Despite the anti-intellectual impulses of many Christian groups, education is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. When you are born again, you realize that you have been living in a lie for years, and that you essentially have none of the tools to live in the truth… So you hunger for education. The real question is what we mean by “education.” In reality, there are two very different purposes for education, and therefore two different kinds of pursuits:
The first reason to educated is because you want credibility. The whole idea of getting a degree is that someone on the other end of that degree recognizes this as a valid credential to allow you to work for them (or get further education with them).
The second reason to get education is because you actually want to learn something. Now granted, often these things can overlap, but in my experience, the most enriching and significant learning experiences are not the ones that those on the outside recognize or will give you credit for. Therefore, make sure you understand you reason for getting education before you pursue it.
For those who want credibility, it is important to ask yourself, “Who do I want to place faith in my degree?” This is especially true in theological education. Most seminaries and colleges are associated with a particular group, and if not a group, then a movement. Those from that group or movement will respect your education, and those from outside will be suspicious of it. Some seminaries have broader credibility than others. Before you choose a seminary, know who will respect it.
Now for those who want education because they want to learn, there are many avenues which have to be recognized as education: Seminary, Bible College, Bible “Institutes”, Informal classes/conferences, mentoring, and self-study.
Seminary is the time tested way for churches to prepare students for ministry. It consists of a graduate level education, which is designed as a focused supplement to a broader undergraduate education. Historically it is considered “professional” education much like a doctor or lawyer. All liberal and mainline protestant groups such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodists, Lutherans and others require this kind of education. Most traditional evangelical groups like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Evangelical Free, and Evangelical Covenant, do as well.
Seminary typically is a 3-year experience where a young man is sent away from his church context trained in a number of Biblically related subjects and then hired into a church, often through no relational connection. Usually you work as an associate or even a youth pastor for a while, and eventually are “called” to be pastor of your own church. While this method is non-relational, it also means the broadest opportunities based on your degree. If you have a degree that a particular group recognizes, you will have a variety of opportunities within the group.
Among seminaries that could be termed “evangelical” because of their respect for the authority of the Bible, there are several major sub-types. These are the groupings I created for the wiki article: Reformed, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Wesleyan heritage, Dispensational heritage, General evangelical. It is beyond the scope of this article to name all 35 of the schools that I think fit the category “evangelical” so I’m going to stick to highlights for each category.
1. Reformed Seminaries. These are schools built specifically around Calvinism. Although you will get a good conservative education, I would not recommend attending one unless you are a Calvinist or are fairly tolerant of it because Calvinism permeates everything you will do. If you are a Calvinist, Reformed Theological Seminary is a good choice for distance education, Covenant Theological Seminary is a good choice for community and seminary experience, and Westminster Theological Seminary (East) is a good choice for academics.
2. Southern Baptist Seminaries. Since the conservatives have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention, all of the Southern Baptist seminaries provide good options. I would avoid Southern Seminary because their program is Calvinistic and 4 years long. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary is one that I would personally look at.
3. Pentecostal Seminaries. Being Pentecostal I’m biased here. I would probably avoid Oral Roberts especially with all of the controversy of late, but the Church of God, Assembly of God and Regent University all provide great option. Regent is a great program with lots of distance options, but it’s pretty expensive. Church of God has recently sparked my interest because they are producing some good thought on Pentecostal hermeneutics and are probably more “Pentecostal” and Wesleyan than the Assembly of God.
4. Wesleyan Heritage. Asbury Theological Seminary is the flagship of all Wesleyan/Arminian seminaries. It is large and has a top-notch faculty. It’s generally conservative, but has moved a little bit to the left by becoming part of the UMC recently. I’d look there for academics, but for the more conservative Wesley Biblical Seminary is the standout. They have an all distance M.Div (where you travel a couple of times). And it’s a shorter (75 hour) program. This is one of the few places where you can get old school Wesleyan/Arminian education.
5. Dispensational Seminaries. Dallas Theological Seminary is the capital of dispensational schools. Their program is long (4 years) and rigorous. They are highly cessationist too. I would not attend any dispensational school by choice. Dispensationalism, and the corresponding cessationism are very problematic.
6. General Evangelical Seminaries. When the evangelical movement got momentum, the late Harold Ockenga of Park Street Church had the vision to bring some men together and start new seminaries. Central to his vision was an intellectually vigorous faith. He started Fuller Theological Seminary, but they went liberal very early, and today they are still going that way. With the help of Billy Graham, he then founded Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which is one of the most broadly respected seminaries, thoroughly evangelical, and has a very high quality faculty. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and Talbot School of Theology/Biola University in Los Angeles are two of the other high quality, general evangelical conservative options.
