Benefits of Theological Education in the Local Church

In the previous post, we considered the rationale behind a local church model of theological education. In this post, we want to turn our attention to five potential benefits of such a church-based theological education model:

  1. In-person instruction, mentoring, and discipleship.

There is much to be said for the gift of modern technology and the instantaneous methods of communications we have available to us. I teach in West Africa at a pastors' college from time to time, and it is absolutely astounding that my students there can use their smartphones to download lectures on covenant theology and apologetics from some of the finest instructors in some of the finest seminaries in America and be listening or watching said lectures within minutes. What a blessing this is for the wider church, and especially the nascent church in the global south which is often so resource-poor. We have much for which to be thankful in this regard.

Nevertheless, there is still much to be said pedagogically and pastorally for traditional, in-person, physical classroom educational environments. You'll note that in West Africa, though there are voluminous resources available to the student body and denomination digitally, the leaders of the denomination still desire an instructor to come to campus and teach the students in-person, in-classroom, and provide personalized mentoring and feedback and guidance tailored to the students' needs. This is something no recording can ultimately do, and there is a strong case to be made for the advantages of in-person classroom instruction.[1]

Moreover, I know of one professor who has noted how infrequently his students will cite their own pastor when listing the preachers who have most shaped and influenced them. There is certainly nothing wrong with appreciating and being edified by a multiplicity of strong preaching ministries, but should it be the predominant trend that one's actual pastor has a fairly minimal role in shaping one's theological education? Historically, this was not always the case and with a local, church-based program of theological education it need not be the case. What a gift it is to be instructed in the classroom in the doctrines of the faith, and then to have those same doctrines applied to the health of one's soul as one is shepherded, mentored, and cared for the same cohort of pastor-professors.

Last but not least under this benefit is the oft-overlooked asset of learning in community. Some of my very best friends are from our seminary days. I don't know that there's any way to replicate that kind of experience: a band of brothers training for a life of pastoral ministry, learning together in the same classes day after day, living as next-door neighbors on campus, interning in churches together, growing in knowledge, grace, and piety together during some very formative years. But even if that rich and nostalgic experience cannot be reproduced entirely, the value of learning together with a fellow cohort of flesh-and-blood peers cannot be overstated. Attending classes together week after week, forming relationships and friendships, discussing the assigned reading content for the class, studying together and going over each other's notes, hearing each other's question asked in class and being able to offer response and perspective when one person perhaps slightly misunderstood, the live-fire dynamic and back-and-forth exchange from student-to-student or student-to-teacher, or the fine-tuning and reinforcing of each other's comprehension during those crucial after-class discussions in the lobby: all of these intangible aspects are of immense value to the greater educational enterprise and none of these, I would suggest, can be replicated by the student sitting alone at his kitchen table, tuning in to pre-recorded lectures on his iPad.

  1. The opportunity for growth via deeper study.

It has been said that everyone is a theologian. Certainly, then, every Christian is a theologian. Whether they are doing right theology or sound theology is the question. But the fact is: every Christian is making theological distinctions and formulating doctrinal sensibilities, and since they are, it behooves church leaders to inform their people with a healthy and robust theological framework. Theological study can serve every Christian because every Christian is urged to love God with their mind as well as their hearts and souls (Matthew 22:37).

Not every church member will avail himself of the opportunity, but many will and many are desirous of the prospect, and in an age of biblical illiteracy and theological paucity, it can serve the church well to offer opportunities to facilitate a more theologically-educated laity.

This benefit might seem to be the most obvious, but just in case the readers of Ref21 need convincing, we might borrow from the words of Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas in this regard:

Why is doctrine important? And why is it important for every Christian?

Three reasons rise to the surface:

a. Doctrine helps us to understand the Bible as a whole. What does the Bible teach us about vocation, recreation, money, relationships, or the gift of tongues? "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking... but in your thinking be mature" (1 Corinthians 14:20). If we are to understand what the Bible is teaching us, we need to understand the message of the Bible as a whole. 

b. Doctrine helps us engage the world of unbelief. We are to provide a "defense" to anyone who asks for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). Knowing the truth aids us in defending the Bible against the philosophies of our time that seek to undermine the Christian faith.

c. Doctrine helps us praise God. In fact, all truth is designed for doxology; its goal is to help us worship and praise God. When we take our eyes off that goal, doctrine "puffs up" and produces pride and factionalism (1 Corinthians 8:1). But when doctrine meets the heart, the result is always a song!

