The Church and Higher Education: Conflict or Complement, Part 1

The following is part one of a transcribed speech Dr. Davey delivered at the annual Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS) Conference in November of 2009. It will appear at SI in three parts.

First, let me congratulate TRACS for 30 years of faithful service to Christ. Thank you for investing in higher educational institutions.

Dr. Beck has been a special encouragement to me in the process, along with all of us at Shepherds as we’ve pursued, and now achieved, full accreditation. We’re glad to be a part of the TRACS Family. When Dr. Beck, on behalf of TRACS, asked me to speak he suggested I address the subject of the relationship between the church and the educational institution.

More specifically, is the relationship between churches and schools a complement and a blessing to one another, or is it a relationship of conflict and struggle? And if so, what does it take to move from a relationship that competes, to a relationship that completes one another?

I want to structure my comments today around three key words that come to mind when I think of potential relationships between schools and churches—relationship that must be marked by the integrity of Christ’s gospel and the sweetness of genuine fellowship.

The first word that comes to mind is the word “synergy.”

The Greek word, sunergos, transliterated into our word, “synergy,” simply means to join forces for greater impact.

The broader definition of sunergos is “the working together of two or more agents or forces to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects.”

Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary wrote, “The history of theological seminaries, especially among evangelicals, indicates the tension between the academic world and the church world—a dichotomization brought about by the culture of modernity. Over time, the churches have thought of seminaries as training schools for preachers. The larger academic culture has seen seminaries as graduate schools with theological specialization. The divide is now so wide that no single institution can serve both of these masters.”

In other words, good luck. The chasm is wide and still growing.

Since I have now entered both world of formal education and church leadership, I want to ask the question, “What happened? How did we get here?” History makes it painfully obvious.

For 1700 years of church history, training for the ministry was closely tied to the local church. Church leaders were apprenticed to godly pastors and were trained not only in what to believe but how to behave.

Before the Revolutionary War, young men prepared to serve the church by actually living in the homes of older, veteran pastors and church leaders. It wasn’t the perfect system, since older ministers couldn’t provide the breadth of training the younger pastors needed…so it was certainly inadequate.

But the goal was clear—Bruce Shelley wrote—to produce pastors who were first and foremost, theologians. They were men of the scriptures who thought textually and theologically.

In his book, Between Faith and Criticism, Mark Noll postulated that as late as 1875, virtually every American who could be called an expert in the study of Scripture sustained some kind of connection to the church—and devoted the results of their biblical scholarship primarily to the ongoing spirituality of the church.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, things had dramatically changed. The Enlightenment had taken hold and by the end of the 19th century, you had what Noll called the professionalization of theology.

In other words, pastors as theologians shifted as culture and economies developed and now the demand was for pastors as professionals.

Washington Gladden, a well known congregational pastor, wrote that Protestant pastors should spend less time in their study and more time in active ministry—which is an interesting and unfortunate digression from the apostolic tradition that giving oneself to the study of the word was ministry (Acts 6:2). Studying well for the sake of teaching well was the work of the ministry.

And let me add a footnote here that for us to regain our footing—for us to begin to bridge this chasm between the church and the school, the call to the pastorate needs to be redefined Biblically as a call to the study—a call back to the ministry of the word. A pastor is called to a life of obscurity. The pastor/teacher who spends more time in public than he does in private will not be worth much to his public.

First and foremost, Ephesians 4:11 constructs the job description of pastors who are teachers. We’ve long since left this ambition. This digression has now opened the door to the third model of minister, Shelley wrote, and I quote, “First, pastors were theologians; next they became professionals and now they are enterprising healers.”

He writes, “In the last four decades, the pastorate is now [viewed as] a healing profession. Defending religious truth is largely out of fashion as churches and ministers are expected to meet the felt needs of the religious public.”

By the way, as far back as 1890, Washington Gladden went on to write that the professional pastor needs to preach shorter sermons and be perceived as a confidant and a friend. And Gladden would become the father of what we now refer to as the “social gospel.”

The church is no longer the guardian of biblical truth, it is now a shopping mall for therapeutic influences where the human condition is the primary focus. Most pastors today are trained to expound on life and illustrate with scripture. We need to return to training men to expound the scripture and illustrate with life.

Over the course of the last 100 years, colleges and seminaries that prepared pastors were gradually viewed as ivory towers where professionals were trained for the church—considered by the mainline Protestant world as somewhat out of touch with the real needs of humanity.

And the landscape has changed even further for ministry preparation, since pastors are now chosen for their personality, charisma, entrepreneurial and leadership capabilities rather than their commitment and ability to expound the scriptures. So naturally, the need for ministry scholarship and training is now considered passé.

So in the course of just the last 100 years, the divide between the church and the school was, as Al Mohler wrote, now divided by a great chasm. Mohler did offer encouragement however when he wrote, “Creatively forging healthy relationships and creative partnerships between church and school will create greater potential for greater impact.”

That’s another way of referring to intentional synergy—two forces combining to produce effects greater than any one force could ever produce alone.

The church must recognize that the resources of the educational institution are tremendous assets to further the gospel. The institution must recognize that the greater the distance between it and the church, the greater it’s education becomes nothing more than abstraction and theory. So the chasm must be bridged.

For every school and church, synergy will look and feel differently. The bridge across the chasm will be unique, depending on everything from geography to personnel to budget.

Educators, the question to ask—depending on your station and position is this—how many pastors do you know and work with? When’s the last time you asked a pastor what he’s facing in the culture where he’s serving? Are you personally involved in a local church? How does the church integrate with your students’ lives?

