Monday, February 21, 2022

Anonymous Asks (185)

“What are the pros and cons of getting a formal Christian education?”

In one sense I’m the wrong guy to ask. I never felt the need to go out and get one. Blame my parents for a Christian upbringing that went heavy on familiarity with the Bible. My father also spent a short time in a U.S. Bible school but did not finish his program. The lack of accreditation had no measurable impact on his ability to serve the Lord. I never heard him express a single regret about the decision.

My own feeling is that there is nothing you can learn in a classroom that you can’t learn from reading the same material for yourself, but then I felt the same way about university and still do.

From Desire to Service

Much depends on the individual situation. What worked for me will not necessarily work for you, and vice versa. Some of the Old Testament prophets had relationships with a mentor or prophetic “school”, and some did not. Paul had a formal education in Judaism. Peter didn’t, and neither did any of the other original disciples so far as we know. Being “uneducated, common men” did not hinder them from effectively persuading both schooled and unschooled concerning Christ. What mattered is that they had “been with Jesus”.

There’s a fundamental spiritual principle here that needs to be well understood, and that is this: neither a man’s authority to speak for God nor his effectiveness at doing so come from formal Christian education. Everybody has to learn what they know about the Lord and his word from somewhere, but there are different roads from desire to service.

Potential Considerations

So, rather than listing pros and cons, let me just highlight a few issues for serious young Christians to consider:

  1. Employability. If you are looking to make your living teaching the Bible, you probably need credentials to be taken seriously. That has both pros and cons. The servant of Christ is worthy of the cost of his keep, but the conflation of godliness and financial gain is a dangerous one. No man can serve two masters, and the interests of Christ and a board of elders are not always identical. Making a living and serving the Lord are also goals that can occasionally come into conflict.
  2. An Academic Mindset. A credible Bible teacher is intelligent but not necessarily academic. Conviction is a product of the Holy Spirit’s work in the human heart, not of our ability to put together a three-point dialectical argument from scripture. With formal education comes a danger of becoming dependent on intellect, technique or personal charisma rather on the maintenance of one’s daily walk with the Lord. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly persuasive about a bright, enthusiastic young Christian man in the pulpit who consistently gets his facts wrong and doesn’t understand his subject as well as his audience does, or who labors at his presentation to the point that good content goes unappreciated because of bad delivery.
  3. Time, Money, Opportunity Cost. Formal education is expensive, and may take years out of your life that could be used productively in other ways. And yet I have seen committed Christians who did not grow up in godly families or church environments benefit from relatively short-term, concentrated, organized exposure to formal teaching about the word of God.
  4. Personal Discipline. There is no getting around the fact that becoming an effective teacher of the Bible requires personal discipline, and rightly handling the word of truth requires commitment. For some, that comes easier than others. A Christian who has never established a daily routine of Bible study may find a structured program makes it easier for him to develop the necessary organizational skills to learn from scripture effectively. But in the end, we all have to learn to manage our walk with the Lord independent of the schedules imposed on us by others. The best discipline is self-discipline.
  5. Systematic Theology. Bible schools and seminaries teach theological systems. While I am no advocate of disorderly thinking, a system is only as good as the scriptural foundation it is built on. Christians exposed to pre-existing theological systems can be greatly impressed by them and may adopt them uncritically if they have not first developed a solid familiarity with the passages of scripture on which they are supposedly built. The ability to quote proof texts out of context to support someone else’s idea is no substitute for prayerfully developing your own understanding of a writer’s intended meaning.
  6. Convergence. Cultural Marxism is everywhere these days. Any seminary, Bible school or Christian college big enough to attract teachers with excellent reputations is also big enough to attract the forces of social justice convergence. This is especially true of those institutions that may graduate you with a degree of some actual use in the real world. American Reformer has a decent article on the problem of wokeness in once-venerable Christian colleges and universities here.
  7. How to Study vs. What to Study. Going back to the systematic theology point, I believe it is far more important to learn how to study the Bible than to learn what other godly people think we ought to believe about it. I am referring to courses of study that impress students with the value of context and the importance of comparing scripture with scripture, and which give them tools to break down a passage of scripture and faithfully interpret its meaning. Christian education of this sort is invaluable, however you may acquire it.

A Final Thought

Here’s a thought: before you rush off to seminary, have a look around your local church and ask yourself which men impress you with their understanding of the Bible, their ability to teach it, and most importantly their ability to live it out in the real world. Then consider finding out whether one or more of these men would be willing to do for you what Paul did for Timothy and Titus. There is no substitute for practically applying what you learn as you learn it.

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