Are theological colleges the servant of the church?

Alistair Wilson – of Edinburgh Theological Seminary – posted an interesting comment on academic essays. Following on from some discussion, prompted at least in part by comments here and here by Dave Williams, Alistair wanted to make a case for the value of the academic essay. His aim was a simple one, ‘all I ask here is that readers consider whether essays (or exegeses or book reviews, etc.) can, in fact, be quite valuable forms of assessment for anyone who wishes to work effectively in Christian ministry of any kind’.

For what it’s worth, I agreed with Alistair’s post. I think academic essays do have value and can tell us some useful things about an individual. I personally have three degrees – two pertinent to my current role and one from a theological college – and am in the process of partnering my church with Union School of Theology so that we can provide academic, yet contextualised, training to others seeking to enter Christian ministry. Evidently, we don’t think academic essays are a waste of time nor do we think qualifications are pointless.

The problem is that Alistair appears to be answering a question nobody is really asking. Several urban context practitioners (or, as most people call them, pastors in deprived communities) have made the point that existing academic provision typically does not serve people from their areas well. Particularly, current academic seminary provision tends to be geared up for middle class people with prior qualifications. This tends to mean (a) those from working class backgrounds are locked out altogether, or seriously struggle, with seminary; (b) seminaries have a tendency to fail, or mark down, those who are not well suited to academia yet are well suited to pastoral ministry; (c) some academic essays can be remote from the reality of ministry on the ground, particularly in deprived contexts; and, (d) we have tended to confuse academic ability with qualification for ministry.

In a nutshell, the things we are looking for in the church are often not what is assessed or encouraged in theological colleges. It is possible to be a wonderful communicator to working class people and yet be rubbish at expressing yourself in academic writing. It is possible to be able to teach without being able to corral your theological knowledge in an exam setting. There is a simple test here: Would most of Jesus’ disciples make it through most British theological colleges today? If not, it rather suggests we are placing academic requirements on the ministry that Jesus didn’t demand from his apostles and thus neither from elders and pastors.

Few people seem to stop and question why British Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly white and middle class. Nor do many make the obvious connection between this fact and the requirements for, and assessment criteria of, most theological colleges. The answer is not because the working classes are unresponsive to the gospel. In my experience, it is the middle classes who are most hardened.

The issue is that our churches reflect the middle class, educated people that run them. They, in turn, send people to colleges run by middle class educated people like them. They, likewise, churn out middle class educated people like them and set requirements that are often only met by middle class educated people like them. Working class people then enter the church and quickly learn this place is not for people like me, leadership is not for people like me and theological training is not for people like me.

Clearly, this was not Jesus’ view. He was quite happy to welcome, and commission, uneducated fishermen and those who would not meet the entrance requirements for the average theological college. Paul was the only apostle who could claim a credible background in theology, though the Eutychus episode (cf. 2 Cor 10:10) would suggest he wouldn’t be passing any preaching modules. Despite this, the Lord still considered them qualified for the ministry to which they were called.

The concern we have is not that we want anything less than competent Bible teachers in the most deprived communities. The issue is that we have so often filtered our understanding of competence through our particular middle class, academic filters. A powerful orator can only be commissioned if he can express himself equally powerfully in written word; a faithful pastor will only be acknowledged if he has the self-awareness to dissect and critique his ‘approach’ to counselling; a great evangelist will only be deemed ‘qualified’ if he can defend his apologetics against the kind of people he is never likely to encounter in his context. It is this that seems wrong.

We rightly place a great deal of emphasis on the one skill criteria demanded of elders, pastors and teachers; namely, ‘apt to teach’. But we need to be flexible enough to recognise that being apt in one context might not be apt in another and vice versa. We need to recognise that ability to teach does not demand ability to write nor to defend theology adequately as determined by the quality control standards of secular universities that accredit degree courses. We need to acknowledge that academic degrees are not for every church leader, shouldn’t have to be and a focus on vocational training may be more appropriate.

When we demand things that scripture doesn’t, and we force them to conform to particular way of doing things that are also not demanded by scripture, we may just find we are locking out of ministry many effective leaders and workers for little more than our own cultural disposition. This is the issue that theological colleges need to address. Are the theological colleges the servant of the church or are church members merely fodder for the academy? How we answer this will alter our approach.