The Church as Classroom: The History of Master’s Seminary

Article
02.26.2010

Churches need seminaries and seminaries need churches.

That’s what James Montgomery Boice said in a 1979 Christianity Today article entitled, “Church and Seminary: A Reciprocal Relationship.” He wrote, “Seminaries need the church to provide models. Churches need the scholarship of the seminary” (2/2/79).

Boice contended that seminaries need churches for three reasons: Churches can provide future pastors with godly examples to emulate. Churches can offer students a real-life context in which to practice what they learn in the classroom. And churches often provide financial and emotional support to those training for vocational ministry.

On the flip side, he said that churches need seminaries for three reasons: Seminaries can educate ministers at the highest levels of academic excellence. Seminaries can give future pastors a strong theological grid with which to counter errant fads and trends. And seminaries can produce academic publications through which students can be helped long after they graduate. In the end, Boice concludes, “The church and seminary complement each other. The seminary would not exist without the church, and the church would be weakened without the seminary” (p. 15).

Dr. Boice’s sentiments were expressed a year earlier in another Christianity Today article entitled “Seminary Goes to Church” (2/10/78). It was a news article on the new seminary extension campus that had just been launched by John MacArthur and the leadership of Grace Community Church. Sam Ericsson, one of Grace’s pastors, was quoted as saying, “We want to integrate seminary students into the life of the church. It’s one thing to get head knowledge at seminary, but we feel that it is critical to get practical pastoral experience.”

The article continued with this description,

The Grace program, taught mostly by members of its own staff of twenty pastors, tries to involve students in as many facets of church life as possible. Instead of taking young people out of the church for three or four years of seminary, Grace has moved the seminary campus in-house to give its young people on-the-job training. (16)

Such describes what John MacArthur and the elders at Grace had been prayerfully envisioning for several years—a place where future pastors could be trained in the context of a local church.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MASTER’S SEMINARY

By God’s grace, the ministry of Grace Community Church was exploding in the 1970s. Several thousand people attended weekly services, and many more listened to John MacArthur’s preaching through a rapidly-expanding cassette tape (and eventually radio) ministry.

Leadership training and discipleship was a key part of everything happening, as godly men were identified both to fulfill key positions at Grace and to be sent out as pastors and missionaries. In many cases, their training necessitated a seminary education, which meant a lengthy commute to Talbot Seminary over an hour away several times a week. To help with carpooling, Grace Church purchased a bus and later several vans, enabling dozens of men to make the trip.

The staff at Grace recognized the need for seminary-level training closer to home. So an extension campus was started in the fall of 1977. There were only two full-time professors on site, and the teaching load was shared by the pastoral staff at Grace. Nine years later, in 1986, the extension became independent, and The Master’s Seminary (TMS) was officially born (as a sister school to The Master’s College). At that time, the seminary had an enrollment of 95 students and a full-time faculty of four. Today, the seminary has nearly 20 full-time faculty, with an enrollment approaching four hundred.

Since its inception in 1977, the seminary at Grace Church has made the relationship between academic training and church life a foremost priority. One of the seminary’s founding faculty members, Irv Busenitz, wrote the following in the mid-1980s:

The presence of a seminary on the campus of Grace enhances the training and intensifies the modeling. Not only are students daily exposed visually to the inner workings of the Body of Christ, but they are taught in the classroom by professors who are pastors and elders, men who are intimately involved in the ministry of Grace. Schools everywhere are recognizing the need to hire professors who can teach out of their own experience, bringing real life situations into the classroom to assist students in putting academic training into practical terms. [Here], that philosophy has been the focal point of our existence and practice since our inception.

Such remains true today, two decades later.

THE BENEFITS OF A CHURCH-BASED SEMINARY

TMS enjoys a number of benefits because of its close-knit relationship with Grace Community Church. For starters, the church serves as a “living lab” in which students can observe how expository preaching works itself out in everyday practice. Moreover, students are immediately presented with a variety of ministry and service opportunities—avenues through which they can directly apply what they are learning in the classroom. Because a number of classes are taught by Grace Church pastors, students have continual access to professors with real-world experience. In a sense, it’s like a medical school that is based at a hospital; the students are constantly being exposed to the very thing they are training to do.

On the flip side, there are numerous benefits for Grace Church as well. Most of the pastoral staff have been trained through TMS. The congregation is deeply blessed to have a plethora of seminary students who are eager to serve. And the extent of Grace’s ministry throughout the world has greatly expanded as men trained at TMS go to churches and mission fields around the globe. With nearly a thousand alumni serving in 46 states and 40 countries, TMS is more committed than ever to its stated mission: “To advance the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping men to be pastors and/or trainers of pastors for excellence in service to Christ in strategic fields of Christian ministry.”

A WORD OF ENCOURAGEMENT FOR PASTORS AND PROFESSORS

Not every church can or should start a seminary. There is a sense in which Grace Church’s experience with The Master’s Seminary is unique and unrepeatable. But there is also a sense in which many pastors and professors could do more to bridge the gap between church and seminary. Pastors need to remember that they have a biblical responsibility to entrust the truths that they have learned to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2). This may be as simple as a weekly men’s discipleship group or an informal lay-training center. But pastors who are indifferent about raising up the next generation of godly men neglect a primary biblical responsibility.

At the same time, seminary and Bible college professors must not forget that they are part of a parachurch ministry—the primary goal of which is to strengthen and assist the church. Their efforts in the classroom should point students back to the local church, not away from it. Students who excel should not be discouraged from the pulpit ministry (for something more academically “prestigious”), but rather encouraged to embrace it as the highest calling on earth. The only institution Christ promised to build was the church, and his body deserves the best and the brightest.

The philosophy that undergirds The Master’s Seminary is one of import to the future of evangelicalism—namely, that pastoral leadership training and local church ministry should go hand in hand. Whether this takes place on the same campus or through some other means, pastors and professors must each resolve to bridge the gaps between church and classroom. As Dr. Boice put it, “The church and seminary complement each other. . . . Neither can function effectively without the other. The seminary needs the church. The church needs the seminary.”

By:
Nathan Busenitz

Nathan Busenitz teaches Historical Theology at The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, California.