The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary

The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary October 28, 2011

I was not a geek in high school.  I know this because I never had a slushee tossed in my face (which, according to no less an authority than Glee, is the leading indicator of geek status in high school), and I never suffered the distinct indignity of a “wedgie,” and I never went to high school.  As a top-ranked gymnast, I worked through our high school’s “independent study” program, which meant that every person in every class I took thought I was perfectly wonderful.

Neither was I particularly uncool at college.  I was a varsity athlete, a relatively sociable person, and a leader in student Christian fellowships.  There were times when my counter-cultural Christianness was painfully clear.  I did not go to drinking parties, had no interest in joining a fraternity, and made no effort to bed the young ladies at Stanford University.  But, honestly, I never felt like an outsider.  Stanford had many thousands of students from hundreds of different cultures and faiths and value systems.  I was just a part of the mosaic.

It surprised me, therefore, when I found that I felt like an outsider at seminary.  We were all Christians.  Princeton Theological Seminary is a fine institution, and I enjoyed my time there.  I formed friendships with fascinating people, found mentors in excellent professors, and enjoyed the classes immensely.

And yet…I did feel like an outsider.  There was a single prevailing culture there — and I did not belong to it.  I am an evangelical with conservative leanings.  I came to PTS at the recommendation of my famously-agnostic undergraduate mentor, Van Harvey, who strongly believed that I should gain a three-year seminary education before going on to a secular research institution for the more specialized work of a doctorate.  (He was right, but more on that later.)

My Outsider status became clear to me — if not for the first time, at least in a new way — when I sat with friends on the seminary field, stretching before a game of ultimate frisbee.  It was still my first semester, and I was getting to know the people and the place.  We were talking about the sins that were emphasized in the churches that brought us up.  I said that pre- or extra-marital sex was the grave sin against which we, in my youth group and Sunday School classes, were most gravely and constantly warned.  And, I said, I appreciated that, as it had helped me maintain my commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.

I might as well have said that I believe in eating toddlers with chipotle sauce and a side order of puppies.  My friends’ and fellow seminarians’ expressions had gone, suddenly, from benign conversational interest to something that looked like rats and skunks had deposited themselves deep in their nostrils, where they were scratching and relieving themselves and spreading their odors.  This, I saw, was the last thing my friends wanted to talk about.  And such a “backwards” and “judgmental” attitude (as it would later be described to me) really had no place at an enlightened seminary.

The point here is not really about sex.  Yes, intramural sex was distressingly common amongst the people I knew at Princeton Seminary.  So were drinking and at least recreational drug use.  There were many times — many — when we would watch one of our friends, drunken or cussing or talking profanely about women, and we would say: “Can you believe he’s going to be pastoring a church in a year?”  But the point is bigger than sex.

Neither is it my intention here to make myself the judge and jury.  The seminarians I knew were good people, and I love and respect them.  I am exceedingly far from utter moral rectitude myself.  I drank far more alcohol in seminary than I have ever drank before or since.  My wife and I did manage to abstain from sex until marriage, but I sin in my thoughts and deeds every day, and I know it full well.

The point, rather, is about the culture that permeated the seminary, and whether sexual integrity and moral formation were as central to the mission and the experience as they should have been.  There were certain circles at PTS where, I think, simple obedience to traditional Christian moral teachings were more emphasized.  (I found parts of the Korean-American community were more traditional in these matters, for example.)  Yet there were large swaths of the seminary community where, perversely, it was okay to be unholy because we were all holy.  We didn’t have the accountability, the responsibility to present a compelling witness, that comes from the presence of nonbelievers or followers.  In the same way that a room full of PhD’s can feel free to act silly, because they all knew they’re smart, it seemed as though we felt free to stretch the moral boundaries because we all “knew” that we were ultimately committed to God.

But there are consequences to that kind of behavior.  Surely it says something that when I drove back to PTS from my chaplaincy work with the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, it felt as though I were leaving behind a place where God was real and urgent and present to a place where God was formally honored but rarely dynamically present.  And surely it says something that, when I was suddenly struck with the fear of death before a surgery, I went around to my professors, essentially begging them for assurance that there was an eternity with God to be enjoyed, and the most affirmative answer I received was: “I think there’s an eternity with God; but if not, this life has been a wild ride.”

While I don’t feel positioned to draw strong conclusions on these matters, I want to raise three questions:

  1. While my Mainline Protestant friends are not going to appreciate this, I cannot help but suspect that the unhealthy part of the culture that permeated Princeton Theological Seminary is simply a part of the culture that permeates many Mainline Protestant bodies in general.  The faith and ministry that were modeled at PTS were too much about the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life, and not enough about plunging ever-more deeply into (to use the dreaded evangelical language) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by which I mean the day-to-day and moment-to-moment yielding-to and being-with Jesus.  Matters of form prevailed over matters of substance.  And when the theological inheritance of the Christian tradition is treated so casually, then so too are the moral teachings.  Our faith does not require us to believe this, we are told; our faith does not require us to do that.  Eventually it’s not clear what our faith really is anymore.  (To be clear, evangelicalism has its faults, but I hope I can speak with charity of a possible fault in Mainline Protestant circles too.)  So is it possible that Mainline Protestant seminaries are struggling, to the extent they are, simply because they belong to a culture that has slowly but steadily carved away the theological and moral commitments that teach us who God is and how he is best known and loved and served?  And since sex is one of the primary struggles for the young men and women who go to seminary, one of the most fundamental areas of life where we are asked to put aside our selfish desires and to remember our covenant with God, would a recommitment to teaching sexual integrity be a step in the right direction?
  2. I was recently asked to chart my spiritual life, and the three years I spent in seminary were represented as a steep downward arc.  Some seminarians will say the opposite, of course, but an alarming number of my friends saw their spiritual lives stall or digress or even disintegrate during their seminary years.  For me, the reason is clear: obedience.  (That was another word that often evoked bewilderment or eye-rolling amongst my fellow seminarians when I emphasized it as an important part of my faith life.)  I have always drawn closest to God when I have been obedient to him.  Why?  Because the act of submitting myself to God over and over again reminded me hundreds of time per day that God is — and the act of surrendering my will to him over and over again reminded me constantly that He is Lord — and the blessings and the companionship that came from having submitted and surrendered myself to him reminded me everyday that God is Good.  In my seminary years, I was far less obedient to what I understood as the will of God than I was in my high school or college years.  Is it possible that many seminarians see their faith suffer in their seminary years because simple, humble and thoroughgoing obedience is not sufficiently emphasized?  And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?
  3. Finally, if it’s indeed the case that there is an elevation of form over substance, and a jettisoning of some very important parts of the Christian tradition, then this will have consequences everywhere.  For instance, students (like myself) who had attended Bible churches or belonged to evangelical fellowships knew the Bible on the first day of the year-long survey course as well as the rest of the students knew the Bible on the final day of that course.  It often felt more important to have the right views on the hot-button issues like the ordination of gays than it was to truly understand central doctrines like the Trinity — much less to, well, love Jesus.

I’m sure that the positive parts of my PTS experience are much to the credit of the seminary and the excellent faculty they’ve assembled.  And I’m sure the negative parts of my PTS experience were largely my fault.  But I believe, and believe very strongly, that one way seminaries can improve themselves is to remember the foundational importance of obedience, to remember that we are saved by grace but called to live lives of grateful imitation.  When we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we come to know him and commune with him — and to know and commune with the Father.  If we want seminarians to see their seminary years as times of extraordinary spiritual deepening and growth, then we need to encourage those seminarians to live lives of integrity and holiness and selfless obedience.  They will fall short.  But to the extent they try, they will grow.

In conjunction with Patheos’ series on The Future of Seminary Education, I’ll continue to offer thoughts on seminaries and their future over the coming week.

Update: Edited to correct a typographical error and to render the point regarding the Korean-American community a little more finely.)

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  • angie

    Thank you. I know a few people from PTS, and I was very surprised about what I heard. I am not going to say that my Seminary experience at an Evangelical Seminary in the Midwest was perfect — I drank for the first time there and in small ways felt a similar downward spiral in my own faith — but I was surprised at what these friends told me about their experiences there.

    • King

      Doctrinal celibacy has its advantages. It is cleaner and simpler, and therefore a clearer route to discipline — with regard to more than just sex. Master the main temptation (especially in this culture!), mastery of the rest becomes easier. Lapses are thrown into high relief, sticking out like the imperfections they are, particularly when united to a vow.

      Other modes of clerical life are lost all too quickly among the slothful rationalizations of sin when judgment and self-enforcement becomes a complicated affair: for the celibate, any deviation into the carnal realm is foreign and therefore more easily marked as a danger. For the non-celibate? He must navigate the tricky shoals of chaste and unchaste sex, and the devil’s slightest nudge can cause our disaster in those waters.

