Divorcing the Local Church

I was approached recently with the question of how one stays “Christian” in Seminary. Essentially, the issue centers on how one maintains a vibrant life as a developing disciple, maturing into the image of our King. One of the most difficult aspects of formal theological education is the tendency to view Christianity clinically. Like research students in a science lab, every verse, doctrine, practice, and person can become an object of cold observation. We can all see the dangers that come with this mentality, and it’s not far off from every seminarian, for as we know, knowledge puffs up. There is a tendency in us all to become arrogant and cold Gnostics (believing we have special knowledge that others need to get a piece of) as we learn deep truths about our God.

I am neither brilliant nor especially gifted, but I’m confident that the heart of my approach is thoroughly biblical. The key to staying “Christian” in seminary is found in the local church. The local church is God’s chosen vehicle by which disciples will be made of all nations, including maturing disciples in seminary. So, the key relationship for spiritual maturity and accountability during seminary is not the seminary, it is that ALL seminary students would be vital, accountable, and identifiable members of a local church.

I say this for 2 Reasons:

1) We all need Godly leaders who are accountable for our souls. Hebrews 13:17 comes to mind immediately. We all need godly Elders/Pastors who are giving an account for our souls (this is a mentality of pastoral leadership that must be primary, perhaps even more primary than preaching). For the most part, we recognize this need, but sin keeps us from embracing it. We all struggle with submission (even the word strikes fear) to leaders who can speak directly into our lives and if need be discipline us. But if we recognize that discipline is an act of love (any level of discipline, not just “excommunication” but discipline that takes place every day as we rebuke and encourage one another) that is intended to protect us from running head first into sin that will destroy us and as an act that will conform us to the image of His Son, then we welcome it. And if we are going to continue to grow and not see the Bible or our Christian life as a textbook or assignment we all need godly leaders that will one day stand before the throne and give an account for our growth in grace and truth.

2) We all need a place where we are accountable. We all need iron on iron relationships. Like the pointing out of the unknown piece of food on our face, CJ Mahaney so helpfully states, we need others to show us our blind, sinful patterns. We all have sin in our lives that needs to be addressed and it won’t be without someone pointing it out to us. If we are going to do this in seminary, we need a people with whom we are covenanted, who will encourage us with the evidences of grace they see in our lives and will rebuke us when they see sin. We need to be accountable to someone (both Elders and fellow brothers and sisters), and we must be identifiable. By identifiable, I mean we are a part of what is going on in the life of the church, not just a Sunday attender, for we only stay vibrant in our faith as we serve and exercise gifts in the local church. This doesn’t mean just preaching (almost all seminarians believe they have the gift of teaching). This means, as one professor recently shared with me, developing our “hands and knees” gifts. We should never think we are called to lead/teach in local church without also being those that can wash feet.

In addition, part of this accountability is that we all need a place where we are working out what we are learning in the classroom. Just as a doctor doesn’t go straight from books to surgery (nor would you want him to), a pastor doesn’t go from books to shepherding. He needs time to serve in a local context where the academic presses up against everyday life; where truth becomes flesh.

I really don’t think I have much to add to this conversation, and I don’t think anything I have said is earth shaking. I just know in my own life I experienced a significant time of rebellion, and that whole time of rebellion was a period where I was disconnected from the community of faith. I thought I could live the Christian life in isolation and I was wrong. We weren’t created that way. If we are going to be vibrant, maturing disciples during our seminary days, we will not let the seminary (and chapel) substitute for the local church. It would seem impossible that we could be growing as Christ’s disciples and at the same time be rejecting or minimizing the bride that He pursued and purchased.

[This article was written at the request of my friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]