Where Does the Seminary Fit in Relation to the Local Church?
This article discusses the relationship of the seminary to the local church. Specifically it argues for tangible recognition on the part of seminaries that the local church is the biblically designed co-center (along with the family) of biblical education. I advocate that acknowledgment include, wherever possible, a direct local church accountability, and ideally, a posture of working as a ministry of a local church, under that local church’s direct leadership.
On the importance of local church leadership of the seminary
One important reason for the decline of biblical education in the churches has been the seminary’s haste to take on responsibilities that are the jurisdiction of the church. As pastoral roles (regrettably) shift more and more toward corporate leadership, recruitment, and hospitality, and away from exegetical teaching and discipleship, the need for para-church organizations only increases. Local churches become less and less capable of fulfilling their biblical mandates, and thus become increasingly dependent upon seminaries in particular, for doctrinal and functional strategies and for filling their personnel needs.
The biblical model is for biblical education to be accomplished first in the home (Eph. 6:4), and second in the assembling of the local church (Eph. 4:11-13, with the former being encouraged and facilitated by the latter). If the seminary fits in this equation at all, it should serve as a catalyst to restore the task of biblical education to its ideal spheres.
Consequently, the seminary is best characterized as a ministry of the church, to the church, and for the encouragement of the church in taking up the proper space in the biblical education process. As a church-based ministry, the seminary can be very useful to that end, though if it does its job well, the seminary, as it has been traditionally understood, ideally becomes an outdated idea. (While this outcome is not likely in practice, my concern at this point is not outcomes, but ideals.)
Thus a seminary leadership structure that is directly accountable to the church is, in my estimation, better than a leadership structure that is not directly accountable to the church.
Importance of the commitment to the local church as an individual unit
Though it is feasible that a seminary may be accountable to representatives of multiple local churches (this approach has been reasonably engaged in a number of situations with debatable success), I argue for several reasons that the seminary is best able to function in proper scope when it is accountable to a single local church.
First, while the body of Christ is a universal body, local churches were expected to be fully functional in at least their biblical education efforts without dependence on other local churches (Acts 14:23, Tit. 1:5). That is not to suggest cooperation between local churches in certain areas is not desirable or should be avoided. On the contrary, collaboration can be identified in some cases as ideal (e.g., 2 Cor. 8:19). However (by the definition, function, and purpose of pastors/elders in Acts 20:28 and Eph 4:11-13), each local church should be fully functional in fulfilling the biblical education mandates.
Ideally, each local church would have a formalized program for biblical education that extends beyond the limited interaction of a one or two hour per week meeting. The seminary pedagogical structure can offer a model to the local church of how to formalize and structure a biblical education program, and in that way the seminary can be particularly useful—particularly if the church is directly involved in the function of the seminary.
By being accountable directly to a local body, the seminary can rightly be viewed by that church as a ministry of the church, and as inseparable from the normal functions of that church. This sets an important tone within the church for the healthy pedagogical function of the church. Without that local-church centric culture, major imbalances may arise.
If the seminary is not accountable to the individual local church, there may arise an inherent laziness in the local church to rely either on the seminary itself or on another local body to meet that church’s responsibilities. In other words, because it is not forced to meet its own needs, it doesn’t even attempt to meet those needs. Someone else is meeting the needs, so why reduplicate efforts? In practical terms, this seems unavoidable.
On the other hand, where there is direct accountability to the individual local church—specifically with the pastors/elders of the local church involved directly in the leadership and operation of the seminary—the seminary functions as an arm and outworking of that local church, and formal biblical education becomes (appropriately) a central focus of that local church. As in the biblical design, pastors/elders in the local church are leading the way for healthy and active church function.
The Tyndale Seminary case study
Since the middle of 2006, Tyndale Seminary has followed the model described above, by shifting from a more autonomous seminary, to one directly under local church leadership and authority. The results have been exciting.
A high level of biblical literacy in the members of the local church is constantly emphasized and realized. Further, as church members become better equipped they are acutely aware of the ministry opportunities and needs present in the body, and there is a very high rate of participation in the ministry of the local church. By having the seminary in-house, members are presented regularly with the needs and opportunities of that and other ministries of the local church. Also, they are able to observe examples and participate in the process of equipping and service. This promotes a culture of equipping and service, and contributes greatly to the overall health, unity, and maturity of the local church.
This shift has also moved the seminary away from a mentality of institutional advancement and self-preservation (a mentality virtually prerequisite to the standalone seminary), to a model of service to the body. The focus has turned to function rather than institutional advancement. This has allowed Tyndale to seize opportunities to meet specific needs within the local church and also those beyond the local church’s borders, without the constant friction of conflicting interests between church function and institutional well-being (because the two become so tightly intertwined). Consequently, Tyndale has remained sleek and proactive and able to move decisively in creating programs like the Tyndale Millennium Partnership, Tyndale Seminary Press, homeschooling scholarships, a vibrant prison ministry, and perhaps most significantly, the Tyndale Learning Center program.
Because of its consistent practice of this model in recent years, Tyndale has a high degree of credibility in presenting the model to other local churches in the form of Learning Centers. Churches from several different denominations and church polities have recognized the advantages of the local-church centric model, and have become Tyndale Learning Centers. In doing so, these churches have installed Bible institutes in their own sphere of function, and each of these Learning Centers is first accountable to the local church itself, and then (in light of the degree granting involved) to Tyndale Seminary. Each of the (at last count) fourteen Learning Centers worldwide have different emphases, different advantages, and different secondary goals (of course, they all share the same primary goals). Their formal commitments to in-house Bible institutes have helped strengthen and mature these local churches in tangible ways.
And lest any observer perceive that through this Learning Center program Tyndale is simply seeking to broaden its own empire, Tyndale has built into the program designs for the Learning Centers to become capable enough to separate from Tyndale and continue functioning as independent (from Tyndale, not from their own local church) Bible institutes, should they wish. While most have preferred to maintain the formal relationship with Tyndale, some haven’t—in fact, in 2012 (with Tyndale’s blessing and support) two Learning Centers combined to form a new and independent seminary.
Yet another benefit of this approach is the network and camaraderie fostered among these local churches as they realize they are not alone, even though they are designed to function fully with respect to biblical education. This kind of collaboration has helped these churches to encourage one another, and lift each other up in a number of ways. These are just a few examples of how the local church-centric model is helping local churches to grow and function.
Admittedly, the above thoughts on the Tyndale case study are my own personal observations and interpretations of particular causes and effects. But the results themselves are indisputable, and while they are obviously the gracious working of God, I think He has used Tyndale’s painstaking efforts (to closely follow a biblical model for biblical education in the church). In light of the biblical definition, function, and purpose of pastors/elders, I am convinced that the seminary or Bible institute best fits within the context of the local church, and specifically, under the leadership and guidance of a particular local church, even while it works in collaboration with perhaps many others. In saying this, I am not suggesting that seminaries operating with different structure are necessarily doing it wrong. I am suggesting that if we are seeking biblical ideals there is biblical precedent we can consult.
Christopher Cone Bio
Christopher Cone (ThD, PhD) is the President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, pastor of Tyndale Bible Church and author and editor of several books.