SBC Theological Education and the 21st Century: Ten Declarations for the Future
General Dwight Eisenhower once mused that when it comes to warfare the plan is nothing but planning is everything. That aphorism brushes up against a reality for seminaries as well: the less predictable the future of theological education is, the more we must work to predict it. Or, better yet, the more we must work to determine it. Keeping these ten determinations will help ensure a healthy future for Southern Baptist theological education.
First, we must maintain confessional integrity. At first glance this determination is so predictable as to almost be taken for granted. However, just because maintaining confessional integrity is expected does not make it any less urgent. We should be reminded that we, as Southern Baptists, have yet to prove we can successfully maintain confessional faithfulness in our seminaries for more than one generation. Confessional integrity is essential to orthodox belief and witness. Scripture is replete with exhortations for believers to steward and preserve the Christian faith. Appeals like “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13 NASB), “contend earnestly for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3 NASB) and “guard the truth” (2 Tim 1:14 NLT) stand as theological admonitions, apostolic injunctions for believers.
This confessional commitment must include a statement that is as clear and comprehensive as possible; a faculty that keeps it with hill integrity; a president who vigilantly guards the integrity of the process; a governing board that provides ongoing oversight and accountability; and, most especially, churches that remain engaged with their institutions. Churches that fail to exercise oversight will likely become victims of the institutions they founded. Dirty faucets always pollute clean basins.
Southern Baptist seminaries are more theologically conservative than they have been in nearly a century, with the BFM2000—the most conservative and comprehensive statement of faith ever adopted by the SBC—serving as the primary instrument of accountability. Theological trust was hard earned but can be lost easily. It leaves town on horseback; it returns on foot. SBC seminaries, and the denomination as a whole, must maintain doctrinal vigilance.
Our charge is faithfulness to our confessional expectations regardless of from where—and from whom—the agitation to compromise may come. Can we maintain transgenerational theological faithfulness? The SBC has yet to prove it can.
Second, we must maintain mission clarity. The mission of Southern Baptist seminaries is clear: to train pastors, missionaries, and ministers for Southern Baptist churches and for the mission field. However, financial challenges tempt institutions toward mission compromise, and seminaries often succumb to that temptation.
Funding challenges have been a primary—if not the primary propeller of mission compromise. Just as plants grow toward light, so institutions bend to ward their sources of funding. Herein is an added reason for strong Cooperative Program support—for the most assured way to maintain ownership and influence is to hold the purse strings.
More specifically, Southern Baptist seminaries must make priority number one training pastors—specifically pastors for Southern Baptist churches. The distinguishing marks of the church are the preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of the ordinances. A pastor is indispensable to these tasks.
Furthermore, the vast majority of our churches have one, and only one, staff member—the pastor. If our churches cannot look to our seminaries and find pastors, where will they be able to look?
The preaching and teaching of Holy Scripture is the principal responsibility of the Christian minister, and it is the central need of the church. In fact, in order to be biblically qualified to be a Christian minister, one must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2 NIV). Paul repeatedly charged Timothy to a faithful ministry of the Word with exhortations like, “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13NASB), “guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you” (v. 14 NLT), “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Em 2:15 ESV), and “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). These exhortations, and many others, require a renewed mind—and an informed one. There simply is no place in ministry for sloppy exegesis, shoddy interpretation, or shallow sermons.
Third, we must develop sustainable business models. This is probably the least glamorous aspect of a seminary president’s job, but these days it is the most time-consuming. The escalating costs of higher education, a shrinking offering-plate dollar, tapering national demographics, diminishing confidence in the value of higher education, and a weakened Cooperative Program all coalesce to undermine the business model of the past. At the same time, affordability remains a pressing concern for prospective students.
These challenges create a consumeristic and competitive context in theological education. Simply put, institutions are spending more and more money to recruit fewer and fewer students. These dynamics explain why a recent survey of “turnaround institutions” revealed that entrepreneurial leadership is a consistent trait of successful turn-around schools.
Southern Baptist seminaries are not immune to these challenges. Will Southern Baptists renew their collaborative ministry efforts and strengthen their giving through the Cooperative Program, or will giving continue to soften? The recent downsizing and restructuring at the International Mission Board is the most graphic warning of the financial challenges we face.
Though some recent CP indicators are encouraging, this is an open question with significant consequences. These realities should be interpreted as more than an appeal for more money from our churches. It is an appeal for wise stewardship, entrepreneurial leadership, and skillful management from our seminaries. Deeper into the twenty-first century, there will be two types of seminaries, those who find a sustainable business model and those who find themselves out of business.
Fourth, we must be agile and adaptable. Modern delivery systems have up ended traditional models of higher education. Online, modular, and hybrid delivery formats have all become conduits to distribute theological education. When these delivery models supplement residential education—forward deploying theological education for those who cannot travel to seminary—it is healthy and commendable. Online delivery systems, when rightly purposed, can expand theological education. When done in a way that compromises sound pedagogy, weakens the rigor of ministry’ preparation, or practices minimalistic standards, it undermines theological education.