      • John


        for the low brow, simple minded, non-PhD quality humans (can I get a witness) may I suggest ‘cleaner and simpler’ counsel from God:

        “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. Just for starters. Hey I can understand that!

        I assume I’m wasting my time as most seminarians don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word let alone ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ and shack up (pun intended) in ivory towers to create religion, intending to tickle the ears of others and impress with their framed diplomas certifying accelerated ability to love (to love those type of people they just spent 3 years entirely apart from).

        Besides, where is seminary in the Scriptures? It’s a great idea in principle but it’s surely not necessary.

        • Ben K.

          Nice suggestion there at the end. This is off topic from the actual blog post, but I’d say that while “seminary” is not found in the Scriptures training in doctrine and the Scriptures seems to be expected throughout God’s Word. Diploma? Not necessarily. Discipleship? No doubt.

          However, it seems that this training is the job of the leaders of the community of the faithful or in our context, the church. I think offering formal Bible training should be the goal of churches and that currently biblically-faithful seminaries should begin to move toward equipping churches for the task. I’ve heard whispers of this grass-roots training movement and I pray that God would continue to grow and bless it. We don’t need men with degrees. We need men who love Jesus, the Word, and the Church.

        • Darcyjo

          It might be best if you didn’t make the automatic assumption that A.everyone in seminary/divinity school is sleeping around, and B. that everyone is so much less moral and Christian than you. Why? Because, actually knowing people in a seminary (and no, I won’t tell you which one, to head off the remarks from you about the holiness of a school you don’t know), I know there are Godly (and some not-so-Godly) people in seminaries.
          And online, too. I will try not to make assumptions about you, a person who makes nasty comments on people he has never met.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            I assume neither A nor B, personally.

          • Matthias

            A.)I find it slightly ironic that you are assuming that Mr. Dalrymple is making either of those assumptions.

            Based on what I’ve read in this article, I see neither of those assumptions being made.

            B.) (this is not a reply to you, i just don’t see the point in making two posts.) This is a very good article. I can understand it because I’ve seen things like this go on in a Christian summer camp. I believe that if we all just study and follow God’s Word, then not only would our lives be better spiritually, but as well as physically we would not have nearly as many problems.

  • Pat Pope

    Excellent article.

    “It often felt more important to have the right views on the hot-button issues like the ordination of gays than it was to truly understand central doctrines like the Trinity — much less to, well, love Jesus.”

    Oddly enough, I find some in evangelical churches seem to focus on these same things to the exclusion of loving others with the love of Christ.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Amen to that, Pat.


  • Sam Atchison

    I was gratified to learn afresh that Tim’s experience at New Jersey State Prison (I was the prison’s head chaplain & his field education supervisor) was so meaningful. IN so reading, I was reminded that criminologist Todd Clear noted the emphasis on religious orthodoxy stressed by inmate believers. Having served thousands of inmates over 13 years as a prison chaplain, I’ve always theorized that the emphasis on religious orthodoxy was directly related to the prisoners’ personal sense of sin. That is, the crimes they committed were an outward expression of the sin in their hearts. On the continuum of sin, crime can be understood as representing a worst-case scenario. Similarly, incarceration (which includes separation from family & society) is a this-worldly reflection of the ultimate punishment for sin — eternal separation from God. Could it be that the lack of an immediate consequence for our sins makes us forget to fear a just, holy and righteous God? “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” (Prov. 16:6, KJV)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the good word, Rev! As far as classes and programs (as opposed to friendships, which are hard to compare), the chaplaincy internship was the best thing I did in those three years. God bless,


    • Gemma

      Physical bondage is tough. And yet I’ve heard many stories of people who have developed a deep and intimate relationship with God while within the four walls of prison. It’s this redemption perhaps that people are really seeking.

  • Tanya

    “lives of integry and holiness and selfless obedience.”

    It is hard to argue with that. My experience in a mainline seminary might be similar to yours, but I’d draw a distinction between those who thought sex outside of marriage (generally NOT one night stands) was compatible with the language above, and those who decided that drunkenness and debauchery was inconsistent, but not a big deal.

    The Yale Div School library was famously the most likely to be robbed of all the libraries in the school. The reason, said a librarian: “you all believe in grace.” By that I think he meant “cheap grace.”

    • John Haas

      Maybe. I was once in Temple University’s library as an undergrad, looking for an article in a bound journal, and lo and behold it had been sliced out with a razor blade. The journal? “The International Journal of Ethics.”

  • I completely relate to your post. I went to a smaller seminary than you, so there was not as much advocacy of blatantly immoral behavior, but it was a much different place than I expected.

    I also did my best drinking in a seminary environment.

    I had people offer me drugs in seminary. That did not happen socially in high school or college at all.

    Most distressing when I was in seminary was not the mores of single persons, but of married people. So many affairs and divorces in the middle of studying for ministry.

    A question for you. How many people you went to seminary school are still in some sort of ministry?

  • The purpose of seminary, I would assert, is formation–to instill in the ordained both the personal and professional skills and habits to lead a congregation. Temptation to stray will be no less after ordination, and while a retain “letting your hair down” is healthy, rampant sex, drug use, and drinking is not. How will folks who have been formed to think of that as OK in seminary resist the temptation to continue in beyond seminary?

  • Joshua Long

    Spot on! As a fellow evangelical graduate of PTS, I resonated with what you wrote here. Thanks for sharing this!

  • John Haas

    Do we have any stats on incidence of premarital sex at different seminaries of different traditions? The studies I’ve seen–admittedly, quite a few years ago–show evangelicals pretty much neck and neck with the general population.

    Also, lately I’ve noticed a number of younger but serious evangelicals questioning the prohibition on it–arguing that the Scriptures don’t emphasize it much, that our culture involves delaying marriage far beyond the norm for pre-modern cultures, etc.

    That doesn’t strike me as particularly wise, but it would be interesting to know how wide these conversations are.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hey John,

      There’s a lot of bad data that gets a lot of press – and it’s bad because of the way it defines evangelicals, or takes no note of observance, or does not control for other demographic factors. Nominal evangelicals, those who are not observant, often have slightly worse rates of incidence on a host of things from divorce to premarital sex — partly because of the demographic to which they often belong (nominal evangelicals, people who call themselves evangelicals but don’t practice, are, for instance, generally from the lower classes, and tend to come from areas of the country where these things are more common in the first place). Observant evangelicals, meaning those who attend church twice or more per month, like observant Catholics, tend to have far lower rates of those things. You can see this in the National Marriage Project statistics, in stats cited in Bradley Wright’s “Hypocrites” book, and various parts of the Baylor studies.

      Is premarital sex more common amongst students at MLP seminaries than it is amongst students at evangelical seminaries? A couple thoughts: (1) I didn’t go into this too much because I don’t think it’s just about sex. I’m also not trying to make a claim that MLP’s as individuals are more…loose. (2) I’m trying to comment on the cultures of these places. Drinking and talk of sexual conquest was open and celebrated amongst friends at PTS in a way that it never would have been amongst my evangelical friends. Again, I’m not being holier-than-thou here because I was a full participant in some of it, though not the sexual stuff. And I’m not blaming other people or the culture for the fact that I took part in it. It was ultimately my decision. But I do think that culture was harmful to the spiritual lives of the seminarians I knew and harmful to the mission of the seminary. (3) All that said, I’ve got to think that the different cultures do indeed have some influence, however small it might be, on personal behavior.

      There has been some conversation in evangelical circles about whether abstinence is still a reasonable thing to request of singles. But those voices are still relatively few and uninfluential. In the evangelical college fellowships I attended, undergraduate and graduate, abstinence was still very strongly emphasized, and practiced to a far higher extent than amongst the general population.

      My two cents. -Tim

      • John Haas

        My purely anecdotal gleanings from my years at an evangelical (almost fundamentalist) seminary (before I went to PTS) is that, at least with the sex, drinking, and language, there was more of that going on than you’d expect from without. However, it wasn’t broad enough to constitute a “culture”–there were groups that indulged in those things, and talked about it with each other, but most kept (at least the sex) to themselves or close confidants.

        One difference from your experience seems to have been that there was a great deal of guilt about it, especially the sex (including masturbation). What I know of evangelical colleges would basically confirm those observations.

        My own take on it at the time and since has been that an awful lot of students expected that enrolling in seminary, deciding on a ministerial vocation, would somehow make them more spiritual, more holy, bring them closer to God.

        This of course it does not. Indeed, it can have the opposite effect, tempting some folk to take their spiritual development–their walk with Jesus–for granted.

        Being thrust into the peculiar, sometimes heady, social arrangements of seminary dorm life–a lot of spirited young men with a lot going on physically, emotionally, etc.–where they’re influencing each other both by word and deed, has powerful effects on them in ways they’re not prepared for, in that they came in assuming this would be an unusually spiritual atmosphere. No one sits them down and says, “Beware. This will be a realm of great temptation. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t neglect the basics.” The results should not surprise us so much.