While there are other seminaries out there, I would only consider paying for a multi-year graduate education like this if it is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, which is the most appropriate body of recognition for these kinds of schools and includes a broad base such as Harvard, Princeton and other non-Evangelical seminaries. As such, common to all of these schools is a general emphasis on the academic elements of Christian learning. The benefits of completing a Master of Divinity at one of these schools is the broad recognition associated. Any evangelical will immediately recognize an evangelical education and credentials, although of course different churches and groups within church have specific standards or expectations as well. Moreover, these programs qualify you for doctoral level work at any of the world’s finest universities. They are fairly rigorous and comparable to obtaining a Master’s level education in any other subject–except that 3 years is very long for a masters degree. They are also relatively expensive.
By the same token, the focus of the work is definitely more academic than practical or spiritual. In many of these schools you will find you learn more about the Bible related topics and backgrounds than you do the Bible itself. You will also find the spirituality of the students to be very uneven, as this is not an admission criteria. In general, this is not an environment where I would recommend anyone grow spiritually. In fact, I would consider this type of education standing on its own to be spiritually dangerous. It is more likely to produce spiritual pride, promote bad family/life balance, and inordinate attention to details and extra biblical materials, than it is to produce ministers competant to speak to the next generation. That said, for those who feel called at the highest levels of academics, or for whom credentials may become important for some reason, these are excellent vehicles, when done in conjunction with a functioning church life.
Bible Colleges in some ways were a response to the old-fashioned Seminary type of education. As many of the Seminaries were hijacked by liberals in the early 20th century, and before the evangelical resurgence in Seminaries, people saw that the Seminary education was actually detrimental to producing ministers, and also did not match their core convictions about education being focused on the Bible and ground in confidence in its inspiration. Many Bible colleges were founded in this era. The Assemblies of God has several undergraduate “Bible Colleges” which offer a high quality and well respected education. I’ve talked to several people who have gone to Berean/Global University because of the affordability, but note, it’s not yet regionally accredited. If you do not have an undergraduate degree and are looking for formal education they are good options, and there are many others. Regent now has an undergraduate program. In general, however, I personally would not study theology in undergraduate school. I would either skip college and do a more practical education, or I would study something else like Political Science, History, Economics, Business, etc and do the theology at Seminary. This is because Bible College education usually doesn’t directly qualify you for ministry. People end up wanting or needing to go to Seminary, and then they complain it’s a big repeat and they miss their chance to learn about the rest of the world.
Charismatics generally do not appreciate formal educational approaches such as those listed above because they tend to focus on the head and not the heart. But yet, they realize that ministers need education. Therefore almost every Charismatic group has some kind of less formal training program. I’m calling anything that is not accredited and/or only offers Bible majors an institute. The number of these kinds of options stagger the mind. It’s important to recognize that this kind of education generally does not gain you credibility, except with the very specific group who recommends it to you. You take this education because you want to grow. Here are a few Charismatic options.
1. Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. Almost a college, but not quite. Founded by the campaign manager for the great prophet William Branham. This school has produced some awesome worship and generally is one of the strongest schools for training and equiping the whole Christian person. Residential only.
2. Christian International Ministry College. This is a program developed and supervised by Bill Hamon. It has a nice combination of a Spiritual as well as rational emphasis, although I do not have any direct information from someone who has attended or how rigorous it may actually be.
3. Portland Bible College. Founded out of the Latter Rain. Kevin Conner, perhaps the world’s leading Charismatic Bible teacher was a key part of it’s founding years.
4. The FIRE School of Ministry. Founded out of the Brownsville Revival and led by Dr. Michael Brown. I don’t know what else you might get there, but you will get some heat.
5. Morningstar School of Ministry. Although I have never been a follower of Rick Joyner per se, Steve Thompson, director of the School is really top notch, and here I know you could certainly get a lot of the Spiritual aspects lacking from other programs. Pinecrest Bible Training Center, founded by one of the fathers of the Morningstar movement, is also of intrest to me.
6. Forerunner School of Ministry. Mike Bickle’s training arm. Get ready to eat drink and sleep prayer.
7. The Wagner Leadership Institute is another interesting semi-formal program, which in the past had some of the leading Charismatic ministers teaching the courses, but I don’t think it’s gotten off the ground in quite the way that originally seemed promised, and I think it’s very overpriced for what you get.
8. Institute of Spiritual Development. This program is under development and it is all about the prophetic and dreams. John Paul Jackson has done alot to advance the general state of prophetic training, having developed a really cutting edge training in many facets of revelatory training including a number of courses. I would love to spend some time in these courses. Recognize, however, this is really just a prophetic school, it’s not a full fledged ministry or Bible training.
This leads to a few concluding remarks. I really don’t find any one of these avenues particular satisfying in itself. For those with the discipline, and who already posses a college education, I think it’s best to grow in the Lord as the Spirit directs you through an intentional and formalized process of progressive study. This allows you to drink at many different wells without becoming narrow or dried up. Ultimately it’s about having a passion for God and being like Him…. I think pursuing one’s education before the Lord in this way faciliates that well…