“I do not have the authority to expel you, so I’m asking you, please withdraw and leave the seminary.” I realized the weight of my words and fully appreciated their potential effect. Only after several lengthy attempts to correct him, learning that he was not plugged into any local church, and then subsequently conferring with the dean did I let them fall so profoundly and heavily on his stunned ears. The young man had preached several sermons in my preaching practicum, each one more disturbing and irresponsible than the last. Finally he crossed the line from unbalanced to untrue and promoted something that I judged to be egregiously wrong, contrary to the gospel, and antithetical to everything Southern Seminary stands for. When he remained resolute in his position and belligerent at my attempts to reprove, I knew that the tragedy of his departure from the truth would be exponentially compounded with a seminary degree. So I asked him to leave, and he did.
While I still grieve that student’s departure from sound doctrine, I have never regretted the severity of my words to him. I could not stop him from preaching error, but it would be far worse if he did it with a degree from Southern.
My primary concern was not that someone would think he received his doctrine from my colleagues or me—though I certainly found that thought disquieting. My greater anxiety was that some church would mistakenly think him qualified to serve as pastor and would welcome him and embrace his false doctrine, simply because he had a degree from a seminary.
Is seminary necessary?
When it comes to qualification for ministry, ordination should carry much more weight and provide much greater evidence of a man’s readiness for service in the church than any seminary degree. A seminary alone is not sufficient to qualify anyone for ministry, no matter how faithful the faculty or how hard it tries. A seminary is a rigorous academic program, but that is very different from being a church in which the student can serve and demonstrate his gifts and calling while he is under its teaching, authority and discipline.
A large portion of my life has been devoted to seminary education, both my own and that of thousands of others. I am committed to quality theological education in the seminary and believe it to be a marvelous way to learn the Scriptures from brilliant and devoted men and women of God whom he has raised up for this purpose. I love seminary and would encourage every young minister of the gospel who has the opportunity to enroll in seminary—especially in a residential program, but that is a subject for another time. I love and believe in seminary education, to be sure. Even so, something important needs to be said.
A seminary is not the church. Jesus made teaching and training part of the Great Commission given to his church. He loved the church and gave himself for it. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. He has set some in the church. The Scriptures don’t say a single word about seminaries, not only because they did not yet exist, but also because they aren’t integral to God’s plan for making his name great among the nations. The church, on the other hand, is God’s plan for global evangelism and discipleship.
To be clear, seminaries—at least Southern Baptist seminaries—operate on behalf of the churches and are, in fact, owned by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminaries, therefore, hold a sacred and binding trust to train ministers of the gospel on behalf of the local churches in which they will one day serve. Seminaries make it possible for churches to offer a depth of theological training in multiple disciplines to those who have surrendered to ministry that they would not have otherwise. Churches have the right to delegate a portion of that training to a seminary and expect that their sons and daughters will be taught by great men and women of God and equipped in numerous ways, but churches cannot and must not abdicate their primary responsibility to train ministers of the gospel and to declare them ready for ministry when the time comes.