning, and often is. But every care must be made to avoid a learning experience that fails to give our students an idea of what it costs to follow Jesus. We must not forget that the early church had no formal educational institutions or professionally-trained academics, and yet it turned the world upside-down in a mere 30 years.
There were many good reasons for this. Someone once said that the three greatest dangers of a seminary education are extraction, expense, and elitism. A clerical culture develops. Writes Abbé Michonneau in his book Revolution in a City Parish (pp. 131-32):
Our seminary training … has put us in a class apart…. Usually it means that we feel compelled to surround ourselves with those who will understand our thought and our speech, and who have tastes like our own…. We are living in another world, a tidy clerical and philosophical world.
“Clergy” becomes a whole way of living, an ecclesiastical subculture. The church, however, predates the seminary and will outlast it. The book of Acts reminds us that the earliest church leaders were homegrown nobodies. They were not parachuted in from the outside with all of the proper credentials. They were already full participants in their congregations – they had homes, they had jobs, and they had solid reputations. If at all possible, I think we too would do well to train people for leadership in our local churches, equipping them for evangelism and other ministries, thus complementing the work of our seminaries and Bible colleges. The early church knew that leadership is best learned by on-the-job training, not by sending our most promising leaders off to sit behind a desk.
There is a real need today for ministry to become de-professionalized. Let us not forget the sufficiency of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit to guide even the simplest believer into truth. Any church can, if it is willing, follow the pattern of the early church in this regard. It can begin by ensuring that its shepherd-teachers are steeped in the Word of God and able to teach its magnificent truths to others. Happy the church that, like the Berean congregation, can listen sensitively to the Holy Spirit as He speaks through the Scriptures! It is interesting to observe how many people have signed up for the Greek class I am offering in my local church. All are welcome, and I am expecting a broad array of students. I cannot help but think of the example set for me so many years ago by Mr. Cook. He had a true pastor’s heart, and he knew the Word. He was a mature Christian who walked daily and deeply with his Savior. And what of his students? They came from all walks of life, but each was prepared to listen and discuss and study and learn.
Let there be no pay for teacher and no fee for student! Equally, let us use ordinary language in our teaching and avoid the jargon of the academy. You have to get the right instructor, of course, otherwise the enterprise will be counter-productive. But I am not talking about someone with a doctorate in theology. And there is no need to professionalize or formalize the instruction either. I think it is fair to say that the tendency of American churches is to pay inordinate attention to matters of incorporating, financing, and staffing their new “Bible Institutes.” I am suggesting that it would be a waste of time and resources to hire a registrar, faculty, and administration. Let us look to those in our congregations who will volunteer their time and talents for the work. What a rare and attractive thing it would be to offer solid biblical instruction without the paraphernalia so often deemed indispensable by professional educators.
I would like to make it clear once more that I am not saying we should not have seminaries or Bible schools. What troubles me is that we so often equate a formal biblical education with true biblical understanding. It seems to me that it is time to say “Enough!” to the fallacious notion that a degree in theology makes one qualified for leadership in the church. Throughout the Scriptures the summons is given to forsake conformity to the world’s wisdom and to pursue the wisdom that is from above. Paul reminds us that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), and that we “are complete in Him” (Col. 2:10). Call this the “sufficiency of Christ,” if you will, but it is insufficiently acknowledged. A major exception was the sixteenth-century Anabaptists in Europe. It was their devotion to the Scriptures that set the Anabaptists apart from their Reformation counterparts. They listened to the Word of God with humble reverence. They were anxious to obey it too, whatever the cost to them personally. Elsewhere I have noted that they believed in “the Bible as a book of the church instead of as a book for scholars,” and in “a hermeneutic of obedience instead of a hermeneutic of knowledge.” The Anabaptists well understood that we learn to apply the Word not in the abstract milieu of the classroom but in the world. And when we truly understand the truth of God’s Word, it shapes our entire life and worldview.
I believe one of the greatest needs of the contemporary church is conscientious obedience to the words and teachings of Jesus. Mature Christian discipleship is possible only where there is submission to the full biblical witness to Christ. And there is nothing in a formal education that guarantees such obedience. Indeed, there is much, I think, that impedes it. As an example, take a course in Acts I once taught at a Bible college in a developing country. The students were much more inclined to bring their notebooks to class than their Bibles. Their studies clearly were geared more toward a grade than toward life. When final exam time came, things took an interesting twist. In part one of the exam I intended the students to write out from memory certain verses with their Bibles closed, while in part two they were to answer questions with their Bibles open. The students strenuously objected to this policy, pleading with me not to expose them to the temptation of cheating on part one. My answer was gentle but unyielding: “If I cannot trust you not to cheat on this exam, you do not belong in this Bible school and certainly not in any form of Christian ministry.” In a similar incident that occurred while I was teaching Greek in another institution (again in the Two-Thirds World), my request to allow my students to write a take-home exam was met with the dean’s demurral: “Impossible. They can’t be trusted.” And this in the largest theological college in that country! In saying this, I have not forgotten the human tendency to cheat on exams. Yet these were Christian adults, not children. It is plain that if we cannot trust our brightest theological students to exercise self-control and honesty in exam-taking, we certainly cannot entrust them with pastoral oversight.
We in the church of Jesus Christ are always in danger of magnifying titles and degrees and forgetting that a formal theological education guarantees neither sound doctrine nor mature character. The essential mark of Christian leadership is love not ability, humility not arrogance, wisdom not knowledge. We must cease viewing knowledge as an end in itself, but must pursue the mind of Christ, remembering that “truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). I wonder if anything is more urgent today, for the building up of the Body of Christ, than that its leaders should be, and should be seen to be, men who have “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
The crucial thing is that local churches take discipleship seriously. And it is neither biblical nor helpful to abdicate this responsibility to institutions of higher education, as valuable as they are. The seminary exists to serve the local church, not vice versa. So when opportunity occurs to return biblical education to your local church, I say grasp it with both of your hands!
January 8, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.