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.
This is one of my most favorite posts of yours, ever. I especially appreciate your identification of the man who created that poignant “joke.”
I am deciding upon writing up my own measly attempt at a solution to this problem, for FG. Not having read history as you recommend, it will probably be weakly presented, though hopefully it will at least spark other solution concepts amongst the many who are smarter than I.
I look forward to sharing it with you if you can spare the time.
Thanks for your kind words.
I’ve found that if I want to be taken seriously when I put my finger on a problem, I usually have to propose a solution, even if I know the solution is weak, and other, better-qualified people will surpass it instantly when they set their minds to the problem. I still make my solution as good as I can, but realistically, the purpose of the proposed solution in those cases is mostly rhetorical, a way of saying “I’m not just whining over here; I want to see this fixed.” I find that it often has the effect of spurring better-qualified people to think in terms of solutions. A common response is, “No, that won’t do because of ____. But if we do it this way….”
Of course, sometimes your solution will be better than you can know. I once got hired to implement a solution that I was sure would have fatal flaws in it. The better-qualified guys looked at it and said, “It’ll work. Do it.”
I’d love to see what you have, although to be honest, I can’t make promises about how long it will take me to get through it and frame a decent response. Things are hopping here, lately.
You have a way in speech that is so affirming that it seems impossible to imagine you having any enemies. Thank you for blessing me.
If you still think you have the time I’m taking a day to write and edit it, and then I will post it here. If you have another preference for location, let me know.
Thanks so much,
Post it where you will. I’ll look forward to reading it.