It is interesting how I suddenly got very tired, in midday, when opening this website. Perhaps the enemy does not want me to write. Regardless, today I wanted to share my experience deciding whether or not to go to seminary.
There is an article written by Daniel Im who wrote about why he chose not to go to seminary, Why I ditched the M.Div.. and am still a pastor. This is not to criticize Daniel Im’s personal decision to leave seminary at all, because it is possible that for him the best choice was to not go to seminary.
Perhaps for him, the best choice was indeed to drop out of seminary and continue his ministry. It may have been the best choice for him financially as well as the best choice for his ministry. Moreover, it is absolutely true that God can use anyone regardless of their level of educational achievement.
I agree with Daniel’s position that for him, the additional time spent driving to seminary could take away from his ministry. For me, I do not believe that avoiding seminary due to the time or financial costs would be the decision that God wants for me.
Argument for seminary: Detriments of a lack of formal education
There is a certain lack of refinement and weakness in intellectual reasoning that seems to be caused by the lack of a formal education. Perhaps, the rigid and structured methodology of formal higher education unintentionally creates a sort of soundness of intellectual reasoning and fullness of depth of understanding that cannot be gained without some sort of structured education.
I find there is a subtle difference between someone who is intelligent yet never went to college, versus the person who did go to college. It seems that although college (not referring to seminary) does not really teach a whole lot that is actually retained by most people, or even ever used again in the real world, it does in fact seem to develop a certain amount of discipline, intellectual aptitude, and sound reasoning that goes beyond the actual material learned in classes. It is this which is lacking from those who have not attended any higher education.
For Daniel, he had been told by many people in his life to go to seminary. Ultimately, he decided that it would not the right choice for him. Conversely, for me, I have not had anyone in my life convincing me to go to seminary. For me, this arose after I felt God calling me directly to go into ministry. After years of prayer, I believe that God is calling me to go to seminary.
Argument against seminary: The Holy Spirit will provide understanding
One argument against seminary involves several factors that seem to supersede the issue of deep doctrinal knowledge through a formal education. First and foremost, the argument is that one does not need any formal education in order to understand the Word of God, because by way of the Holy Spirit, God will divinely and supernaturally provide you the knowledge you need to share the gospel.
This logic is not unsound, for it is found in the Bible in Luke 12:11, where it says, “When you are brought before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what to say.” One could argue that this was only in the situation of being forced to defend your faith, but that is not the method that I will argue. Other Biblical teachings do imply that the Holy Spirit helps to give us wisdom and discernment.
The Bible also says that we can only understand the Bible through the discernment of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Along these same lines, one may also argue that neither Paul nor the disciples had any formal education. However, this is not true. The disciples followed Jesus Himself around for years listening and learning, and this level of education directly from the source is more than any seminary today could ever hope for. Moreover, Paul was a Pharisee and knew the entire Bible by heart, and as a result of his Pharisee status had years of intense religious training. While it is true that Paul had no formal training regarding the New Testament, he still did have the discipline and knowledge of the scriptures to provide a strong foundation for the Holy Spirit to work in him.
Argument for seminary: The Holy Spirit requires you to study the Word
Joshua 1:8 says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
It seems clear that God wants us to gain a deep understanding of the Bible. Moreover, this message was addressed to the people. We know that teachers will be judged more strictly, as the Bible says in James 3:1, “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness”. Therefore, if the layperson is to meditate on the Word of God day and night, how much more should a teacher!
If one is to be a teacher then, by this logic, one must gain an even deeper grasp of scripture than reading and meditating on the Bible day and night. This is a strong support for a formal religious education for teachers, in order to acquire this deeper level of scriptural understanding.
Argument against seminary: It costs too much
The second primary reason for not attending a formal seminary is the cost. For many people this may be the largest and maybe even sole reason. It is very true that seminary is exorbitantly expensive, especially some of the top seminaries. This can present a huge problem for Christians who are going into ministry, because first of all, ministry does not pay very well, and secondly seminary is very expensive, about the same price as any other graduate school.
Even with certain discounts, attending seminary for only a few years can incur tens of thousands of dollars of additional debt – and this is often added to an average of 30 to 40 thousand dollars of debt for the Bachelor’s degree which is a prerequisite for entry into most seminaries. This means that a new pastor or aspiring theologian may end up completing seminary with over $50 thousand, or sometimes as much as $100 thousand dollars of student loan debt between a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s or Ph.D from seminary.
The Bible does instruct us to beware of taking on human debts. Romans 13:8 says to “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Clearly, then, seminary should be avoided since it will inevitably result in more debt? Not quite.
