We Just Do Surgery

surgeryThe other day I was talking with a student at a local coffeehouse in beautiful downtown Escondido. He was telling me about his experience in seminary. He said he began at another seminary, even though his pastor recommended WSC, because he was attracted to what he perceived emphasis on the practical over the languages, theology, and history. The practical emphasis, he said, made the school seem “friendly” and accessible. After a while, however, he realized that starting with or even prioritizing practice over exegesis, theology, and history just didn’t work. It wasn’t very practical.

His experience isn’t unique. Lots of people have tried to skip the theory and get right to the practice. That move, however, assumes either that theory is irrelevant or that one already knows the theory and is ready to begin practice, i.e., the application of the theory. The first assumption (“I don’t need to know”) is widespread in Christian circles. It’s easy to see why one might make this assumption. We all read Scripture. We all pray. There are godly laymen out there who know the Bible and the faith really well. If one already has that sort of preparation, who needs seminary? Let’s look at those two assumptions by way of analogy. Consider the practice of medicine, specifically surgery. Would you let someone cut you open who had no idea where your heart, stomach, and appendix are? Uh, no. Before a surgeon is allowed to cut open a living person he must first learn a good bit of theory. He studies biology, to learn how living things function generally. He studies organic chemistry. Then he studies physiology and kinesiology, to see how humans function and move. Only after extensive training in theory and practice, after cutting open frogs, and fetal pigs, and eventually human cadavers, is a physician allowed to cut open a living human being.

That is the way it should be. Behind the assumption, “I don’t need to know” is another, often unstated, assumption that ministry is inherently easy, that spiritual qualifications are important but intellectual qualifications are not. In other words, though I suspect that almost every reasonable person would accept the notion that surgeons must be prepared, there are Christians who do not accept the analogy between ministry and surgery. To them I offer two thoughts: (1) Like a scalpel, the Word of God is powerful and sharp and it cuts deeply. A sound minister must be just as throughly and soundly prepared for handling God’s Word, for applying it thoughtfully, prayerfully, and wisely to God’s people as the surgeon must be prepared to handle a scalpel or a laser. In the hands of the untrained, in public ministry (we’re not now thinking about the right of laity to read and apply God’s Word for themselves) it can do real damage. I cannot recount all the stories I’ve heard over the years about foolish things said by ill-prepared people in the ministry. (2) Those who deny the necessity of training for ministry do not know the Word of God as fully, as well as they should. By this I’m talking about knowing God’s Word in its original languages, in the progress of revelation and redemption, and in its original contexts. Reading, interpreting, and applying to a congregations text written in three languages, in multiple settings, over a long period of time, and completed over 2,000 years ago is not a job for the unlearned. (3) To those objection that Peter and the others were ignorant when they were called I say, after you have spent three years with God the Son incarnate, when you can raise the dead by the Spirit, when you can speak foreign languages by the Spirit, and when you can survive multiple stonings, a drowning, and be teleported by the Spirit, then perhaps you don’t need seminary but lacking these qualifications, we should expect to see you in class.

Gray's AnatomyNow, let’s think about the second assumption, “I already know enough.” It’s may be true that you’ve read your Bible and perhaps even your catechism. It may be true that you pray regularly, but that is only the beginning. Medical schools do not assume that the pre-med student already knows the theory behind the practice of medicine and of surgery. It really doesn’t matter whether an incoming student has already studied Gray’s Anatomy (the book, not the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy) or other basic texts. That’s fine but it isn’t med school. The truth is that self-study or other preparatory study can only take one so far. High school biology and physiology, even undergrad pre-med courses, as rigorous as they may be, aren’t the same as med school. Students who have paid attention in school realize how much they don’t know. They wouldn’t dare to practice surgery on the basis of their own reading and some rudimentary courses. That one would think that one is ready after such preparation, is itself an indicator that one isn’t ready. Let’s call it what it is. The idea, “Oh, I don’t need that, I already know” is presumption. Yes, there are those who are in the practice of ministry now with insufficient preparation. Many of them would tell you that they wish that they had not begun ministry without a better foundation. That mistakes have been made is now ground for continuing the error.

One difficulty is that, in America we reward presumption regularly and with good reason. How many of the tech gurus and billionaires started when they were kids? How many of them are under 30? Those young people created a good or service of value and the market has rewarded them. They didn’t say, as I probably would have (good Nebraskan that I am), “Oh, I could never do that.” They, and others like them, thought, “Sure, I can do that!” Good for them. That can-do attitude is one of the things that makes this country great.