    • Matt Abel

      Know why the NT doesn’t talk much about sexual purity?
      Because the OT does!
      The whole counsel…

  • DougH

    Mormons don’t have seminaries, at least in the same meaning of the word (for us, “seminary” is the name of the LDS weekday religious classes taught alongside teenage schooling for four years between ages 14 and 18). But we do have a somewhat similar effect when it comes to Utah Mormons versus Mormons living elsewhere. While there’s no relaxing of the moral teachings that you’ve described here, a significant number of Utah Mormons are more “relaxed” about it in their personal lives. Outside of Utah, we’re much more on display, representatives of our church among people that may not know another Mormon and so may judge the Church by how we behave as individuals. That doesn’t hold so much in Utah, where Mormons are a substantial majority of the population – not only are most of the people also LDS, but those that aren’t have many other examples to judge by. Perhaps there is also be something similar at work in the seminaries you describe, where the future ministers aren’t yet on display before congregations looking to them as examples and guides?

  • Christy Lang Hearlson

    I think you’re on to something when you say that seminarians let their hair down– or much worse– because they are in a context in which they assume everyone else is holy or called, and they aren’t worried about proving anything or witnessing to anything. In fact, many seminarians also describe this experience as freeing, though profoundly disorienting. Where are the people they’re supposed to be behaving well FOR? Suddenly a primary motivator for acting “like a Christian” drops away, leaving our other motivations exposed.

    I experienced that same confusion in my first year of seminary at PTS after several years of working in full-time ministry, and it caught me off guard. The difference for me was that instead of drinking heavily or whatever else, I became seriously depressed. But here’s the thing– I was depressed because I was finally mourning some serious losses that I’d experienced in the years leading up to seminary, losses that led me to question my faith and feel anger at God. But in the years I experienced those losses, I was engaged in active youth ministry leadership and never felt I had permission to express anger or lament or doubt in a disruptive way. Ministry was happening, and I thought I couldn’t just step out of the stream and deal with the pain, and I had no idea how to integrate the pain into the process of ministry. In other words, I faked my way through a lot, trying to behave well, because the youth were watching me. For me, being in seminary finally let me off the hook long enough to realize I didn’t need to be perfect, consistent, or holy for God to love me. I could stop smiling and it would be okay. I could be mad at others and express my frustration. I could even use profanity and guess what? No one died or lost their faith. This isn’t to say that all behavior is fine, but that I wouldn’t want to lose the “holding place” aspect of seminary, which allows people to discover who they are in relationship to God and others without the fear of ruining others’ spiritual lives.

    In his work reflecting the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion, sociologist Christian Smith talks about evangelicals often having a sense of being on stage before the world. The rhetoric of traditional evangelicalism reinforces this idea. Evangelicals, emphasizing the difference between their Christian beliefs, values, and culture and those of the world, often understand themselves as part of a contrast society that is meant to point toward Christ so that the world can see Christ through them. Once we are saved, then it’s our job to demonstrate through our wonderful and joyful lives the reality of God in Christ. This rhetoric was so much a part of my early experience in evangelical churches that it was hard for me to see the potential problem this sets up. It sets us up (all Christians and specifically clergy) to always be on stage, to be and do certain things because someone– God or the world or even a fellow struggling believer– is always watching.

    I served a church in active ministry for five years after seminary, and it was wonderful. It was also exhausting. Part way through I realized that much of the exhaustion of ministry comes from the realization that you really are always being watched. Theological reminders by those in the missional movement to be a witness didn’t help. I found myself wanting to hide if I ran into a congregation member at the grocery store. I sometimes didn’t leave my house all day if I could get away with it– anything to escape that feeling of being on stage. Not that I ever fully conquered that sense, but at some point mid-ministry I had to decide just to be myself, flaws and all, in ministry, and not worry so much about how I was influencing people. I had to respond to God, not to anxiety about whether my life was an appropriate model for others. The alternative was burnout.

    I’m convinced that if we define our role as Christians and as clergy always as witnesses on the witness stand, we’re likely to get exhausted in ministry. I think we need a concomitant emphasis on Jesus’ instruction to go into a closet to pray, or on Jesus’ own solitary excursions to the mountains, where he didn’t need to be “on.” This isn’t just so we don’t show off. It’s for our own freedom, our own release from the enslavement to anxiety over how others perceive us and whether we’re influencing them for good or ill.

    My point: if the problem of the mainline is that mainliners avert our eyes in instances of personal immorality, then the problem of evangelicalism is that we’re sure no one averts their eyes. It’s a kind of sanctified paranoia, or maybe unwitting megalomania: People are watching you. So behave well. Their salvation might depend upon it.

    But that’s exhausting, even paralyzing, and it moves the center of reflection and action outside of the person and her responsibility toward God and others and into the imagined views of everyone else.

    Into this mix we could use a good dose of grace– real, costly grace, yes– but grace. I’m not thinking of limp tolerance of whatever, but the grace of God that comes before all our behaviors– good or bad– and that should lead us to wrestle anew both individually and corporately with what constitutes a righteous and doxological response to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

    In other words, I think we need a motivation for ethical reflection and righteous behavior that doesn’t come from anxiety about influencing others for good or ill. Seminary life, for all its flaws, exposes the fact that a great many Christian behave well because they’re sure someone is watching. Maybe that’s a good thing, if we can use that realization as an opportunity to help people discern the range of motivations and experiences that led them toward church leadership in the first place and to find themselves anew standing in the grace of God.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great, great thoughts, Christy. Many thanks. I have many wonderful MLP friends and many wonderful evangelical friends, and each community certainly has its blind spots and its problems and (viewed more positively) it’s areas for growth.

      Thanks for sharing your story.


    • Fantastic post, Christy – great words and very challenging. Thank you.

      – Jeff

    • Agreed! Thank you so much for your comment!

    • Roz

      Have to add my thanks to the crowd. So well thought out that I clipped a number of your thoughts to Evernote!

  • Will

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to give off an air of evangelical priggishness and superiority, but my goodness, get off of your bible believing Church high-horse. The people at PTS love Jesus just as much as you do, good sir, they are struggling to obey the call of Christ just as much as you do, good sir, but they simply have the audacity to go about it a different way than you did, good sir. Apparently this horrifies you.

    Furthermore, you do not state when you went to seminary, nor do you leave any room for the fact that PTS has perhaps changed a bit since you were there. You paint with such a broad brush, yet you do a very poor job of actually illustrating a full image of the place. PTS! It’s all about the sex! The drugs! The wishy-washy professors who don’t really have certainty in their faith! Good God, and I say this with the utmost of Christian brotherhood and love, get over yourself.

    Does PTS have its problems? Sure it does. Do some people there freak out a bit too hard? Yea, they do. Am I one of those eye rolling liberals? No, I’m not. But at least I’m willing to show a little grace to folks who are working their way through the bizarre world of Princeton Theological Seminary. In your writings about Seminary, I’d encourage you to do the same.

    However, I do think you powerfully capture something true about the place when you write “Yet there were large swaths of the seminary community where, perversely, it was okay to be unholy because we were all holy. We didn’t have the accountability, the responsibility to present a compelling witness, that comes from the presence of nonbelievers or followers.”

    That, I think is great insight. It’s a shame the the rest of the piece comes off more like “I had a crappy time at seminary, and now I’m going to share it with the world”.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Will, I had a great time at seminary, and I don’t doubt that the people at PTS love Jesus as much as I do. I’m not horrified in the slightest that they do so in different ways.

      You really read this in a very exaggerated way. A single blog post on a particular topic is not the place to give a “full image of the place,” but I did speak highly of the institution, the people I met there, and the faculty. Did you actually read the post, or just come over from another site that caricatured it?


      • Kamau

        I am posting this under a psuedonym for what may be obvious reasons. I am currently an active serving pastor with a great ministry and a deep and abiding faith. While I am ashamed of the poor witness I made with my past I also know that I am done with it and that publicly disclosing my identity will not advance the cause of Christ. Some readers may recognize me. That is enough.

        You see, I was a part of the culture you describe, Tim. I was sexually active with other seminarians, drinking to drunkenness regularly and smoking pot even in the hallways of the dorm in which I lived. Since that time I have matured in my faith (I had only been a believer for two years, and a drug addict at that, before coming to Princeton). While I would not hold that my experience was the general culture – I simply don’t know – I do know that drugs, alcohol and sexual activity, unfortunately, were very common amongst some of us. And is was to our shame and the shame of the Gospel we claimed to represent and proclaim.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Thank you for sharing your experience, Kamau. I hope that hearing this from someone besides myself will lend it some more credibility. But the important point is: God’s grace is endless, and I need it as much as anyone! Thank God for your faith and the wonderful ministry God has given you.