While it is definitely true that the Bible warns against going into debt, the truth is that you do not need to incur debt to go into seminary. However, going to seminary without incurring debt is definitely a very difficult and challenging thing to do. It is not impossible, however.
Why do seminary students take on debt?
There are a few reasons why one would take on debt to go to seminary. First, they are lazy or impatient. A new seminary student is so excited to start his ministry that he wants to get it done as quickly as possible. However, this could have been avoided by working hard while also attending seminary.
On the other hand, for some people, working while attending seminary may present a huge challenge, because one may either not have the energy to work and go to school at the same time, or may be unable to find a job. There are any number of reasons; and especially for a seminary student, the enemy will be working full-time trying to thwart and disrupt their mission to serve God in ministry.
Some seminary students may take on debt because of the fact they cannot find a job. Some may think, “well I can’t find a job so I might as well continue schooling”. While I cannot speak for seminary students as to if or how many actually take this approach, it is a possibility, and is very common in secular higher education. Students in the secular world will often get a Master’s or Ph.D primarily because they are unable to find a job or because they do not want to enter the work force for a few more years. It is not unreasonable to consider that some seminary students do the same.
A third reason why seminary students take on debt, is because they do not want to ask for donations. This was actually a big one for me as to why not to attend seminary. I did not want to accept donations. However, these students may forget that God may use other Christians to donate, and this is those Christians’ way to contribute and participate in the ministry of God. God blesses some Christians financially and then presents them with the challenge to help a seminary student further the mission that God has led them on.
Argument for seminary: God’s financial providence
To deny accepting any donations on a matter of principle is to deny both God’s providence through other Christians, as well as to deny the blessings of those Christians who would have been thrilled to donate for you to go to seminary. It is a huge blessing, and especially for a Christian who lives and works in the secular world, this could be the way that God uses them for His kingdom – indirectly instead of directly. Seminary students do not need to feel ashamed to accept donations.
Now, while the above is true, it is also true that some seminary students may exploit the system and try to get donations they do not need. In this case, that would be wrong to accept donations. Paul worked as a tentmaker to fund his missions. However, it is important to note that as long as your heart and mind are completely set on God, then if God brings along another Christian willing to help, then there is no shame in accepting it. You are not accepting a handout. You are accepting God’s providence, and will be working very hard for that.
You are accepting a ministry partner, not charity. If you are just in it for the handouts, that would be an abuse of God’s providence. However, I would like to think that most seminary students are in it for God, not themselves. There are certainly more profitable lines of work with their intellectual gifts.
On the other hand, some seminary students may feel like they could never find a ministry partner to help them through seminary. This is definitely a challenge for me. Over the past decade I have lived in 5 different states in different parts of the country. I have no family (at all), and am not married so I have no in-laws either. So finding ministry partners would be a bigger challenge for me than most.
However, the issue is not how hard it is for you to find ministry partners. The issue is how devoted you are to the cause of God, and how much faith you have that God will provide. I have heard so many stories of God’s miraculous providence. While I may have few if any ministry partners, I have no doubt that God will provide for me financially. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will it test my faith? Almost certainly. But will God provide? Absolutely.
How to pay for seminary
Moreover, all of these issues with affording seminary can be avoided with the right discipline and tenacity. Some seminaries offer generous discounts for students who follow a particular path, such as attending a church of the same denomination or following a particular ministry plan.
Any seminary student can, with some discipline, write letters to any of tens of thousands of churches around the country. Just open a phone book. Start writing letters. I guarantee that at least some of those churches will reply, if it is God’s plan. The hard part is sitting down to write those letters. Moreover, you really only need to write one letter, and after that it is only about mailing them out.
You do not need to be an expert writer. You may be afraid that you are not a good enough writer. However, whether a church responds or not will not be based on the quality of your writing but the quality of the mission which God has sent you on. God will be the decider, not you. Do not be either fearful nor arrogant in your own writing abilities, because all that really matters is if you are following the path that God has for you.
There are also many scholarships out there for seminary students. Even if none of your friends or family are willing to donate to your mission, you can also apply to any of the many scholarships available. It may take some work to find them, and will take your time and energy to apply to them. However, they are there.
Argument against seminary: I can learn it on my own for free (or much cheaper)
A third reason that some would argue why you should not go to seminary is because most of this information is available to learn on your own for almost no cost. This is true. Most if not all the books from seminary can be purchased at a low price, much cheaper than the cost of attending the course.
Moreover, I guarantee that some or even all of the churches in your area have the books available for you to borrow. I highly doubt any pastor would say no to loaning a Christian book to you. Many pastors have a small library of all the top seminary books right in their office, many from their very own seminary education.
