This subject seems to have cropped up time and again in recent months and my views have significantly altered over the years. It is an area subject to increasing debate in Christian circles where people tend to take a firm stance one way or the other. As with all of these things it is important, ultimately, to come back to what the Bible has to say. Scripture obviously doesn’t state “You should/shouldn’t have an education” at least not in the same way that it tells us to be patient, although I was informed by my six-year-old nephew recently that he didn’t have to possess that particular fruit of the spirit as it wasn’t in the ten commandments and he hadn’t read it yet! But there are patterns of behaviour and principles for us to follow that speak directly to this issue.
I thought back to when I was studying both at high school and later at sixth form college. It was presumed that I would head to University, indeed the vast majority of students with average or above average grades were channelled in that direction, regardless of the debt they might incur or other things they might want to do with their lives. I had always wanted to become a police officer but became temporarily distracted by the idea of being a lawyer and so headed to University to begin a degree in Law and Criminology. This seemed to be the expected course for me from an educational point of view and the argument was that I could always join the police on finishing my degree. What wasn’t highlighted was that I didn’t actually need a degree to join the police so I was effectively studying for the sake of it, or for achievement purposes. Some years later, I lost all of my exam certificates and wondered whether God was teaching me that they were superfluous or dealing with my pride, but maybe that’s reading too much into the situation…..
In my case, things worked out well as six weeks after starting my University course I realised that I was sick to the back teeth of studying and wanted to get on and work, so I dropped out and joined the police. I was blessed to have supportive parents, who despite the money that had been invested for the first term and the student loan that had been taken out, helped me to change direction. I have never regretted that decision, although for the first few weeks afterwards I felt like a failure. I wonder if things would’ve been different if someone, at my school, had really thought about whether it was the right thing for me to go to university in the first place bearing in mind my career choice. Now it seems that more people are considering the non-degree route as vocational courses become available and people are more concerned about being saddled with debt. My general advice on this issue is that people should only go to University if they have to have a specific degree to get the job that they want to do, otherwise what’s the point!
But everything so far has been pretty general and not about the specific issue of Christians and their education. I recently conversed with a young professing Christian in Asia who was so upset by the amount of pressure they were being placed under to hit a certain deadline that they were contemplating suicide if they could not hit the mark. This person was repeating their studies having failed them once already due to a nervous breakdown triggered by exam stress. They asked me why God allowed them to fail their exams and to buckle under the pressure. I found myself asking whether someone in that situation should be encouraged to continue their studies, as this person’s parents were advising. In Asia there is a huge amount of pressure exerted on children to succeed regardless the consequence, with never-ending school hours and reams of homework. The statistics show that these countries are now leading the world in terms of educational success, but at what cost? Is educational success the ultimate goal for a Christian? Is it even important in God’s economy?
This leads on to the issue of formal education for those who believe that God has called them into positions of leadership either in a Church or on the Mission field. Most churches and mission agencies require applicants to have spent time at either Bible school or Seminary. But is this Biblical? And is it necessary to prepare someone for a life of Christian service? This is where my views have probably changed. Like everyone else I would previously have said that of course a prospective Pastor/Preacher/Missionary should go to Bible school, where else would they learn what they needed to prepare them to teach others.
But a few years ago, my home church appointed a new Pastor that had not been away to Bible school. Instead he had been a trainee leader in a large church and had spent several years being mentored/discipled by a senior Pastor in that church whilst also studying the Bible/other books in his own time. He described this as a Paul/Timothy type of relationship where the younger learned from the older and was enabled to practice what he was being taught in the local church context. He was able to develop relationships with the people in the church immediately rather than being sent away to study then returning and having to begin that process as a virtual stranger. This made me think as I could see the definite advantages to this method of learning which seemed to have been lifted straight from the Bible.
On being called into mission work myself it was suggested that I also should go to Bible school or pursue further training but I believed that God would have me go at once and having spent two years on-board Logos Hope (missionary ship) I believed that that experience was adequate training for the field as an independent. A few years down the line, having made many mistakes and struggled through many difficulties, I still believe that it was the right decision to go although maybe I was a little hasty in terms of the exact departure date. I have learned many things that have better prepared me for future service. And God was always with me even at my lowest points.
