Monday, May 11, 2009

Seminary Clearly Ruined Me

Over at her blog and on a recent web radio broadcast, my colleague Carol has been asking a puzzler of a there any reason for our denomination to continue to expect to have educated clergy?

Seminary education, or so Carol's brain teaser goes, might just be too expensive. It drives those who might be seeking a congregation away from smaller churches, because even otherwise healthy communities just can't pony up the cash that you need to pay back student loans. A denomination in decline...which ours certainly is...can no longer require a Masters of Divinity for those seeking ordination. We'd be better served focusing on developing lay leadership and fast-track certification programs that get folks into the pulpit more rapidly and at lower cost. I have a great deal of sympathy for this argument, and I think there is real value in having the leadership of local congregations arise organically from their community.

That argument against seminary education is a new one, and is reflective of the struggles of the progressive church. It joins up with another argument...the "seminary-ruins-you" argument that typically comes from conservatives and fundamentalists. For them, the problem with seminary is that it can be a hotbed of progressive thought within the church, bent on turning hapless young Christians into lesbian wiccan vampyres, or worse yet, Democrats. Better to stick with a nice little Bible college that doesn't teach anything you couldn't learn in VBS. Gotta keep the kids away from the siren song of ancient Greek or Hebrew or the history of the church. Too confusing.

So...should the church require a seminary education? Having had one, I would say: Abso-freakin'-lutely.

Why? Because you can't be a competent pastor without one. Sure, you can run a church just fine. If you've got any business experience, or have been part of a voluntary organization's leadership structure, you've probably developed the chops to handle the organizational requirements of a congregation. If you've got natural charisma or public speaking experience, you can wow 'em on Sunday with your golden tongued oratory.

But you're not going to be a resource for the community where it counts. You aren't going to bring anything to the table theologically. You're not going to have the tools to give new insight into their study of scripture. Your community might grow in numbers, but it won't grow in understanding. You will not be teaching.

What do I mean by this? Let me illustrate.

This last Sunday in Bible study, I was trying to show the gathered group a connection between John's Gospel and 1 John. We'd read from the lectionary, and as I tried to show the ways that 1 John shared important language and theology with John, we hit a stumbling block. All of the group came out of an evangelical background, and all had New International Versions as their translation of choice. The NIV is a decent and worthy version of the Bible, but the way it rendered the verses totally obscured a connection that was both profound and part of the intent of the author of 1 John.

In 1 John 4:15-16, we're supposed to be reminded deeply of what it means to "abide" or "live within" or "be part of Christ." That understanding is central to how the ancient church understood our Christian identity. The passage intentionally mirrors the teachings of Christ in John 15:1-8, when we are commended to be grafted onto the True Vine, and to abide in Him.

Problem is, the NIV uses two entirely different English verbs in translating the Greek verb meno. In John, the NIV uses "remain." In 1 John, it uses "live in." Technically, that's accurate enough. But it obscures a deep resonance, a vital symbolic connection that was an intentional part of 1 John. No reader of 1 John in the NIV would be struck by the similarity of language, or reminded of the words of Christ, even though that's why those words were written.

Having gone to seminary, I now reflexively look across translations. I observe differences. I look to original contexts and their intents and meanings. Every once in a while, I go back to the original language. In doing so, I bring value...and hopefully, a community that is trying to make those connections themselves and come into a deeper understanding of both Christ and the church.

It isn't so much that the church should require seminary. It's that those who are genuinely called by God to serve the church should want it, should hunger for it, should see it as a central and vital part of their service.

That is not at all the way the nondenominational world views it. If you think you have an anointing, then by God, you should preach. On the one hand, that's true. It's the call that's important. On the other, failure to strengthen yourself in preparation for your service to the church is just lazy.

If you..meaning you personally, you as someone who God has whupped upside the head and dragged into service...take your calling to serve as a pastor seriously, it's worth the effort.

The depth of knowledge seminary gives you makes you a better resource. So long as you remember to speak in ways that can be understood outside of academe, it gives you the tools to be a more effective servant.

And one thing we can't afford is to have more ineffective servants, or more folks whose grasp of the Bible doesn't go any further than their political persuasion.