Some Reflections on the Seminary, the Church, and the Academy

Should the theological school be considered an “academic” enterprise? Or is it a “churchly” endeavor? Yes and yes. Or, so says Richard Mouw in his recent monograph, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship. In the next-to-last chapter, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” Mouw argues that the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, and yet it is a manifestation closely related to the church.[1]

Mouw begins the chapter by providing a concise overview of the struggles within the Christian Reformed Church in the late 19th century, in which the Free University of Amsterdam (associated with Abraham Kuyper) promoted an essentially non-ecclesiastical model while Kampen Theological Seminary (where Herman Bavinck spent the large portion of his career) operated under ecclesiastical control. Kuyper was anti-ecclesiastic because of his doctrine of sphere sovereignty, which argues that each sphere of human culture (e.g. the academy) has its own unique integrity and should not be controlled by another sphere (e.g. church).

Mouw notes that the “theological school” is an interesting case study for proponents of sphere sovereignty (of which Mouw is one), and argues that the theological school’s ontology is of the academy and for the church. For him, the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. It is a kingdom manifestation not because it is a church, or is essentially churchly, but because it honors God in the way it conforms to God-given principles and norms for academic-type work.

He further argues that both churches and theological schools are manifestations of the same kingdom of Christ. “To emphasize,” he writes, “that the church and the theological school are together accountable to something larger than either of them is to guard against the impression that either entity exists simply to serve the other’s interests. A theological school may be accountable to a specific ecclesial body, but it also has other accountability relationships—not the least being its relationships to the larger world of theological education.” For this reason, there exists a special pattern of accountability between theological schools and the church: “the theological school is indeed in the academy; but it exists there to make the benefits of academic life available to the church, and out of a deep love for the church’s life and mission.”

Theological schools, Mouw argues, should be accountable to church bodies because ecclesial concerns necessarily should shape and inform its curricula. Although the theological school might also focus on other constituencies such as relief organizations, occupation-specific laity groups, parachurch organizations, etc., its most significant focus should be on the struggles and challenges of congregational life. In exactly this manner, the theological school is “more than” an academic institution. The church should expect its theological schools to complement the church in spiritual formation, community involvement, psychological training, etc. In fact, in doing these “more than” activities, the seminary can impress upon the broader academic world the significance of such matters.

Toward the end of the chapter, Mouw provides a nice summary and distillation of his view when he writes, “Theological education needs to be free to pursue its unique functions in the context of the kingdom of Christ. In insisting on this I am not espousing an unbridled ‘free inquiry.’ As an evangelical Calvinist I am convinced that theological education will be at its healthiest only when it is grounded in a deep commitment to biblical orthodoxy. I firmly support the maintenance of confessional boundaries that define and safeguard that commitment to evangelical institutions. Theological educators ought not to lust after a promiscuous intellectual freedom. We are bonded to the Word of God, and to the cause of the Savior whose cosmic redemptive mission is infallibly revealed in that Word. This means that our academic callings can never be pursued in a way that distances us from the church over whom the Savior reigns as Lord.” For Mouw, the theological school is “an academic manifestation of the rule of Christ” which is accountable to the church.

My response will be limited to a brief reflection on the hybrid nature of theological schools such as the institution at which I am employed, the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although we are indeed an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, the seminary is essentially church-related.  We exist at the pleasure of the SBC and in order to train ministers for SBC churches, missionaries for the IMB, and leaders for the convention entities. We operate faithfully and gratefully within SBC confessional boundaries. We want our education grounded in the worship and witness life of the redeemed community. For this reason, we require our students to be meaningful members of their churches. Further, we build “churchly” elements into the seminary’s life and curriculum: we have chapel services, promote spiritual formation, community life, and evangelism.

And the seminary is not a church. A seminary is distinctively different from a local congregation. We do not baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. We do not endow any members of the seminary with pastoral authority. Unfortunately, however, seminary students can (either consciously or unconsciously) allow seminary to replace church. The chapel services become congregational worship, the professors become functional pastors, and a student’s peers become the members of their “covenant” community. If and when a student allows seminary functionally to become his church, he warps and distorts God’s purposes for the seminary and does so to his own detriment.

Although the seminary is church related, it is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. SBC seminaries are called forth by Southern Baptist churches in order to serve the church in the academic aspect of its discipleship and leadership training. Our education includes academic elements: we deliver lectures, administer exams, seek accreditation, publish journals, require Chicago style for our papers, and participate in conversation with the broader academy. These are essentially academic elements of seminary life; they are not “churchly,” and yet they count as “kingdom work.” For each aspect of the seminary’s life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ and normed according to his word.

And yet the seminary is not purely academic. It is called forth into existence by the church and in turn serves the church. It does not bow to secular norms for the academic disciplines. For each academic discipline which has a counterpart at state universities, we ask at least three questions: What is God’s creational design for this discipline? How has this discipline been corrupted and misdirected by human idolatry? In what ways can we bring healing and redirection to his discipline? By asking these three questions, we are able to transform (or in some cases, reconstruct) disciplines such as biblical studies, counseling, or ethics in light of God’s normative word.

I’ve limited myself to a few brief reflections, and wish to hear our readership’s reflections on this significant topic. Do you agree with the basic thesis of the blog? Is there anything you would add or modify? Do you see further dangers of misunderstanding the seminary’s place in between church and academy?

[1] Richard Mouw, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” in Richard Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 191-205.


Briefly Noted: John Hammett on “What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?”

We at BtT want to make you aware of an article recently published by SEBTS theologian John Hammett: “What Makes a Multi-Site Church One Church?” The thing that makes this article interesting, IMO, is that Hammett does not give a sweeping approval of multi-site models, on the one hand, or a sweeping dismissal, on the other. Instead, heargues that some multi-site churches are biblically sound models, while others are not.