I have also been involved in a church that had a Bible school attached to it. You might think that this is the ideal scenario; a man can be officially trained whilst also putting things into practice within the local church. This may have been the case but many of the men being trained were not in fact members of that church as they travelled from a fair distance away to enrol in school during the week and then returned to their families/churches at the weekend. Of the limited number who were in the church and in the Bible school, at least one expressed concern that he wouldn’t be ready to be a Pastor on graduation because he didn’t feel adequately prepared for the practical side. He was considering getting further formal education in another country. I said to this person that the important thing for him to prepare himself was to develop his own relationship with God and to spend time studying the Bible himself as this would prepare him better than spending a lot of money on further formal education. This wasn’t said because I had an especially well developed view on this subject but more because it seemed logical; God would equip His servants for the ministry He had called them to.
I attended some of the above church’s Bible school classes as I thought they might be useful for me as a missionary but after numerous weeks on the different types of baptism, as I struggled to grasp the detail, I found myself wondering how I could ever apply that in my work. I also wondered whether it would even be useful for a prospective Pastor to know that level of detail. But I can’t comment beyond that on the topics/content of any Bible schools/Seminaries as I have no direct experience of them. I was concerned that some graduates that I knew seemed to have automatically adopted the views of their teachers or the particular school they had attended. They hadn’t always developed these views after a prayerful study of Scripture but often just because they had been taught it and it seemed to make sense. This is one of the dangers if students aren’t willing to keep up their own personal study whilst enrolled at these institutions.
Then I met a man who had been a missionary for 17 years. He had been expected to go to university but felt God clearly calling him to missionary service. He had joined a slightly older male missionary on the field and had used his personal study time, the reading of good Christian literature and the things he learned from his co-worker to prepare him to serve God as a Pastor/Preacher on the field. He had no formal education beyond high school. He had written a book called “The Hidden Altar” (see review) which amongst other things explains why a formal education may not be necessary, particularly for those who hear God calling them to “Go and make disciples.”
Shortly after this I was serving in a book warehouse in Florence, South Carolina and I stumbled upon another book; “Pagan Christianity.” (see review)I didn’t agree with some of the things the author wrote and I have already reviewed this extensively, but I saw again that heading off to Bible school/Seminary may not be the most effective route for everyone. Although one person took the opportunity to explain at the bottom of my review why a formal education was necessary for all prospective ministers, his rationale seemed to be largely based on Church tradition/cultural best practice. I began to consider what the Bible says about this.
I then read; “Father of Faith Missions; The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves.” (see review) and discovered that he too had not been formally educated or ordained for his Pastoral role. Indeed, many of his contemporaries didn’t have the required formal stamp on their ministry and this had caused much controversy. Groves’ goal was to stick as closely as possible to the New Testament pattern of the Apostles in his life and ministry. You might think that Groves and other missionaries of past generations were lazy; not wanting to study or devote themselves fully to God’s work. But actually quite the opposite was true, these were men who gave their all to God. They were disciplined in devotional practices and through reading and studying they learned everything they needed to know to teach God’s Word to others.
So what can we conclude from this, and how important is educational success for a Christian? In terms of general education, the Bible tells us in Colossians 3 vs 23;
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (ESV)
So for those who are studying and who were thinking I was about to advise that it would be okay to abandon their education; if you are studying then do it with all your heart for God! Be disciplined and seek to serve Him through exercising diligence. But remember that God knows our hearts and our individual abilities and He is far more concerned about how faithfully we serve Him than how successful we are educationally. If (as in the case of the student I mentioned earlier) your studies are making you ill or stressed out of your mind, then there is a case for asking whether God would have you continue or whether you should pray about what else He might have you do.
In relation to Seminary/Bible school; the Apostles were uneducated fishermen who learned from their Master. Paul had been educated as a non-believer but later taught Timothy directly as they worked closely together. I have given more contemporary examples of how some Christian men have followed the New Testament pattern by learning from spiritually mature Christians and studying the Bible directly.
Biblically, educational success should not be the goal for a Christian. Their goal should be to seek God’s will for their lives. God knows best how to prepare a person for adequate personal spiritual growth and for their calling. Not having been to Seminary/Bible school should not bar a Christian from being in leadership as it is not a Scriptural requirement for leadership. Educational success is something that the world says is vitally important, and sadly in most cases the church seems to have adopted this view and added it as a requirement for their leaders. But a Christian leader can learn to be an effective minister of God’s Word through the example of his peers and through diligence in personal study.