Argument for seminary: It’s about more than textbooks
However, while it is true that you can get all the books you could ever want, and with some effort, could probably get them all for free, this still is not a reason to not go to seminary. In fact, it could even be further support for going to seminary, because if you can get the books at a low cost or free, then this will decrease the cost of attending seminary.
Further, even though it is true that you could, with the right discipline, learn all the textbook material on your own, this is not all seminary is about. If your reason for attending seminary is solely to acquire a lot of textbook knowledge, then by all means, do not pay for seminary. However, seminary has far more to offer than merely some textbook information you can learn on your own.
Argument for seminary: Mentorship and networking
First of all, one of the biggest reasons for going to seminary is to associate with older and wiser and highly intelligent leaders at the seminary who will help to mentor you, help guide you, help give you direction, and help prepare you for ministry. This is not to say that you should rely entirely on these people for your guidance, as ultimately, you need to get this guidance and direction from God. However, God can definitely use these people to help shape the mission and plan for your ministry that God planned before you were born.
God did not intend for us to journey through life alone. Otherwise, what would be the point of ministry? If you will do nothing but gain the knowledge alone, and then die, the knowledge gained was for nothing. You could sit at home and read all the seminary books you want, and while this may give you a theological basis and with the help of the Holy Spirit help you to grasp a sound understanding of scriptures, this self-learning will not do anything to help prepare you for ministry in the real world.
Argument for seminary: Gaining ministry skills and experience
Rounding back to the beginning of this discussion, it seems to be a very similar thing as the benefits from attending secular higher education. While all of the knowledge gained may not be entirely retained, some of the experience and shaping from your peers and mentors will prepare you for ministry in a way that you could have never learned alone.
Seminary will help you to grow and learn leadership and ministry skills, as well as acquire training that will help you to lead ministry in the real world. You cannot learn to lead people without being around people. If you spend all your time learning about theology by yourself, you can never acquire the necessary ministry skills necessary for God to use you in real world ministry and the mission field.
The Bible tells us that “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). God designed us as social creatures and He designed us so that we can grow stronger together, spiritually, more than we could have ever grown on our own. While you can read all the textbooks you want, you may never have that epiphany you got with that late-night discussion with your seminary classmate or seminary professor.
Additionally, Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” This is a testament to the combined power of several Christians which are stronger than each of the individual Christians. God gives you some power on your own, but there is more power when you gather with others. Christ also says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).
There are many examples in the Bible where God described to us how it is better to be in community rather than to be alone. The same goes for seminary. While you can learn the raw material on your own, and even memorize it (if you develop such discipline as few can muster), you will not have the quality or strength that you will get from a structured and formal teaching.
Choosing the right seminary
Of course, this does largely depend on the particular seminary you go to. However, just like you can attend the wrong seminary and get false teachings, you can also buy the wrong books and learn the wrong things on your own. Avoiding seminary is not a way to avoid false teaching. However, the difference is that in seminary, there will be many wise and godly students, teachers, and faculty who can help you to discern the difference between what is right and wrong.
On the other hand, if you go to the wrong seminary then you may be indoctrinated into the wrong teachings. This is why it is of critical importance that you spend much time in prayer and ensure that God shows you the path and leads you to the seminary He chooses. Even in an imperfect seminary,(every seminary will be imperfect – some more than others – because all humans are imperfect), God can still train you and grow you to follow His mission and plan for your life. You only need to be willing to surrender to God.
Conversely, there are definitely seminaries to avoid. When I started researching seminaries a few years ago. I discovered Fuller seminary which has an LBGT group on campus. From a Christian standpoint, this is outrageous. It is heresy. For a seminary to miss something so big, really dismisses the entire seminary. Fuller seminary is a perfect example for a seminary to definitely not go to. However, there are also many great seminaries out there.
For me, considering how I believe that God has been showing me the fallacies of Calvinism, it was important to choose a seminary that was not a strong Calvinistic institution. Case in point is Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky, which I had considered. Then I discovered they are essentially the Calvinist capital of the US, with a very strong Calvinistic leaning. Therefore, I decided that SBTS was not the right seminary for me.
How I chose which seminary to go to
Ultimately, I felt that the place that God led me to was Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) in Wake Forest, North Carolina. This choice came to me during one of my first Sunday fasts that I have ever done. I only recently discovered the powerful spiritual tool of fasting, a virtue largely forgotten by Christians today. In a day of honoring the Sabbath by not working (having recently started doing this religiously at the time, after realizing the importance of the Sabbath), and in prayer and fasting, I asked God where I should go. I do not remember exactly how but I felt God point out Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to me. I had not heard about that seminary before, so I continued reading.
