The Value of Theological Education

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The Vice-Principal of Christ College, the Reverend Doctor John McClean, welcoming students, friends, and family at the annual convocation and graduation service

The Value Of Theological Education And Why Christ College Was The Right Decision For Me

A low view of the functions of the ministry will naturally carry with it a low conception of the training necessary for it…And a high view of the functions of the ministry on evangelical lines inevitably produces a high conception of the training which is needed to prepare men for the exercise of these high functions‘ – B.B. Warfield (from the academic prospectus published by the Masters Seminary, p 27)

Why Christ College?

‘Why did you choose Christ College?’ is the question that my friends often ask when they find out that I’m studying in preparation to serve in vocational ministry. Out of the wide variety of theological institutions, why the Presbyterian college (especially since I’m not Presbyterian)?

The answer to this question is both easy and difficult in the sense that it was an easy decision in hindsight, but a difficult conclusion to arrive at. Therefore, the answer is rather multifaceted and is a product of a number of years worth of research, conversations, and prayer.

To begin with, I’d like to highlight that I agree with Warfield (see quote above) that there is a close correlation between one’s view of ministry and training. Therefore, the selection of a theological institution was of great importance because I knew that it would largely affect my theological framework, my view of the ministry, and my foundational competence. The ‘call’ or privilege of being affirmed of the skills suitable for the pastorate is indeed a high call and high privilege, so I saw it necessary to find the best institution to set me up for my future ministries. I’m aware that some may not share a similar conviction, whether it is a disagreement with the nature of ‘calling’ or the function of the pastorate, but these are my presuppositions and they are the lenses through which I’ve viewed my search for a good school.

In light of this, part of the ‘problem’ in selecting a school is that Australia as a whole and Sydney specifically is incredibly blessed with some great theological institutions and a choice of either would have been a great decision. So how did I come to my conclusion?

A bit of Background

Both of my parents have been involved in theological education for over a decade. The Malaysian Baptist Theological Seminary was my home (literally because we lived on campus) up till I was 15 years old, and my parents both served as lecturers in the Department of Practical Theology during that period. As a result, seminary education was often part of dinner conversations throughout my youth.

As you can probably imagine, this has largely affected my view firstly of the pastorate but also my view of the formation of the pastor in seminary ( the use of the word ‘seminary’ will replace ‘bible/theological college’ because it is a much more widely used term for those engaged in training to be pastors). I knew that a lot of spiritual and academic foundations were laid in the precious 3-4 years of a M.Div, so I wanted to make sure that I could make the wisest decision for me and my future congregation.

My Four Criteria

As a result,  I came up with four criteria to help me discern which seminary was best suited for me. They are: Academic, Spiritual, Relational, and Missional.

These four criteria are not meant to be exhaustive and in a sense, every seminary should strive to fulfil all four of them. However, I’m aware that no seminary will be perfect in all four areas, therefore I’ve tried to view seminaries in light of its future potential in addition to its existing state.

Before I explain each of the criterion, I also want to flag that I have also attempted to ‘test’ these criteria in light of my own personality and character (something that I believe is perhaps often overlooked). God has made each person uniquely with different inclinations, desires, and passions, and I believe these should all be taken into account when deciding how to best spend 3-4 years of one’s life.

Academic

The Bible is God’s primary means of revealing Himself to us. It is His way of speaking to us, of instructing us, and of drawing us closer to Him. It is sufficient, clear, authoritative, and necessary for our lives. Therefore, the work of the pastor is first and foremost to faithfully expound and teach this Word of truth to all, and to prayfully apply it to peoples’ lives. No amount of life experience, jokes, or life skill lessons can ever replace the richness of sound theology that stirs peoples’ affections for God and moves peoples’ hands towards love and good deeds. Consequently, one of the chief responsibilities of the pastor is to teach the Bible.

Because the Bible is a collection of books with one overarching theme, the work of expounding the Scriptures is firstly an academic skill. At the preparation level, it requires basic skills such as reading and comprehension, and more advanced skills like translation and interpretation. At the teaching level, it requires other skills such as integration, presentation, and application. Therefore, I believe that a faithful pastor needs to be marked by sound academic competency.

However, not everyone is going to be a B.B. Warfield or a D.A. Carson, so sound academic competency is not judged against a hard and fast standard, but should instead mean the highest level of academic competency that the individual can achieve. Some will excel more than others (I have classmates already hitting 99% in their Greek quizzes) and others will struggle along. But the most important thing in a discussion about academic competency is that the student should strive to reach his or her highest possible potential, and this is what the seminary is responsible for – to help the student attain that .

