A friend recently indicated to me that he’s interested in formal preparation for ministry. He’s somewhat constrained as to time and prior commitments, so he’ll be taking the long road, not just putting his whole life on hold to go to seminary for a few years.
Increasingly, I think that is a great blessing. Seminary, by its very nature, is optimized for very lopsided growth. It’s helpful in certain circumstances, but it’s not the best choice for ministry preparation.
But what really surprised me was what I told him when he asked me for advice on how to proceed. It didn’t just pop out; he asked the question by email, so I’d had a week or two to consider my answer. But I found the conclusion I came to surprising.
In addition to continuing in faithful ministry in his own church — which he’s already doing — I suggested just two areas in which he should pursue competence. The first was exegesis, and for me, that was a no-brainer. He can’t minister well if he can’t handle the Word well, period. That starts out with basic hermeneutics and Bible study methods, moves into deeper study and heavier-duty tools, and if he cares to pursue it far enough, to Greek and Hebrew. No real surprises there.
What did surprise me was the second area I suggested. In my background, the traditional suggestions would be exegesis and theology. But instead of theology, I suggested church history. In my experience, the focus on exegesis and theology tends to indoctrinate a person into a very specific tradition. In studying the timeless truths of Scripture and theology, he becomes bogged down in his own century, his own culture, his own interests, and consequently in a series of increasingly narrow, ever-more-partisan battles. This is sub-Christian; we are to look not only on our own interests, but also for the interests of others, particularly others in the church.
I was myself rescued from that narrowing tendency — to some extent — by knowledge of church history. As I continue to grow in my understanding of the church, I find myself being rescued more and more. All the theological squabbles come up anyway, just as they would if I focused on theology. But they come up in proper context, as part of the overall story of how my people have grown and developed in their understanding of the Lord and His Word.
We profess to believe in the communion of saints and the value of fellowship. Mentally, though, we often add “as long as you’re under 40 and use an iPhone,” or “as long as you come from the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912,”* or whatever arbitrary constraint will protect our comfort. And in fact, this is what the study of theology usually comes down to: study of an arbitrary extract of church history designed for the maximum comfort of some particular group or other. This is the historical version of a man surrounding himself with handpicked yes-men who already agree with him.
Straightforward study of church history, though, forces us to reckon with a bunch of people who don’t think like us. People we don’t approve of. People we would never choose and might very well want to disown. And yet by God’s providence, there they are, and they have many, many lessons to teach.
The sectarian tendency wants to say, “But look at all these things where they got it wrong!” Sure. But a great portion of the learning will be in exploring the tension between church history and exegesis. Why did these people come to that conclusion about this passage? What were they thinking? What did they miss? …or did I miss something? Both?
We may find that they got it wrong less than we thought. We will surely find great stores of practical, pastoral wisdom along the way. And as the proverbs say, he who walks with the wise will be wise, and in a multitude of counselors is safety.
*A reference to a truly stellar, and badly under-attributed, joke by Emo Phillips.