Seminary is a privilege. Many Christians around the world and throughout history have not been able to pursue concentrated Biblical study under the leadership of Bible scholars. They have been prevented by money, opportunity, persecution, and so on, but I want to write to those who have been granted the unusual grace of attending a seminary and I want to urge you – don’t waste this unique opportunity of God’s grace. Here are a few words of wisdom to the first year seminary student.
#1 Humble Yourself
One of the greatest enemies of your spiritual growth is pride. God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. This principle is true for all of life, but it is especially true for the seminary environment. You are not an elite Christian because you decided to go to seminary. You are not a theologian because you took a systematic theology course, and you are not necessarily godly because you are writing papers on the doctrine of God. There is an overwhelming temptation in our Christian sub-culture of podcasts and conferences to see seminary as nothing more than a stepping stone to the public ministry platform that so many desire. Everyone wants to be the next Matt Chandler or the next David Platt, but few are prepared to faithfully walk in the seemingly little things God places in front of them every day. If your end goal is a big platform and a lot of twitter followers, I pray that by God’s grace you will not have one, for it would be destructive to your own soul and to the audience you are using for your own affirmation. Ministry is a self-crucifying, God-glorifying and pride-crushing. Embrace it. Listen a lot. Humbly learn from people that you agree with and disagree with. As you approach the deep things of God, be humbled by how much you don’t know and strive to both know Him more and model the humility in which He is pleased.
#2 Devote Yourself to the Local Church
Seminary is not your priority, not even for a short season. It is secondary. It is the supportive role of a far more important institution – the local church. Finding and committing yourself to a local assembly of believers should be of the utmost importance early in your seminary career for it is the local church that will be your most life-changing professor. It is the place where theology comes to life. It is where orthodoxy becomes orthopraxy that results in doxology. I was sent out to plant a church at 24 years old not because of all the head knowledge I learned in seminary, but because of the growth I experienced in the local churches I served through both college and graduate school. The local church is the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the family of God’s adopted children, and the blessed temple of God the Spirit. Study the church while you serve the church. Don’t ignore her or slander her in your preparation to serve her for the rest of your life.
Even if it is cheaper living on your seminary campus, make sacrifices and move into the community where your church is located if at all possible. Your main source of community and your arena for discipleship and evangelism should be a church family in a neighborhood of lostness. Learn how to be hospitable and how to connect evangelism of neighbors to the discipleship of your church.
It is a heart-breaking stereotype in the city that I live that seminary students are often the most unreliable and uncommitted church members. By God’s grace break that stereotype. Many will say that their ministry is seminary right now and that they do not have time to be heavily involved in the church. That is a lie from Satan. If you are not doing the ministry of disciple-making now, you probably never will. For younger students especially, you are less busy than you think you are. Future pastors, you will one day be asking your congregants with full-time jobs, multiple kids, and a variety of responsibilities to additionally teach a small group, evangelize, disciple, and be a part of church programming. Embrace the busy schedule and pour yourself out in the toil of disciple-making, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within you to present everyone mature in Christ. (Col. 1:28-29)
#3 Study the Bible
This word of wisdom may seem silly. Of course, you are going to study the Bible at a seminary. Not necessarily. There will be a temptation to focus your attention in several directions. Here are two examples. Some are tempted to give all their time, thought, and devotion to learning how to do ministry. These are the students that love the practical classes. They say things like, “I’m a doer” or “I’m more of a practical application guy”. Others are more intrigued by “the deep things”. They want to read all the theology from all the quotable authors and theologians past and present. They dream of smoking pipes and stroking their beards in long conversation over ancient debates. Neither practical application nor theological depths are bad. I personally enjoy both. But Scripture reigns supreme.
Seminary is a time to saturate yourself in the study of the Scriptures. Practical application is pointless if you do not know the Scriptures that you are supposed to be applying. Practical application in ministry will also shift between cultures, time periods, and ministries. The Scriptures won’t. A deep and rich understanding of the Bible will transcend all ministry contexts from mission work in the middle east to youth pastoring in south Mississippi. Likewise, you will not be able to discern between the many doctrinal debates past, present, and future if you have listened only to the voices of debaters rather than the voice of God in the Scriptures. Do not forsake other disciplines, but prioritize the discipline of Biblical study. Hear the words of Martin Luther:
The writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. As it is, however, we read them only to be absorbed in them and never come to the Scriptures. We are like men who study the signposts and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished by their writing, to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil. (Kerr, Compend of Luther’s Theology, 13)
#4 Tackle the Hard Issues
There will be moments in your future ministry that you wish you would have taken the time to do in-depth study guided by professors on the hardest theological and moral questions. What does the Bible really say about homosexuality? What are the differences between Roman Catholic doctrine and Protestant doctrine and how do you have those conversations? Should divorced people re-marry? Is the Trinity really in the Bible and if so how do I teach it to my congregation? Are the manuscripts of the Bible that we have really reliable? How can a good God allow evil and suffering in the world? For some, these questions and the papers you write on them are just more assignments standing between you and graduation, but I plead with you to take them seriously. Don’t read and write for the sake of a grade. Read and write for the sake of a lifetime of ministry where you will be the one responsible for answering these questions for the people you love and minister to.
As a 22-year-old youth pastor, I was assigned a research paper on C.S. Lewis’ theodicy – his understanding of the problem of pain and suffering in the world. I studied and I labored and I learned not knowing that in a few short months I would be preaching the funeral of a teenage girl in my youth group who drowned at our youth camp. That paper was preparing me for far more than graduation. At that moment, with a room full of youth and volunteers staring back at you for answers there is no time to prepare, study, or call an old professor. There is the preparation that God has graced you with and the power of his Spirit bringing his Word to your remembrance. Tackle the hard issues and take your assignments seriously. You will be glad that you did.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church