As ministers of the gospel, we have seen several factors in today’s ministry that call for a reform in ministerial training. These factors include:
- Church abdication – the local church has often relegated the training of ministers to schools
- Failure rates – many graduates lack personal maturity and practical experience to succeed in ministry
- Injured churches – due to inadequate preparation, many graduates hurt the first church they serve
- Rising costs – the freedom of many graduates is hampered due to debt from Bible college and seminary
- Persecution – the signs of the times point to the necessity of more local means of training men in the future
- Rationalistic hermeneutics and theology – many lack the means and prayer life for spiritual understanding
- Neglect of ordination – ordination, rather than a schooling degree, should be the validation on one’s call
The following sections give a broad overview of what has shaped our thinking, followed by the specifics of the program we have put in place to help address the current factors.
The Background of Theological Education in America
The original Log College was the ministry of one pastor in the frontier days of colonial America. Around 1727, William Tennent, Sr., pastor of the Presbyterian church on Little Neshaminy Creek, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, started a “school of the prophets” in his home. At first, he taught only his sons, but in time others came, living with him and his wife, and then studying in the log cabin he built for their education. While his enemies derided it as a “log college,” God used the graduates mightily in the middle colonies during the First Great Awakening. Several factors were instrumental in its success, including rigorous study in theology, a heavy emphasis on the personal assurance of possessing real piety, and close personal interaction with fellow students, the pastor, and his wife. In content, the education resembled many of the academies in Scotland at the time, but in form, the small size allowed for mentoring and the rural setting probably proved conducive for personal communion with God.
The Log College was a stop-gap measure. Normally students for ministry would receive a liberal arts education at a college, and then pursue theological study under the tutelage of either someone at college (often the college president), or in the home of a pastor. Once the Enlightenment emphasis on reason started putting pressure on theology to become a science, and to defend herself, the churches started forming seminaries, which replaced the method of private tutelage. These seminaries offered courses in certain subjects and pursued theological knowledge in the same fashion as other disciplines—as a science. At the beginning, this rationalistic form of education was offset by the quality of men leading the students; in time, however, the form of the method started producing a different kind of man, and the schools one by one became liberal. The method overcame the men.
Late in the nineteenth century, another form of education arose—the Bible institute. Instead of requiring students to have a liberal arts education, which was often in Latin, these schools emphasized learning the English Bible and gaining practical experience as “Christian workers.” Perhaps the most famous of these institutes, and the model for many, was Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. The school was named after the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody, who never received ordination as an evangelist, and who desired a school to train “gap men,” who would serve the church in roles other than the pastorate. In time, both men and women were trained in this model.
In reflecting on these models, two axes of training appear. First, with regard to the seminaries, training moves from skills in literary interpretation (the results of a liberal arts education applied to the Bible) to theological science. These two emphases stand out clearly in an address by J. P. Boyce, founder of Southern Seminary, on three changes needed in theological education. (Interestingly, he combined this basic seminary model of hermeneutics-unto-theology with the emphasis on English Bible characteristic of the later Bible institutes, who may have borrowed this insight from Southern Seminary.) Second, with regard to the Bible institutes, training moves from personal piety to practical service. In this model, the fine points of theology are often not as important as the winning of souls. Interestingly, in both models, the form of the classroom over time prohibited extended one-on-one interaction between the teachers and the students. Men trained for the ministry were increasingly mass produced in a society enamored with business efficiency. The personal touch of the colonial days was lost.
After more than one hundred years of both models being in effect, we can now assess the fruits of these methods for training ministers. Regarding the seminaries, it is clear that a rationalistic method of interpretation leads to liberalism over time. Perhaps the most classic instance of this transition is Fuller Seminary in California, but its steps can be traced elsewhere, even in Southern Seminary, which has recently received an evangelical resurgence, but still employs the traditional methods of the seminary. Regarding the Bible institutes, it is interesting that a desire for respectability slows moves them from a practical school into the form of a regular college, often offering degrees similar to a Bible college. This transition occurred at Moody Bible Institute, which is essentially a Bible college today, in spite of its historic name. Then, over time, if the school is successful enough, a graduate program is added that mimics the offerings of the seminary, and so, oddly enough, the institutes end up in the same position as the seminaries.
In all these models, it has been the true evangelical spirit of the men in leadership that has kept the evangelical learning alive. It seems, however, that the method, left unattended, or falling into the hands of unbelieving leaders, leads to apostasy, once enough momentum has been gained to go public with the change. Somehow the method itself needs altering, to bring it in line with what the Scriptures teach is necessary for true spiritual training. Before offering a solution, let us briefly consider the method of the Scriptures, especially the pastoral epistles, which Donald Whitney once called “the seminary of the Bible.”
