Mailbag #21: Must Preachers Be Seminary-Trained?; Baby Dedications; Elders Disagreeing Over Calvinism


Must Preachers Be Seminary-Trained? »
Baby Dedications »
Elders Disagreeing Over Calvinism »

Dear 9Marks,

For the longest time I’ve been part of Baptist churches with a plurality of elders in which one elder was “the seminary guy” while the others were in full-time business work. When the “seminary pastor” took the pulpit, the teaching was solid, deep, and profound. When the lay elders took the pulpit, the sermons felt like the product of their spare time, like a weekend effort or hobby, leaving it sounding almost disingenuous.

Question: perhaps my experience is a limited one, but is it a disservice to the body when less then fully-trained men take the pulpit to feed the flock each week? Should lay elders without seminary background bring God’s word to the flock of Christ?

—Chris, Texas


In order, I’d answer your two questions, “No, but it can be.” And, “Sure, but not necessarily.” You knew my answers would be qualified, right?!

To say an elder is “able to teach,” I think, means that any elder should at least be able to teach in the church’s main gathering in an absolute pinch. He would stick to the Scriptures and divide them rightly, you know, even if only 34 people showed up after a blizzard and the regular preachers got snowed in. But it doesn’t mean that he should, in the ordinary course of things, be capable of holding the attention of 300 people every Sunday morning.

So my first response to your previous church-situations is, maybe those lay-elders should not have been preaching. An elder is worthy of double-honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). Not all should teach in large group settings. Maybe it would have been better to have asked the young seminarian in your church to fill in. Or to ask a nearby and trusted congregation to send someone whenever your preacher is on vacation or attending a life-changing 9Marks conference.

At the same time, I think it is healthy for a church to learn how to receive spiritual nourishment from teachers who are not as competent as their regular preacher. It teaches members to come for the Word, not for the man. That’s one problem with the whole “Excellence in everything!” theme that runs through church growth literature and dominates the programming of so many churches. “Excellence” gets measured in business (not faithfulness) terms and trains all of us to expect only commercially polished preachers. It does take time to cultivate a culture in a church that’s more interested in content than in style. Along these lines, churches should learn the patience of letting lay-elders learn to preach better little by little over time.

Now, if you are telling me that a brother just isn’t investing much time into preparation, then you should have a one-on-one conversation with that man. Not every man should take 20 hours to prepare every sermon. But every man should recognize the weightiness of the responsibility to feed the flock, and he should take whatever time he personally needs to get the job done rightly. And if a man is unwilling to do that, he should not be asked to preach.

Finally, let me say, seminary helps most of us, but seminary is hardly a biblical prerequisite for good preachers. So in general, I would encourage a man to go to seminary if he plans on making a career of preaching. But I certainly would not discourage lay-elders from preaching because they have not been.

Hope this helps.

Dear 9Marks,

In light of Bobby Jamieson’s article ‘Why New Testament Polity Is Prescriptive’ and thinking through biblically prescribed elements of the worship services, how should an elder think through baby dedications and the church?

—Cheston, Kentucky


Glad you called attention to Bobby’s article, which argues that “New Testament patterns of church polity should be considered prescriptive—that is, binding on churches across time and space.” It’s an excellent piece.

As for baby dedications, ah, well. Thanks for inviting me to offend all the parents of young children out there who feel sentimental about their baby dedications!

Growing up I attended churches that performed them. Mine today does not. Did the churches in the New Testament?Not according to the Bible, it seems.

If Bobby is correct, and we should only include those elements in our corporate gatherings which the New Testament churches included (making adjustments for various circumstances and being flexible in our forms, of course), should we rule out baby dedications? In fact, the element or practice or ceremony of baby dedications does press up against my regulative principle convictions ever so slightly. This effectively means I would not personally plan one, but if I am visiting your church and you conduct one, I’ll happily smile through it all and pray with the church for the child and not condemn you in my heart too much. Since we don’t see them in the Bible, my preference is to play it safe and not do them.

