Beware Your Seminary Professors


A seminary professor is not the same thing as a church elder. That was probably the main thing I observed at last week’s Gordon Conwell Seminary conference “Renewing the Evangelical Mission,” which I attended with Michael Lawrence. Consider a couple of obvious matters:

  • An elder is chosen (hopefully) for his exemplary character, his ability to teach, and his track record of doing spiritual good (fruitfulness); a seminary professor is chosen because he or she excels in research and writing.
  • An elder’s position requires a holistic regard for his sheep (their intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical states); a seminary professor need only be concerned with the “intellectual.”
  • An elder’s entire life is expected to be integrated into the congregation’s life (like a shepherd and sheep); a seminary professor need only interact with students in the classroom.

What struck me at this academic conference, however, was how much the “rules of engagement” differed for elders and academics. Three examples:

  • In the Western secular academy, one of the highest values is an open exchange of ideas without pre-judgment, a value which has clearly transmitted into Christian academic circles. Yes, there should be a place for Christians to openly consider new ideas, but consider the anthropology behind that democratic value: it assumes (these days, at least) that people are rational, objective, and basically good. When this is our starting point, we feel free to say whatever, whenever. An elder has a very different starting point. He knows that his sheep are weak and susceptible to temptation and self-deceit. Like a parent, he knows that intellectual growth is highly intertwined with spiritual and social maturity.  So he takes great care in what he says and does not say. He’s not nearly so democratic. Instead, he must be judicious.
  • The academy, by definition, places a higher premium on saying something “new.” Many churches wrongly do this as well, and, admittedly, there is a right place for a “new song.” But the eldering enterprise, by definition, is about faithfulness. The best Christian academics, that is, the Christian academics to whom we are all indebted, say new things from time to time, but only in the effort to be faithful. Too often, however, the ambition for newness is an utterly different thing than the ambition for faithfulness.
  • Academics tend to work in isolation, and are assessed only (i) for their ideas (ii) by a small group of similarly-situated experts in their sub-specialty. Elders work in the midst of the assembly, and are assessed (i) for their ideas and their lives (ii) by the whole church body in all of its sociological diversity.

None of the rules for academic engagement are bad, per se. But they become bad in the Christian academy when they’re divorced from pastoral sensibilities. This struck home, to speak frankly, by the utter lack of pastoral carefulness demonstrated by many of the speakers, a carelessness which I’ve witnessed too often in Christian academic circles. Here are three examples which showed up last week:

  • Most of the speakers seemed only too happy to treat Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox as “brothers and sisters in the faith,” as easily as a Baptist might refer to a Presbyterian. Now, I trust that some RC and GOs are Christians, but such unqualified, unnuanced passing remarks effectively dismiss the Reformation and jeopardize souls. Don’t you realize the effect your passing comments have on sheep?
  • One speaker presented what he described as a “new” formulation of how the divine nature participated in Christ’s death on the cross, which involved jettisoning divine impassibility and simplicity. At the conclusion, another professor responded by saying that he was willing to go along with this new formulation. Really? A sixty minute lecture and you’re persuaded? You’re willing to re-conceive the divine nature because someone really smart gave a paper? No prayer? No long hours of investigation? No discussion of the matter with the elders of your church?
  • At a conference with the title “Renewing the Evangelical Mission,” not a single talk of the eleven was about the gospel (with one abstruse half-exception, mentioned in the last bullet).

Numerous matters like these, all heaped together, reminded me what a different thing the academic enterprise is from the eldering enterprise. One is about intellectual stimulation between supposedly good, rational people; the other is about spiritual warfare between desperate, clinging-to-grace people. It’s as if you enter the Christian academic realm and all the rules for pastoral care and wisdom suddenly change—in fact, it’s as if all the rules suddenly go out the window. “We’re all equals here. We’re all discerning and wise and godly. Take no heed!”

I praise God for the faithful academics who trained me in seminary. Yet the best ones were good because they were churchmen first and academics second. Any academic who takes offence at my remarks, I dare say, just might take offense because he or she finds more identity in being an academic than in being a churchman.

If you are an academic, may I propose, do not conceive of your students, colleagues, journal editors, and publishers any differently than you conceive of the members of your church. All of them are sheep who are threatened with temptation and deception on a minute-by-minute basis. Remember that you, too, are a sheep, and that you need the accountability and restraints of your church and its elders in your academic work, even if you are smarter than all of them.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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