What to Look for in a Seminary

In The Nick of TimeBible colleges exist to train Christian workers. Seminaries exist to equip Christian leaders. If you want to be a good deacon, Sunday school teacher, or youth leader, then Bible college is adequate. If you want to be an effective pastor, missionary, church planter, or preacher, then seminary is very important. True, some men can minister well without attending seminary, but even they would be more effective if they had. For most, seminary preparation is the difference between failure and success.

Baptist Fundamentalism has produced several decent seminaries. This abundance is a tremendous blessing, because it means that the churches do not have to rely upon only one or two institutions. If you are trying to decide which seminary to attend, however, it presents you with a difficult choice. On top of that, any number of non-fundamentalist seminaries would be happy to enroll you as a student. How can you choose?

The whole purpose of a seminary is to prepare Christian leaders, and this task can be performed only by people who are themselves committed to Christianity. No Christian should ever choose to prepare for ministry in an institution that tolerates apostasy. This criterion rules out most of the older and more prestigious seminaries and divinity schools.

Don’t lament this loss of opportunity, however. Prestige does not necessarily equal quality. The fact is that fundamentalist seminaries are in better shape academically than they have ever been. They compare well with graduate schools of every sort. The professors in fundamentalist seminaries are current in their disciplines. They contribute to the literature and move the academic conversation forward. They are able to respond competently to the most current trends. More than that, they have mastered traditional perspectives and understandings of Scripture that are no longer taught in more liberal institutions.

Should you go to a seminary that is conservative but not fundamentalist? Let me mention three factors to consider in that decision. First, you will hear everything in the better fundamentalist seminaries that you will hear in the conservative evangelical seminaries. The level of teaching in the fundamentalist institutions is comparable to anything in the evangelical world. Second, you will be exposed to perspectives within fundamentalist institutions that are not taken seriously in conservative evangelical seminaries. A whole complex of theological issues is affected by the idea of Fundamentalism, including the relationship of doctrine to the gospel, the nature of the church, and the definition of Christian fellowship. These issues are addressed in detail only within fundamentalist institutions. Third, if you intend to plant or pastor fundamental Baptist churches, then you owe it to yourself to learn what it means to be a fundamental Baptist. That is a task that is fulfilled best in the environment of a fundamental Baptist seminary.

Naturally, you will want to consider whether a particular institution is compatible with your own theological position. Doctrinal and practical differences can create a certain amount of tension. Even within Baptist fundamentalism, different seminaries hold different theological emphases. You need to find out whether the school you are considering will welcome your views and enquiries about Calvinism, dispensationalism, sanctification, and other issues. Seminary should be a pleasurable experience, but it can become a nightmare if you feel that you are constantly being slighted. Seminary study does not require uniformity of belief, but you should not have to endure hostility.

By itself, seminary will not equip you for ministry. It provides tools, but you must learn to use those tools in practice. To gain the necessary practice, you have to be active in a local church. Not every church will serve every student equally well. The relationship will depend upon the church’s particular ministry, the student’s abilities, and the ministry goal that the student has in mind. When you are choosing a seminary, you should look for an institution that has a strong relationship with several local churches. This relationship should include a structured internship program that will give you at least a year’s intensive experience in ministry.

A good library is an important resource for any seminary. It is as valuable as any faculty member. While you are looking at seminaries, you should pay attention to each library’s collection. While it may include some popular works, the strength of a seminary library lies in research tools and critical works. These should be abundant and accessible.

The spiritual atmosphere on campus should be a major consideration for any seminary. Unfortunately, right doctrine does not guarantee piety. Both are essential. You should search for a seminary that avoids arid scholasticism while eschewing the excessive agitations of revivalism.

Of course, the most valuable asset of any seminary is its faculty. You should spend more time evaluating your potential professors than any other aspect of the seminaries. As you think about the faculty, you should ask three questions.

First, is the faculty strong academically? In the seminary setting, professors should hold earned doctorates for the disciplines that they teach. For academic areas, this means a Th.D. or a Ph.D. For practical areas, it may mean a D.Min. You should make sure that all professors have earned their degrees from credible institutions.

Incidentally, you should beware of seminaries in which all or most of the faculty have received their doctorates from the same institution. Ideas develop at different rates in different schools. Developments that are well-known at one school may hardly be acknowledged at another. A seminary gains much breadth of exposure by hiring faculty who have pursued doctoral work in a variety of institutions. And it should go without saying that academic inbreeding is a cardinal sin for a seminary. If a school builds its faculty out of its own doctoral graduates, then it has violated a primary academic standard.

Second, does the faculty bring real-world experience to the classroom? You are going to seminary to learn to minister. You should be learning from men who have actually ministered. A good seminary faculty should be filled with men who bring extensive experience as pastors (in real pastorates, not interim pastorates), church planters, missionaries, and chaplains. They should be men who have faced the tough dilemmas of ministry, who have got their noses bloody in spiritual struggle, and who bring a passion for the Lord’s work into their classrooms. Beware of a seminary in which the professors have spent their whole lives in classrooms without practical experience in ministry.

Third, are the professors involved in the lives of the students? Professors should relate to students more like peers and less like authorities. They should be accessible to students. They should be developing the kind of informal relationships in which genuine mentoring is possible.

Choosing a seminary is not an easy task. It involves much comparison, some of which is objective, but much of which involves personal concerns. The purpose of this essay is not to convince you to attend one seminary or another but to give you useful criteria for selecting a seminary.

Where-e’er My Flatt’ring Passions Rove

Issac Watts (1674-1748)

Where-e’er my flatt’ring Passions rove
I find a lurking snare;
‘Tis dangerous to let loose our love
Beneath th’eternal fair.

Souls whom the tie of friendship binds,
And partners of our blood,
Seize a large portion of our minds,
And leave the less for God.

Nature has soft but powerful bands,
And reason she controls;
While children with their little hands
Hang closest to our souls.

Thoughtless they act th’old serpent’s part;
What tempting things they be!
Lord, how they twine about our heart,
And draw it off from thee!

Dear Sovereign, break these fetters off,
And set our spirits free;
God in himself is bliss enough,
For we have all in Thee.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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