Over the past year since then I have prayed many times about it, and every time I felt God has given me confirmation about this choice. This includes reading their entire doctrinal Confessional and Affirmed statements and nearly 100% agreeing with all of it. I especially like the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, in a current culture where sexuality is twisted into a hideous shape and feminism has wrecked the family and biblical definitions of manhood and womanhood.
My journey toward choosing whether to go to seminary
I have struggled greatly with knowing whether I am following the correct path God has for me, because despite feeling since I was little that God had something big planned for my life, here I am at age 30 or so and I have not accomplished anything major in life yet. However, in retrospect, I believe this is because God has been leading and shaping and growing me in ways that I could not have fathomed to prepare me for ministry. Here I thought I would have changed the world by now; but God works in His own time. And as time passes, I can see more and more in retrospect how each experience has shaped and grown me to prepare me for this ministry.
Over the past few years, God has given me several revelations, starting with a distinct call into ministry which altered the course of my life; and more than one dream alluding to my future ministry. I had wanted to start a billion-dollar tech company (or at least, grow my own small company to a billion dollar corporation). However, God had other plans for me.
A few years ago, God distinctly called me into ministry – except this was not the first time. The first time I was about 9 years old and His voice was nearly audible – “I want you to be a missionary”. Since then, I didn’t know what that meant, until the past few years. In the past few years, God has given me clarity – he wants me to go into full-time ministry, He wants me to start a church, He wants me to stand up for the truths of the Bible in the way that few Christian leaders today are, and He has showed me the fallacies of Calvinism and how this has caused so many problems in modern Christianity. This last one has been a slow but progressive revelation and I am continually being shown more.
It is true that when we are young we feel like we know it all, but as we age we start to realize that we are only beginning to grasp the greatness of the mysteries of life. I believe that this humility in realizing that we do not know it all is one thing that is necessary for us to become teachable. And we must be teachable in order for God to shape us and grow us.
Based on the context by which I was shown this seminary to go to, and the continued confirmation about this particular seminary choice; and combined with years of prayer asking God where to go and having this answer under those conditions, I believe that this is the correct path God has for me. What is amazing is that I am someone who wants to know all the answers – and know it now. I like to have everything figured out way ahead of time.
However, God has done the opposite by taking seemingly forever to show me my path in life. Perhaps He was teaching me patience, or perhaps He was preparing me. I had many challenges to overcome from an extraordinarily difficult life, so God also needed to heal me emotionally from all of the trauma I experienced as a child. It is also possible that God used my difficulties in order to prepare me for the ministry ahead.
Regarding the right seminary to go to, for me it was SEBTS, but SEBTS may not be the right choice for you – or it may be the right choice for you. You need to pray and ask God specifically regarding your situation whether or not to go to seminary and which one to go to. It took me years before God provided me with the answers, even though I wanted the answers immediately. However, do not let worldly items like cost or other worldly reasons stop you from going to seminary if that is that path God is leading you on. He will provide for you.
Argument for seminary: Deepen theological understanding
That said, the final reason why I believe that God has called me to go to seminary, is because I want to ensure that I have a strong and complete theological grasp of scripture. I believe that God has been giving me some revelations that go against the current modern calvinistic church (like the fallacy of the Unconditional Grace doctrine); and in this understanding I believe it is of critical importance to ensure that my theology is solidly based on sound spiritual doctrine.
I believe that seminary will help to refine and expand my theological understanding. I do not doubt what I believe at all, not even a little. After all, I have 25 years of Bible reading under my belt, and this includes some formal education since I went to Christian Liberty University for my undergraduate. However, I want to learn more, as well as developing leadership and other ministry skills I could not have gained on my own, which includes the ability to present the gospel and biblical teachings in an effective way.
While it may be that God can provide me certain wisdom and revelations that goes beyond my formal education, intellectual capacity, and personal experiences, I do also believe that God can use seminary to help train me for the mission field and ministry in a way that I would be deprived of if I tried to make it on my own and by my own knowledge and reading.
I am certain that if God’s will is for me to attend seminary, that God will most certainly provide for me financially to get there. Whether it is by providing me more freelance work, blessing my tech businesses and websites, or perhaps taking me in the other direction and providing ministry partners to help with my educational costs (and even future ministries and missions); whatever the case, I know that God will provide for me.
Therefore, I should not worry about the cost of seminary, because all I really need to do is to trust God. While it will certainly be best to avoid taking on any more student loan debt for seminary, I do believe that God will provide for me financially since this is His plan for me.
This is why I believe God has called me to attend seminary in spite of the apparent costs and sacrifices it will take to go. I believe that God will provide no matter what as long as I am following the path that He has for my life; and that the benefits of attending seminary for me and my future ministry, as well as for my relationship with God and personal connections, will far outweigh any costs, material or otherwise.