The Model of Ministerial Training in the Bible
The Bible gives us many examples of leadership training. In the Old Testament, we see both the solo leaders, who, like Moses, were seemingly called out of nowhere to shepherd God’s people (though in the case of Moses, we see how God can sanctify a secular training, once the man himself has been sufficiently humbled). We also see leaders who were trained through apprenticeship, having spent a lot of time assisting the previous leader. Both Joshua and Elisha come to mind here.
In the New Testament, it is this apprenticeship model that comes strongly to the fore. Sure, there is John the Baptist, who does come out of nowhere—the desert!—to prepare the people for Christ; and there is Saul of Tarsus, who did not consult with flesh and blood, but spent time seeking Christ alone in Arabia. These seem to be the exceptions, when God wishes to inaugurate something radically new in ministry. However, in seeking to further a continuing work, the Holy Spirit most often seems to employ existing men as mentors. Jesus, of course, had his disciples, as did even John the Baptist himself. We also see how Paul collected around himself a coterie of men he regarded as “sons,” whom he apparently equipped and to whom he entrusted ministry missions. The most obvious examples here are Timothy and Titus. What makes these men so helpful for us is the opportunity we have to listen in on Paul’s instructions through the pastoral epistles. Let us examine a bit what we see there.
In 1 and 2 Timothy and in Titus, we find Paul giving instructions on leadership in the church. First, regarding both Timothy and Titus, they were to show themselves an example and to teach sound doctrine, appointing and regulating the local elders in the churches. These elders were to men of outstanding character, having no gaping hole in personal integrity, and thus be “above reproach.” Moreover, these men were to exhibit skill in managing homes and business, which in those days were combined, as well as possessing the ability to teach under the pressures of conflict. Not always were potential leaders ready for the task, for Paul specifically instructs Timothy to entrust certain “faithful” men with the Gospel, so that they “will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). The future tense in “will be able” implies a process of preparation, just as the epithet “faithful” implies a time of testing for proven character.
Let us apply these insights to our situation today. We have grown accustomed to impersonal theological education. Largely gone are the colonial days of one-on-one tutelage, let alone the apostolic days of small-group discipleship. These are methods we cannot ignore, as if the classroom can accomplish the same thing. What we end up missing is the persuasive power of personal interaction. When Paul urged Timothy not to be timid, but to continue on in the things he had learned, he pointed to what Timothy himself had witnessed in Paul’s own hard-fought ministry, as well as to those who had taught Timothy in his childhood—apparently his mother Lois and grandmother Eunice (2 Timothy 3:11-17; cf. 1:5). Yes, the sufficiency of the Scriptures is also cited in support, but we must not miss how Paul pointed to people. Do our ministerial candidates have such people in their background? This mentoring component cannot be ignored. Perhaps one of the big reasons many ministers have failed is due to the training in isolation that they received in Bible college and seminary. And with today’s distance education, it will be even harder for men to receive face-to-face interaction and extended observation into the ministry of their trainers.
Second, we also find mention of the Holy Spirit’s role through personal piety for theological faithfulness. After having urged Timothy to join him in unashamedly suffering for the gospel, according to the power of God, Paul then exhorts Timothy to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus,” and also to “keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us” the “good things which was committed to you,” which seems to be the gospel (2 Timothy 1:13-14). Both true piety—faith and love—and the power of the Holy Spirit are necessary for long-term faithfulness in gospel ministry. Interestingly, these very phrases are used a few verses later as Paul urges Timothy to train up new leaders in ministry (2:2). This echo shows us that Paul intends for Timothy to employ in training the very same means that he himself will find necessary in ministry.
With regard to personal piety and the power of the Holy Spirit, two observations are in order—one on the outer manner of seminary training, and another on its inner method. Regarding the outer manner of seminary training, its high-volume education, often done in the isolation of church and home due to moves and a busy schedule, is hardly conducive for the development of faith and love, except as a trial to one’s faith through trying to find enough money and enough time to obtain the degree. The rigor of a seminary schedule often drains the soul and leaves many men regarding it as a season of intense spiritual dryness. Perhaps if men were allowed to pursue it more leisurely, having time to read the books on their knees, as B. B. Warfield once advised, it would not have this effect; however, the pressures eventually get to most students, who at some point sense the need to complete the education and get back to real life. This is a danger of which many seem to enter seminary unawares. Surely it is a tragedy.
