Faithful Men: The Misnomer of Seminary

Faithful Men: The Misnomer of Seminary

The word seminary comes from the Latin seminarium and its original meaning is seed plot or seed bed. The use of the term to refer to clerical formation apparently began in the Catholic counter-reformation of the 16th century. During a resurgence of the Roman Catholic Church in England under Mary Tudor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole, attempted to implement seed plots or “seminaries” in order to prepare the English clergy. Several years later this same terminology shows up in the 23rd session of the Council of Trent in 1563. In chapter 18 of the session, specific instructions are given for the establishment of seminaries for clerical training. Consider the following excerpts:

Wereas the age of youth, unless it be rightly trained, is prone to follow after the pleasures of the world; and unless it be formed, from its tender years, unto piety and religion, before habits of vice have taken possession of the whole man, it never will perfectly, and without the greatest, and well-nigh special, help of Almighty God, persevere in ecclesiastical discipline; the holy Synod ordains, that all cathedral, metropolitan, and other churches greater than these, shall be bound, each according to its means and the extent of the diocese, to maintain, to educate religiously, and to train in ecclesiastical discipline… Into this college shall be received such as are at least twelve years old, born in lawful wedlock, and who know how to read and write competently, and whose character and inclination afford a hope that they will always serve in the ecclesiastical ministry.

…The bishop, having divided these youths into as many classes as he shall think fit, according to their number, age, and progress in ecclesiastical discipline, shall, when it seems to him expedient, assign some of them to the ministry of the churches, the others he shall keep in the college to be instructed; and shall supply the place of those who have been withdrawn, by others; that so this college may be a perpetual seminary of ministers of God.

Within this context, the term seminary (seed plot) is appropriate for what the Catholic Church was attempting to accomplish. Good seeds of promising youth are planted in a controlled environment and watered with education and ecclesiastical discipline in the hope that they grow as healthy clergy in order to be transplanted into needy diocese.

Eventually, the same term would also be applied to Protestant schools for ministerial education, though the schools differed in philosophy and mission. Today, seminary is the most common name for graduate level institutions of theological education and ministerial preparation in much of the West. So ubiquitous has it become, that the horticultural meaning is forgotten.

Interestingly, though a seed bed does not readily come to mind for people when they use the word, too frequently we expect seminaries to be seed beds. This is unhelpful, especially when considering pastoral formation.

It appeals to our romantic notions of education that indeed one may take a promising youth and, through a perfectly crafted curriculum, transform him into a 21st Century John Calvin, Richard Baxter or Charles Spurgeon. The Bible, however, does not support such unbounded optimism.

What does the Bible say about the “who” of pastoral formation? Who are the appropriate candidates for pastoral ministry?

The pastoral Epistles of Titus and Timothy speak to this issue most directly. The qualifications for eldership (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3) speak of mature Christian character consistent with the Gospel as well as demonstrable abilities, suitable to the task of governing the church and leading her in sound doctrine. These qualifications are listed so that Timothy and Titus can identify men who already possess these qualities.

Second Timothy 2:2 summarizes pastoral formation in the following way:

“and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (ESV)

The pastors of tomorrow are today’s faithful men who are apt to teach. To return to the horticultural world, it seems that pastoral candidates are identified as healthy and fruitful trees, rather than cultivated toward the pastorate from seed.

The Bible does speak of seed. Most notably, Jesus told the parable of the sower (Mark 4), where the seed represents the Word of God. The varying soils represent different responses to the Word. Only a relatively small portion of the seeds fall on good soil and produce a fruitful harvest. By analogy, a good seed plot (seminary) is a place where the Word of God is well-received among regenerate hearts. The closest thing to a seed plot, in terms of institutions, is a good local church where the Word of God is faithfully preached.

Ideally, every local church would be a seed plot in which the faithful preaching of the Word would be producing growth and fruit. From this seed plot, the church would regularly recognize those up-sprouting faithful men who will also be able to teach others.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as intentional pastoral formation. The process of “entrusting” (2 Timothy 2.2) these faithful men is the transmission of teaching in sound doctrine -theology. The instruction of the Pastoral Epistles also models a practical curriculum for pastoral ministry, applied within the context of the local church (on the job training). The fruitful trees must be fertilized and pruned to increase their fruitfulness even more (1 Timothy 4.15).

If the issue were merely a curiosity of etymology where words take on new meanings over time, then only an idle curmudgeon would nitpick about it. However, as one immersed in the work of pastoral formation, I realize how vital it is to not think of seminaries as seed beds. And, at the same time, how we are constantly tempted to do so.

The temptation to become a seed plot is two-fold. First, we face recruitment pressure which can tempt us into accepting unqualified candidates. We will justify this by convincing ourselves that the student will be transformed by the program itself. Second, there is the temptation toward institutional pride. This results in standing in judgment over the church, moving independently from the church toward our ideals. The students are slates to be wiped clean and then reprogrammed to revolutionize the church in our image.

Regardless of the terminology used, we must be aware that when seminaries act like seminaries (seed plots), there has occurred a drift which untethers pastoral formation from its biblical paradigm, as well as from an appropriate subordinate relationship with the local church.

In conclusion, consider four practical suggestions stemming from these considerations:

  1. We should not expect too much from our seminaries and Bible colleges. Do not send off a floundering young man in the expectation of receiving back a mature and well-prepared pastor. If such a person has long sat under sound preaching and teaching and has not born fruit, there is little reason to expect that the situation will change in a different environment. Not even monastic-style boot camps should be expected to turn the spiritually flabby into soldiers of Christ.
  2. Pastoral formation programs should be geared toward pruning and fertilizing fruitful trees, and not necessarily ground-up disciple making. This has implications for admissions standards, curriculum development and institutional goals regarding their ideal graduate.
  3. Leadership development begins in the local church with a strong foundation of Gospel preaching and teaching, as well as discipleship. A church that is strong in these fundamental areas, will find itself a seed plot of Christian leaders for the pastorate and all areas of Christian service. If a church is not producing leaders, they may consider looking at the fundamentals before considering elaborate new programs, much less before entrusting candidates to outside institutions in the hope that they are able to accomplish what the church has not been able to.
  4. Finally, churches and institutions involved in pastoral formation and adult theological education should consider using a word other than seminary to describe their program, a word that more closely describes their vision and mission: School of Pastors, Academy of Theological Study, Center for Biblical and Pastoral Studies, etc.


In Christ,


About The Author

Jeremiah is the Director of the Pastors School of First Baptist Church of Atibaia in Brazil. He is married to Ana Karlina (2006) and they have one daughter, Manuela.

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