Wade was raised in a Christian church, and grew up never questioning its tenets. However, while Wade could explain that salvation from sin is only possible through Jesus Christ, it was not until his senior year of high school that he actually repented of his sin and put all of his faith and hope in Christ for salvation. His pastor played a major role in his conversion. Having truly found Christ for the first time, he exhibited zealous joy and conviction. He graduated high school and wanted to pursue whatever profession would allow him to love Christ the most, so becoming a pastor seemed the likely option. The more he thought about it, the more the ambition fortified in his mind. He would love the opportunity to be the influence on others that his pastor was on him, but he was also open to involvement in missions, biblical counseling, or any other full-time, vocational ministry. This desire became so strong the he was eventually convinced that he was called to pastoral ministry. His church was happy to see his newfound enthusiasm, and encouraged his desires. So Wade applied for the necessary student loans and enrolled in Bible college to begin pursuing his ambition of being a pastor.
Wade enjoyed many aspects of Bible college, and he did quite well in most of his classes. However, after his first year it became evident that his maturity was not growing quite as fast as his knowledge. Yet this was not evident to him, since he equated knowledge with maturity. Wade thought that his growing mental dexterity with theological concepts meant he was growing in Christ. There were certain sins in Wade’s life that he viewed as minor, so he overlooked them. He often wanted to be exalted in the eyes of others, which was evidenced by selfishness in his words and actions. Sometimes he would make his intentions sound more pious than they really were. Wade knew the gospel and believed it, but was slow to apply it to his daily life. He was not very proactive in sharing it with others, and when he did, it was usually out of a feeling of obligation, since that is what Christians are supposed to do. He was not very committed to prayer and the Word, as his time spent in both was pretty sparse. Discipline had also become a problem, as he was known to slack off if he thought he could get away with it.
Near the end of his Bible college degree program, Wade began to notice these immaturities. What discouraged him even more was that he was not seeing them get any better. To cap it off, he had recently had a couple of opportunities to preach, and his skill was mediocre at best. Upon graduation, Wade realized he possessed nowhere near the maturity that he felt a pastor should, but he still felt a very real desire and calling to be a pastor. Wade was now faced with a terribly difficult yet critical decision. Should he go to seminary hoping that the necessary growth in godliness and ability would come, or should he begin seeking other options outside vocational Christian ministry?
Wade is, in many ways, the paradigmatic Bible college student. While many of this article’s readers may not be able to relate to Wade’s entire story, every student in Bible college can see numerous aspects of their experience echoed in Wade’s. Many students graduate high school with plenty of zeal, and want to serve Christ to their utmost potential, and pursuing vocational ministry emerges as the most worthy option. While they enjoy their experience, growth and maturity does not come quite as quickly as they would like. They begin to question if Bible college was really the right choice. They never gave much thought to whether or not Bible college was the best option to prepare for their ambitions, or that there could be improper motives behind such ambitions.
The purpose of this article is not to vent about negative experiences at any particular institution, or to belabor the point that both the pastor and the plumber can serve Christ meaningfully. The purpose is not to “afflict the comfortable” or to grumble about overused Christian clichés simply for the sake of being provocative. The purpose of this article is to discuss what it means to have Christ-centered ambitions, and the best means of pursuing them. Let us begin accomplishing this task by discerning four of the errors Wade made in his journey.
First of all, Wade typified the American individualism that is so prominent in our culture. Being a product of the public school system and its kitschy platitudes, he knew that if he could dream it, he could do it! Growing up in this existential milieu embedded within his instincts the impulse to pursue whatever desires he had for his future, especially if they were as noble as becoming a pastor! This philosophy, however, runs against the grain of Scripture. Biblically, while the ambition to be a pastor1 is certainly a noble one2, the question of whether or not one is called to pastoral ministry is a question of gifting and appointing, not necessarily zeal and ambition.