      • Matt B.


        I’m gonna call your bluff… you certainly don’t mean that those who willingly engage in sin – the same sin (sexual uncleanness/fornication) that both Jesus and Paul say is incompatible with a Christian confession and needs to be repented of, LOVE JESUS just as much one who doesn’t engage in sinful behavior… without repenting? Aren’t you just playing nice? Is there way to love Jesus without KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTS?

        I was in the PCUSA, almost went to Princeton, opted for Gordon-Conwell (bad enough, what with the singles hooking-up and some spousal abuse thrown in for good measure). GCTS’s student population, at least when I was there, was predominantly PCUSA, albeit of the “evangelical” or “moderate” variety.

        The mainline is apostate.

        For those of us “fundies” who don’t say, “Good sir” or drink brandy, smoke cigars, fondle seminary classmates of the opposite (or same) sex or approve of those who do, your post is far too lenient and kind.

        Must the “evangelical” of the CT-crowd… which is tomorrow’s mainline.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          The people I knew were not systematically committed to disobeying God’s commandments. They had justifications for their actions, and for their views that such things are not sinful. Over the course of a lifetime, or even a long stretch of time, I would have to question a person’s love for Jesus if there were no effort to follow in his example and live according to his teachings. But we’re talking here about a relatively short amount of time, in a setting that rather encouraged people to believe that it was okay. And the people I knew there, as a general proposition, loved Jesus.


  • Just out of curiosity, were you married while you were in seminary? I do think seminary gives off different vibes depending on whether you’re in a dorm or married housing.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Amanda, I spent 2 years at seminary unmarried, and 1.5 years married (I stayed an extra semester because I had started mid-year and that got me back on a regular academic schedule). I suspect you’re probably right. And a lot of it depends on the particular circles of friends you develop, of course. God bless,


  • Tim,

    You highlight, I think, some truths here that as an MDiv and PhD alum of PTS I have heard many times. I just haven’t seen them thus clearly laid out or committed to such public airing. As a Pentecostal, my experience at the seminary was not dissimilar from yours. I can’t say I was aware of more than rumors when it came to sexual exploits, but I can speak to the drinking. Like you, my goal was not and is not to be prudish or judgmental, but I was from time to time somewhat shocked. I think that at some level your accusation of PTS being more about aesthetics than faith may be a bit exaggerated, but it was clear that some of my classmates and I were definitely operating from some different starting points. Perhaps history is the root of some of this…drinking has not really been at issue in the Reformed faith, while Pentecostals have been seen much more negatively. I was simply less disposed to do so than my Lutheran/Presbyetrian/etc friends. Reformed vs. Pietist backgrounds may have something to do with the lack of heart-faith-talk in so many corners of the seminary.

    Alternately, a friend has suggested that for those liberated evangelicals who accepted that they could drink later in life, alcohol is seen as a nice addition to life. For those for whom it was always assumed to be OK and partied during thei undergraduate years, a good deal of imbibing is seen as essential for having a good time…

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Joshua. And I do think that the responsible enjoyment of alcohol is acceptable for most people in most circumstances — I would make exceptions for those with addictive tendencies, or for settings where one should be sensitive to those tendencies in others, for instance. I don’t drink much anymore, but we’ll have some wine with friends on occasion.

      I’ll have to think about the aesthetics point. I don’t have it right in front of me, but I don’t think I quite said that it was about aesthetics more than faith. I know I didn’t explain this, but I was thinking of “aesthetic” in the Kierkegaardian sense. Kierkegaard felt that the Danish Lutheran church had fallen into the aesthetic, and I often found myself resonating with that criticism, not just of many MLP but also of many evangelical circles, and if often felt apropos when it came to the version of faith I saw propagated at PTS. This is the concern expressed by a friend. I know this is easy to lost sight of, because these comments will be rendered in evangelical/mainline, conservative/liberal categories. But I really don’t think this is just an identity or culture war issue, and I don’t offer these thoughts with any sense of animus.

      Anyway, I’m rambling. Thanks for the comment,


  • Great article, and great reflection on how our obedience or disobedience can make God seem close and real or distant and fictional. It’s a strange tension to respect a seminary for academic rigor, but to reveal the same seminary couldn’t answer the question you asked in your life crisis about assurance of enjoying God in eternity.

    And it makes me wonder, what does Jesus think of such an institution?

  • Christy Lang Hearlson


    I really appreciate the balanced tone and generous spirit you take in your post and in your responses to others. It makes a difference how people talk to one another here.

    I’ve had one other thought as I’ve been mulling this over today. That has to do with your emphasis at the end of your post on obedience, and what you call “selfless obedience.” I wonder how you understand this concept. In your post it sounds like you see obedience as something simple to understand, even if difficult to accomplish. But obedience poses some problems for me (other than the very true “I’m a sinner” thing). I’m thinking first of all the hermeneutical issues wrapped up in determining what commands of God Christians are bound to follow (and it’s never so simple as “obey the Bible,” even for people who claim to follow the Bible literally), and what sources of knowledge we use in determining what God’s will is. Kierkegaard’s model was Abraham– but in the story of Abraham there is no question of the command of God; it simply comes to Abraham and Abraham must respond. But I am not sure it’s that simple for most people. You talk about encouraging seminarians to live lives of obedience. I wonder how you are picturing the content of that obedience and what sort of hermeneutical principle might guide your use of Scripture, tradition, experience, or reason in determining that content. I’d love to hear you reflect on that.

    The second issue that presents itself for me is that obedience is not a uncomplicated idea for people who have historically seen it used to reinforce their own oppression. If you’re an historically oppressed people group, or if you’re poor or a woman or an abused child or someone who was educated in a harshly authoritarian school or someone who comes from a country run by corrupt leaders, the charge to be selflessly obedient without some careful elaboration of what that means may set off all sorts of alarms– as it does for me. I want to immediately ask, “Obey whom?” And if the answer is God, then I want to know what you think it is God wants me to be or do, and how you arrived at those answers (thus returning me to my first question about interpretation and discernment). For example, I felt a call to ministry as a teenager. I heard some people tell me to obey the call of God by going to seminary. I heard others tell me to obey the command of God by remaining silent, because, they reminded me, according to the Bible women are supposed to remain silent in the churches. In the latter case, I experienced the command to obey God as silencing and shaming. It seems apparent to me both from my own experience and from reading history that the command to obey God has often been used in inadequate and even sinful ways. I am not opposed altogether to the idea of obeying God, if that is understood as a willingness to join in God’s good will for me and for all creation and to do so even when it’s hard. But if obedience is blind or arbitrary or defined entirely by the same tradition that has historically had trouble paying attention to silenced voices and has often done the silencing, then that same obedience becomes really problematic. And to complicate things further, if the one who hears the command to be “selflessly” obedient already has no sense of self or self-worth as God’s beloved, then the command to do anything selflessly doesn’t seem to accomplish what it should and could in fact perpetuate an unfortunate state of affairs for that person.

    So if part of what you’re envisioning for seminary education is a renewed emphasis on piety defined as obedience, then I’d like to hear you comment a bit more on what you mean when you say obedience, and how you think we arrive at knowing what we’re called to be and do.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

  • Tim, as one of your classmates I appreciate this article. IMO, there was a “worldly” atmosphere at seminary that I was a part of … not every aspect, but certainly some aspects. It seemed more like a secular college or grad school than I expected. I was grateful, however, for the many students (and some faculty members) who did indeed model a genuine Christian life.

  • Gary from Kansas

    This article mirrored my own experiences but in a smaller school. I was on the liberal side of this and took part in a number of things definitely not very uplifting. Seminary was a place where I let my hair down a great deal following two stints as a rural pastor at fundementalist churches. It was not a good time for me spiritually. My marrige came to an end at the end of Seminary and I left the church too. I think the whole Seminary concept needs fundemental change as well as the mainline concepts of a professional ministry corps. Good piece Tim! BTW, I came back to faith but it was hard and spasmodic.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for sharing your story, Gary. Glad you’re returned to the faith — and my own return has been hard and piecemeal as well — as I wrote in the latest post.

      God bless,


  • Mark

    As a Catholic, I find this article very interesting. A Catholic priest once told me that the solution to the problem in the Catholic priesthood is not women or married clery but priests who are on fire and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

    I think there are many “evangelical” Catholics who would agree with this author. To believe in Jesus Christ as Lord requires a change of life that reflects 2000 years of Christian moral teaching as fundamentally taught in the Sacred Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition. No Christian fellowship or community has the right to change what God has so ordered. We are called to live this radical life for Jesus Christ and that means that our human sexuality reflects what God has called us to do. To be a Christian in today’s world means that we live a counter cultural lifestyle. There just are things that Christians should not do because of our faith in Jesus who died and resurrected from the dead so that we can receive the gift of eternal life. Our choices are clear. Who do we follow? Thankfully, it seems like this author has chosen Christ.