Nevertheless, there are limits. Creating Facebook is one thing and open-heart surgery is another. There’s simply no legal (and non-creepy) way to tinker in your basement with hearts until you figure out how to perform surgery. Surgery requires skills, wisdom, and testing that can only be gained by learning theory and becoming an apprentice to skilled practitioners.

When you visit the physician you look at the wall behind him, don’t you? What do you see? Signs of accomplishment. Your physician attended a real medical school. You physician has been licensed to practice medicine in your area and he has been admitted to this board or that of specialization. Those things are not a guarantee but they are a start toward credibility. The same is true of preparation for ministry. As I’ve said before, a physician can only patch you up as you go through this life until, finally, should Jesus tarry, you die and go to be with the Lord. A minister is announcing the Kingdom of God and eternal truths and salvation, the basic understanding of which has not changed for millennia. Through the gospel announced by the minister, the Holy Spirit gives new life to his elect. Through a timely word in the hospital, after the physicians have done all they can, the well-trained minister may usher you from this world to eternal life.

The practical is immensely important but comes only after or perhaps alongside a thorough and careful grounding in the theory of ministry, the study of the Word in its original languages, the study of the theology of the church, and the study of the history of the church established by our Lord and sustained by his providence. The practice of ministry is inseparable from its foundation in God’s Word rightly understood.

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  1. Good stuff here, Dr. Clark, hopefully to be read by those considering the ministry. A couple thoughts.

    1) Peter and the eleven, Philip, Stephen, Barnabas, and the other early Jewish workers were raised in the Scriptures in a way that eclipses what most Christians experience growing up in the American church today. And Paul, he was the embodiment of the first century seminary education, first in his class.

    2) belief precedes every choice of the will and thus every behavior and spoken word. So as a friend of yours is wont to say, “Know what you believe and why you believe it.” Ministers need to know not just what they believe Scripture teaches, but really know what God the Spirit is teaching and proclaiming in his Word in order that they can minister to the Church with confidence and power.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It is very insightful.

    In some ways, I wonder if some people feel as though not going to seminary is better than going to a bad seminary. I do think this is sometimes the case with the “Young, Restless, Reformed” crowd. I am interested to hear some feedback on that thought.

    It is definitely an American phenomenon, that is for sure.

  3. I appreciate seeing this spelled out, even as a layman. I briefly attended a Lutheran church a few years ago, which raised a question for me: why is it that the Reformed churches require very little, generally speaking, in the way of formal training from the majority of their elders? Is it only because most elders are not actually expected to preach?

    I ask this question because the Lutheran churches (to my knowledge) make no formal distinction between teaching and ruling elders, calling any man in the ministry a pastor (though many larger (or wealthier) churches will have multiple pastors, and when this is the case the tasks of the ministry will tend to be divided). On initial reading, at least, this Lutheran model seems both more Scriptural and to follow more closely what I know of the early church and the Patristic period.

    • Jonathan,

      Elders, sometimes ruling elders (in Presbyterian settings) function differently. In some places they sit in session/consistory meetings and lead the church by deciding discipline cases etc. In some settings they also lead worship. Occasionally they exhort from the pulpit. In Presbyterian churches elders tend to receive more training than in European (e.g., Dutch) Reformed settings. Part of this is due to the different ways Presbyterian and Reformed congregations relate to their confessions. Subscription is not required for membership in American Presby congregations so they need more training. Subscription is generally required for membership in (e.g., Dutch) Reformed churches.

      That said, we could probably all do a better job of elder training.

      There is good evidence of a three office model, with distinct functions, in the 2nd century (e.g., Ignatius, among others). There were multiple polities in the early church.

  4. Well put! When I was in seminary we used to say:

    First year seminary students think they are pastors.
    Second year seminary students are not quite sure.
    Third year seminary students don’t think they are qualified for ministry.

    It is only once you’ve been trained for ministry that you realize how little you really know. Heck, I’ve gone on and earned a PhD in OT, and I still find the prospect of the ministry sobering.

    • Nevada,

      Standing in the pulpit and announcing God’s Word is an awesome (in the truest sense) responsibility. Those who will not be prepared to undertake it should not.

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