What’s the danger? Maybe there isn’t any. Or maybe it will give the church a wrong sense of a child’s membership in the community. Or maybe it will confuse people about the state of the child’s salvation, and ironically make them slightly more complacent about discipling the child as he grows. I don’t know. Maybe those things won’t happen. But this is why, as a general practice, I lean somewhat strongly in the direction of “If it’s not in the Bible, let’s not do it. We cannot go wrong that way.”

To me, baby dedications feel like a transition species in some sort of evolution away from infant baptism. (The words used in both kinds of ceremony do sound awfully similar.) Several centuries from now I can imagine a church historian excavating the fossils of church bulletins and seeing the words “Baby Dedication” in an order of service. “What is that?!” the historian will exclaim.

“Ah,” a colleague will knowingly nod. “That’s a late-twentieth century specimen called Paedo-Dedicatius. It was a transition species that evolved out of a herd of Presbtyerians roaming the North American continent who decided to join what were called ‘Bible churches.’ Their pastors were baptistic, so they wouldn’t baptize the babies, but they agreed to ‘dedicate’ them in order to placate the Presbyterian parents. Eventually the creature made its way into Baptist churches, too.”

“I see,” the first historian replies. “It’s a very strange looking animal.”

“Yes, indeed.”

“I just cannot imagine what it was like to walk about on the earth in those days! Makes me nervous to think about…By the way, what’s a Presbyterian?”

“Yes, those have gone extinct as well. You see…”

Now, having poked fun for just a bit, I will say, our church does a kind of baby dedication. Every time we take the Lord’s Supper, our church reads our church covenant, which includes these words: “We will endeavor to bring up such as may at any time be under our care, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” And that effectively amounts to what most baby dedications are—a promise from the church to raise up a child in the fear of the Lord. And my church does this monthly. For all the kids! But what I like about this is that it doesn’t ceremonialize that dedication for one individual by name, which is where the confusion might arise. I do think we are well within biblical bounds to make these kinds of broad commitments to one another when the church gathers.

Well, there it is. I don’t know you should call that the official 9Marks position on baby dedications. There isn’t one. But it is my pastoral counsel.

Dear 9Marks,

If a solo pastor is Reformed, is it wise for him to hire a second or third pastor who disagrees with him on secondary theological issues—namely, Calvinism—without damaging each other’s leading role? What should elders do in a case of strong disagreement over those issues? 

—Oskar, Honduras


Not everyone will like this answer, but here it is: pastors whose ministries are theologically-driven will have a difficult time working with other pastors who do not agree with them on the nature of God’s sovereignty in salvation. And that’s true whether someone is a Calvinist or a non-Calvinist. Pastors whose ministries are pragmatically-driven, however, will have an easier time working with other pastors who do not share their view on that particular doctrine. They might even boast about how they disagree but work together so well. Now of course, no one is purely one or the other: entirely theologically-driven or entirely pragmatic. We’re all something of a blend. But on the spectrum, pastors tend to fall onto one of these two sides.

There are several reasons it can be difficult for brothers who are theologically-driven to work together in the context of a church when they disagree on Calvinism. First, each side will be tempted to continually chafe under the other’s teaching whenever the matter explicitly arises. Second, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty shapes a person’s approach to ministry, which means they are more likely to disagree on ministry method and, therefore, the practical decisions that come up in the life of a church. The Calvinist’s methods may feel overly-passive to the non-Calvinist (“Why shouldn’t we do door-to-door evangelism!”). And the non-Calvinist’s methods may feel manipulative to the Calvinist (“Those altar calls just play on people’s emotions and yield fake decisions!”).

Ironically, I think that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists who take their theology seriously can feel a kind of kinship relative to those pastors who pay little attention to theology at all, even though they agree it would be difficult to work together. By analogy, I remember on one occasion a Muslim and I found ourselves discussing the idea of “truth” in a group where everyone else was a postmodern secularist. We felt a level of shared understanding for one another.

I trust there are exceptions, but in general I would encourage pastors only to nominate other pastors who agree with them on this particular secondary matter. Let Whitfield do his road show, and Wesley his, each while praying for the other.

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.