  • Although I went to seminary eons ago and went to a seminary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I never encountered a hint of what you found. When I desired to marry, I had to make application to the Dean of Students and my fiance and I were both interviewed before the seminary would sanction my place at the seminary and my marriage.

    That said, I know something of what goes on at my alma mater now and believe it is more similar than dissimilar to my experience. I know of students counseled about their drinking, suspended for issues of promiscuity and counseled for marital issues that become apparent at the seminary. This was not primarily disciplinary but was also of concern for the faithful living out of the faith confessed and the consequences for callous indifference to the practice of what was believed.

    I know that some church run colleges are not in much different shaped than your experience and there was a dust up a year or so ago for the skit run at one liberal arts church college that featured encouragement to experiment with your sexuality and practice while in college and offered support and condoms to make sure that such experimentation was safe and without consequences (now there is a mouthful).

    Thanks for your article…

  • Steve

    I went to Covenant in St. Louis in the early 90s, and these sins were not in evidence there. If they happened, it was very sub rosa and rare.

    There were other sins of course; simul iustus et peccator, pride, dissembling, favoritism, but the ‘obvious sins’ that the church has more traditionally come down on were not to my knowledge present.

  • Anecdotal data point: over 25 years ago I was in a mainline denomination and in graduate school and volunteered to be a counselor for a weekend “sex camp” at that denomination’s retreat center. In the training our leader, a pleasant middle-aged lady, said that we should be speaking only of abstinence with our charges, “Though of course we don’t expect that of YOU as adults.” She looked meaningfully at me as a 20-something single and at a recently-divorced minister in our denomination. I asked if we could give personal testimony to the teens if we were ourselves living out the ideals we were supposed to be teaching them, and she answered, “Well, of course, honey, bless your heart!” It was demeaning.

    In the same denomination when I was a teen myself, we had occasional presentations by the local Planned Parenthood staff, the director of whom was ordained in our denomination, I believe, and a member of our church. These sessions were designed to keep teen pregnancy and VD at bay, so we were given contraceptives to pass around and the girls told to counsel their boyfriends to just go home and “take care of themselves” instead of giving in to sexual pressure from the boys. We were not even encouraged to try to stay away from temptation.

    It was difficult to maintain a commitment to personal purity in these circumstances, not to mention maintain a vital faith with the anemic theological teaching, and I was thankful to find in college some believers who took the Bible and their relationship with God very seriously. It opened a whole new world to me.

  • Dennis Sanders

    I grew up in evangelical and black churches, but for the last 20 years or so, I’ve been a part of mainline churches, partially because I found more room for theological inquiry than I did evangelical circles. Also, mainline churches were the place I found I could be accepting of me, since I’m gay.

    I have met many people in mainline churches that I would say have a deep relationship with God even if they don’t always have the words to describe it that way. But I’ve also met folks that seem to be an empty shell faith-wise. They might know all the right things when it comes to rituals of worship, but when it comes to actually have a deep relationship with God or even talking about how God is working in their lives and you get a blank stare.

    I think we have done a great disservice in not really developing the habits of discipleship. It’s one thing to know about God, it’s another to know God intimately. Again, there are many folks in mainline churches that have a great relationship with God, but I think there are many that have been given no way to really draw close to God.

    As you’ve said, Tim, evangelicals have their own issues, which I won’t discuss here. But mainliners need to own up to our own shortcomings as well.

  • Fiona

    Leaving aside the statistics and whether or not Tim’s experience is common you can not hold a debate about sexual mores in the church or amongst those who claim to be Christians without looking at the Bible.

    1 Corinthians 6:18
    Amplified Bible (AMP)
    18Shun immorality and all sexual looseness [flee from impurity in thought, word, or deed]. Any other sin which a man commits is one outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.

  • Rod Dreher

    Sam Atchison: Having served thousands of inmates over 13 years as a prison chaplain, I’ve always theorized that the emphasis on religious orthodoxy was directly related to the prisoners’ personal sense of sin. That is, the crimes they committed were an outward expression of the sin in their hearts.

    That’s interesting. I reviewed the (liberal) Episcopal priest Chloe Breyer’s memoir of seminary. At one point in her story, she writes of her frustration in working with inmates in prison ministry. She was trying to do a Bible study with them, and was teaching them that Scripture is really not clear about many things, that it’s open to interpretation, yadda yadda. She was getting nowhere. She writes about a Muslim convert, an inmate who sat in on the sessions and who said to the men something along the lines of, “See, this is why Islam is better. It’s black and white. You know right from wrong.” The amazing thing is that the lesson of this teaching moment was completely lost on Breyer. As I recall, she just thought it was sad that the inmates were so bound and determined to be so literal-minded.

  • Fellow Ivy

    This was precisely my experience at another Ivy-affiliated theological school in New England. I entered the program a left-of-center (or, what I thought was left-of-center) mainline protestant… and graduated a crypto-Catholic. I knew to expect a degree of libertinism when I entered, I suppose, but what I more often found was something that bordered on outright hedonism… a kind of hedonism, it seemed to me, that was underscored by a resignation to nihilism. There was probably nothing *there* to which to be obedient… except aesthetics (as you note), the “community,” social justice, or somesuch. So, why bother with the “rules”?

    I had not come from an evangelical culture (I grew up a MLP)… and I had attended a large public university (the dorm ‘life’ there 5 years prior was certainly, shall we say, ‘free’). But, I was still surprised that there was not even the slightest hint of pretense toward maintaining a classically ‘Christian’ (or, broadly speaking ‘traditionally religious’… for all the religions, in their orthodox forms, would reject these elements of seminary culture) morality. Perhaps this is to be lauded as honest, “authentic” (in a “get with the times, man” sort of way)… but, as became increasingly obvious to me, it’s one thing to violate precepts and confess the violation, it’s another to deny their validity and continue on. The propensity to do the latter was what was truly disconcerting to me. I found that I, personally (being no saint), needed affirmation of the former. I found myself in patristics class, considering the culture I was in and my own succombing to it, thinking, “the martyrs died to defend *this*?”

    As you note, there is much good at these places. At the end of the day: great friends, wonderful professors (those chosen wisely), genuine progress in the inner life (even if not evident at the time). And, there’s much to be said for one’s taking responsibility for his own thoughts, words, and deeds, no matter where he finds himself. But, there’s a reason the Church has always emphasized mutual edification. There’s a reason the Great Tradition holds out the possibility of sancification. As many of the Fathers say, in one way or another: God became Man that Man might become God.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for writing on this subject. It was the same at Duke Divinity school when I was there. We had seminarians who were nudists, smoking dope, and one lesbian in army boots kicked me when I opened the door for her (so much for Christ-like love). Please continue to speak out.

    • Edwin

      Well, that certainly wasn’t my experience at Duke. I wasn’t actually in the Div School, technically (I was in the grad religion program, but my primary advisor was a DDS professor and I was a preceptor in the Div School and very involved with it in various ways). And certainly I ran up against the mentality that traditional norms of Christian moral behavior with regard to things like sex and alcohol were less important than being a pacifist or holding to some other “correct” stance on social justice issues. But I didn’t find that to be the dominant attitude among Div School students by any means. I knew a lot of them very well and the vast majority were deeply committed and fairly conservative Christians. (Not suggesting that liberal Christians can’t be committed, of course–I knew quite a few of those too–but the DDS student body is actually pretty conservative on the whole, or was when I was there in the late 90s and early 2000s).

  • Paul

    Tim, I think your faith is very brittle.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Oh, geez. My faith wasn’t shattered by the fact that some people think differently than I do on the matter of sex. But I do think that a culture that encourages sexual integrity and the pursuit of holiness would be more upbuilding for seminary students.

      I mean…don’t you?


  • Tim, this post reads like someone trying to be self-effacing, while in fact being needlessly offensive.

    To wit:

    While my Mainline Protestant friends are not going to appreciate this, I cannot help but suspect that the unhealthy part of the culture that permeated Princeton Theological Seminary is simply a part of the culture that permeates many Mainline Protestant bodies in general.

    I have found sentences that have constructs which begin with something like “I know this offend..” would be better suited to man up and just offend.

    As for this line:

    the problem of the mainline is that mainliners avert our eyes in instances of personal immorality, then the problem of evangelicalism is that we’re sure no one averts their eyes

    It constructs 2 strawmen, both drawn from your personal experience.

  • Alis

    Can you define ‘mainline Protestant’ for me please?

  • As a PTS alumnus (May of ’08 graduation), I feel compelled to weigh in here and offer a different experience and perspective.