  1. The opportunity for growth via greater facility.

Not every pastor can be a seminary instructor; nor should he be. On the other hand, there are many pastors that would enjoy and probably benefit from trying their hand at delivering and instructing collegiate or graduate-level theological content in a classroom environment.

If you're anything like me, you find that you learn a subject matter best and obtain greater mastery over it when you are required to teach it. Reading is good, but having to distill and communicate the content of a subject matter has served me even better in deepening my understanding of historical theology, church history, and systematic theology over the past few years. Having such an opportunity can help drive the pastor/instructor to become a better reader, student, aspiring scholar, communicator, and--ideally--teacher of truth. This can help to serve not only the life of his mind and ministry, but also the life of the congregation in the long run.

A secondary benefit here for the pastor is a shared distribution of labor. In the region where I serve, our Reformed churches tend to be smaller, with pastoral staffs consisting of one minister, two tops. There are people to be visited, funerals to preached, hospitals to be frequented, community functions to be attended, letters to be written, bulletins to be prepared, worship services to be planned, media to be uploaded, counseling to be had, weddings to be officiated, jails to be visited, interns to be mentored, people to be loved, studying to be done, and sermons to be prepared. Add on top of that meeting the desire for a robust theological education at a higher level to be taught among the congregation, and the prospect sounds overwhelmingly exhausting.

But if, as BRITE has done, we can pool together our resources and energies, and one man teaches covenant theology, and another man teaches church history, and another Greek, and another Old Testament, and so forth...well, suddenly the goal doesn't seem quite so insurmountable.

  1. The opportunity for teaching and training. 

In my short tenure in ordained ministry I have met numerous ruling elders and deacons who have expressed a desire to be able to study at a level that their pastor has enjoyed--to be able to learn and glean from the robust and rigorous biblical and theological content that we pastors often take for granted--in order to inform their own ministries within the local church. I've even run into several ruling elders who sometimes consider themselves to be "second rate" elders due to their perceived lack of formal theological training. I find this to be patently untrue when I learn of the heart, character, and doctrinal apprehension of these men, but just the same: to strengthen them with deeper biblical instruction and theological grasp, to better equip them as they visit, prepare Bible studies, pray, counsel, and even preach--what a wonderful opportunity that could be!

Here is such an opportunity. Oftentimes elder/deacon/officer training is helpful: covering the basics of the Westminster Confession, Presbyterian polity, theological high points, church history etc. And--we should be quick to note--education and instruction is no substitute for years of learned wisdom and experience. Nevertheless, what a gift it is to be able to give a ruling elder training and facility in systematic and covenant theology as he strives to grow in his own aptness to teach and grows as a fellow-laborer in shepherding the flock of God. What a help to the deacon to be given deeper instruction in ethics or pastoral counseling as he tends to the needs of mercy and physical care for the members of the flock he serves. What a wonderful opportunity to give to the youth volunteer, the Sunday school coordinator, or the women's Bible Study leader a greater understanding in hermeneutics or biblical theology as she seeks to plan lessons and curriculum for multiple age groups or lead a study amongst a group of people from varying theological backgrounds and all sorts of baggage of theology that is best "unlearned."

  1. The health of the regional Church.

Wherever seminaries have been planted, they have served to bolster the health and strength of the local church and congregations in its general region. This is part of the reason why some seminaries have adopted the multiple-campus model: more biblical orthodox schools of theology in more places serves to bolster more churches.

This is not unlike the thought behind the strategic creation of some church plants or campus ministries. Turning the tide on theological anemia is an endeavor which will take years--decades!--not days. But if a theological school or training center can be established, and if it can begin to have an impact on the theological mind and life in the pews, and if local pastors and planters and offices and churchmen can be raised up and trained in that setting and sent back into their local contexts whether to revitalize or to start a new work, then the robust teaching that is being exported from that center can begin to take root and--eventually, Lord willing-- have a profound effect on the church in that region (both Reformed and non-Reformed) for generations to come.

An educational ministry such as this is most certainly not the church nor is it a substitute for the church. Nothing can substitute for the reign of King Jesus within the church and the work of the Holy Spirit through the faithful, biblical church ministry of the Word, sacraments, and discipline. But an endeavor such as this is one that can come alongside the church, bless the church, and invest in the good of the church. Rather, it is a tool in the service of the church, striving for her good, and for the bolstering of her health for generations to come.

Sean G. Morris serves as the Associate Minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA) of Roanoke, Virginia and as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education.