There are several trends in Christendom that have been good, some not so good, and some that have been destructive. I'm not going to speak on the trends in the past. I'm not really writing to speak on all the current trends right now. Today, I want to address the trend of what I call "Ministry Qualification Validation". It's a trend that has sadly been around for centuries.
The "Ministry" what?
The "ministry qualification validation" is if you do have a degree from a Bible college or seminary or something similar, then you are unspokenly validated by non-lay members, ministry equals, and respected leaders in Christendom. But if you do not have an undergrad degree, or a graduate degree, or a seminary degree, then somehow you are not qualified or as qualified for ministry and unspokenly treated less than or differently than those who have these degrees. It's like a degree is your ticket into the "good ol' boys club"….one's "right of passage" into the "Christendom country club"….the "member's only" card….the golden "pilot's wings"…the "my precious" from Lord of the Rings.
Am I implying that there is something wrong with getting biblical education/training for ministry? Absolutely not! I'm in college for biblical studies and counseling! But the pressure to go to college for "ministry qualification" can be spiritually and emotionally unhealthy. It can create validation issues. Here's how.
Some will reason in themselves, whether knowingly or unknowingly, "I now feel validated and am qualified by my degree to serve in ministry."
While others will reason, "I don't believe I am qualified to serve in ministry because I haven't gone to Bible college or have some formal biblical education."
And then those on the sideline will believe they're doing some good by suggesting that another should go to college because they have a desire to be in ministry, and, whether knowingly or unknowingly, they are validating college/formal biblical education as a qualifying requirement for acceptance into ministry.
Whether we believe it or not, or accept it or not, there is this unspoken class distinction and validation that takes place in ministry among those with degrees/formal biblical education and the quiet minimization of those without. This 'ministry qualification validation' is now spreading over into those not in ministry and how they view those who have degrees and those without and how they view going into ministry or not. This is unhealthy, harmful, and dangerous.
The Qualifiers That Matter
Having a degree or going to seminary is not a biblical qualification for ministry or pastoring. Scripture does emphasize a certain standard of biblical education/training for ministry leaders and pastors (1Tim. 1:3-4; 3:6; 4:6, 16; 5:17; 6:20-21, 2Tim. 1:13; 2:15, 24-25, Titus 1:9; 2:1, 7-8). But that standard is to be true for every disciple (Matt. 28:19-20). Furthermore, the biblical education the Scripture speaks of is not an exclusive standard consisting only in the completion of a Bible college or seminary degree. One's mature, godly character and proper understanding of sound doctrine are the only qualifications the Scripture requires (1Tim. 3:1-13, Tit. 1:5-9; 2:1-7, Acts 6:3). Seminary and Bible colleges aren't the only places where this can be received. To be honest, they are actually inadequate in meeting these qualifications alone. If the local church, however, does its job in biblically discipling its members, then devoted believers will meet these qualifications. A piece of paper and thousands of dollars in debt are not necessary.
Did you know seminary and Bible colleges during the 1st century were free and open to every believer? It's true!
Do you know why? Because this biblical education/training took place in the form of discipleship, not a formalized education institution. Over the centuries it became institutionalized and biblical discipleship among the people became open only to those in leadership….only to the "elite"…I mean "the called". Even after the Reformation this still went on, because by then the damage had been done. Even up to the Puritans coming to the Americas, they simply transferred this institutionalist thinking from England to the New World. And so forth this went on throughout history until today.
Again, I am not speaking against getting a biblical education/training nor am I speaking against Bible colleges and seminaries. I am simply bringing attention to an unchecked, unspoken, unhealthy trend and unbiblical standard that is continuing to create a class distinction among fellow brethren in ministry because of one having a degree and the other not.
Is This Really A Big Deal?
Some may still say, "Chris, maybe you're blowing this out of proportion." I don't believe I am. Take a look at this picture in this article written by the Vice President of a Bible college. The question on the picture plays right into the 'ministry qualification validation' trend. It begs the follow-up rebuttal question, "So does this mean if I don't go to Bible college I'll somehow live for God less in my lifetime?" I doubt that's what the author was implying, but the unspoken trend is present nonetheless. Another example is simply go to any Christian job site and look up qualifications for pastor or a ministry leader and see for yourself. The greater percentage of these churches and ministries state a "degree" is a necessary requirement for the position.
