My wife and I had the experience of witnessing a conversation at a Christmas party gone wrong. A retired CRC pastor told the out-of-town friend of the hosts that he shouldn’t be pursuing the call of a pastor without first going to seminary. This was all subsequent, of course, to an interrogation on his qualifications.
“I don’t have a Master of Divinity. I have a Bible degree and a Master’s degree in Christian Leadership?”
Then the pastor started dropping Dutch Reformed theologians into the conversation. The guy wasn’t Dutch, and he may or may not have been Reformed.
“You don’t know who so-and-so is?”
“See, how can you be a pastor? That’s why pastors should go to seminary for their M.Div.”
My wife and I looked at each other like someone just got punched in the face. But the guy just laughed and responded unscathed.
“So you’re saying knowing those theologians and going to seminary is what makes a pastor?”
Eventually, we all moved on to Christmas cookies and White Elephant, but I left the party disconcerted about the M.Div. Surely, there’s more to being a good pastor than a formal education. What about a deep relationship with God? What about just knowing the Bible? It doesn’t help that a lot of churches searching for a pastor require the M.Div. Even if someone, like the out-of-town guy, had two valid theology degrees (even from a legitimate seminary!), it would still be seen as inferior to the M.Div. program and he wouldn’t even be considered for the job.
I’m in the M.Div. program, and I’m seeking ordination in the CRC. It’s a requirement to get this degree before becoming a pastor in this denomination, so seminary was the natural route for me to go. I don’t mind it, because I personally enjoy this kind of learning and intellection and felt called by God to get the M.Div. to train as a pastor. I’m thankful for my education at CTS. But what if someone doesn’t feel called to get the M.Div., yet is called to be a pastor? Isn’t it dangerous to assume that without an M.Div., a person isn’t qualified to be a pastor? That’s like assuming that just because someone graduates with an M.Div., they are qualified to be a pastor. How many ordained people with M.Div.’s do we know who shouldn’t be pastors? I’m sure we can all think of at least one.
A better question is, how many seminary students graduate and have actually read the entire Bible in the last three to four years? Really read it? Most of my classmates (including myself) say they barely have time to read the Bible for themselves on top of piles of class readings and essays. In fact, the opening convocation for my entering year even had the speaker encouraging us to make a habit of reading our Bibles and becoming familiar with passages (chapters and verses!), because an exit study of graduating CTS seminarians showed that the weakest part of their education and oral comps was, ironically, biblical literacy. They knew doctrines and theology, but didn’t know where it was in the Bible or how to back it up with Scripture. A recent class I took supported this notion: while attempting to make a point, our professor asked us what the gist of Romans 14 was. In a class of about fifteen students, it was embarrassingly quiet. “Hello, seminary students! No one knows what’s in Romans 14?” Awkward silence and sheepish looks abounded. This isn’t true of every seminary student, of course, but if the general population of M.Div. students struggles with some biblical illiteracy by the time they graduate, should churches really be letting us pastor over the “uneducated” guy who is basically a walking Bible?
As a third-culture kid, I became a global traveler, more than I liked growing up. We moved around a lot and it was hard to keep friends and feel “at home” anywhere, but on the bright side, I met a lot of people and now have several “bases” to stay at whenever I visit certain countries. I’ve met a lot of pastors who either have no formal theological education or have very minimal Bible education, i.e. a two-year degree (and even then, some of their theological education might not meet “proper” accreditation standards according to the West). Even so, I’d disagree if someone was to say these pastors were “unqualified” because they didn’t have an M.Div. Many of these pastors carry within them souls so saturated in the Lord that you can’t help but wonder if not going to seminary brought them to that place.
Pastor Rudi, who my family worked with in Indonesia, has been pastoring since he was 25 years old. God called him to ministry (again) through a vision of clenched fists: he thought God wanted to punch him for running away from the call! But God showed him that if he would just open his hands to Him, He would take care of the rest and would use him for His glory. “Now my hands are always open to God. His hands have never failed me.” Pastor Rudi has the equivalent of a two-year undergraduate Bible degree, yet he founded and is currently pastoring a church that has since made four more church plants in the surrounding areas. He witnesses to everyone he meets about salvation in Christ, knows the Bible like the back of his hand, trains the younger generation of new pastors to lead the church plants, leads Bible studies in members’ homes, and has a deep joy for his ministry. No M.Div., just a call and a love relationship with God.
Pastor Jess*, who lives in Dubai and has absolutely no Bible education, has an incredible testimony. Prior to Christ, he was a gay Muslim who was also a fashion designer for the royal family in Dubai. He lived in one of the palaces, was given the equivalent of $15,000 a month, and lived in unbelievable luxury. After a foreign pastor shared Christ with him, he said it was like lightning struck his soul and he couldn’t shake it off. When he went back to his home, he saw a vision of a sword poised in the air in front of him. The sword spun around and then flew at him and pierced his heart, and God told him that he was going to preach the Word, which would pierce the hearts of the people who heard it. He started devouring the Bible to teach it to others. He denounced Islam and left his life of homosexuality and wealth to become a pastor—no education and no M.Div., just a call from God and wisdom from the Holy Spirit. He currently and carefully leads a house church, prepares members for evangelism, and is training up other pastors in the Islam-dominant UAE to start their own churches.