    Yes, there were parties at seminary. While I was there, as an example, a few of the seminarians brewed their own beer and invited the campus to come enjoy it together after finals week concluded. And yes, there were times when people had too much to drink.

    Yes, there are varying perspectives on sexual ethics. I would say the majority affirms homosexuality within the church, and traditional conservative values such as abstinence aren’t necessarily valued by everyone. Like the author, I hold to relatively conservative sexual ethics. I abstained until marriage, for example, and was in a committed (although long-distance) relationship during my seminary experience.

    However, I do not agree at all that drunkenness, drug use, and casual sex were as common as presented here. Furthermore, on the occasions when I did witness two of those three (I NEVER saw or heard about any kind of drug use whatsoever), it was often among students who were not there to become pastors. They were there to prep for PHD work, were jointly enrolled somewhere else, etc.

    Furthermore, the administration was actively involved if/when something like this did get out of hand. Not in a punitive, Big Brother kind of way, but in a nurturing, parental sort of way. The administration cares about its students, is concerned for their well-being, and ultimately does prioritize preparing people for ministry.

    To my knowledge, the author and I weren’t enrolled at the same time. I’m not saying his experience is wrong, biased, or anything else of the sort. His experiences are his, and I trust his truthfulness.

    However, mine are different, and I thought it appropriate to share them.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Good to know, brgulker. I do not assert that my experience represented all PTS students at all times, to be sure.

      God bless,


  • Liam

    Similar experience at a flagship Evangelical graduate institution–I came in as a convert to Christianity expecting a much higher level of Spiritual life and discipleship and was shocked by the worldliness of the average graduate student, to whom obedience was just another word for legalism.

    Jesus didn’t say to the woman caught in adultery, ‘continue to live in wonton sin…’ he said, ‘go and sin no more.’

    Re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Cost of Discipleship.’ Should be required reading in any ‘Christian’ graduate school or seminary.

    Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:12-16)

  • Holly

    While I went to a different PCUSA seminary, my experience as a married woman was nothing like yours, so I will say your feeling are valid. However, I cannot understand how labeling a institution and and its current students is helpful. This article is very arrogant in tone, and you seem very ungrateful. It almost seems that you are bitter that everyone in Seminary did not think you were wonderful, unlike your childhood.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s almost like a contest to see how many times I can say that I enjoyed and appreciated the seminary and found many worthwhile things there before people like yourself will actually believe that I mean it.


  • Ben

    Timothy, I do not know you, but just came across your article on today. I went to Columbia from 1999-2003 and felt many of the same things you spoke of, the 2 differences being I went there VERY liberal and I found absolutely nothing redeeming in the education. I thought you handled this very pastorally. I also went to a University that is often given the distinction of #1 party school by Playboy, but wasn’t around partying much until I went to Columbia. While I never saw the drug use, I did learn how to drink in seminary and saw the permissive nature of immoral sexuality constantly! Thank you for the gift of your blog, it gave words to that horrid experience I choose to call my wandering wilderness experience. I also learned to love Jesus in seminary, it just happened when I stopped listening to the filth being taught. God bless you in your walk with Jesus.

  • Joe

    What should we expect from the pcusa denominational seminary? They already declared themselves to be more knowledgeable about sex than Scripture via their last denominational vote. Once again another example of seeing the articulate pagan theology of Barth, Bultmann, and Brunner filtered down into the practicality of church piety. Denying the inerrancy and perfection of Scripture sounds cool in the classroom, but as soon as it hits the streets you can chunk sexual morality out with the rest of the silly tales of miracles and ressurection and burning bush nonsense. Maybe consistency from theology in the classroom to practicality in the dormroom is the new uber moral standard at ptc.

  • Chris Mooney

    During Ptsem Orientation Week, Fall of ’06, several of my fellow first-years enjoyed a late night joint out in the quad. As a single student my first year, I attended some of the ‘parties’ held at the dorms…let’s just say these gatherings weren’t exactly oozing with ‘cool’. Few things are more awkward than awkward seminarians. OccupyPTSEM!!


  • Matt

    Did you have the Fourth (floor) Hodge parties of 2003-2004 in mind when writing this?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I don’t have any particular location in mind, Matt. I mostly partied on Fourth Alex, personally, and I was there in 1999-2002.


      • Matt Abel

        Too bad…those parties were a blast.

  • Tim, as a 2001 PTS Grad, I guess I knew this was going on, but living in the married housing (3 miles from Campus), I was insulated from it.
    I will say, however, that were it not for the 5 or 6 men who met with me each week for Bible Study, Fellowship, and Prayer, my walk with the Lord would not have survived Princeton.
    Thank you for having the courage to say what needs to be said.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, Ethan. We overlapped! I graduated in 2002. It was definitely a different world after I married and moved to CRW.


  • Stephen

    Having gone to a different Presbyterian seminary than you, Timothy, and having been in the ministry now for over 30 years, looking back on my time as a pastor, I am even more convinced that seminary as we know it must be done away with. A new form of “educating” our future ministers must be developed. Everything I learned about being a pastor had nothing to do with my seminary training, and everything to do with the development of a life of prayer, and reading everything I could get my hands on by Eugene Peterson, another, fellow Presbyterian Pastor. The short-falls of seminary have little to do with their “moral” atmosphere, and much more to do with their total lack of understanding of who a Pastor is and what a Pastor does. Fix that, and you will fix not only seminary, but the church as well.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Some of the other authors who had already written for the series on the Future of Seminary Education do a good job, I think, of addressing some of these issues, Stephen. Thanks for your comments.


  • Bruce McCormack

    Tim, I have profited a great deal from reading through your post – and the comments offered by PTS folk, many of whom are former students of mine. I have been blessed by your courageous willingness to name a problem and a little discomforted by those responses which suggest that you do not recognize that your experience will not have been shared by others even in your own time, not to mention those who attended PTS in other periods of its history. I think you know full well that the individual’s experience of an instition is tied to the students and faculty who were there at the time and, indeed, to an even smaller number of them with whom you interacted directly. You were my student in the 90s. Much has changed since then – some things for the beter, others not so much. But change is unavoidable. An MDiv population turns over by one-third every year, after all. But I think you already know all that – and have taken it into account. Your critics do not know you as I do.

    What I did gained from this discussion, however, is an appreciation for the seriousness with which you and other PTS grads struggle with issues of personal ethics and the difficulty of sometimes dealing with them in a pastoral way. I was very touched by Christy Lang’s thoughtful insights on the difficulties surrounding the translation of ideals and genuine norms into lived experience with others. Christy, it has been too long since we had coffee. Let’s get together!

    Where the issue before the house is concerned: I do think that personal ethics have taken a back-seat in a large number of seminaries in recent years – sometimes becaue of a commitment to social ethics (which I value) but not only for that reason. Sometimes it happens simply because Christian norms have been commumicated in the past in authoritarian ways that promote personal agendas rather than Christian holiness. Whatever the reason, however, it is lamentable when seminarians take a vacation from personal ethics.

    A final thought: personal ethics do not touch upon issues surrouding sex; they also have to do with truth-telling (honoring the commandment not to bear false witness against one’s neighbor), with struggling against pride, with self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, etc. Those are, unfortunately, the pet sins of our more conservative brothers and sisters. I have sensed in some of those most ardent in their support of your point of view, Tim, a sense of superiority that I have never experienced in you yourself. And that is significant. Personal ethics does not begin or end with sexual issues. It touches upon the formation of the whole person in all spheres of life. But having said that, personal ethics also touches upon our thoughts and actions in the sexual sphere. You are quite right about that.

    In any event, thanks for your courage and for generating such a good discussion.


    P.S. I am terrible at editing these things. If there were mistakes, please overlook them in Christian charity!

    P.S. I seem to recall that we did pray for your operation in a precept on one occasion. Am I wrong?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Dr McCormack,

      Thanks so much for this generous response. When I speak of the professors who made my time at PTS so instructive, your name is at the top of the list. One of the more encouraging responses I’ve received in this conversation has come from a student — an evangelical, actually — who attests that the kind of permissive attitudes (and sometimes scorn toward traditional values) that I experienced in my years at PTS have changed for the better. He cited some changes in policy as well as changes in the complexion of the faculty and administration. I made a little clearer in some followup posts than I did in the present one that I certainly knew of circles even in my own years where there were *not* these kinds of attitudes, and I thought it would go without saying (though I honestly should have said it) that I cannot speak to more recent years.

      What I especially like about what you said here is the extent to which those who extol more traditional values have to shoulder a share of the blame (though you did not put it that way) when young Christians decide to diminish or depart from personal ethics, because sometimes those traditional values are passed on in authoritarian or self-righteous ways or for self-interested reasons. Absolutely agreed. I tried to emphasize my own sinfulness and my own participation in some things that I now regret in order to show that I really don’t write this with a sense of righteous self-regard, but another and complementary approach would be to emphasize that it’s not just a liberalization of theology that has led to a liberalization of personal ethics (at least I personally believe that’s a part of it), but the sometimes-counter-productive ways in which the traditionalists have sought to pass their teachings on to the next generation.