To do this, I believe that seminaries need to possess two things: strong academic staff and a well-rounded academic program (both a generalist program and a pastoral track).

Seminaries need lecturers and professors who are both professionals in their subject area and competent in teaching. Perhaps it is the nature of academic study, but my time at university has shown that an intelligent academic does not necessarily mean that he or she is a good teacher. Therefore, in searching for a seminary, I wanted as best as possible to find a school that did not merely possess lecturers who had an impressive publishing portfolio, but also had lecturers who could also teach well – who could articulate complex theological ideas in words and phrases that were comprehensible, who knew how students learnt, and who aimed to educate in a variety of methods that suited the learners. And that’s what Christ College had.

The academic staff at Christ College are incredibly underrated largely because they don’t make themselves out to be big deals. But our Old Testament lecturer is a publishing machine, so much so that our registrar can’t even keep up with updating his publications on the seminary website. Furthermore, one of our New Testament lecturer has a contract with Zondervan in an academic series that features some real good guys like Christopher Wright and Douglas Moo, and another is lining up a big project with Crossway. In addition to teaching, our systematic theology lecturer also directs the denomination’s ethics committee, which writes papers that inform the assembly on issues concerning the relationship between the state and the church, touching on issues such as same sex marriage. This is all in addition to various book chapters and book reviews that are published by the guys from Eerdmans and T&T Clark. Knowing about these things gave me sure confidence that I was among men who knew what they knew well.

However, as I mentioned, as a trained educator, I really wanted to sit under good teachers. Therefore, what impressed me more than their academic profiles was their commitment to adult education. The fact that about half of the faculty used to work as teachers aside, a short interaction with the lecturers will show that they don’t merely know their stuff, but they also know how to articulate their stuff. This was particular evident as I sat through classes in the first few weeks of seminary and during our morning tea times. Classes were engaging because the lecturers were passionate about the topics and were eager to infect us with that passion. Furthermore, they didn’t just want us to know more, they wanted us to apply more. For example, my OT lecturer teaches the OT through three lenses: the literary, historical, and theological perspective. And as we land on the theological perspective during our third hour of the lecture, we get an opportunity to ask how this applies to our people, our preaching, and our practice. It is incredibly helpful to have an instructor who is willing to push you to think hard about big concepts but will also help guide you in connecting the dots from knowledge to practice.

Having done a few graduate courses in New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at a reputable public research university, I feel like I’m being worked harder at Christ College in stretching my mind academically.

A note on academic programs: I know that Christ College works hard at training graduates who have strong ministry competencies. This manifests itself in a strong generalist program, ranging from diplomas to masters degrees to a rigorous pastoral track that is set and reviewed by the General Assembly. I got a glimpse of this when I spent a week in Japan for mission with a group of other college students that I don’t usually get to spend time with, and heard what they’re doing (or are going to do) with their training. One of the girls is finishing her Graduate Diploma in preparation for doing research in Art Therapy, another more elderly man is also doing his theological studies in order to be a better Bible study leader, while another girl is finishing off her Bachelor in Theology in preparation for school chaplaincy. At the same time, I also heard of the rigours of the Presbyterian Course of Training. Not only do candidates have to go through the equivalent of a minimum of four years of Greek and three years of Hebrew, they have to do a list of additional theology and ministry practice subjects. I mention this not as a complaint but admiration for their attitude towards training pastors. However, perhaps what impressed me most was their commitment towards leadership training. This is not yet widely advertised because they are in the final process of integrating it into the curriculum, but Christ College has developed a Leadership Development Program (LDP) under the leadership of Dr Jonathan Pratt (previously Senior Lecturer in Business at the University of Technology) that strives to integrate the best of a industry standard Master of Business and Administration (MBA), biblical leadership principals, and practical pastoral applications. As far as I’m aware, this is the first in Australia and that was a big deal for me. Leadership is an often overlooked pastoral skill and is sometimes seen as the enemy of sound Biblical preaching, as if those advocating for more leadership and strategy is suggesting this at the expense of teaching the truth. However, Christ College sees ministry as ‘both and’, and wants to see students graduating not merely as pastor-scholars but also as pastor-leaders.

