Guard Your Life and Your Doctrine
I have long abandoned the illusion that all seminary students are genuine Christians who love the Lord and love the Scriptures. Perhaps it was when I first learned Bart Ehrman was an alumni of the same undergraduate program I am, but it was likely even earlier than this. The general shift in academia over the years has had a severe, liberal bent. Even many within conservative Evangelical circles are often shoring up with institutions or entities in order to earn the moniker of academic respect and renown, making what they deem to be small compromises along the way.
I say none of this as a slam against their character – some of these men are those whom we love to learn from and have great insight upon the text. Yet there is something to be said of taking that which is deemed foolishness to those who are perishing and repackaging it in a manner that it seems, at least at first glance, less offensive to those who hate God. There is also something strange to me about the idea that we can ingest teaching from apostates or heretics and come away unaffected, as if there is neutral ground and worldviews don’t creep into everything.
I am not advocating one play the proverbial role of fool or diminishing the beauty of apologetics. Indeed, we are to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5). Likewise, may we be those who rebuke a fool in a manner befitting him (Pro. 26:4-5). We ought to have every confidence that His word is like fire and like the hammer which shatters the rock (Jer. 23:29). In the midst of all of this though, we ought not esteem ourselves too highly, as if we shall stand strong where others have fallen (Rom. 12:3).
I also am not saying we shouldn’t seek to make inroads at institutions for the sake of the gospel of Christ or understand what these men teach. Nor am I claiming we have nothing to learn from such people. On the contrary, we should be the boldest to enter into the fray and impart a biblical worldview and discern truth from error. Has God not chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak to shame the strong? In this grand upheaval, has God not been pleased to call His children from the “folly” we preach?
However, there is a good reason why we find Paul’s warning to young Timothy to watch both his life and his doctrine closely, for by it he shall save himself and his hearers. These years in seminary are incredibly formative – yet our part in local church now, under the submission of respectable elders and teachers, is also incredibly formative. To be sure though, transformation is both active and passive, meaning it not only comes from what we pursue, but simply the environment we are in.
If we sense nothing external to our own motivations can have a way of pressing us into the mold, we are of all men to be pitied. Furthermore, if we don’t fear the very real, stricter judgment that awaits those who teach, we deserve every bit of that judgment. Stick to the text. Believe it. You don’t need to read and interact with anything and everything by theologians and academics that despise the Lord to be a faithful, well-equipped minister.
Secondly, there will be no shortage of temptation to live in a manner contrary to the calling placed upon the pastor. If you haven’t already started to experience these things in seminary now, remember, you will. The most devastating way Satan can make a minister ineffective is to lure him into moral and doctrinal failure. Look at this for the long-haul. Look at Paul and desire to say with him, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
That verse isn’t just a cliché for all Christians to draw encouragement from. Paul’s focus is in years of faithful service in the midst of those who turn aside to myths and fables (2 Tim. 4:3-4). It is in the midst of him calling young Timothy to sobriety, endurance in hardship, doing the work of an evangelist, and fulfilling his ministry (v. 5). It is a call to finish well and endure, upholding the moral and theological qualifications until the end, and persevering through the hardship and opposition faithful service brings. Why? For by guarding your life and your doctrine, you shall save yourself and your hearers. I can’t help but think of the quote from J.C. Ryle: “The saddest road to hell is the one that runs under the pulpit, past the Bible, and through the middle or warnings and invitations.”
The Grand Sin of Platforming
For those in seminary, the temptation to become another of the leading voices in the Evangelical church can be great. If many of us were honest, the allure of being another big name within the industrial evangelical machine is ever-present. I sense that if we were brutally honest, we might even cloak this desire in nobility by saying this is a way we can serve the cause of Christ for even more people. Would we ever stop to ask if we are those who preach Christ out of selfish ambition, even though this would disqualify us from our calling (Phil. 1:15-18; 1 Pet. 5:1-4)?
I look at all of the men who have fallen in such devastating ways and not only pity them, but fear ever doing such a thing. God forbid I come in as a shepherd and leave a wolf. We have countless examples of men burning their churches to the ground, evading discipline, and then opening up shop right down the road. Often they say they were never qualified for ministry – for once, something I would agree with them on, but then they use this as some faux humility to climb behind the pulpit or lectern once again.
I recognize the irony of writing these words from a platform, but I sense I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight this issue. Young evangelicals are noticing many of their heroes getting older and the inevitable result will be their death. They have also realized there is a need for a new generation to carry the torch; perhaps we can be the generation to win the nation’s affections for Christ. The cautiousness I hold in this is that it seems like most want the platform more than the result of the platform. We have a celebrity problem within the evangelical church; we have our very own round table complete with legendary knights.