Hammett writes, “This article examines the phenomenon of the multi-site church movement in light of the historic belief in the oneness of the church. It discusses historic understandings of oneness, the definition of oneness used by multi-site advocates, and the single most commonly raised objection to multi-site churches, that they fail to assemble. It evaluates the validity of that objection and multi-site churches as a whole, and finds that the oneness of a local church in the New Testament requires relational and geographical closeness that most multi-site churches lack.”

The article can be accessed at the Great Commission Research Journal website.

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“Are Pastor Search Committees a Sign of Great Commission Failure?”

* This article was run a few weeks ago but was “lost” in our blog conversion.  Many have written in trying to locate it.  Thanks for spreading the love.


Much has been said about the shrinking tenure of local church pastors in recent years. Pastors retire. They move on to “greener pastures”.  Some “feel called away”, while others are “run off”. Some get discouraged and leave the ministry altogether. And unfortunately some make unwise decisions that result in moral failure resulting in their removal. Among Southern Baptists each of these premature departures usually sets into motion a series of events facilitated by the all too familiar “Pastor Search Committee”. Many bemoan this trend accusing pastors of leaving their flock without a shepherd. Others note that the polity of churches has morphed to a point where deacons are “running the church”.  Regardless of who is at fault, everyone can agree that there is something amiss in our church leadership culture that must be addressed. I believe that this phenomenon is both curious and telling with regards to our identity as Great Commission focused Baptists.

Our identity as “Baptists” is founded upon the biblical concept of local church autonomy. And as “Great Commission Baptists” we should have as a core value the imperative of “making disciples” as our driving ethos. Our brothers and sisters in some other denominations may look to some external hierarchical leadership to provide a replacement for their departed pastor, but I believe we should be looking inside and among the local flock.  In fact, I don’t believe that it should be too hard to find a replacement within our churches – provided our churches are actually functioning as Spirit empowered disciple-making entities. That is one of the main reasons for the church, right?  If so, then the local church pastor should be always working to reproduce spiritual health through making disciples who “obey all that Christ commanded” (Mt 28:18-20).  Pastor/shepherds must be concerned with more than preparing a sermon or planning the next event; Pastors are charged with the task of “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:12).

I have served both as a missionary and as a pastor. As a missionary I understood that if I didn’t make disciples among the host cultures I was working in, that church planting would not be possible.  I was taught that when entering a cross-cultural mission field I should have an “exit strategy” that involved leaving in place indigenous local leadership.  My job as a missionary was to multiply disciples in such a way as to plant multiplying churches. No disciple-making, no real church growth – or church health for that matter. This missiological principle is not only true overseas. It’s true right here in our own North American churches. Pastors must begin to see themselves as missionaries and understand that their role is to build a church through making disciples who are empowered by the Presence of the Holy Spirit of God rather than creating dependency upon themselves.

1 Timothy 3:1 says that when a man aspires to the office of elder/pastor, he desires a good thing. That text has been abused in Southern Baptist circles because we have turned it into a check-list for pastor search committees to use in looking for the next pastor outside of their own local church. I believe that when Paul wrote that epistle to Timothy he intended that the churches in Ephesus develop men who are qualified, not merely look for leaders elsewhere who already met those criteria. In fact, SBC pastors would do well to both understand and communicate that every man in his church should strive to be qualified for the office, whether he ever holds the title or not. Pastors, like missionaries, should be working themselves out of a job. Or better yet, they should be working others into one.

I was once hired as an Associate Pastor by a search committee. A few deacons interviewed me. I “preached in view of a call” and was hired. I had recently returned from serving overseas because of a family health issue. So when I accepted the position it was with an understanding that I would only be there for a few years until our family health issue allowed us to serve internationally again. I took the first year that I was in this rural SBC church to establish relationships and invite people to apprentice in various roles.  I did this in the areas of Sunday School, Evangelism, Discipleship and Youth. By the end of the first year I had lay leaders whom I had invested in that had learned these ministries by serving alongside me. During my second year there I passed the baton to those lay leaders and then served them in a support and resourcing role. When my time at that church came to an end, each of those ministries was healthier than ever and were being led exclusively by local lay leaders. Unfortunately the next paid minister who came to the church felt threatened by this environment and dismissed all of those leaders telling him that he would take over.  Six months later he left for “greener pastures” and the demoralized lay leaders never really recovered.  I will be the first to say that I certainly didn’t do everything right during my time at that church. However, I loved the people enough to lead them toward dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than me. The simple missiological thought that I had to replace myself drove the way I approached my ministry. What if every SBC pastor approached their ministry with the perseverance to stay the course for a lifetime, but with the humility of empowering the church to be healthy with or without him?

The fact that our first thought at the premature departure of a pastor is to form a search committee, I believe entails that there is a systemic failure of understanding of the Great Commission and of the role of the pastor/shepherd toward completion.  Let me be clear, I’m in no way saying that the formation of a pastor search committee is morally wrong.  Too often churches are left with a mess because the departing pastor built the ministry upon his presence.  What I am saying is that the single most important role of a local church pastor should be to raise up a church filled with qualified replacements. Local churches should be structured to cultivate disciples and that begins with the pastor making disciple-makers.  If the pastor must leave, there should be a clear pool of disciple-makers who have been equipped by him to assume leading the church. When there is no clear internal choice, it is likely owing to the fact that the departing pastor didn’t understand the 2 Timothy 2:2 mandate of his ministry.

This shift in understanding begins with the pastor. Pastor, when it’s time for you to go, where will your church look for a shepherd?  If you’ve done a good job, they shouldn’t have to look too far. If the SBC is to be known as  “Great Commission Baptists”, then that identity is going to emerge from local church pastors who begin to think and minister like missionaries.