Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Would Happen if Seminaries Began Teaching Biblical Ecclesiology?

I loved my four years at SEBTS. I learned a great deal and was deeply impacted by professors, fellow students, and other friends. Although the time at seminary was stressful, I have no regrets about those four years.

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.


Jeffrey said...

On a related, but more general note: I wonder what would happen if everyone were less interested in demonstrating to the other servants that they are correct, and more interested in trying to please the Master. It occurs to me that the rest would work itself out. Perhaps I'm too optimistic.

Eric said...


On this issue, I'd say that it would please the Master to function as His church as He has intended. This might increase if seminaries were willing to ask hard questions and seek answers.

Arthur Sido said...

Maybe seminaries would seek to serve the local church instead of seeing the local church as a jobs program for their graduates.

Eric said...


I can only speak for SEBTS, but I do think the intent really is to serve the local church. The problem is that certain fundamental questions about the church are not asked. And the unfortunate reality is that most graduates go on to be salaried pastors.

David, Erika, Lucy and Harry Cleland said...


You say, "I'm referring to what the bible teaches us about what the church is and how it should function in the world." I think that my seminary education did teach me these things. Obviously no seminary program is perfect.

And I appreciate your response to Arthur. I'm not sure it serves anyone's purpose to call out the intentions of various seminaries and the men who run them. I believe the men who taught me were very interested in serving Christ by serving the local church.

Aussie John said...


The thought comes to mind that if your proposition was to become reality, seminaries would become less tradition centered.

Actually the major center of learning and development in Christian maturity would then become the local congregation.

That would never do! :)

Tim A said...

I would make number five more specific to:
5. It would lead to a decreased emphasis on the professionalized pastor and lecture oriented preaching.

Alan Knox said...


PhD seminars are much more discussion oriented than MDiv classes. Students often even lead the discussion or teach seminars. I've found that the professors and students are much more willing to question traditional practices and understandings of the church in these seminars. Now, I can't say if they are also willing to change their own practices... but they are at least willing to admit that there are problems and that the modern church does not look like or act like the church in the NT.


Eric said...


I'm really glad to hear that you had that seminary experience. All I'm hoping for is good discussion and the asking of hard questions. Clearly, we won't all come to the same conclusions. Robust debate (in the civil sense) and dialog should be hallmarks of biblical study.

A question for you (with no agenda on my part): did your professors discuss the N.T. model for church life in general and church gatherings in particular? If so, what did they say about this?

As for my professors, I only ever sensed from them a love for Christ and His church. They desired to serve and had good intentions in doing so. I still agree with most of what I was taught.

Eric said...


I would love to see churches take back much of the responsibility that has been handed to seminaries. Although this would likely be a slow process, it would also be wonderful. I am happy to hear of some churches, for example, offering free classes in the original languages. It as to begin somewhere.

Eric said...


I could live with that change. Thanks for the suggestion.

Eric said...


I'm glad to hear that about PhD seminars. I guess that speaks to the benefits of small groups.

David, Erika, Lucy and Harry Cleland said...

"A question for you (with no agenda on my part): did your professors discuss the N.T. model for church life in general and church gatherings in particular? If so, what did they say about this?"

I don't mean to seem obtuse here but I actually believe they did. You probably know by now that I am not persuaded by what I've read here or our conversations that you have defined or clarified exactly what it is that you consider to be a biblically prescribed church gathering. In seminary we certainly discussed and considered the accounts of church gatherings described for us in Acts but none of my professors presented those gatherings to us as a prescription for church gatherings through the ages nor did they use those passages to admonish us against "traditional church" gatherings. These were godly men who loved Jesus and His body and who know the Bible far better than I ever will.

This may be an oversimplification but thus far I understand you to be saying that a biblical church gathering is good discussion around the dinner table with my kids. I can say I do that most nights. As I read the NT I find so much more than that not just prescribed to the body but allowed in the body as we gather together among those who are so very different and yet united in Christ. Nowhere do I find any command that even hints at "do it this way only." There are no prohibitions against buildings. And your interpretation of the passages you use to prohibit pastors salaries is debatable.

I want you to know that I am reading and considering what you're writing. But as I compare what you're saying to scripture and even seek to discuss it with others I'm just not convinced. That's not to say I don't acknowledge problems and I think you do an excellent job in pointing those out. I just don't find tearing the whole thing down to be the answer that the Bible provides.

Blessings brother. I hope you guys have a Merry Christmas.

Eric said...


I am glad to hear that you had those discussions while in seminary. That's all I'm asking for, and that is what I wish I had been a part of.

I appreciate your reading my blog. I also appreciate your opinions and beliefs. Although it may come across otherwise in my writings, I know I don't have everything figured out about the church. My hope is that through discussion like this we can sharpen each other.

Merry Christmas to you and your family. God bless.

Eric said...


I want to thank you for this post. As I began to study these things a few years ago I found myself angry at those who had spent so much time (and money) on seminary, studied the original languages, etc. and yet seemed to not see so much of what you (and I) are convicted about. I know from my own engineering experience, much of what I consider today to be valuable knowledge/experience came after "school" was done (as a previous employer once told me "just because you have an engineering degree, doesn't mean you are an engineer"). I have really not wanted to generalize seminaries as "bad". This helps put some more perspective on it, as do Alan's comments and teaching (and other older (than me!) men like David Black and Aussie John). I can see there is some hope. It also affects my understanding of elders. Age and experience matter.

Eric Holcombe

Eric said...


Thanks for your comments.

As per seminary, I have mixed emotions (but mostly positive). I learned a lot and grew in the Lord during that time.

The biggest trouble, however, was that the teaching came through the lens of the traditional church model. Very little of this was ever questioned of challenged.

You are right about much earning happening after school is over. It is a different, real-world type of learning that usually relates better to life in general.

In general, we need to ask questions - even ones that are not particularly welcomed at the seminary level.

Arthur Sido said...


I'm not sure it serves anyone's purpose to call out the intentions of various seminaries and the men who run them. I believe the men who taught me were very interested in serving Christ by serving the local church.

I have no doubt that the men who lead evangelical seminaries are greatly concerned with serving the local church. I disagree strongly with how they seek to accomplish that. In order for seminaries to continue to exist as they do now, there needs to be a steady supply of local churches who are willing to hire men to serve in the church. If seminaries keep pumping out young men with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and degrees with no real life application, they must have a place to work. Otherwise, why bother spending three years and tens of thousands of dollars on an M.Div.?

The high turnover and professional clerical caste is great for the seminary system but it does little to help the local church. Rather it perpetuates the clergy-laity divide with one or a few highly educated, overworked, stressed men doing all of the work of ministry instead of equipping the whole Body to do the work of ministry. Conversely you have pews full of spiritual babes who have been sermonized for decades with no discernible edification taking place. If the seminary is to serve the local church, it needs to do more than put a stamp of imprimatur on men to open the door for employment and serve as a place for academics to argue about issues and write lengthy articles that no one except other academics read. Seminaries need to serve the local church by actually serving the people in a local church. If seminaries offered inexpensive, week long sessions aimed at “laymen” to equip these men to lead in the local church, rather than focusing on professional ministers, I might be inclined to cut them more slack.