Spiritual

It may seem like an paradox, but the concept of ‘losing your faith in seminary’ seems like it is increasing becoming a norm, and the fact that books like ‘How to Stay Christian in Seminary’ is indicative of that trend. Hence, I really wanted a seminary that would not merely stretch me academically, but would also build me in my spiritual walk, my character, and my convictions.

Spiritual formation is achieved primarily through weekly chapel, pastoral groups, meal times, a weekly seminar called ‘Living for Christ’, and short devotions before classes. And I think that Christ College does the latter three particularly well.

Reverend Jeff Read preaching to our student body during one of our weekly chapels
The minister at Chatswood Presbyterian Church, the Reverend Jeff Read, preaching to our student body during one of our weekly chapels

In most cultures, meal times are a particularly ‘sacred’ time. Who you dined with signified your status, your wealth, and your social connections. But all of those things are broken down at Christ College. Because of the nature of theological education, namely that it attracts people from different parts of society from different age groups, our seminary is incredibly diverse with single 19 year old students to ‘married with 5 kids’ dad. So to be able to sit down with them during meal times, be it short daily morning teas or longer weekly lunches is very helpful in knowing how God has been challenging them, how their circumstances have been difficult for them, and seeing how they have been facing them week in and week out. And the best part of all of this is that the faculty is involved as well. Instead of sitting at their own tables or eating in their offices, our lecturers are out roaming around and speaking to students to see how their going. I was particularly impressed when I spoke to one of our lecturers who asked me how I was going in a particular area and came up to me a week later to follow up on how I was going in that. This didn’t merely demonstrate what good teaching was, but also demonstrate what good pastoring was. I’ll  never forget that, nor will I forget that he spent time praying for me and a friend during our seminary’s weekend away in the comfort of our living quarters.

‘Living for Christ’ is another area that I believe Christ College does well in building the spiritual health of the student body. Under the leadership of our Vice Principal, ‘Living for Christ’ is a weekly 30 minute seminar aimed that applying our college’s motto that ‘Christ for all of life’. Hence, a special speaker is invited each week to speak about the way Christ applies to their life. In first term, we have speakers such as the former Commonwealth Ombudsman – Allan Asher, Dr Lewis Jones on the relationship between science and faith, and Dr Richard Shumack on engaging Islam. These precious 30 minutes are powerful because it serves as a window to the life of believers in different contexts who treat their work as their own mission fields.

Lastly, the short and simple 5 minute devotion before class is always a beauty. This is the reason why I aim to arrive at class early because I never want to miss out on the short reading of scripture and prayer before we dive into Greek paradigms or the role of covenant in Genesis. It is so great sitting at our desks, hearing our lecturers read a portion of scripture for us, and pray over us as we engage in our studies. This may not seem impressive to you, but for those who are either busy with studies or running around with the realities of life, these precious 5 minutes are moments where we can be still and focus our minds on the beauty and ‘bigness’ of God. These short devotions are always very refreshing to me and are sometimes the best moments of the lectures.

Relational

I’ve briefly outlined the relational aspect of seminary such as the opportunities to share meals together and to talk to people in different life stages. Hence, the relational aspect of seminary that I’m referring to here are the relations outside of seminary.

One of the first things that our principal, the Reverend Doctor Ian Smith, said at my application interview was that Christ College is convinced that students should maintain relationships at church and with others as much as they should with fellow students. He emphasized that he didn’t want our lives to revolve around seminary or program our timetables in such a way that would capitalize all of our time. Consequently, a quick glance over our timetable will reveal that our contact hours are not very intense. In fact, one could actually be at school for only 3 days a week while having a full study load. That being said, a 3 day schedule can potentially look like 8:30am starts and 9:00pm finishes (this is the story of my Tuesday).The primary reason behind this is so that students who have families can faithfully attend to them and others can work hard at developing friendships outside of school. Therefore, instead of taking up all their time, Christ College believes that relationships fostered outside of its premises are just as important as those fostered within.

Additionally, Christ College also cares about women in ministry and the wives of men who are in ministry. This was a big one for me because with my mum in ministry, I grew up seeing firsthand the struggles of what it was like to be a pastor’s wife. Therefore, I wanted as much as possible for my future spouse to have the adequate training and support while I received my training. What stood out for me most was that the kind of care and training provided was by no means tokenistic, but a genuine love and concern for the women mentioned, and this manifests itself as the Ministry Training for Women (MTW) program. I was particularly impressed by this because I believe that a pastor’s wife will either half her husbands ministry or double it. Therefore, the MTW program is not merely beneficial for the women involved but also for their husbands. I’m not entire sure how the program runs, but a classmate who attends their weekly meetings is very positive about it and I think the fact that something like this exists is already very extraordinary for seminaries. Furthermore, the Dean of Women who is always seen on campus does an extraordinary job at making sure that women and the wives of the students are constantly on the agenda. Questions such as ‘how does this apply to the women at your church’ or ‘how are you taking care of your spouse’ is a breath of fresh air especially in an environment with mostly men. It reminds me that more than half of my future congregation will consist of women and reminds me work hard at not neglecting my future spouse.