In the midst of this I sense the focus has been pulled away from the subtle glory of the local church and the faithful pastor of little notoriety. He won’t reach millions with his messages; he won’t have a full ministry staff behind him to take care of many of the other needs of the church. I don’t have a bible verse for this, but part of me wonders if the reward of the faithful preacher of five will outweigh that of the conference speaker, book-writer, and YouTube sensation. I fear we confuse the “doing big things for God” with simply doing things more people see and are affected by.We desperately need to develop the fortitude to simply not care if we are liked – that is not our job. If we seek the approval of the world, we run a fool’s errand. The culture will surely spit us out when they’ve gotten what they want of us. Our focus ought to be the local church the Lord grants us, if He grants us one to shepherd at all. Then, the church is to be shepherded, not coddled, not always agreed with, and certainly not given room to advance things contrary to sound doctrine and practice. I say all of this not as one who has experienced it, but one who simply listened to those faithful small-town pastors who have.
Our Love is Christ and His People
If you anticipate pastoral ministry to be an easy road and that everyone will be remember your last sermon, actually sense the urgency to walk in that truth, and that every moment of the time you invest in them personally will not return void – you are naïve. People will leave the church over your preaching, being confronted with sin, and even on lessor offensive matters. Some will seek to undermine everything you are doing, and others still will simply choose the pleasures of this life instead of that long, faithful obedience.
You will be wounded, but this is par for the course. If you sense you will avoid the treatment of the prophets, the apostles, and the very King of glory, you are naïve. The cost of this must be considered, for both you and your family. While the pastor will be the primary target, do not think for a moment your wife or children will be sparred of this. Do not expect that every fault they find with you will even be brought to you; many will simply not have the courage to bring it directly to your face. The temptation is to say that your experience will be different, as has been the temptation for me – but generally speaking, this is counsel routinely given for a reason.
Why pursue all of this then? We love Christ and we love His people, even those who are particularly difficult to love. We are those whom Christ has called and commissioned for this purpose, to whom He has said, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” If Christ died on the behalf of His sheep, is it not fitting for the under-shepherd to likewise lay down his life for their sake? We do not want to be the hireling who flees when a wolf comes to ravage the flock, even if the flock sometimes tramples upon us. It really is as simple as that. Don’t forget your love for Christ and His bride. When you start to, remind yourself of the many imperatives to love Christ and His bride.
Now, you might inherit God’s gift to churches after seminary, but it is far more likely you will inherit a church with sinners, some of which simply won’t think you should be there. You will likely encounter counseling situations, patterns of sinful behavior, and just some downright shocking things that seminary never prepared you for. You won’t find a seminary class that will prepare you for the moment you sit down with a man who confesses to heinous sexual acts, a woman who tells you she is continually fighting the urge to leave her husband, or parents who are devastated at the news that their teenage child wants to transition to the opposite sex.
This is why the local church is so instrumental to you now. Get with a pastor who can mentor you in these things so you can start to think on them now. I’ve had conversations with many pastors who simply didn’t have that mentor and because of that, they had a trial by fire scenario. It will still be that, because theory is different than practice, but it is good to expect these things so you can spend time thinking through some of it now.
After all of this is said and done, recognize that God doesn’t owe you a church just because you finished seminary. That is perhaps the largest area of struggle for me right now. I am nearing my graduation date, I’ve just about completed the languages, and my final year I anticipate an easier course load. I work full-time, go to graduate school full-time, have a wife, three kids, and serve at my church in various capacities – and this is all before I start to think of things I personally like to do (like write).
To put it bluntly, my wife and I met while I was in the process of transferring to the Bachelors of Science in Biblical Studies degree at Moody. In our eight year marriage, I’ve been in school the entire time, pressing forward with the goal of pastoral ministry. We don’t know what it looks like to not have school and the trajectory of ministry to be a part of our marriage. Yet, I may not even get to finish the program. If I do, I still am not guaranteed a pastoral role. That’s a hard thing to swallow at this moment, and surely, if I graduate from seminary, it will likely be a harder one.
I recognize this is a long open letter at this point, but lengthy is kind of my M.O. (and I’m wrapping it all up here). The pursuit of further education was to learn more about our King. It was all about knowing and delighting in Jesus in a manner you didn’t necessarily have the tools for previously. It was about then taking these tools and using them to serve the church – but the good news is that we don’t need a pastoral role to do these things. We are free to know and delight more in God now. We are free to serve His church in a greater capacity now.
But in the end, as much as we want these things, we don’t need them to honor Christ and edify the brethren. Simply stated, none of us are owed a darn thing just because we’ve gone through seminary – and we’ve already been given everything, which is Christ. We might have the pleasure to serve in this capacity, but that service is wholly for His glory and purposes and for the benefit of the church. If you don’t become a pastor after years of training, nonetheless, feed His sheep. Be a blessing to the pastor he’s placed you under. Your identity isn’t set in pastoral ministry, it is purely set in Christ.