For example, the apostle Paul did not have such autonomy in his pursuit of his ministry, but was appointed to his position. Paul is one of the few men to receive his ministry directly from Christ. He makes this claim in the opening of the majority of his letters, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope.”3 This appointment to ministry was indeed confirmed by the other leaders in the early church.4
The model that Paul then bestows upon us for men being called to ministry continues to be that of elders appointing elders.5 Paul appointed Timothy and Titus, who were then instructed to appoint more elders, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”6 This is consistently the biblical model, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”7 The men to be appointed were to meet certain qualifications,8 the only one of which that is not expected of all Christians is the ability to teach.9
Wade bucked the biblical system. No elder recognized within him all of the qualifications for a pastor or that he was a gifted teacher. Wade never even evaluated himself to see if he fit the biblical criteria. Wade simply had a desire, determined he was called to pastoral ministry, pulled up his bootstraps, and set to make it happen. Wade’s alienation from the biblical model of pastoral ministry was only one of his mistakes.
A second error Wade made was that he believed the knowledge Bible college offered was equivalent to growing in Christ. Wade thought that the best way to prepare for ministry was to learn as much as he could about the Bible, theology, history, expositional methods, etc. Wade did not understand that the qualifications for a leader in the church are concerned with godly living, not expansive knowledge. Assuredly, a learned understanding of the Scriptures and the theology Bible college provides a student is immensely profitable to producing a godly life. However, this education is the means, not the end, and the community that God instituted to bring about such growth was the local church, not the Bible college.
A third error of Wade’s was his lopsided emphasis in his desire to serve Christ. Wade operated out of the belief that if a person really loved Jesus, he or she would pursue a vocation where they were paid for their ministry, like a pastor, missionary, biblical counselor, etc. Those training to be Christian pastors loved Jesus, whereas those training to be Christian mechanics only liked him. Wade did not have a Christian worldview of work.
Wade did not understand that work is fundamental to who God is and what it means to be human. In the creation account of Genesis we learn many things about God and man. First, we see that God is a worker, and work is good. The Old Testament had two words for labor, and the one attributed to God was that of work performed by a craftsman or an artisan.10 We also see that God assigned man with work of his own. In his book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work To God’s Work, Timothy Keller explains, “We see God not only working, but commissioning workers to carry on his work. In Genesis chapter 1, verse 28 he tells human beings to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’… The word ‘subdue’ indicates that even in its original, unfallen form, God made the world to need work. He made it such that even he had to work for it to become what he designed it to be, to bring forth all its riches and potential.”11 Among all the prominent faiths of the world, this view of connecting man’s work with God’s work is uniquely Christian.
Had Wade understood the biblical doctrine of work, he would have a high value of serving Christ through many means other than pastoral leadership. Wade would see that the primary way in which God provides for his people is through the labor of both Christians and unbelievers. Martin Luther explained it this way in his Large Catechism, “When you pray for ‘daily bread’ you are praying for everything that contributes to your having and enjoying your daily bread… You must open up and expand your thinking, so that it reaches not only as far as the flour bin and baking oven but also out over the broad fields, the farmlands, and the entire country that produces, processes, and conveys to us our daily bread and all kinds of nourishment.”12 As Keller comments on this concept, “So how does God ‘feed every living thing’ (Psalm 145:16) today? Isn’t it through the farmer, the baker, the retailer, the website programmer, the truck driver, and all who contribute to bring us food?”13 Even the most modest of jobs, like that of a janitor or sandwich-delivery driver, are masks through which God cares for his people, and works all things for the good of those who love him.
Had Wade embraced this biblical doctrine of work, he would relish the opportunity to serve God and others in a vocation that he would have previously deemed “secular.” The question would no longer be, “What vocation serves and glorifies God most?” Rather, as Keller says, “The question must now be, ‘How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and human need?”14 Wade’s failure to understand the value of all work caused him to have a misguided commitment to becoming a pastor.
We can glean one more fundamental error in Wade’s story. Unwittingly, Wade was being irresponsible in regards to his future. Like most Christian men his age, he wanted a wife and kids, and he wanted them soon. He also understood his biblical responsibility to lead and provide for his family.15 However, he was banking on the financial offerings of a church to do so. His plan after he graduated seminary was to go on staff at a church, where his salary, and hence the support of his family (and payment on student loan debt), would be paid by the congregation he was serving. This is certainly an acceptable arrangement, and is prescribed in Scripture.16 The problem lies in the fact that Wade was assuming that such an arrangement would be available. What would happen if Wade could not find a church to hire him? What if the church that did hire him did not have the financial means to support him and his family? Wade had neglected to learn a trade after high school since he was committed to his studies at Bible college. There are not many employers looking to hire individuals with a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies. Wade’s lack of preparation for the possible circumstances of his future could prove to be very unfortunate for him and his family.
