Theological Education and the Local Church
Theological poverty is rampant in the majority of the Western Church today. North American evangelical/Protestant churches are suffering an endemic deficiency with regard to biblical and theological understanding. This is no new assessment,1 and the consequences to our spiritual health have been dire. One need only refer to the penetrating and embarrassing survey provided by Ligonier Ministries in their recent "State of Theology" report. Formerly-basic tenets of the faith and fundamental principles of Christianity that were intended to be catechized to and understood by children are now misunderstood or ill-comprehended by the majority of self-confessing conservative Protestant adults. Consequently, our spiritual health is anemic, our piety lacking, and our moral and ethical sensibilities on once straightforward issue are now in shambles. How is a pastor, elder, or Session to respond to this problem?
If we are committed to the ordinary means of grace--and by extension, the ordinary means of spiritual growth--it stands to reason that we trust that God's Word, applied by God's Spirit to do God's work. In this day and age, it's safe to say that God's people need more of God's Word, not less; more doctrine, more theology, more Scripture, more understanding, and more study of the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." Mere intellectual, cognitive apprehension of these matters is not a full-proof solution nor guarantee of godliness among God's people. It is, however, a target at which we want to aim.
If we believe in the engaging and transforming of the heart through the mind in the life of the Christian believer, then we must begin by targeting the mind with doctrinal meat, and not milk. Theological education should be happening in our churches on a regular basis. Theological education is, at a fundamental level, Christian education. While our corporate worship services require expositional sermons from the text of Scripture--and not academic lectures--there are, no doubt, other venues in the life and ministry of a local where Christian education and doctrinal instruction take place: in our Sunday schools and Bible Studies and small groups and midweek teaching occasions.
But what about opportunities for more advanced theological studies, both for the congregation member who would like to learn and for the pastor who would like to teach, but isn't a part of a seminary faculty? Some churches do have wonderful theological training programs as part of the regular teaching schedule within their church,2 but many churches--especially smaller churches--simply do not have the student base, resources, staffing, or schedule flexibility to pull off such a program. But what if several churches pulled together to accomplish such an endeavor? What may be insurmountable or impractical for one may be doable if shared among several.
I can only speak with reference to the model or paradigm with which I am most familiar, namely, the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education (BRITE). BRITE aims to be a parachurch ministry--pooling the resources and energies of several different Reformed and Calvinistic congregations and leaders in our area--that exists to serve the wider church in our region. We desire to be a center that provides theological education and training for folks (whether officers or laity) who need or desire it, to assist area pastors in such an endeavor who are unable to do so themselves, to provide continuing education, to be a resource for church officers and ministry leaders, etc.
In short, our desire is to serve those who cannot avail themselves of the opportunity and blessing of a traditional seminary education--whether due to financial constraints or to station in life--and to serve them and invest in the health of the local church by bringing the seminary to the pews.
Models of Theological Education
What our institute is endeavoring to accomplish is nothing novel. I suspect that the aim of BRITE is much the same as the aim of other church-based theological initiatives in our day and earlier. One thinks of the Pensacola Theological Institute, the early days of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology founded by James Montgomery Boice, the ongoing annual Theology Night at Tenth Presbyterian Church, or even the renowned Pastors' College founded by the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon. For our region's needs, the church seems to have been best served by establishing a sort of theological college and training center, with traditional curriculum plans and degree criteria, as well as the occasional conference and seminar. Both laity as well as church officers and pastors have enrolled in our courses and have attended conference offerings.
Prior to the rise of the modern seminary model and the scholastic-university model before that, it was common to find in-house or local methods of theological education, mentoring, and training.3 Small cohorts of ministerial candidates, mentored and taught by a man in the ministry (oftentimes the candidate's own pastor) were the standard norm. One thinks of the cathedral schools of the medieval church or even the Genevan Academy founded by John Calvin as extensions of this simple model.
This is not to argue any demerits against the theological seminary. This author stands as a happy and grateful graduate of one such institution. Rather, this is simply to recognize the potential benefit and blessing that can come when the content, opportunity, and ethos of the seminary campus and curriculum can be transplanted back into a local church context. Moreover, the benefit and blessing enjoyed by the seminarian-turned-pastor can also be extended to more than just the pastor, and can serve to edify his congregation and the wider church. In a subsequent post, we will consider a few of the benefits that accrue from church based theological eduction and training.
2. One thinks of the Centerpoint School of Theology put on by our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, SC).
3. For an insightful treatment on this subject, see Justo Gonzalez' The History of Theological Education (Abingdon Press, 2015).