Over the course of five brief articles I want to present arguments in defense of the local church taking full responsibility for pastoral formation. I will argue that a church-based approach has biblical and historical support, in addition to offering a host of practical and economic advantages. Church-based formation also aligns better with a healthy view of practical ecclesiology. In this first installment, I offer a succinct Biblical argument.
The idea of church-based theological education and pastoral formation may not be immediately clear to some, so it is helpful to define terms. There are different ways in which a church-based model may function. It may be as a formal degree-granting institution, with or without accreditation. It may be a more informal, nonetheless guided, apprenticeship. For the purposes of this article, I want to define church-based pastoral formation as that which is envisioned by the church (they define the parameters) and for which the learning environment is (mostly) the church and its pastoral ministry.
Before moving into the first argument, I want to be clear that I am not proposing the end of the seminary or Bible college. I am myself a grateful product of such institutions and I believe they have an important role to play. We would lose much, if they closed their doors. Nor do I consider church-based pastoral formation to be a panacea to heal all the infirmities of pastoral training. I advocate only that we have much to gain by promoting healthy models of pastoral formation under the guidance of faithful local churches, including models of formal education.
#1 A Biblical Argument
If we come to the Bible as interested observers, keen on the process of forming new pastors, what will we observe? We quickly find that the New Testament presents the selection and preparation of the first elders (pastors) by the Apostles as well as instructions for future generations of pastors. We observe that the role of pastoral formation is carried out by more experienced elders within the context of the local church with an emphasis on modeling faithful ministry.
To the younger pastor Timothy, Paul writes:
“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.” (2 Timothy 2.2 ESV)
To the Philippians, including the overseers (Phil 1:1), he writes:
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9 ESV)
Upon examining texts with specific relevance to the selection and training of new pastors, a process of pastoral formation emerges, involving the following general steps:
- Identification by the active elder(s) of spiritually mature men who wish to be elders and who possess the necessary gifts and skills (1 Tim 3.1-7; Tit 1.5-9).
- The teaching of sound doctrine so that it can be reproduced by apprentices in the teaching and correcting of others (2 Tim 2.2; Tit 1:9).
- Progress in the practice of pastoral ministry under the guidance of more experienced elders, focusing on purity of life and doctrine throughout the process (1 Tim 4.11-16; 1 Pet 5.1-4).
We can summarize the process of pastoral formation as follows: Pastors select faithful, gifted and willing men in order to prepare them in the context of ministerial and ecclesiastical practice.
A phrase that is particularly descriptive is Paul’s word of exhortation to Timothy: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” (1 Timothy 4:15-16a ESV). Progress is the result of practice. Such practice demands that one be engaged in ministry.
A church-based approach can best offer both the proximity to more experienced pastors as well as opportunities for ministry involvement. Can seminaries find creative ways to involve students in pastoral internships? They can and certainly should. However, if we want to, as faithfully as possible, reproduce the process we find in Scripture, would we not naturally ground the whole process in the church? In exchange for what overwhelmingly compelling benefit should we distance apprentices from faithful pastors and church ministry contexts?
I use the terms elder, pastor and overseer interchangeably, understanding that they are biblical terms that refer to the same office of spiritual leadership.