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Diploma disease

August 2003 | by Kieran Beville

Weare all familiar with the economic concept of inflation, where the prices of commodities increase with time. In recent decades there has also been a distinct trend toward educational inflation.

In other words, the qualifications required of potential employees are being continuously revised upwards. This tendency can also affect the church.

Quagmire

It ought to be a matter of concern that some advertised preaching/pastoral vacancies stipulate a Master’s degree as a prerequisite for applicants. This is an unhealthy development in the body of Christ, which may be symptomatic of the ‘diploma disease’ that affects the minds of many people today.

It leads to confusion when credentials are mistaken for credibility, or competence for character. This form of recruitment leads into a qualifications quagmire that is hazardous to the health of the church.

Education is a wonderful thing and many whom God has deigned to use in the history of the church have been well educated. John Wesley and George Whitfield, for example, were graduates of Oxford University.

But it is equally true that many men who, by God’s grace, were instrumental in the work of the kingdom have been uneducated. D. L. Moody had very little education and C. H. Spurgeon had no theological training.

Dr Campbell Morgan also had no ministerial training and was turned down by the Methodists when he gave his trial sermon.

Human ability

What lies behind this insistence on postgraduate education in theology? Could it be an unhealthy reliance on human ability? We need to beware of thinking that a better education will make us more effective Christians!

Qualifications, like money and manpower, are valuable assets but they do not necessarily make us more effective.

On the other hand, many churches have been harmed by insufficient attention to ministerial training. Formal preparation is highly desirable. Scripture emphasises the need for diligence in the study of the Word.

Thus Paul counsels Timothy: ‘Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15). This should be the rule.

An understanding of systematic theology and a historical perspective on developments and movements within the church (including error and heresy) are immensely helpful to the man in the pulpit.

Communion with God

It is important, however, that we should be willing to make exceptions – for the Holy Spirit does not restrict his divine activity to men of learning.

When the Jews heard the apostles preaching they were astonished: ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marvelled. And they realised that they had been with Jesus’ (Acts 4:13).

Untrained as they were, they were conduits for the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers need to be men who have ‘been with Jesus’.

When Moses descended from Mount Sinai it was evident that he had been in the presence of God, for ‘his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord’ (Exodus 34:29).

The church needs preachers who have unhurried communion with God, who radiate something of the glory of God.

With Paul, we should adopt a spiritual perspective when evaluating a person’s merits: ‘we regard no one from a worldly point of view’ (2 Corinthians 5:16). Knowledge of the Saviour is more important than knowledge of the subject.

Anointing

In 1 Samuel 16:1-13 we read of the choosing and anointing of David who, in the estimation of his own family, was totally unqualified.

As the sons of Jesse were paraded before Samuel, even the Lord’s servant said of Eliab: ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here’.

But the Lord counsels his servant, giving Samuel a profoundly significant insight into the heart of God: ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’.

One by one Jesse presented his sons, but he never even considered David for such a role. Samuel had to ask: ‘Are these all the sons you have?’ David was out in the fields, tending sheep and Samuel instructed that he be summoned.

We read the outcome in verse twelve: the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; he is the one’, and we are told ‘from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power’.

There was nothing obvious about David that qualified him to be the recipient of God’s gracious favour.

Despised and rejected

It is one thing to take educational qualifications into account when a man applies for ministry, but quite another thing for them to determine whether a man may apply in the first place.

I fear that the present trend in setting educational prerequisites for preachers and pastors focuses on the ‘external appearance’ and reflects a secular, not a sacred, approach.

Of Christ himself Isaiah tells us: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’ (53:2). Rather, he was ‘despised and rejected by men’ (53:3).

Why? Because he preached the truth and claimed to be the truth. The unique and universal claims of the gospel are anathema to those who prefer darkness to light.

Perhaps Jesus was also despised because he was a carpenter! Some asked: ‘Where did this man get these things? What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter?

‘Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3). And they took offence at him. Their attitude reflects contempt for the evident authority of an uneducated carpenter!

Ordinary men

Jesus called ordinary men to play significant roles in disseminating the message of the gospel. Men like Simon, Andrew, James and John were called to leave their fishing nets and boats behind and follow Christ.

They were simple, untrained men. One might argue that they spent three years learning from the Master before they were commissioned – but that was an informal mentoring arrangement rather than a structured educational programme with an accredited qualification at the end!

There were men of learning at the time of Christ. The Scribes and Pharisees were such a class. The apostle Paul was an eminent Pharisee with a notable pedigree (Philippians 3:4-6). He had been a student of the great Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

Nor was Paul the only educated member of the first-century church; Luke, for instance, was a physician.

Not many wise

1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 offers a biblical perspective on the issue. It is important that the text says: ‘Not many of you were wise by human standards’ (1: 26). It does not say ‘None of you…’.

While an educated man should not be debarred, it is naive to confuse education with wisdom. Educated people have no monopoly on competence.

Some might argue that times have changed and the average congregation is better educated than it once was. Perhaps, therefore, the preacher should have at least a Master’s degree?

Let one of the greatest preachers ever – Martin Luther – respond: ‘When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom I have about forty in the congregation.

‘I have all my eyes on the servant maids and the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open’ (quoted by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Preaching and Preachers, Hodder & Stoughton [1971] p.128).

Biblical qualifications

When we consider the biblical qualifications for office in the church we discover that they are not, in fact, professional qualifications or credentials at all. Rather, they are qualities of personal character.

No doubt a theological education helps – but it must never be a prerequisite that prevents potential pastors from ministering. We can become overly reliant on cognitive capacities rather than on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course a man must have a professional approach to his work. We are not excusing a shoddy approach to preaching or arguing against ministerial preparation. But we do speak against ‘professionalism’ in the Christian ministry.

Not by might

The words of the psalmist seem particularly apt: ‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God’ (Psalm 20:7).

Pastoral ‘search committees’ need to be careful in framing advertisements and selection criteria. Setting educational criteria as a prerequisite effectively debars many who are eligible according to biblical standards.

Let us not forget those wonderful words in Zechariah: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty’ (4:6).

Men who dedicate themselves to the formal training of others for ministry are to be commended not condemned! But some theological seminaries are being overtaken by a ritualised process of qualification earning, seeming more like businesses engaged in the ‘service sector’.

It is entirely legitimate for a man to aspire to a Master’s degree. But it is more important that he displays an evident ‘degree’ of the Master in his life.