I've been to seminaries. I've been to leadership conferences. I've been among other pastors. And guess what, as soon as they find out I'm a pastor…bam!….that faithful, prejudice question never fails to come up, "So, where did you go (or do you go) to seminary?" I even get asked this at Christian rap concerts and urban functions. I have one better than that. I even got asked this by a realtor when my wife and I were looking to rent a home just last year. It's as if it's automatically presumed, 'since you're a pastor you must have went to seminary'. And I call it prejudice because that same presumption is like saying, 'since you go to church you must be saved', or 'since you're a white Christian you must be Republican', or 'since you're a black Christian you must be a Democrat'. It's as if this question is the qualifying litmus test, and one can't be a pastor without going to seminary.
Why is that the standard question? Why not ask why they are in ministry as the standard question? Get to know their heart for God and His people. How do you think a person who hasn't gone to seminary or a Bible college feels or can receive this when they get asked that only because they said they're a pastor or ministry leader?
Now, please be sure to hear me. I am not saying those who ask this question are asking from a negative place. Nonetheless, the presumption is still unhealthy. Why? Because if one did not go to seminary or a Bible college they may some how feel unfit or invalidated when someone asks that because they didn't. I am not presuming my conclusion is a standard, just a reality for some.
The Bottom Line
For those who feel led to go to Bible college and/or seminary, go for it! Or those who are already there, great! Learn a ton. Stay humble. And remember that ministry happens not in the classroom of college, but the classroom of life-on-life with other believers and unbelievers (see Acts). Also, don't judge other leaders and pastors who don't have a degree/formalized biblical education. Instead affirm them in the Lord as fellow laborers in the kingdom.
For those who have graduated, congrats! Be on guard for the pride of academia and institutionalism. Please don't flame this unhealthy, harmful, and dangerous trend. Treat all servants of Christ as equals and comrades in ministry. You'll be amazed at how that simple acceptance can healthily influence a person greatly and bring glory to God.
For those who may not feel led to go to Bible college and/or seminary, or those who maybe cannot afford it, that's okay. Your qualification and validation for ministry is not wrapped up in men or their approval, nor colleges/seminaries and their approval, but God and Him alone! Paul said Jesus judged him faithful and appointed him to the ministry, even in light of his past (1Tim. 1:12-13). If God has called you to ministry, He will equip and prepare you for His service. Be eager and disciplined to learn sound doctrine. God has provided in our present age tons of free and affordable resources that you can learn just as much as those in college/seminary (see Recommended Sites). Take advantage of it. And continue to exude your heart for God, His word, and His people.
For churches, (and both of those with degrees and those with none in the churches), we have to do a way better job at biblical discipleship and stop pawning our responsibilities off to the colleges and seminaries. If we spent more time making holistic disciples from the people in our pews, we'll raise up more qualified leaders in our churches, and find more people being saved, which leads to more disciples and more leaders; because disciples recycle disciples.
Many believers and many leaders are feeling outcasted, sidelined, and mistreated by their fellow brethren because of this 'ministry qualification validation' trend. I pray that after reading this you are inspired to be intentional on not fueling this unhealthy and dangerous trend in your circles, and maybe we can start turning the tide and set a new trend….a trend of mutual camaraderie.
Let us all remember that it is the Holy Spirit who guides all His children into all truth (Jn. 16:13). Bible colleges and seminaries are simply one of many means the Spirit may use as He fulfills His divine charge to guide us in all the truth. We all have to place our trust in Him and not presume He can or will only train up through this one mean or any one mean. And here's the anvil, when this class distinction and unspoken minimization takes place upon those without these degrees or formal biblical education/training, the people (leaders and non-leaders) who do so are in essence belittling the Holy Spirit's choice of how He goes about training up His servants for His work. I hope that hit you. Because it hit me.
I'll conclude with some points of clarification.
This was a brief article of me expressing my heart's concern about this trend. I hope I remained objective while not pulling any punches. It is not an exhaustive exposition on this topic. I hope you get my overall point.
The term "ministry" is broad. Other than my use of "pastoring", my use of "ministry" is wide-ranging.
This article may not be for everyone. Some folk may read this and have never been asked or assumed any of this. For some people in ministry this is far removed because of maybe the particular ministry you're involved in. Thus, if this was not for you, still please take away something from it so not to fall in the trap of this trend and gather some points on how to comfort or graciously correct someone negatively affected by this trend.
"And above all these put on love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony."