Sunday, March 1, 2009

An Exhortation to Seminary Students

We seminary students are sophomores. We have endured years of education, steeped in the language and the mental acuity of academia. We talk of apologetic methods, theological minutia, and the hypothetical application of our erudition. Yet we have so much to learn of real ministry. We have so much to learn about love in community.

We can teach our churches so much about biblical backgrounds and figures of speech, about customs and languages, about the hows and the whys; but can we teach faith? Can we instill even a mustard seed of faith within another human being? Only God can do that work (Phil. 2:12-13). Further, what good is all our learning if we do not have love? Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

So, student, apply your skills to the text. What is the context, what is the subject, the object, why does Paul use the figures of speech he does? After you have spent your hours at the study, what have you learned? Paul exhorts love within community. What does this mean? Student, take your progress and apply it. What does your study (the tongues of men and angles/prophecy/etc.) profit you if you have not love for your brothers and sisters in the faith?

Do you love them? Do you really love them? Are you just frustrated over their lack of understanding or their lack of drive to read theology, or do you come along-side your brother and sister, loving them where they are? Does your idea of loving your brother and sister result in glory for yourself or glory for God? If you are arrogant and unloving, it discredits the Gospel to the very ones you are trying to reach. Why would they listen? You become the "clanging cymbal."

The truth is, too many of us seminary students try to love in a selfish and academic way. We are so eager to prove ourselves and demonstrate our abilities and passions that we forget who we are serving and why. We have much to learn from our older church members and from serving them. A pastor once told me, “When you go off to seminary and start serving in a church, don’t try to teach, clean toilets.” This ignominious suggestion was not a snipe upon my skills (although they are still humble), but an exhortation to living out the Gospel. Jesus said to his disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).

We talk so pointedly about laying down our lives for the Gospel, of emulating Christ, but when was the last time we ransomed another’s life with our own? When was the last time we cleaned toilets, washed feet, held hands, peeled carrots, mopped floors, and done the hard work of ministry? We did not enter the ministry to become glitterati, and we must be very careful that we do not make that our goal. We do not serve God so that he will serve us. We must serve God for his glory alone. We must serve our brothers and sisters with a love and devotion that may, in its season, lend itself to teaching, preaching, and writing.

Now, where’d I leave that toilet brush?


jonathon banister said...

That is the truth. James says "not many of you should be presume to be teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will face a stricter judgment." elsewhere he says "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." And again "religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
If we apply this to our seminary education we will find ourselves in the process of maturation. You make a very good point in the toilet scrubbing prescription for ministry. I think that the minister who actively engages in difficult acts of service will have legitimacy and credibility among his people so that they will then listen to the theological views that he longs to teach.

Steven Douglas said...

Hey Jonathon,

Thanks for writing. You are absolutely right. I have heard it said that we are required to "live faith," which is pretty close to James' faith without works is dead. Living our faith is the uncomfortable work that legitimizes the Gospel to others.

Thanks for the great thoughts.