Questions for pastors would be—when’s the last time you encouraged a professor or leader of a biblical institution? Do you even know who they are? What have you learned from them lately? Do you know what they’re facing and what their most current challenges are all about?

Let me give you some insight on the problems facing pastors. Most pastors, like me, rarely get out of town. I’ve pastored one church now for 23 years. From 28 years of age—right out of seminary—to now—you do the math. It’s the only church I’ve ever pastored; which comes in handy. Whenever we have a problem I can say, “I don’t know, this is my first church.”

Most pastors, like me, have limited influences outside their congregations. They are not on speaking tours and they’ve resisted board appointments and all sorts of activity that take them away from their duties and their flock.

So one of the practical things I’ve done over the years to stay in touch with higher education is invite Bible college and seminary faculty and school presidents to speak at Colonial.

Every summer I have a summer series and invite guest speakers for both Sunday morning and Sunday night services. And I stack the deck with educators.

I want to know what they’re dealing with in the world of academia—I also want to learn from their travels—because most leaders in education environments travel extensively—to other parts of the world and to other churches in the States. I want to know what they’re dealing with—what they are seeing ‘out there,’ what are they’re picking up as the travel.

And let me give you one practical illustration of how they helped me—a small thing, really, but felt by our entire church.

Several summers ago I was sitting on the platform with one of our guest speakers—Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody church—who travels extensively and also surrounded by students and faculty at Moody Bible Institute. We were sitting there as the service was about to begin—actually it was the third service that morning—we have three identical Sunday morning services—and he had watched how our music minister started our services by having people take their seats and introducing congregational singing; and he leaned over and said to me, “Have you ever thought about starting your service with scripture and a pastoral prayer.” I said, “Listen, I was raised that way and I slept through every one of those pastoral prayers.” He said, “Stephen you ought to give it some thought—I’m traveling around and finding more and more pastors doing that in order to immediately establish the tone and focus of the service around the worship of God.” I said, “Okay, I won’t argue with that; that’s why we’re here. I’ll give it some thought.”

Three weeks later, Mark Bailey, president of Dallas Seminary was on the platform and it was the second or third service that morning. Just after it had begun he leaned over and said, “Hey, have you ever thought about starting your service with scripture and a pastoral prayer?” I said, “Okay, I give up. Speak Lord!”

We implemented that practice and for several years have found it to be a tremendous blessing as we immediately focus the hearts and minds of the flock on the person of Christ and the authority of His word.

This was practical advice gleaned from traveling educators who were observing the church at large.

Frankly, pastors have little time for stuff they can’t translate immediately into a sermon or an illustration. Many pastors I know thought “emergent” was a word for weekend emergencies. In fact, post-modernism was explained to me and my staff of pastors by an educator, long after we’d graduated.

It didn’t change my text or my exposition of the text, but it helped shape my application.

This is one way to bridge the divide; educators, pull pastors in. Form a round table for them; give them a free lunch and a chance to listen to a session on something you’re dealing with that may very well serve as iron sharpening iron.

You’ll be surprised how fascinated pastors will be with what you’re facing—and they will also be very surprised that you had them on campus for something other than fund raising! Go ahead and shock them.

Before I leave this key word, let me bring someone else into the picture quickly that desperately needs to observe the synergistic efforts between the school and the church—students.

It’s very likely that a student will leave home and church and youth pastor and senior pastor and not have a legitimate, accountable church relationship again—until they enter the ministry.

I had 5 happy years of college and 5 years of seminary and during that time my relationship with the local church was artificial at best. In fact, it would be 10 years before I was truly a part of local church that I didn’t view intellectually as either a clinic or an artificially imposed relationship.

Of course I attended church, during those long years of higher education—3 times a week as a student at Liberty and then at Tennessee Temple where I along with 3,000 other students attended Highland Park Baptist Church, not because we chose to, but because we wanted to graduate.

I’m not saying that this was altogether unhealthy. I appreciated what I observed in Lee Roberson and his assistant, J.R. Faulkner. But it wasn’t a church where I viewed them as my pastors for counsel and advice and availability.

It is quite possible during the college years and seminary years, when a young person will more than likely choose their specific calling, place of ministry and more than likely their spouse, that all of this happens while they are outside an authentic context of the local church.

We must bridge this chasm intentionally, creatively. The bridge you build will be unique to your own setting, your own school, your own church.

There are no uniform answers or methods. But one thing is certain—this is the time when we must give it much thought, discussion and prayer.

The first word that we must embrace in order for the church and school to move from conflict to complement is the word “synergy.”

Stephen Davey is the senior pastor at Colonial Baptist Church and President of Shepherds Theological Seminary, as well as principal Bible teacher on the “Wisdom for the Heart” broadcast. After earning a Master of Divinity degree from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, Stephen and his wife, Marsha, moved from Dallas to Cary, NC and started Colonial Baptist Church. Colonial is now a thriving church with three Sunday morning services and more than 2500 members. In 2003, Stephen and the elders of Colonial founded Shepherds Theological Seminary.
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Joel Tetreau's picture


Great article......Looking forward to seeing the rest. Blessings on you and your ministry. Grateful for Colonial Baptist and Shepherds Seminary. Straight Ahead!

In light of merging the ecclesiastical with the academic, I sign off with my favorite Latin:

"Ad usque fidelis!" ("True to the end" or "Unto fidelity")


Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (; Regional Coordinator for IBL West (, Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

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