The hardest part of seminary…by far

Researching and composing position papers, writing essay after essay on a sundry of topics, completing book reviews (which of course includes reading the book), learning two ancient languages, occasionally preparing to preach, and reading, reading, reading. Of course all of this has to be timed out and scheduled just right so that all the assignments get in and we don’t drive ourselves mad in the meantime.

The previous couple of sentences are an attempt to capture what is the joyful load of seminary training. As demanding as this list is it is nothing compared to achieving the apostolic mandate for what pastors must be.

Paul’s letters to Timothy, his young pastoral apprentice, get a lot of attention by pastors, especially seminarians preparing for what will hopefully be a lifetime of gospel ministry in the pastorate. One passage that has been especially prominent in my meditations on Scripture over the last several years is 1 Timothy 3:1-7. In these verses Paul gives numerous “musts” for any elder/overseer/pastor/bishop/presbyter (for convenience’s sake I’ll use the term”pastor” here, though I think all of these terms mean the same thing).

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must  be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

It is often pointed out that nearly all of Paul’s requirements for eldership are moral in nature. The only exception is “able to teach” (v. 2).  Besides this one the other qualifications have to do with a man’s character, not his gifting. As important as ministerial competency is and as crucial as theological knowledge is, these things are not given prominence in the Apostle’s instruction. Maturity of life means more than an M.Div. when it comes to qualifying for the “noble task” (v. 1) of shepherding God’s flock.

It makes sense, then, that this qualifying character that a pastor must have is harder to obtain than a theological education. My own experience easily proves it to be true. I am two years in to my seminary experience, and the most profound and impressive and difficult lessons I have learned have not happened with a book open in front of me (as much as I cherish and think necessary books are). Rather, the soul-shaping experience of God’s sanctifying mercy have brought me to the end of myself again and again and again. These times are much more trying than any Hebrew final. Time after time anger erupts, thoughtless words spew from my mouth, quarrelsome attitudes evidence themselves, tenderless responses occur to others who are hurting, prideful thoughts brew in my mind, and on and on I could go. Witnessing such darkness in my own heart and being drawn daily to repentance is a school that requires no tuition but is considerably more severe and helpful than any curriculum.

A couple of thoughts in closing:

First, I am deeply thankful for theological education and ministerial preparation, and I am convinced that it is nearly necessary for anyone aiming at vocational ministry. As good as it is, however, it is not enough (not that any seminary claims to be).

Secondly, I am deeply and eternally thankful for the grace of Christ and the power of his Spirit to forgive and change sinners. The Father’s plan for bringing his people to maturity may not be the way we would like, but it is a sure plan (“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil. 1:6) and there is steady mercy along the way (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9). Though this maturation of soul is by far the hardest part of seminary, there is hope for humble beggars thirsting for the grace of God to change us into the likeness of the Chief Shepherd.

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