Reflections on Theological Education

31 December 2020


I find it rather astounding that many Christian leaders question the whole concept of Bible schools or seminaries as something elitist, expensive, hopelessly traditional and thus without much practical value. Admittedly, schools globally need to rethink what they are doing. But we also need to remember the foundation on which training efforts are built. Without good foundations, there can be no excellence. 

Teaching clearly matters to God.

Jesus was called rabbi, teacher, a title he affirmed along with “Lord” (John 13:13). The Holy Spirit was also sent as a counselor to “teach you all things” and to “remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). According to Eph 4:11-12, there are people given as gifts from God to equip all of God’s people so that gifts and knowledge will be put into practice. For those who are gifted as teachers, Paul says: “Let them teach!” (Rom. 12.7). 

Teaching is a part of the mandate. 

What Jesus said in Matthew 28:18-20 was to teach all baptized disciples to put into practice all that Jesus had commanded. Learning obviously includes acquiring knowledge, as you can’t put the commandments of Jesus into practice if you haven’t learned and understood what the commandments of Jesus are. But learning goes beyond grades and content as the purpose of learning is wisdom, maturity and being thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:14-17, Eph 4:13-16).

Jesus’ way of teaching focused on the uniqueness of people

Jesus didn’t require the masses to memorize a package of divine content. The woman at the well was led from discussing drawing water to a discovery that Jesus was the Messiah. Nicodemus was led into confusion about being born again in order to learn that what he thought he knew wasn’t enough to get him into the kingdom of God. Some fishermen on a beach were invited to follow Jesus, although they probably had little idea who Jesus was or where he was going, and were told that they were about to become fishers of men, whatever that meant. Good teachers spark curiosity and lead students to discover what they need to know in order to be equipped to do what they have been gifted and called to do.

Good teachers spark curiosity and lead students to discover what they need to know in order to be equipped to do what they have been gifted and called to do.

The best learning comes from observing models

Paul told Timothy to live, remembering what he’d learned by living with one’s teachers (2 Tim 2 and 3). Jesus not only instructed his disciples before sending them out to learn to do ministry, but he then debriefed them, reflecting on what they had seen when they returned (Luke 10:1-24). The three years that Jesus spent with his disciples suggests that the best learning happens in community.

There is much that teachers are supposed to do, but . . .

We can creatively help students to learn theories, history and truths and help them develop the abilities that God has given them. But there are limitations to what a really good teacher can do. And no teacher is capable of transforming hearts. That is God’s job. 

The role of schools

Learning doesn’t start or end in schools. Parents have responsibilities to teach and train their children. Every local church should become a center for learning to equip the saints of each congregation. Every organization should continually upgrade the knowledge and skills of its people. Yet in all these, there is a role for theological schools. A good Bible school is where most pastors firm up their theological and biblical foundations while they learn the skills of equipping others. It is where those called to take the gospel elsewhere solidify their self-understanding and biblical worldviews in order to learn how to share eternal truths across cultures. It is where students acquire a compassionate understanding of differences as they study, pray and worship with others.  It is where those who are to be leaders, pastors and teachers can be mentored as they observe and reflect on the knowledge and experience of others. It is a place for archiving things that have been learned, and for writing textbooks that respond to real problems. It should become a learning center where graduates and others come with questions.

And yes, the forms should look differently in different places.

The Bible doesn’t prescribe how a seminary should look. Culture, traditions, local needs and the availability of resources help shape what training programs look like. One of the realities is that as students go away or abroad for graduate studies and return home with advanced degrees, many are honored by being appointed leaders of leadership programs. Most are brilliant scholars, teachers and pastors – but usually with minimal experience or study in academic administration. Hopefully my book on Excellence in Theological Education will be of help, as will many of the other titles that Langham has, drawing on experience globally to encourage those involved in the task of training God’s people, with the possibility of excellence. 

Steven A. Hardy is author of Excellence in Theological Education. Available in English, French, and Spanish.

Excellence in Theological Education