As I think back on the classes I took, there is one aspect that was lacking: an in-depth study of what the bible has to tell us about church life. The church was more assumed than examined. We touched on it in almost every course, but we never studied it in detail. Even in Systematic Theology we only spent a few weeks on the church.
The question I've been pondering lately is this: What would happen if seminaries began teaching biblical ecclesiolgy?
By biblical ecclesiology, I'm referring to what the bible teaches us about what the church is and how it should function in the world. I'm talking about detailed study of every aspect of church life.
I'm not naive enough to think that everyone would come to the same conclusions about what the scriptures say about the church. For example, two well-intentioned Christians could read the bible and come to differing conclusions about baptism, the Lord's Supper, fellowship, leadership, community, missions, giving, polity, gatherings, worship, edification, etc.
Despite these differences, it could only be healthy for everyone in seminary (and all Christians for that matter) to take a long, hard look at what the bible tells us. So, keeping all this in mind, what would happen is seminaries began teaching biblical ecclesiology? I can think of then things:
1. It would generate healthy discussion.
One problem with evangelical seminaries is that everyone agrees on almost all the important stuff. Therefore, conversations often focus on minor details that don't really matter. Concerning church, a big area of discussion is music style. Can't we do better than that by talking about issues of substance? A study of biblical ecclesiology would spur this on both in and out of the classroom.
2. It would teach that asking tough questions and challenging tradition are acceptable.
If we ignore important issues then we will simply do what we have always done. It is far too easy, especially in denominational seminaries, to go with the flow of thought and not ask why we believe what we believe about critical issues. Tradition carries the day when we simply assume truth. A biblical study of the church would force certain uncomfortable questions to be asked and answered. It would also put some aspects of tradition in danger.
3. It would lead to better biblical interpretation.
An in-depth analysis of the church would teach how to study the bible in general. Tough questions would be asked such as, "Is this merely descriptive or is it also prescriptive?" Another key question is, "Is this passage unique to that culture or should we be doing that as well?" These sorts of issues get at the heart of biblical interpretation. This, in turn, would increase the interpretation skills of those involved in the discussions.
4. It would lead to an increased emphasis on community, edification, participation, and unity.
A study of scripture shows the importance of community participation in church life. We also see edification as the primary reason for gatherings. Unity is stressed in all things. Despite this, these aspects of church life are not generally stressed at the seminary level. A study of biblical ecclesiology would force these issues to the forefront.
5. It would lead to a decreased emphasis on the pastor and preaching.
Much time is spent in seminary focusing on two things: the pastor and his preaching. A study of scripture shows us that no one man is the focus of anything (other than Christ). Therefore, at least some of the emphasis on the pastor could be dropped from the curriculum.
As we study scripture we also see that the preaching of sermons did not take place in the early church. Therefore, this could be de-emphasized. In its place, the public proclamation of the word in the marketplace could be stressed.
6. Because of numbers 4 and 5, it would lead to significant changes in the seminary curriculum.
Some classes would remain basically the same (such as the original languages and church history). However, many others would have to change if the seminary was going to take biblical ecclesiology seriously. Such classes would include Expository Preaching, Pastoral Ministry, Pastoral Care and Counseling, Systematic Theology, Administration and Education, Evangelism, and Missions.
7. It would cause denominational difficulty.
Seminaries that are owned by denominations are in a bit of a tough spot. If they teach biblical ecclesiology, they will necessarily challenge at least some of the structures, traditions, and functioning of that denomination. I can't see that going over very well. Will any leadership within the seminaries have the backbone to challenge the powers-that-be? I don't know. Most likely the non-denominational seminaries will have more freedom in this area.
8. It would lead to an increase in church planting.
Many who study scripture to see what it says about the church come to the conclusion that the traditional model of the church cannot function as the bible describes (count me in this group). Therefore, instead of trying to battle for change within the existing structure, they plant new churches after the biblical model. I'm all in favor of this. With our country becoming increasingly secular, most lost people have no desire to visit any sort of church building. However, they are much more likely to respond positively to friendship and an invitation to a home. Church planting also costs very little, making it much more effective for reaching the lost here and overseas.
9. It would lead to an increased zeal for sacrificial missions.
The bible shows us a church that sacrificed to get the gospel to the lost. Will we do the same? This is a challenge for all of us - including me. If we are to take the biblical model seriously, we will do whatever it takes to get the gospel to all parts of the globe. One encouraging thing is that new church plants require so little money that these churches should be able to give much more toward international missions.
10. It might lead to a decrease in seminary enrollment.
I don't know about this one. On the one hand, some people might look in the scriptures, see no seminaries, and conclude that they shouldn't attend. On the other hand, others might be attracted to a seminary that actually dares to ask hard questions and encourage biblical answers about church life. So few seminaries do this that if one did it might see an influx in certain types of students.
In the end it can only be a healthy thing for seminaries to teach biblical ecclesiology. Right now I know of none that do so. Of course they may in specific classes related to church planting, but I'm referring to teaching it as part of the general curriculum.
As I have said, those taking classes (in biblical ecclesiology) would undoubtedly come to differing conclusions about these issues. That's fine and probably healthy. At least the issues would be raised, thought through, discussed, and debated. People would know why they believe what they believe about the church.
Let's pray that God will bring about these changes in our seminaries.