Innovation is a wave to be ridden—not a liability to be avoided—for it can greatly extend a seminary’s reach. Regardless, the future is here, and it cannot be wished away. Nonetheless, residential education should always be primary and preferred. It should be most incentivized by the SBC, the seminaries, and our funding models. This prioritization is in the best interest of the students, the seminaries, the church, and the entire SBC.
Fifth, we must serve Southern Baptist churches. Southern Baptist seminaries exist to serve Southern Baptist churches. As long as Southern Baptist churches exist, they will need prepared ministers. Therefore, the mandate for theological education will persist as long as there is a Southern Baptist Convention. The most biblical seminary understands it has a tight to exist inasmuch as it serves the local church. Out of mission, opportunity’, and necessity, now is the time for theological education to be wedded to local churches. The decades ahead should be a season of great partnership between the seminaries and the church. Tragically, in our past this has not always been the case.
Sixth, we must prioritize the master of divinity degree. In the world of theological education, the master of divinity degree has long been the gold standard for ministry preparation, and its sole status is well deserved. In it one finds the complete tool kit for ministry service: Greek and Hebrew, New Testament and Old Testament, theology, church history, preaching, pastoral care and counseling, evangelism, missions, and much, much more.
Yet, in many seminaries the master of divinity degree has fallen on hard times. In recent years shorter and less rigorous master of arts degrees have siphoned off students from the master of divinity degree. The advent of online education ac celebrated this shift, with accrediting agencies approving the shorter MA degrees nearly a decade before approving the MDiv degree.
We do not settle for shabbiness in any other area of life, so why would we settle for it in Christian ministry? When my automobile needs servicing, I do not take it to a backyard mechanic. When I need an accountant, I do not look for someone merely good with a calculator. When I have a sick child, I do not take him to a physician who occasionally dabbles in pediatrics. Let us not subject our churches to such shoddiness either. Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. is no time for amateur hour.
Seventh, we must continually make a prima facie case for our existence. Our cultural moment necessitates rigorous ministry preparation. Every generation presents the church with particular challenges, but our generation comes with unique baggage and angularity. It is not that the twenty-first century is more fallen or more secular than previous ones, but it may well be more complex. Befuddling ethical questions, the often tortuously complex ramifications of sin, and a cultural intelligentsia devoting its best energies to undermining the Christian belief system all present the church with serious challenges. The lost need more than shallow answers from ill-equipped ministers. They need ministers prepared to bring the hill complement of Christian truth to bear in a winsome, thoughtful, and compelling way.
Eighth, we must determine to celebrate enrollment in terms of strength, not primarily size. There is a difference between the two. We are Southern Baptists and we like big. However, the future likely will present us with a different scenario. Tapering national demographics and a contracting denomination may bring our seminaries smaller enrollments in the future. After all, we receive no more students than the churches call out and send to us.
There are technical, operational challenges associated with a smaller enrollment, but there are also the psychological ones. We live in a world, and minister within a denomination, where bigger is always better. This is not altogether bad. Ml along we best judge ourselves by how many pastors (first) and ministers (second) we are producing for Southern Baptist churches. Therefore, we will do well to understand our health in terms of strength of enrollment, not size of enrollment.
Ninth, we must determine to look to churches for accountability and partnership. Simply put, as a seminary president I care more about the issues than I care about the institution I lead. If in the future this seminary gives up the inerrancy of Scripture or forfeits the gospel, I am happy for the buildings to crumble. My hope for the long-term doctrinal soundness of my institution is not rooted in the confidence I have in my successor several times removed; it is rooted in the confidence I have in grassroots Southern Baptists.
Tenth, we must determine to labor for the overall SBC project. The liability of the SBC, as a denomination, is that it gives more to every entity at every level—local, state, and national—than it requires of us to put into it. We can either work together, collectively, faithfully, and earnestly, to strengthen our partnership through the Cooperative Program, or we will one day find ourselves collectively suffering, the likes of which will make the current 1MB restructuring look mild. In the long run one cannot have healthy SBC seminaries individually without a healthy SBC corporately.
Are Southern Baptists enjoying a golden era in theological education? Absolutely. But present health does not guarantee future health. The twenty-first century demands seminaries be strategic with resources, intentional in serving their constituencies, and unquestionably faithful to the Word of God and the classic disciplines of theological education.
After all, theological education, at its core, is timeless. In many ways theological education in the twenty-first century should resemble theological education in any century—transmitting the classic disciplines to pastors, ministers, and evangelists for the church. If we remain strategic and faithful, keeping these ten determinations for the future, our churches will be strengthened, and our golden era will be extended.
*This article is an except from The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment. Edited by Jason K. Allen (B&H Academics). The culmination of a landmark symposium on the campus of Midwestern Seminary, this book features contributions from President Allen, Frank Page, Ronnie Floyd, Thom Rainer, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, David Platt, Danny Akin, Justin Taylor, Collin Hansen, and more on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Available to purchase online at Amazon.com and B&H Publishing and in LifeWay Christian Stores. Learn more at jasonkallen.com/sbc21book.topicsHigher Education, Southern Baptist, theological education
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