Balancing Academics and Ministry

Recently, our seminary, Southwestern, informed us that they would be reducing the language requirement for the Masters of Divinity program by nine hours, removing the advanced courses.  If I understand correctly, this change applies to all other SBC seminaries as well (though I believe we were the only one who required a third semester in Hebrew).  The reason for this is enrollment:  Apparently, many students were choosing other seminaries over ours because the language requirements were less.  Obviously, generally speaking, the language courses are among the most difficult in seminary, so it is no surprise that some people want to avoid them.

When I first heard this, I was pretty exasperated.  Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I loved writing exegetical papers and parsing Greek and Hebrew words.  It often stunk doing so, and I still do not believe I am anywhere close to having a good grasp of the languages, even though my background in philosophy and writing has allowed me to do well when it comes to semantic categories.  However, I am nonetheless thankful I took those courses, even taking some of the harder teachers, because I learned a lot.  I believe they are the among the most important courses one can take in seminary because they obviously deal with God’s Word in the original languages.  I would also argue that most of your “real” learning does not come in the introductory courses, when you learn to read, parse, and do simple translations.  It comes in your exegetical courses when you learn to make decisions on what kind of perfect this verb is, what kind of classification this article should have, what clause is linked to another, whether that hoti is causal or epexegetical, etc.  THAT is where the meat of exegesis is.  Southwestern does not even have the most stringent language requirements unless your concentration is NT or OT; Dallas Theological Seminary requires one more semester of Greek and Hebrew than we do.  I know for a fact that most of our professors (language ones, anyway) don’t like this at all, but it’s not their call.   Thus, I was honestly contemptuous at first at the change, feeling we are trying to cater to redneck bums who are just trying to get a degree as a rite of passage in ministry rather than honestly coming to learn.  If they want the easy way out, fine; get lost and go to another seminary and don’t drag our standards down.  Not every Christian who serves needs to learn Greek or Hebrew or even go to seminary, so either find another or just don’t go at all.

With some time to think and with some repentance, I am trying to be more understanding, although I am still in disagreement over the decision.  It’s part of a broader issue that seminaries have to try to balance:  On the one hand, we want to have high academic standards, and our current president has done a lot of work in raising the bar in our theology department.  However, on the other hand, seminary is not just a place for academic types.  It is a place where people who are called by God to enter into the ministry can get training, whether they are good at academics or not.  Southwestern, as should other seminaries, rightly feels like they cannot justify turning people away simply because they are not “intellectuals,” at least for the MDiv program (Th.M and Ph.D are a different story).  Unlike most other graduate schools, seminaries should care more about the heart of the students and how they are called rather than their academic aptitude.

It is a very difficult balance to maintain.  Some students here come from strong academic backgrounds and can ably understand complex arguments and have some semblance of writing profiency.  Others, frankly, have the writing skill of a high schooler or worse and have a hard time following along in class.  Should both be given the opportunity to attend seminary?  As long as they are called by God, I absolutely believe so.  Add to this the fact that many students work, do ministry (sometimes full-time), and have families, the seminary cannot possibly raise the academic bar so high that most students lose all their hair from ridiculous stress.  It also shouldn’t lower it to the point that it starts churning out graduates who think they know a lot but really have subpar training.

Personally, even though I have criticisms of Southwestern, I think it has done a pretty good job of trying to strike that balance.  As much as I respect DTS, I think their 120 hour Th.M requirement is a bit much (their per hour cost is also a heck of a lot higher).  Not every pastor wants or needs to do that.  I think Southwestern has a decent compromise by offering a 91-hour MDiv degree and a 24-36 hour Th.M one for those who wish to pursue more academic and specialized studies.  In this continued balancing act, it seems like the SBC seminaries are erring more towards those who wish to enter ministry but are intimidated by the academic workload.  Fair enough.  I wouldn’t have done it and I still don’t think it’s a good idea; for what it’s worth, if I were the one calling the shots, I would have ADDED a Hebrew semester and maybe a Greek one, axed one requirement and replaced it with a more robust philosophical ethics course, and added a logic course.  But I am not the boss, and at the end of the day, God will use these graduates whether they took four semesters of Greek or two.

This spills into an even broader picture than this for Christians.  On the one hand, we should be intellectually responsible, particularly in the West, where we are afforded academic opportunities most others are not.  However, we simply cannot say that every Christian needs to know X to be a good Christian, unless X is Jesus, obviously.  Those with the opportunity and the gifting should pursue things that help the body that others cannot or will not do (I have zero desire to be a Hebrew lexicographer, but I am thankful for those brave souls who do it).  That does not mean they are better than anyone else, because what they are given is meant to be used to serve.  Such is God’s way in the body of Christ; everyone is different but unified, and everyone should be working to lift others up (1 Cor 12, Rom 12).  We should all remember this, and I should be gracious to our SBC leaders for trying their best to perform a very difficult balancing act.

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