Since having my application accepted to Southern Seminary and making the decision to attend here the most common question I have received is, “Why did you choose Southern?” Co-workers, friends, family member, and newly-introduced strangers all have asked this question when I mention that I am a student here. For this reason I have done quite a bit of thinking about this, and I thought it might be fun to write about my thoughts on this question.
Let me say before I begin that I in no way mean to insist that there are not other good seminaries. I certainly believe that there are. I have friends in many of them, and these schools have produced many humble, loving, and faithful leaders for the church. Nonetheless, here is why I thought Southern would be the best:
Within about five to six months after having become a Christian I had my first opportunity to teach from the Bible. I was a counselor at Kids Across America youth camps. It was in our cabin in Golden, Missouri (i.e. middle of nowhere) with about ten 12-year old inner-city kids. Nothing can describe how overwhelmingly awesome it felt to be preaching from the word of God. That day I gained a ferocious desire to proclaim God’s word as much and as often as I could. This meant, of course, growing in my knowledge of the Bible. Right away, then, I started thinking about seminary.
That was five and a half years ago in the summer of 2006. This means that I spent two more years finishing undergrad and then two more years working at a retirement community before starting seminary training. I needed to wait for several reasons, but all along I knew I wanted to go to seminary to train to be a pastor. With all that time to think about it, what ultimately gave me reason to enroll at Southern?
I have come up with three reasons: God’s word, godliness, and God’s people.
As I thought about how to go about choosing a seminary there were two competing theories in my head. I would ask myself, “Should I go to the seminary where I am most convinced I will learn the Bible best, or should I go to a seminary where I will have an opportunity to be exposed to professors that have different points of view on the Bible?” In other words this was the conundrum I faced: “Does being at a seminary where there are professors with more wide-ranging views have an advantage over being at a seminary where I am more confident that the professors are in line with what the Bible teaches?”
In the end I chose the “Where-can-learn-the-Bible-best?” question to be my guide. This does not mean that I think the other kinds of seminaries are all bad. I simply believed that in good conscience and in my circumstances I needed to do my best to learn which seminary was most concerned with understanding and applying the Bible. As I heard people talk, as I familiarized myself with professors, as I got to know students, and as I made visits to campuses I discerned that Southern, as best as I could tell, had the Bible in its DNA deeper than any of the other schools.
Let me share a quote from Dr. Nettles’ third volume of his The Baptists trilogy which describes the role that truth plays at Southern (He is in fact talking specifically about Southern and the changes that Dr. Mohler instituted when he became president here in 1993.):
The benign fascination with church ideas and generous affection for Christian virtue present in Norman Rockwell’s America exists no longer and pastors may not assume any advantage. Pastors must be well-informed culturally, highly articulate biblically, compellingly systematic theologically, and creative in the apologetic application of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Only a clear and pertinent proclamation of the gospel will penetrate the cynical crusty consciences of non-absolutist postmoderns, or even plain old-fashioned sinners.
For this reason, theology holds the central, not the peripheral, place in a theological seminary. Nothing is more anomalous than a theological seminary that has lost its focus on the driving themes of divine revelation. Culture, whether first-century or twentieth-century, has disputed the claim that God has given us a true and clear word, but the affirmation of the church has always been that he has. (p. 294-295)
Based on my experience and my understanding of the church’s mission in the world, I was and am won over by this philosophy of what a seminary should be and do: Train its students in the words of the faith.
On the night Jesus was arrested the Apostle John records a prayer of Jesus’ in John 17. In the seventeenth verse of that chapter Jesus is recorded as praying for His disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
We are informed by Jesus’ prayer that truth for truth’s sake is useless. Studying the Bible so that we can be the most knowledgeable theologian is a demonic goal. Truth, rather, is meant to sanctify us, purify us, to make us holy, humble, loving, kind, compassionate, patient, and Christ-like disciples. Or as the Apostle Paul says, “If I have…all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)
Therefore, knowing about God is infinitely different than knowing God. I love reading big books written by old dead theologians, and I love memorizing passages of Scripture, but if all that learning does not draw me deeper into communion with God and help me to be more conformed to His image, then I am nothing.
Before coming to Southern I certainly had demonstrated a horrible ability to be puffed up with knowledge. It is quite a pathetic situation let me (and my wife) assure you. Coming here I was sure that I would be helped in this regard, but I did not know it would be this sweet. Through the seminary I have gained relationships with some remarkable theologians and thinkers, but what is most striking about these men is their love for God and their humility before others. These examples and along with the instruction I have received on how to grow in godliness (see here) have made my speculations about Southern being a good choice prove true.
Going back to that summer when I first got an opportunity and gained a desire to preach, preaching was about all I knew I wanted to do. Give me a Bible, give me someone who’ll listen, and I’m good. Upon further study I came to the conviction that being a faithful servant of Christ meant more than preaching. It meant being a part of the Church and more specifically it meant being part of a local church.
In Ephesians 1:23 the Apostle Paul refers to the church as “[Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The church, then, is so identified with Christ that we are called His body. Paul says we are the “fullness of him”. To belong to Jesus means to belong to a church.
In another place (1 Tim 3:15) Paul refers to the church as “a pillar and buttress of truth”. This means that all of this studying I am doing has got to translate into a group of believers gathered on a local level holding high and faithfully the truths of the gospel.
With these convictions growing in my head and taking root in my heart, I knew I wanted to go to a seminary that put an emphasis on training pastors for local churches. Yes, there are many students at Southern who will be counselors or work for para-church organizations or become professors. But the main focus is to equip men to be well-rounded pastors at local churches.
An indicator of this is the amount of professors at Southern that are pastors currently in their own churches and/or were pastors for several years before becoming a professor. I have not had a single professor from Hebrew to History who is not an elder/pastor/bishop/overseer/presbyter (whatever you want to call them) in their own church right now.
Another strong indicator of the centrality of the local church is the unspoken standard that every student joins a church. That is the question every new student gets asked a hundred times, “Where are you going to church?” It gets annoying, but it is actually a really healthy sign.
Before coming to Southern these were all things that I gleaned from the information I gathered: The church is where God puts His glory on display by the power of His Spirit working in the hearts of redeemed sinners through the knowledge of His word being lived out in their lives. I wanted to be a part of a school that was committed to this.