In light of Wade’s story, why is Bible college probably a bad idea?
First, as the Bible college is meant to train and equip men and women for ministry, it subverts God’s primary community for such grace in the Christian’s life, namely the local church.17 It is in these local manifestations of the Body of Christ—marked by a plurality of elders, the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of baptism and communion, and church discipline18—that God nourishes and disciples his children. It is in this context that believers are to be taught and grown. As shown earlier, the local church is also the primary context in which God calls and appoints individuals as elders or pastors. When the Bible college is the means by which believers are taught and equipped for ministry, it pushes God’s institution, the local church, to the periphery.
Second, very few doors are opened by a degree from Bible college. The typical doors through which a Bible college graduate passes are that of seminary, pastoral ministry, global missions, etc. None of these doors, however, would be closed to a graduate with a degree in business, biology, physical therapy, etc., but in some instances these doors might even widen. Also, it is certain these degrees would open a myriad of doors not available to the Bible college graduate. As far as opportunities to glorify God through work and ministry, a degree from Bible college can prove highly impractical.
Third, related to the last point, a degree from a Bible college does little in the way of providing means by which to provide for your family. A degree from Bible college has an incredibly limited marketability. Many individuals who can provide for a family with a degree from Bible college do so in spite of their degree, not because of it.
Fourth, Bible college can often neglect the most important aspect of preparing to lead in ministry, namely a godly life. As stated earlier, while the biblical and theological proficiency that a Bible college education provides can certainly equip an individual for a godly life and therefore leadership in ministry, it is only a means to the end. There are many aspects to preparation for ministry that are not inherent to Bible college, like being on mission for the gospel in your local community, a habit of devotion to prayer and the Word, a love for others that compels you to service, or the humility that leads to a holy life, among many other things.
To conclude then, if Bible college is probably a bad idea, what is the viable, effective alternative? There are many such alternatives to be sure, but they would all stem from a proper understanding and reparation of the mistakes that Wade made. First, ask how you can be of greatest service to people, knowing what you do about God’s will, human needs, and your gifts and opportunities.
Answering this question, go to a public university and get a degree with which you can contribute to the human endeavor of work, a degree that can be used to provide for a family. Value such work. During your time at such an institution, learn how to be on mission. Most importantly, completely consign yourself to the local church—the community that God established for discipleship, teaching, training, and growing in godliness. Do not be cavalier in your desire to lead in ministry by assuming you are called. Let yourself be observed and appraised by the elders in authority over you. “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.”19 While you are leading this life, if elders see you are equipped and qualified to lead in ministry, serve with humility.
1.This article holds the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” as synonymous. For a biblical defense of this position, see Wayne Grudem’s chapter on church government in Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 904-49.
2. Cf. 1 Timothy 3:1
3. 1 Timothy 1:1 ESV
4. Cf. Acts 9:26-30; Galatians 2:1-2
5. While the proper way to appoint elders is an issue of debate, it should be noted that nowhere in Scripture does a congregation appoint its leaders, nor are they commended to. Rather, every biblical example is that of elders appointing elders.
6. Titus 1:5 ESV
7. Acts 14:23 ESV
8. Cf. Titus 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 3:27
9. While “being a husband of one wife” is not expected of all Christians, the principle of fidelity is certainly expected.
10. Cf. Genesis 2:2. See Hamilton, V.P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans, 1990), 142.
11. Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012), 33, 57.
12. Luther’s Large Catechism: With Study Questions, trans. F. Samuel Janzow (Concordia, 1978), 90.
13. Keller, Timothy. Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (Dutton, 2012), 71.
14. Ibid., 67.
15. Cf. 1 Timothy 3:5, 5:8
16. Cf. 1 Timothy 5:18
17. The argument is often made that most local churches were not doing their job therefore Bible colleges were necessary. Should we be that quick to throw away God’s plan “A”? He gives no plan “B”. Even if all the churches in the area had abdicated their role, why not start a local church that fills the gap, rather than a Bible college?
18. For the necessary marks of a local church, see Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 874.
19. 1 Corinthians 7:17 ESV