Even deeper, regarding the inner method of seminary training, students are often unaware how absent the Holy Spirit is from learning, and how unnecessary personal piety is for good grades. Treating the Bible as literature and theology as science allows for anyone with diligence and a good aptitude to succeed in seminary; however, what is striking is how different this sounds than the New Testament, where Peter is commended for confessing what God alone revealed about the Christ, and the Spirit is given to us so that we might know what has already been freely given to us in the Old Testament. According to Christ and the apostles, it is impossible for us to know God truly or to understand His word rightly without the illuminating aid of the Holy Spirit of God, and such aid is solicited in prayer, as the Pauline epistles so aptly show. But where is this emphasis ever given in the seminary model, or even in the model of the Bible Institute. At least in the latter, there was an emphasis on personal piety, but ironically, this emphasis on personal piety was apparently not linked to spiritual understanding, for the methods of the Bible institutes, as seen in R. A. Torrey’s curriculum, often utilized a catalog approach to show a practical “how-to” of Christian living. At least in the case of Torrey, he strongly emphasized the necessity of the Holy Spirit for ministry, even to the point of perhaps stretching what the baptism of the Holy Spirit was all about.
Historically, certain leading men in theological education have warned us about the effects of mixing rationalistic methods with the spiritual subject matter of Scripture. In the days of the Puritans, John Owen loudly decried the Greek influence of philosophy on the categories of theology—an influence that is amazingly presented in all its obtuse intricacies in Perry Miller’s The Puritan Mind. Instead, Owen urged that prayer and a willingness to obey God’s will were essential for understanding the mind of Christ in the Scriptures. Indeed, prayer was the chief means. Later, when Princeton Seminary was established, its inaugural professor, Archibald Alexander, gave a long lecture on the purposes of the school, but only waxed eloquent when he spoke about the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He asserted that many doubts will appear insurmountable, no matter how many arguments are made in its favor, until the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit drives them away. True, he was committed to the theological method of his day, but as a man, it is clear that he relied on the Holy Spirit to make the truth of the Bible known to him. Again, the method eventually outran the man, as all men must eventually die; however, his legacy still points us back to a key missing factor in theological education. We have neglected the ministry of prayer for the illuminating aid of the Holy Spirit.
Third, regarding the content of the gospel itself—the “things that you have heard from me among many witnesses” (2 Timothy 2:2)—these can be deduced from the large gospel sections in Titus, and from the extended elaborations in 2 Timothy. The gospel Paul preached could be called a sovereign-historical gospel rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. The aspects of God’s sovereignty appear in the concepts of God’s calling, purpose, and grace—a grace “given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9). The aspects of historical development appear in the emphases of “but…now” (2 Timothy 1:10) and the mention of multiple progressive appearances of God’s grace and glory (Titus 2:11, 13; 3:4). Not even the doctrines of justification and regeneration are treated in personal isolation from their historical context (see Titus 3:3-7). In all, this word preached is grounded in the word written, the “Holy Scriptures” that are inspired, profitable, and sufficient for all ministry (2 Timothy 3:15-4:2).
In considering the gospel preached by Paul, it is ironic that competing theologies in today’s seminaries hold to one side or the other as their emphasis. On the one hand, Reformed schools typically emphasize the sovereignty of God in salvation, but often at the expense of flattening out redemptive history through the idea of one covenant of grace. On the other hand, dispensationalist schools have often overemphasized the history of redemption, to the point that it has lost its overall continuity, and sense of fulfillment in the church. Moreover, the dispensationalist schools have often denied (though not always) the sovereignty of God in salvation, as commonly understood by the Reformed theologians. Interestingly, the one true gospel emphasizes a big God at work in and through history in a sovereign, gracious manner. Without this view of God, ministerial students are not equipped to handle well the trials of ministry that await them. Having a willing spirit, they do not fully appreciate the weakness of the flesh, and the necessity of seeing God sovereignly accomplishing His purposes through both the failures and weakness of men, even His servants. This vision alone gives true hope, and supplies power to graciously endure suffering in a meek manner worthy of the Lord’s bondservant.
A Proposal for a Log College Ministry
With both the Bible in one hand, and the results of recent attempts at theological education in the other hand, we have the opportunity to offer a proposal for reform in ministerial training. More than likely, if this proposal is enacted and pursued at any length, someone will assess our work, and perhaps offer improvements as well; but given what we know now, we need to at least do something, and the following will sketch what we propose.
First, we need to embrace the method of ministerial training given to us in Scripture, even if it is not respected by the world or currently practiced much by the church. Certainly, the world should not our guide for education, when we are told so explicitly in the Psalms, “The LORD knows the thoughts of man, that they are futile” (Psalm 94:11), and then so explicitly by the apostle that the world through its wisdom did not come to know God (1 Corinathins 1:21). By wise design, God hides the knowledge of divine things from the intelligent and reveals them to babes who renounce self-reliance on reason and will, and who seek by faith the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Surely, the apostle is still right in challenging us, “If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (1 Corinthians 3:18). In keeping with this ideal of independence from the world, we have purposely chosen the name “log college,” which even today, as it did then, sounds like a term of worldly derision. May its choice help to make us humble!
