He has led a home group for some time and has done a little preaching. He is a godly man and gives evidence of having the necessary gifts. He and the elders of the church think it is time for him to begin serious training. How should he go about it?
A variety of options are open to Sam. He could join a local part-time training scheme and combine that with practical work in his own and neighbouring churches, under his own church leaders. Or he could follow a guided reading scheme with his pastor, maybe calling on other local men with particular expertise in different subjects. Or he could do a distance learning course. The alternative is that he considers going to Bible college, either full-time or part-time.
Sam initially had some serious reservations about the Bible college option. He feared that it would be costly and that relocation would be an upheaval for his family. He was also unsure about being separated from his home church. But, as he looked into it more thoroughly, he began to understand some of the considerable benefits.
Preparation needs time
Firstly, Sam came to realise that preparation for gospel ministry needs time. In a secular context, it takes ten years to qualify as a GP, seven years to become an architect, between six and nine years to become a solicitor.
Why so long? Because preparing to enter any of these professions involves the acquisition of large amounts of information, understanding and skills. There can be no short cuts — doctors have to know a great deal about how the body works if they are to treat their patients. Solicitors need to have studied law intensively in order to be able to advise their clients with any competence.
Gospel ministry is, in this respect, no different. There is a large amount of knowledge which needs to be acquired by anyone going into full-time gospel ministry. Of course, ministry requires a great deal more than just knowledge. A godly character is the prime requirement (1 Timothy 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9) and gifts of teaching, preaching and pastoring are essential. A Bible college cannot supply these, though it can develop them. But, in addition to these elements, and subservient to them, knowledge and understanding must also be gained.
Acquiring the skills
What kind of knowledge would Sam gain at Bible college? First of all, he needs to heed Paul’s exhortation to become a ‘workman’ who ‘correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2.15) — he needs to begin to resemble Apollos, who had a ‘thorough knowledge of the Scriptures’ (Acts 18.24), or Ezra, who had ‘devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord’ (Ezra 7.10). Sam needs a profound knowledge of the contents of the whole Bible, with a clear understanding of the arguments and themes of each book and the principal issues which they address, as well as a sound grasp of how the Bible story-line unfolds. He must master the technical skills needed to get at the true meaning of the text, understand how to deal with the different kinds of literature in the Scriptures and learn to tackle difficult passages. He also needs to engage with the Scriptures in their original languages. This all needs time.
Depth and system
But that is not all that Sam needs. He must spend time studying the teaching of Scripture systematically. He should study the doctrine of the Trinity in depth, for example, so that he can explain simply to a child how it is that God is three and yet one. He has to understand why orthodox believers teach that Jesus Christ has two wills, not one, and why it matters. He needs to acquire a clear grasp of the teaching of the Bible on the relationship between faith and works: he must understand the dangers of antinomianism on the one hand and legalism on the other, as well as how best to address them from the Scriptures. He must gain, in short, a sound systematic understanding of the teaching of the Bible in all the various areas of doctrine, to ensure that he teaches truth not heresy and to equip him to guard himself and his flock from soul-destroying error (Acts 20.29-31). This takes time.
Coming to his own convictions
Sam also needs time to work through important issues in his own mind. Where does he stand on the gifts of the Spirit? How does culture impact evangelism? What does the Bible teach about corporate worship? What is the millennium and are we in it yet? Sam needs to think carefully about many of these sorts of questions before he embarks on full-time ministry. This takes time, too.
There are other subjects which Sam needs time to study. He needs to think through biblically how to approach mission and evangelism in our day. He must engage with ethical and pastoral issues, to address the many complex questions to which life in our society gives rise (such as cohabitation, gender issues, IVF and euthanasia). He needs time to study worldviews, to think through how best to address our generation with the gospel. Church history is ignored at the peril of our congregations: a course of study which focuses on God’s dealings with his people over the past 2,000 years is a necessary part of ministry training.
The more practical tasks of preaching and pastoral work also need time for study. Sam needs help to develop his preaching and teaching gifts. He needs the wisdom of experienced pastors to give him useful feedback and enable him to think through the kinds of pastoral questions he is likely to meet in any congregation.
All this cannot adequately be studied without time — a great deal of time. Bible college provides the space and opportunity for this.
Teachers, older and wiser
Preparation for gospel ministry also needs experienced teachers. A Bible college brings together teachers who specialise in a wide variety of different subjects. Students therefore benefit from learning from knowledgeable people about, ideally, each topic studied — something which it may be difficult to match in a more local training scheme. At best, these teachers will also have significant pastoral experience and so may focus on real-life issues, rather than the purely academic.
Practical experience is also necessary. Good Bible colleges have well thought out and monitored mentoring and placement programmes. These are designed to provide experience in practical pastoral work in different kinds of churches (though they should always be in churches which take a clear evangelical stand). So, students coming from large, urban churches benefit from time working alongside an experienced pastor in a small, rural situation, for example, and vice versa.
Ministry training is best done in community. Sam knows that training for gospel ministry should never take place in isolation from the fellowship and discipline of the local church. He was initially concerned that going to Bible college would be a little like entering a monastery. By contrast, he was pleased to find that good Bible colleges understand that training must be rooted in the local church. They take great pains to ensure that their students and families are settled in a church fellowship nearby, where they can live, work and worship as part of a community of believers.
But, in addition, Bible college provides the opportunity to study in community. Rubbing shoulders with men from different backgrounds and cultures, all pursuing the goal of lifetime gospel ministry, is invaluable. Rough edges are smoothed down, hard attitudes softened and lifelong friendships developed. The benefits of fellowship with other ministers and the dangers of isolationism become clear. These are great advantages.
Finally, preparation for gospel ministry needs finance. This cannot be avoided, whichever route into gospel ministry is chosen. The man who trains at home, in his own church, still has to be supported, with his family if he has one. And his pastor and whoever else is involved with his training need to invest time in him, which inevitably has a cost attached to it. These opportunity costs are generally hidden and so are sometimes (wrongly) ignored when cost comparisons with Bible college training are made.
Bible college is in fact a cost-effective means of training, simply because training many men together gives undoubted economies of scale. Of course, accommodation and living costs still have to be paid, but that is true even for those who stay at home — and Bible colleges often are able to provide subsidised accommodation as well as help with fees by means of bursary schemes.
Having looked more closely at all the benefits that a Bible college offers, Sam talked and prayed it all through thoroughly with his pastor and the other church officers. They agreed that Bible college was the right route for Sam. The question then was, which one?
Principal of London Theological Seminary
For more information about LTS courses, see http://www.ltslondon.org