Consequently, I’m grateful because although I’ve entered into a new life stage, most of our relationships have been largely unjeopardized. There is certainly a sense in which I’m limited of the amount of time I get to spend with my friends because of the nature of full time study. But it’s great to not feel like my life has to necessarily revolve around my seminary community.

Missional

Lastly, missional. This is perhaps not a term that many would use to describe Christ College, especially since Australia’s premier missionary college is only 5 minutes away from our campus. What I mean by the term ‘missional’ here is to describe the practical application of our cognitive learning. And given that the nature of pastoral work is similar to the work of a missionary, or, the work of a pastor needs to be missional in the sense that we are constantly engaging people with the gospel, I think missional is an apt term to sum up my assessment of my seminary experiences so far.

I believe that the reason Christ College has such a strong practical bend to its teaching is because all of the lecturers are either returned missionaries, ex-pastors (not that pastors ever cease to be pastors, but that they no longer serve as vocational pastors), or current serving elders. So whenever they teach, you can get the sense that they are less concerned about marks that we’ll score, but more concerned about how we’ll survive and thrive ‘in the trenches’. Time and time again, our lecturers work hard at helping us apply our learning firstly to ourselves but also to our existing or future congregants.

One of my favourite class for the week is our preaching class taught by a lecturer who served as the Senior Pastor of a famous Presbyterian church in Singapore for a little over a decade. Aside from his witty humour, he oozes with knowledge about how to preach, how to program a preaching schedule, and how to preach to people of different ages. Furthermore, he works hard at keeping up to date with latest teaching methods and pedagogies, so we’ve had good conversations over the way technology and the internet can supplement a church’s teaching program. Additionally, our principal who teaches our Greek class will always pause throughout his lectures to tell us how to preach texts with difficult Greek passages.  He always reminds us to never use phrases like ‘in the Greek it says’, but to use illustrations to show the way the Greek language works.

Of course, it should be noted that the missiological aspect of the seminary also expresses itself in the annual mission weeks that students venture out to. Every year, students are sent to different parts of New South Wales or one ‘further distance location’ to work with existing local churches partially to support and encourage the work that they are doing but also to learn how they do ministry in their specific context. I had to privilege of travelling to Japan this year to witness some of the great work that Grace Harbour Church, Grace City Church, and an upcoming church plant is doing. Although we didn’t contribute very much to their existing ministry, we had a great opportunity to just sit down with their pastoral staff and missionaries to talk about the challenges of serving in Japan. While our context is quite different, it was so great being able to see the way God is working in a country quite different to ours and also thinking the ways that we can perhaps apply some of their models to our churches back at home. For example, I’m particularly fascinated by the way they engage their local communities through a variety of projects and activities as a means of bringing families together as a sort of pre-evangelism strategy and I’m keen on thinking about ways that it could be similarly used here in Sydney.

A shot from a 'hanami picnic' that we joined while our mission team was in Japan. Groups of non-believing families arrived with their kids and we had the opportunity to kick a ball around with them and do some face painting while our fluent Japanese speakers spoke to their parents.
A shot from a ‘hanami picnic’ that we joined while our mission team was in Japan. Groups of non-believing families arrived with their kids and we had the opportunity to kick a ball around with them and do some face painting while our fluent Japanese speakers spoke to their parents.

Conclusion

So why Christ College? I hope the answer is clear.

As I say on a regular basis, I think any of the ‘Big Four Colleges – Moore, SMBC, Morling, Christ College’ would have been a good choice. However, I hope my reflection has shown that Christ College in particular was an outstanding choice for me given my particular context and inclinations.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say another big ‘thank you’ to my financial supporters who generously give up a portion of their income to support my theological education. None of these experiences would have been possible without your help and I’m incredibly grateful to you. Not a day goes by without me stopping and thanking God for your kindness and I hope and pray that your investment will continue to produce Gospel fruit.


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