Furthermore, precedence in the church cannot be our guide either, though in due respect we first listen to our elders, as Elihu waited for the other men to finish their speeches. There have been times when the church has almost lost sight completely on certain key things in theology or in practice, such as when the Reformation needed to recover the gospel in clarity, or when William Carey needed to call the Baptists back to the Great Commission. Concerning theological education, we may be living in such a day; however, this does not mean that there are no precedents in our past—certainly there are precedents in the disciple-making endeavors of Jesus and the apostles, but there have also been other attempts more recently to create a more personal learning environment for theological students, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde, which he described so well in his excellent work Life Together. It is our hope to utilize the insights of Owen, Alexander, Boyce, and Bonhoeffer towards a better method for today’s students.
Second, in noting the elements of the scriptural methods in training the minister, we hope to keep central the elements of relationship. Just as love summarizes the entire law, so the entirety of ministerial training can be summarized in terms of relationship: prayer, mentoring, and a brotherhood of learners.
Prayer speaks of our relationship with God, and of the chief means for understanding His mind and will for us. Without prayer, we are nothing; therefore, it is our aim to end each time of discussion with an extended session of prayer, and to encourage each man to sanctify regular time for personal communion with God.
Mentoring speaks of those examples we need in our lives for long-term faithfulness. As has often been said, some things are better caught than taught. Moreover, it is in seeing the truth of God lived out in life that we become more confirmed that it is real, and worthy of staking our own life upon it. We need these relationships; therefore, we aim to keep our numbers small, and to place students in regular interaction with active pastors, even, where possible, to place them in the homes of these men, to see their ministries fulfilled even when few, if any, are watching.
The brotherhood of learners, or disciples, speaks of our need to comprehend the mysteries of Christ “with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:18). Except for some special cases, when God seems to select a pioneer for an extraordinary work that has not yet been done, such as Brother Andrew for ministry behind the Iron Curtain, most of our work will be carried out with a group of men being trained to continue existing ministry. This kind of training is best carried out in group format, where students spur on other students in learning, even as they each interact personally with mentors active in the ministry.
Third, we hope to align the two axes of theological learning currently in use—both the hermeneutics-unto-theology axis of the seminary, and the piety-unto-practice axis of the Bible institute. Certainly, all four aspects are necessary in training a man for the ministry. Hermeneutically, he must have some skills in reading, and in understanding a text, for Christianity is wholly based on an inspired Text. Theologically, he must know God, for the aim of all ministry is worship, and ministry that is done honorably must accord with who God is and what He wills. Personally, he must be a man of true piety, possessing the faith and love of a real Christian, and not the make-believe external habits of a hireling, or (worse) the deceptive clothing of a wolf. Practically, he must also know how to work with people, handle difficulties, persevere in trial, and apply the word in all contexts. If all four of these are given, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then those trained will certainly be well equipped to lead our churches and face our enemies.
Interestingly, these four aspects do not exist in isolation from each other, but actually align in the thought and practice of a well-balanced minister. On the one end, personal piety places a strong role in proper interpretation, just as the pure in heart are blessed with someday seeing God (Matthew 5:8). Even epistemologically, Jesus asserted, “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority” (John 7:17). A life of prayer and a willing heart to obey are essential for understanding the Bible rightly; therefore, these two starting points should be aligned. On the other end, proper theology and sincere practice go hand-in-hand, just as the prophet Jeremiah announced that Josiah’s judging for the poor and the needy was knowing God (Jeremiah 22:16), and just as the prophet Daniel foretells, “The people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits” (Daniel 11:32). True theology leads to true practice, because, as one of us likes to say, the knowledge of God is transformative.
Ultimately, it is this knowledge of God that we so desperately need in our ministries and in our lives. Rightly did God say through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” and, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 4:6; 6:6). Since God is everlastingly the same, this is still His heart—and often still His lament. How well do professing Christians today know God? Even more, how well do the leaders know God? Surely, if there is a greater part of the fault to bear, it must reside on the leaders, even as God tells the priests of Hosea’s day, “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me” (Hosea 4:6), for it was the duty of the priest to “keep knowledge” with his lips, as another prophets says (Malachi 2:7).
As the church, we are constituted with the great privilege of manifesting “the fragrance of His knowledge in every place”—from the heart of our inner cities to the far-off tribes of the earth (2 Corinthians 2:14). Certainly, then, the knowledge of God must be at the heart of our ministerial training. It must direct our hermeneutics, just as wisdom asserts, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10); and it must crown our practice, just as Peter instructs, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11). As one of us likes to say, everything starts and ends with God, who is the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last, the A and the Z (cf. Revelation 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Therefore, in training the minister, let everything begin with God in prayer, piety, and the word, and let everything end with God in theology, practice, and worship.