      Again, it’s very nice to hear from you. This may surprise you, but Thanksgiving at your house is one of my best seminary memories. And yes, you were supportive throughout the operation process — a process I describe a little more fulsomely in “Finding Jesus (Again) at Seminary.” You may or may not have seen that by this point.

      Many blessings,


    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Also, Bruce, I hesitate to mention this, because I give a kind of parodied description of you, but there’s a veiled reference to you in this comic piece I wrote on Harry Potter (with a slightly longer form here). I think you have the sense of humor to enjoy it.


  • Aaron

    As someone who plans to attend Seminary within the next year, I’m always anxious to know about experiences that people have. However, there are a few things about this blog post that just don’t make sense to me.

    First, a general life observation that isn’t unique to Seminary. If any social group behavior is disturbing to someone’s morals, why would that person associate in those social circles? It would seem to me that if I were placed in an environment that was constantly rubbing against the grains of my morality, I would only associate in that environment in the most minimal of ways which were necessary. Tim, I can’t understand if Seminary sociality were so corrupt that you didn’t distance yourself from it and create your own atmosphere. Perhaps there were others like you either at PTS or even other Seminaries in the region that would have appreciated a different style of community or fellowship. Did you make any effort to connect with these people? Why did you feel forced to associate with people you wouldn’t have normally associated? As I mentioned at the outset, if you’re uncomfortable with your surroundings, your environment isn’t going to change on its own. It’s up to you to change your surroundings.

    Secondly, I’m amazed that just because a ministerial or theological profession is usually precipitated by some sort of “calling” that we assume that the call (and thereby pursuits to answer the call) are going to be experienced the same way by every candidate. Even in the small community of Seminary, it seems that we feel the need to assume that the experience of our own call is the same that others have felt or heard. Likewise, we think we have the right to place our priorities in that pursuit in the same order as our fellow students. Perhaps to you, Tim, you expected and prioritized spiritual development as a vital part of Seminary. Perhaps for others, this was not a priority. We have got to stop assuming that what we think is best or most appropriate for us is going to be the route that others will (or should) take as well.

    Finally, why should any Seminary candidate expect to have a spiritually moving experience while attending a secular institution? Even in my own call and hope that my Seminary experience will be rewarding, I am not under the false pretense that attending a secular school will be any different than any other professional education (like medical school, law school, etc.). If I wanted to have a different social/spiritual experience, I could surely choose to attend a school with a “code of conduct” or more strict moral code than a secular school. I’m also flabbergasted that even if you were experiencing such moral depravity at PTS that you felt the need to remain at the school outweighed the need to put yourself in a more spiritually centered school. There are, no doubt, several of these types of Seminaries throughout the country which require strict adherence to codes of conduct.

    Personally, attending a school with a strict moral code is not what I’m after in my education. Unlike most here, I actually am looking for the most secular Seminary that I can find. I look forward to attending this type of school for many reasons, but primarily so I can have a larger depth of experience. I want to learn from people of many walks of life, see the battles that even these “called” people face and how they deal with them (or don’t deal with them). I actually hope to have a Seminary experience like yours because I think the learning opportunities about human interaction (especially with “sinners”) would better prepare me for the real world than attending a Seminary full of pious people. To use a biblical analogy, what good is it to learn how to be a physician among those who have no need for the physician?

    • Timothy Dalrymple


      PTS is not a secular school. It’s a PC(USA) school. I was not at PTS for pastoral training; I was there to receive a Master’s degree and go on to a PhD, as I mentioned. I did not feel that there was such extraordinary depravity that I had to leave; I just felt that drunkenness and extramarital sex were “distressingly common.” I did make efforts to connect with believers who felt likewise, but I also, as I said, participated in the drinking culture.

      I don’t assume that all calls must look the same. But I do believe, on the basis of (what I take to be) biblical reasons, that behaving with sexual and moral integrity is an important part of Christian life. Call me crazy. So I’m suggesting that seminaries could benefit from more strongly emphasizing sexual and moral integrity.


    • It’s not an excuse, but it’s reality that the culture is pervasive. If one is going to stand up for moral beliefs in seminary, one is going to be pretty alone, save for a few evangelicals and International students.

      • But…we still should be willing to stand alone…as Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow. I think it becomes profoundly confusing, however, when the other people surrounding you are going into ministry and they advocate all kinds of behaviors your previously believed were wrong. Still…

  • Peter Loughman

    I am a PTS grad ’93 & 94 and I too was shocked at some of the behavior I saw at PTS, not with everyone, but an alarming number of people. I was not a sheltered Christian by any means, but as you describe, it wasn’t the behavior itself, but the glee to which it was run to. But Tim, this type of behavior goes further than seminary, it is brought into the church. When I was a PCUSA pastor (I have now left the denomination) I saw this type of behavior repeated at the presbytery level and especially the synod level. At gatherings after the official meeting I saw a lot of public drunkenness, very lewd behavior, questionable relational behavior at hotels and was repeatedly harassed by a Synod official for sexual favors – still gives me the creeps. I believe this lack of morality is one of the reasons for the fall of the PCUSA.

  • Michael and Kelly Nieto


    We are a clergy couple and graduates (’09) of PTS who are currently serving a small, rural church together. We are also graduates of UC Berkeley, so we understand some of the institutional characteristics you describe at Stanford concerning the diversity of the student body. We also resonate with your experience concerning the strength of the Christian community in an admittedly hostile environment to Christian morals,ideals, Scriptures, and especially the dramatic claim of Jesus Christ as the uniquely narrow path to an eternity with our Creator.

    Before coming to seminary, we were aware that PTS leaned to the left on some theological issues, but we were unprepared to find these same hostilities to at a seminary.

    From what we saw and experienced (and yes, we can also add to the list of anecdotes, including a female seminarian drunkenly “hitting” on my husband…knowing he was married and while I was standing right there!), the danger of encountering these various hostilities at a seminary is that the underlying foundations of faith were shaken for many of our fellow seminarians. When encountering these hostilities at UC Berkeley or other such institutions, we looked to our Christian community and friends as bulwarks against the storms of doubt and spiritual salves in the midst of spiritual crises. We could look at each other and remind one another of the foundations upon which we stand. In seminary, when someone would fall, there was often no place for them to land.

    We appreciate your humility in reminding each one of us, as ministers, phds, etc. that the burden of sin is something we all carry, yet the eternal consequences of that burden were nailed to the cross. For many of our fellow seminarians, the burden of sin was made light of, even celebrated, so the burdens became even more unbearable, sinking many into dark places. We hope and pray that for ourselves and for our fellow seminarians the firm foundation may be continually recovered and strenthened.

    Michael and Kelly Nieto

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Michael and Kelly. God bless your ministry.


  • Bruce

    Wow! Tim, you really hit a sensitive spot! Thanks for your observations. I was aware of some promiscuity at Duke in the mid-nineties. There were always wild rumors going around. I sort of saw different small groups play out in different ways. There were groups who went off the deep end when it came to very lax sexual morals. There were other groups that banded together who thought any drinking, including moderate drinking was completely offensive. There were groups, such as mine, who respected sexual boundaries, held one another accountable, prayed with and for one another, and who might have a margarita or two on a Thursday night after classes to celebrate another interesting week at seminary. I was part of group number three. I really appreciated my experience at Duke– a mainline seminary. I still have a similar model of a covenant group after 15 years in the trenches of the parish ministry. I get with four or five fellow ordained clergy to celebrate, share, pray with and for, others who continue to grow in relationship with Jesus and all his weird friends. I hope I’m not doomed– because I’ve never had even a singe of guilt for an occasional beer in the right environment with others. My personal guilt and confession is for my obvious need to be released from the “sub-urban” definitions of holiness and to spend more time living with the poor in my area. I think my excess consumption of “reciprocity” friendships to the expense of friendship with the poor is what will embarrass me when the veil is ripped and Jesus talks with me. And this is the stain to me of my experience at Duke. This is what I’m working on, struggling through, and– hopefully growing. I don’t think reciprocal friendships are bad– but they are if that’s all a Christian has. As bad as promiscuity is– it doesn’t hold a candle to the evil of “security-worship.”

  • Bruce

    I just read my post and the way I’ve written it, I’m implying that Duke is to blame for my not being more invested in living with and among the poor. Let me amend this. Duke gave me plenty of invitations to live more authentically with the poor. I just didn’t take advantage of them. So Duke is not to blame for this. That’s on me. I created that stain myself.

