Where Should I Train for Ministry?

I just posted the following in a Facebook group composed largely by pastors who graduated from KJV-Only institutions. One asked which schools group members would recommend for a youth pastor. I jotted out some thoughts I’ve been wanting to send to the KJV-Only community for a while—not because I want to condemn or confront them but because I truly want to help them.

I care very deeply about Christian education. I gave 26 years of my life to receiving it (the last ten while working part-time—or it would have been 20 years), and I gave nine years of my life to promoting it by writing Bible textbooks for high schoolers. I’m still doing the latter as a freelancer, writing a biblical worldview textbook for sixth graders.

If we can set aside the KJV issue for a moment (I’ll come back to it), I’d like to offer two opinions that are going to be a minority report in this group: Bible faculties with PhDs matter, and liberal arts education matters. I’ve given a lot of thought to these points over the years, because I never want to say that those without PhDs cannot teach accurately, or that Bible colleges shouldn’t exist. I also want to acknowledge that some young men are ruined by their PhDs, and that the last time I visited a Bible college I could feel the zeal in the air among the conservatively dressed young people—and I loved it. God seems to give different strengths to different groups.

But I have listened carefully to a lot of preaching, and my training was focused on listening to that preaching with a gracious but critical ear. And it is my firm opinion that most of the preaching I hear coming out of four-year Bible college graduates could be noticeably improved by just two years in an M.A. program taught by bona fide, conservative, Bible-believing PhDs. It could be even more improved by an MDiv program taught by those same PhDs. Almost no one remains a youth pastor forever. If they remain in ministry, they become senior pastors. They need the best training they can get. And do we really think teens don’t deserve good Bible teaching?

Listen, I’m slow: it took me a long time to really grasp what my teachers were trying to tell me. But I knew that Proverbs told me to seek wisdom and understanding as ardently as people search for gold or silver. Get wisdom, get understanding, God said. I found that for this to occur, my nose needed to be held to the grindstone for a long time by men whose own noses had been held to the same grindstone. When you enter ministry, it’s awkward and difficult for others to critique your sermons. Your wife loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, your people love you, too—or they don’t, and their criticisms will be full of bile and impossible to listen to. =( Only trained professors can love you and lay into you enough to change your mind and make you grow.

Yes, I have heard academically dry preaching (typically from students, actually, not from PhDs). And I hate it, I truly do. I have read academic articles by evangelicals who seem to forget that they’re talking about the word of the living God! I hate that, too. I prefer a country preacher truly on fire for God over a PhD who is not. But let’s not permit a false dichotomy: the ideal is Lloyd-Jones’ “logic on fire,” consecration of both head and heart. If you don’t submit yourself in school to the sharpening influence of people with highly developed critical abilities, you will never get that chance again. If you give up an opportunity to get the best education you can in a Bible-believing atmosphere, I think you are morally culpable for refusing Proverbs’ commands.

I’ll speak only briefly to the liberal arts: as others have pointed out, I have seen many, many young men get Bible degrees or youth ministry degrees and regret their lack of marketable skills. It may sound romantic to be bivocational, like you’re sacrificing for the kingdom, but it’s very hard on a wife and kids. Wise use of a liberal arts’ school’s many opportunities can give a preacher boy skills that will provide for his family without sapping all his time. Just as importantly, liberal arts courses help someone be well-rounded. At my church I use all kinds of skills I picked up by accident, and my life has been immeasurably enriched (in both senses!) by my time studying graphic design. Responsible Bible interpretation and effective Bible preaching call on all kinds of skills; knowledge of history, literature, linguistics, and other fields is a huge help. It’s more wisdom available for the taking. Genesis 1:26–28 encourage us to make the most of the world God has given us (see my book, Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption). It is short-sighted and (worse) theologically wrong, I believe, for Christian young people to eschew the liberal arts.

So, prospective preacher boy, go to a school where you will be taught by genuine PhDs and where you will have required courses in the liberal arts.

And now let me get to the touchiest part of this post: where can those two things be found?

It’s easy enough to know if a school teaches liberal arts. Look at its website. And, again, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to go to a Bible college with the intent of getting liberal arts training later. But liberal arts training matters.

So let’s talk about PhDs. I’m happy to call myself a “fundamentalist” if I get to do a tiny bit of explaining. But the sad fact about fundamentalist schools is that not every “Dr.” is a “Dr.” Honorary doctorates are handed out like candy in fundamentalism. And though a DMin can be a very useful degree, it is designed for ministry and not for teaching. Look carefully into the qualifications of your future professors. Most of the schools mentioned in this thread—and here I go stepping on toes!—have numerous Bible professors whose experience and faithfulness is highly laudable, but whose degrees are very shaky.

One example: whatever you think of the Protestant Reformation, I’m sure you’re grateful that it rescued the study of the biblical languages. While the Catholics were either never getting around to translating the Bible into vernacular languages, or were translating from the Latin Vulgate (!), the Reformers recovered the biblical languages in order to bring the Bible to the masses. But there are numerous “Drs.” at fundamentalist schools who have not studied these languages beyond the basics, a maximum of two years of Greek and one (if any) of Hebrew. They take very firm positions on which Bible translation is best, but if they were asked to translate a Greek or Hebrew sentence, they could not do it. How do I know this? Because I have called the schools where they got their correspondence doctorates, and I asked what training they provide in Greek and Hebrew. The answer? None. There is also at least one faculty member at one of the schools mentioned in this thread who received his doctorate from an open and overt degree mill that offers “life experience” degrees. (What’s more, when he advertised this degree on the school’s website, he misspelled the name of the “school.”)

Many schools mentioned here are going for TRACS accreditation now, or have already received it. This is a good thing, and it shows that I am not a malcontent who is spinning up conspiracies. =) Multiple KJV-Only schools right now, in particular, are recognizing that they have academic weaknesses. TRACS is helping them shore those up. I want to see those schools succeed in their stated missions. I want them to train up true expository preachers and faithful evangelists. I do not wish to see them fail. But, brothers and sisters, there is a difference in quality between the teaching one gets from people who have spent years in school (and, at the school I attended, in pastoral ministry, too) and those who have not done equivalent work, or those who have taken shortcuts.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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