And Pastor Donnie, who leads a church in Colorado, is one of the most faithful, God-fearing, loving, insightful, and passionate pastors I look up to. We call him “the crying pastor” because eight times out of ten sermons, he will cry over a passage because of how moved he is by the love of God. The elders always make sure to put a box of tissues by the pulpit for this very reason. I trust what he says because his understanding of Scripture is always enlightened by what he’s experienced from the Father’s heart and by faithful study. His education? A photography degree. No M.Div., and no desire to pursue one. It was only after he’d been pastoring for 6 years that he decided to pursue an MA in Spiritual Formation. His primary “theological education” comes from just reading the Bible over and over again. He also has his own personal reading list cultivated from book recommendations given to him by the Bible professors in his congregation. When I came to him for a pastoral recommendation to go to CTS, he looked at me (previously wet with tears of joy in his eyes, of course) and said, “You know you don’t have to go to seminary to be a pastor, right?”
Jesus clearly didn’t have a “seminary” education. Although Jewish men may have participated in theological discussions and debates in the synagogue throughout their lives, that still wouldn’t have been synonymous with a seminary education, then or now. Even the Jews themselves and the jealous leaders of various sects, who spent decades in theological training, were dumbfounded at how Jesus knew so much with absolutely no training: “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15, NIV). The apostles themselves, after boldly proclaiming Jesus and the Scriptures, had a similar reaction from the Sanhedrin: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, NIV). Why did they take note that they’d been with Jesus? Because Jesus was also unschooled and untrained, yet spoke with authority, boldness, and knowledge of God and the Scriptures. Is it possible, then, that unschooled, ordinary men today, simply having been with Jesus, can speak with the same authority, boldness, and knowledge of God and the Scriptures?
Even Paul himself, who, by our standards, did receive an M.Div. education and more, states quite clearly that it was Christ Himself who truly taught him what became the message of our current faith: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12, NIV). Surely, Paul’s education served him well in interpreting the Scriptures in light of Christ, explaining the gospel, and refuting heretical doctrine and beliefs. His letters are close to several of our hearts. Yet the New Testament we now have, and the success of Paul’s missions throughout the ancient world, was not a result of his “seminary” education, but of a supernatural experience of and relationship with the Lord who bestowed on him the truth of the gospel.
Why, then, do we Americans write people off as “unqualified” simply because they lack an M.Div. education, when our Bible has clearly shown us that the Holy Spirit Himself has qualified several human beings to speak with supernatural knowledge and wisdom, educated or not? Have we forgotten what Paul says about God using the “foolish things” of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27)? Shall we prevent Peter and John from being ordained as pastors due to their lack of education? When did we start daring to call those who are qualified by God, unqualified for ministry? By our own standards, Jesus Himself would be disqualified from pastoring a church!
I’m not knocking the M.Div. program or the benefits of seminary. Many pastors in other countries have a desire to pursue a seminary-level education, and sometimes their own churches send them. Several of our international classmates, indeed, are these very pastors. I commend them for traveling far to better build up the Church in their home countries. However, while there are benefits to a seminary education, the Western overemphasis on a person needing the M.Div. degree before doing pastoral ministry is an unnecessary and unbiblical obstacle to the call of God on a future pastor’s life. Pastors don’t need an M.Div. for ministry—they need a life-changing experience of salvation in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit; they need to be so lost in the Lord that it’s like a fire in their souls; they need to read, know, and love the Word. This is how it’s always been. The Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth (John 16:13). These “uneducated” pastors that I know (who have a surreal love relationship with the Lord and an amazing “chapter-and-verse” grasp of the Bible that puts my seminarian self to both awe and shame)—they are the very type of pastors I aspire to be one day. They are my role models.
As an M.Div. student, I would be naïve not to recognize that it is God that qualifies His people for ministry. God can qualify my twelve-year-old sister for ministry if He wanted to. He could qualify my pet fish. Conversely, He could disqualify me if it pleased Him, seminary education and all. He could even disqualify the most intelligent and educated professor here at CTS. An M.Div. does not necessarily qualify someone for ministry. As I graduate next year, I’ll be overjoyed to finally have this degree in my hand, but most of all, I hope I graduate truly qualified by God.
I wrote this article in part to humble myself. I often put myself above others because of my education, forgetting that a deep, hungry love for the Lord and passionate reading of the Bible is my true education. I often take these for granted and forget about it as quickly as I read that sentence. But I also wrote it to challenge our seminary community, and even our broader CRC denomination, about how we view people called to the pastorate who either do not have or will not pursue the M.Div. Let’s be careful not to stumble on the fatness of our pride, believing we’re somehow more qualified because we have a piece of paper signed to our name—these “uneducated” pastors have God’s call signed on their very hearts. If God changed the world with eleven uneducated men, surely He can do it again. ∞
Written by Anonymous as part of the Anonymous Issue (November-December 2017).