  • Kim Benson

    I think it’s very interesting that yesterday’s Oswald Chambers (Nov. 2) was on obedience. Definitely worth a look. And, that this was the final paragraph:

    One student a year who hears God’s call would be sufficient for God to have called (his) Bible Training College into existence. This college has no value as an organization, not even academically. Its sole value for existence is for God to help Himself to lives. Will we allow Him to help Himself to us, or are we more concerned with our own ideas of what we are going to be?

  • David Hallgren

    Hi Timothy,
    Thanks for posting. I am a PTS grad – 2007, married housing, not CRW, and had a more mild experience than you describe. As I was closer in proximinty and had many single friends in seminary, I saw a lot of drinking and heard about a lot of other stuff. What I resonated most with in your article was the feeling of being an outsider. I come from a west coast evangelical pcusa perspective and went to Princeton to train to be a minister. I was not a gung ho PhD track type and felt like this isolated me more than anything else. I always thought it was ironic that I went to seminary and met very few pastoral types. It has been nice to see that many of my classmates have entered into ministry and gained a spiritual perspective to their pastoral vocation. I think this speaks most highly of God’s grace and persistent pursuit of each of us. I certainly had many lonely times at PTS and assuaged them in many unhealthy ways, but I have felt God’s redemption and intimacy as I minister. I resonate with Christy’s post above. I am thankful for the safe place for me that PTS provided to learn how to manage my own deficits, my awareness of estrangement from God and what moral claim the gospel makes on my life. I know that not everyone felt as safe in their time. Maybe as alums, we could create a prayer network for the students entering into theological education and even influence the institution to consider a response. Thanks for your work. Many Blessings

    • Christy Lang Hearlson


      I love it that you have supplied a constructive response to a felt issue– one of the first in this line of discussion. Perhaps turning to God in prayer for discernment around problems faced in seminary education and prayer for students now entering theological education is a route that many people who have posted so far can agree upon, at least as one part of a response.


  • Charles Twombly

    Reminds me of some of the ethos of my own seminary experience in the sixties. I say “some of” because Fuller had an incredibly wide spectrum of theological opinion and behavior even then.

    Just saying “the sixties” sort of gives the game away, I suppose, but I can recall the enthusiasm generated at seminaries (mainly non-evangelical) across the country by certain ideas of the period: the “new morality” found in the writings of Bp John AT Robinson and Joseph Fletcher (in his SITUATION ETHICS) and a post-Barthian interest in both Bultmann and Tillich with their basic denial of “the life of the world to come” (a move chronicled and analyzed in Kenneth Hamilton’s REVOLT AGAINST HEAVEN). “No heaven” also means “no hell”–so let’s party! As Heinrich Heine said, “I love to sin and God loves to forgive, so we have a perfect arrangement.”

    Coincidentally (?), several of my friends who grabbed onto to all this with the most enthusiasm were also the quickest to get divorces (frequently triggered by affairs). Don’t want to get into cause/effect or chicken/egg questions. Whatever the deal was, I knew many who were sitting on ready to seize some kind of “no fault” theology. The PTS report seems to me pretty much “more of the same,” a difference of degree maybe but not of kind. It’s ironic because our ancestors in the faith (I think especially of the early ascetics) saw striving to enter by the narrow gate as the pathway to unspeakable joy.

  • Well said thanks. I’m seeing this sort of play out in broader strokes with the youth I’m working with, and will be working with. Seems to have touched a nerve as well from Jones and Paeth responses to your posting.

  • Thank you so much for this post. I wish you could speak at every seminary in America! I attended a Lutheran seminary and while not EVERYONE was doing it, there were some relaxed attitudes towards sex, drinking, etc. It was like, “we’re saved by grace alone…let’s prove it.” I got sucked into some of this too. And like you, I need to take responsibility for the times that was true. It was my fault. I agree that while I did grow in understanding of the Lutheran theology of grace while in seminary, spiritually I felt a sense of decline. I am starting to come out of it, but the low view of Scripture and holiness had their impact.

  • Andy B.

    Thanks for this, Tim. As a recent graduate (‘ll) of another Ivy Divinity School and a moderate Mainline (Methodist), your description and insight resonated with my experience of the last three years and is helping me to process it. While my denomination’s historical penchant for personal holiness certainly played a role in my disconnectedness from the institutional culture of which I was a part, I still do not fully understand what was the root cause of the culture of “permissiveness”.

  • Pat

    As a young seminary wife (now pastor’s wife), I too was amazed at the prevailing party culture of the single students, and some married students, at seminary. We were newly married, fresh out of college, upon entering seminary. We were the same age as many of the single students and found we were worlds apart when it came to the idea of “being in the world, but not of the world.” Paul’s wise words stating “everything is permissable, but not all things are beneficial” holds true to the behaviors of Christians, especially those in Christian leadership. Having experienced seminary over a decade ago, I can attest to the fact that the mainline church desires men of faith and stability and having a family is a strong selling point. Most of the liberally permiscuious students we encountered at seminary are not employed in full-time ministry or serve in ministry at all to this day. “Many are the desires of a young man’s heart, but it is the Lord who determines his steps.” Though my comments pale in comparrison to the theological rhetoric presented, I agree with the original comment and pray you have a fruitful ministry.

  • Rafiq Rabinowitz

    This is a doozy of an article, as are the comments. I first became a Christian in college–from a DECIDEDLY non-Christian background–in the late 1970’s. When my friends–who were also mostly from the same arts department at the notoriously left-wing State U–and I heard about people who thought premarital sex or homosexuality were okay, or who liked the sermon on the mount but didn’t believe in the resurrection, etc., we called them “non-Christians.” We probably erred on the side of strictness or judgementalism, but this article and the comments–even most of the more conservative ones– seem to go overboard in the other direction. One talked about “discipleship,” and said, “I’m gay.” Does that work? Substitute “I’m a thief” or “I’m an adulterer” (as in, say, I live with a lady who is still married to someone else.) Do those work? The whole thing seems pretty far out of whack.

    I’m sure there is a lot to learn from liberals and liberal “Christians,” but can’t we start by acknowledging that they’ve put themselves outside of the camp of what Christianity has always been? And that would probably include swaths of profs at Princeton, Duke, etc. (Though, admittedly, many put themselves–deliberately??–smack dab on the dividing line between believers and unbelievers. Though, you could say, that line has moved pretty far “to the left” in the last 30 years.)

    My childhood best friend’s parents were lifelong Episcopalians. He was a psychologist and a minister, and she was a church organist. When I became a Christian, I was excited to talk to them. When I got sort of weird reactions from them, I asked, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” She said, if memory serves, “I believe in a ‘spiritual resurrection.'” She sported a “Prayerfully Pro-Choice” bumper sticker, as if to further my point from previous paragraphs.

  • Christiane Lang Hearlson

    Hey! I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do,” by Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler. It’s about social network theory, and it helps identify and explain a lot of the aspects of the conversation I’ve seen in response to your blog post, Tim.

    For example, it shows how both ideas and behaviors spread through social networks– and that ideological and behavioral changes don’t always coincide, so that person A might be influenced to change his mind about something by person B (“binge drinking is okay as long as you’re not in active ministry”), and even if his behavior doesn’t change to reflect his changed mind, the fact that he thinks differently might affect the behavior of person C, so person C binge drinks. So person A has affected person C, though they might not know each other. This effect and others help ideas and behaviors to spread through vast social networks.

    The book also shows that social networks have more and less dense areas where particular behaviors and ideas are seen with greater frequency and spread more rapidly. This helps explain why one PTS alum says that “debauchery was EVERYWHERE” and another says, “What are you talking about? I never saw that.” Social network theorists would say that those two students occupied different places in the social network and felt the influence of particular behaviors and ideas more or less intensely. They really do have totally different experiences, depending on where they are in the network and how many others they’re connected to.

    The books also helps explain why– as Blair Bertrand noted in another post– seminary is disorienting, because it uproots us from familiar social networks that are sources not just of support and friendship, but of moral and ideological norms. Being placed in a new social network is a lonely experience for probably everyone, but especially if you find that your usual ideas and behaviors set you at the periphery of the established social network.

    Finally, it shows how women play a significant role in influencing both other women and men. Studies suggest that women tend to help their partners find more stable, healthy patterns of behavior. There seems to be a link between marriage and a reduction of high-risk behaviors in men. All of that helps to explain the great frequency with which PTS alums and students have commented that CRW (the almost-all-married student area off campus) is a much more staid place than the dorms.

    Anyway, I am not doing justice to the insights and fascinating studies of this book. You can learn about laughing epidemics in Africa, about the spread of obesity among Americans, or the spread of sexual behaviors among high school students in a particular city.

    I recommend reading it as a way to envision how behaviors and ideas spread in social networks like a seminary community. It might also help people form viable strategies for change that aren’t based on hyper-individualistic ideologies or authoritarian methods.