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Covenant Education: Grade School Through Seminary

It is not to be wondered at that many today are discussing and implementing alternative methods of preparing young men for ministry (often with the local church, rather than an off-site seminary, assuming the responsibility.)

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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It is not to be wondered at that many today are discussing and implementing alternative methods of preparing young men for ministry (often with the local church, rather than an off-site seminary, assuming the responsibility.) We hear many complaints about the generally sad product being turned out by seminaries (even Reformed ones) today. I have my own share of stories I could tell. A few years ago, for example, I was at the examination of a ministerial candidate, a graduate of Westminster Seminary of Philadelphia. The young man was fresh and eager, but no fit candidate for ministry in a Reformed church. He was completely unable to articulate anything about the apologetic of Cornelius Van Til. When asked about the Antithesis, he answered, "I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know what it is." Various other responses indicated an abysmal lack of Reformed knowledge. He had graduated with a better than "B" average.

Such stories could be multiplied, and that not surprisingly. After all, we live in an age when even "conservative" Presbyterian denominations look more closely at the results of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory than at the candidate’s knowledge of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

We also live in a time wherein Presbyterians, including elders, send their children to public schools without raising a single congregational objection.

The routine admission of incompetent ministers and the routine acceptance of public school education of covenant children are closely related matters. Let me explain what I mean by appealing (surprise!) to the Jewish model.

In the (orthodox) Jewish community, all children, but especially the boys, are to receive a rigorous Jewish education. That means that by the time schooling is completed, Jewish boys and girls are thoroughly conversant with the history, customs and practices of the Jewish people. In yeshiva, the students learn Hebrew (plus the language of their nation of residence), Jewish history, Jewish thought and practice, and, oh yeah, "academics." What they learn in school is the "Biblical," talmudical, and historical background to what they see lived all around them in their Jewish home and community.

One of the consequences of this is that the "laity" are a highly educated bunch, covenantally considered. Any Jewish male is expected to be competent to lead a Jewish service. My father, for example, though not ordained, has led services many times in various synagogues. This is no eyebrow-raiser where I come from. On the contrary: it is normal. Among certain Presbyterians, of course, it would induce heart failure.

The distinctions belonging to a rabbi include (it is hoped) a more thorough knowledge of the why’s/wherefore’s/how-to’s. (Rabbis, incidentally, may belong to a particular synagogue, but they are more commonly looked upon as belonging to the community.)

A rabbi, unlike modern Protestant ministers, has to earn his stripes daily, i.e., he has and gains status because his wisdom is constantly put to the test. He is daily called upon to provide answers to the questions of a people who already know all the basic answers.

Compare this to what we see in many Christian circles. Education is often viewed pragmatically (will it help Johnny get a job?) as opposed to covenantally (will it contribute to Johnny’s ability to take his place as a righteous man among the covenant people of God?). By regarding a Christian education as a mere option or personal preference, rather than a covenant requirement, we ensure that the theological perspicuity of our collective children will be (relatively) low.

Pastors are those who have been sent to seminaries to (it is hoped) learn what, in the main, should already have been common knowledge among the people of God. They then emerge from seminary, are rubber-stamped at an examination, and are placed in pulpits where they labor to bring the people up to a speed that, all things being equal, should have been attained by a normal, 13-year-old covenant child who had been catechized.

I’ll skip a few steps, but what we end up with is a relatively ignorant Christian community being led by men who have learned not much more than a specialized vocabulary, along with corporate "church growth" skills, but, alas, men who may or may not be particularly gifted. The essential thing in most churches today is that they have finished seminary. Somehow, magical priestly powers are thought to be conferred upon those who have proven that their backsides can endure three years of lectures.

A vicious pattern is thus born. Ignorant people demand a magical ministry, young ministers are sent, with or without zeal, to minister to an ignorant people who believe that these men have "the answers," and their answers, in an antinomian culture, need not have any conformity to life as we know it. They may sound impressive, but they often know nothing. The real pity is, they can get away with it!

Further, ministers stay at charges a short time then move on to build careers (instead of ministries). And meanwhile, the people continue to park their children with one foot in church and the other in TV/public school/the world. Result? The water level of true knowledge among the people of God remains very low, or gets lower.

The answer to this state of affairs, it seems to me, lies in recognizing a few facts: An ignorant people insures a caste system in which ministers will be seen, not as gifted and knowledgeable, called servants, but as priests whose time at the magic kingdom (in Orlando, or Philadelphia, or St. Louis, or wherever), has somehow conferred upon them a magical kingdom status. That this serves neither congregant nor preacher should be evident. That it is killing the covenant community seems to be of precious little concern to most, however.

We need to see very clearly that the question of the training of clergy can be constructively addressed only in an environment wherein the people themselves are not only regarded as prophets, priests and kings, but trained to be such. If all God’s people are informed, the level of education/competence required of their leaders will be very high. If the people of God remain a lawless, ignorant bunch, they certainly don’t need a highly trained clergy.

As the level of covenant knowledge among God’s people rises, it may indeed turn out that intensive, seminary-like training, even away from the local church, is justified. But such an institution could only survive with a proven product, that is, if its graduates show—in real life—that their time away has resulted in their "getting the goods." Otherwise, the people would not hire them.

As long as the covenant people send their children to public schools, as along as the "religion" is treated as an "add-on" to real life, we will have a seminary system very much like we have now, or worse, wherein the goal is not faithfulness, but "success."

The bottom line: the solution to the seminary problem for the clergy begins at the door of first grade for all the covenant members. So long as we wink at people sending their covenant offspring to pagan schools, our seminaries cannot be expected to do anything except turn out pragmatists—career boys instead of ministers—for that is what the people will demand, and deserve.

An intermediate solution is to praise and encourage churches that rigorously train all their members in the language, faith and ways of the covenant, and to plant churches which expect the next generation to be schooled in Christ, not Moloch. In the meantime, churches desiring to be faithful should explore alternate methods of ministerial preparation in the knowledge that it is the result, not the process, that is the key. Such thinking may also lead to the discovery of processes which tend to ensure a better result.

Given the seminary system as we see it today, on-site training of future ministers at rigorously orthodox, covenant-keeping churches may prove to be the best method, at least for a while to come.

An ignorant laity will get pragmatic or abusive ministers every time. Count on it. An educated laity would not tolerate such mediocrity. So if you want qualified ministers, the best thing you can do is to have zero-tolerance for public school education.


  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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