Pastor Ham

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Why Seminary?

My wife and I recently announced to our church that we would be leaving next year so that I could return to seminary full-time in pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree. This is something we had been mulling, discussing with trusted counselors, and praying about for a year. It was not an easy decision and it did not come lightly. And while we had time to grow into the idea, many people hearing such news are confronted with the question for the first time: why go to seminary?

While I do not expect that everyone would weigh the answers below and come to the same decision we did, I want to explain, as best I can, why we chose to do this.

First, and most importantly, we believe this is what the Lord wants us to do.

“How do you know, did he speak to you? There’s no chapter and verse in the Bible that says to go to seminary.”

No, he didn’t speak to us. And no, there’s not a chapter and verse that specifically tells us to do this. But there’s also not a chapter and verse in the Bible that tells me I shouldn’t run Aunt Edna over with a steamroller. Thankfully, we are expected to take Biblical commands and principles, like “Thou shalt not murder,” and apply them specifically to Aunt Edna’s situation. The Bible is not a blueprint for life that tells you where every hinge, and screw, and shim goes. It is sufficient, not exhaustive. This means that wisdom, knowledge, and discernment are needed in the Christian life. In other words, much of the time we do not have a specific command to go on. Most of the time we are making judgments about what is right and wrong. And frankly, judgments between right and wrong tend to be the easier part. The hardest judgments to make are not between right and wrong, but between good and best. I think this is the point of Philippians 1:9-11, one of my favorite passages in the Bible:

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

In our judgment, going to seminary right now is the best choice we can make. That wasn’t true three years ago, and it may not be true if we waited another three years. But right now, in our judgment, it seems to be so.

That main reason is undergirded and evidenced by three subordinate reasons starting with this one: desire. There is a side of us, as conservative Christians, that can erroneously discount desire or place it under suspicion. And while it is always good to weigh one’s desires against Scriptural principles, desire in and of itself is not evil. The desires of a pure heart can be precisely what the Lord uses to reveal his will to us. Psalm 37:4-5 says:

Delight yourself in the Lord;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.

But here’s the sobering thing: making decisions based on desires requires us to be the kind of people who delight ourselves in the Lord. The Lord designed it so that the desires of those who delight in him would be true and strong compasses (though not infallible), guiding us as if by the light of the noonday. And the opposite must also be true. If we are not delighting ourselves in the Lord, undoubtedly our hearts will lead us astray, like a blind man walking unassisted in the black of night. So desire can only be used as a guide when one can say, “As best as I can tell, I am delighting myself in the Lord. I am seeking him first in this, and not merely me.” The glorious thing is that, if this is an honest assessment, he makes his desires ours, so that we too may delight in the way that he leads us. It is not a dreary thing to serve the Lord, it is a delight. And right now, the Lord has placed a strong desire in my heart, even a delight, in the idea of pursuing robust pastoral training that would prepare me to better serve him for whatever years he gives me. I have seen how immensely the tiny bit of seminary I’ve had so far has benefited myself, my family, and my ministry at our church and I want to pursue the full seminary experience and finish the job. I have no doubt this training will not only serve the Lord’s church better, but also my precious wife and child. These considerations matter deeply to me.

Third, we believe God uses circumstances to direct us. Right now, in our lives, it seems that he is lining up the circumstances to lead us to seminary. I won’t give an exhaustive list here, but a representative sample would start with the timing. I am 33 years old, and believe that if I do not pursue this soon, the opportunity (and likely the desire) will slip past. And if my desire for seminary is an accurate representation of the Lord’s desire for me, this would actually result in disobedience. It is also true that our daughter is barely one year old. If we begin seminary soon, we will likely be able to wrap up my degree by the time that she is entering Kindergarten. That would make for a very sensible time to transition from seminary to the next ministry the Lord has in store for us. A third note of interest is the fact that the Lord gave Stephanie the opportunity to complete a PhD in Biomedical Engineering during our time here in Michigan, which we never quite understood how he would use in her life as a pastor’s wife. One of the many potential ways he might use that degree is during our time at seminary in the Twin Cities, which is an area rife with universities and several companies that operate in the sphere of her degree field. She is equipped to make a healthy enough salary in part-time work to make a significant difference in our income while still having most of her time to be at home with our daughter. Several of my friends who have been to seminary were blessed to have wives with nursing degrees and the wife’s income was invaluable during those lean seminary years. This will be a significant blessing in our family life as I try to juggle part-time work with seminary training.

A fourth factor has been the wise counsel of trusted pastors and mature Christian friends. I have not talked to a single seminary-trained pastor who regretted the decision we are now making. All have strongly encouraged us to seriously consider this opportunity, and have recounted the immense wealth that they gleaned from their years in school. They speak of the beneficial discipline of regimented training, the meaningful mentoring relationships with professors, the camraderie of other men undergoing the same rigors and delighting in the same treasures. I long for these things.

This is not an exhaustive list of all of our reasons, but even if it were these would be enough.

Even given these four factors, this has not been an easy decision. We are comfortable here in Michigan. We have a loving church family, deep friendships, and rich memories. We love our house (especially our soapstone woodstove), our neighbors, and even our pickup truck. We don’t look forward to starting over in seeking a church, finding new friends, and re-acclimating to minus-40 winter days. But since we believe the Lord is leading this way, we trust his plan and know that he has joys in store for us that we cannot imagine.

So based on the weight of the evidence, in our judgment, this is the right thing to do. Yea, the best thing. And with that in mind, though our hearts and knees quake ever so slightly, we proceed in confidence knowing that a good, wise, powerful God is pointing the way. And with that assurance we view this step as a fruit of righteousness that we pray will one day help us to stand sincere and blameless before the One who makes perfect judgment.


Other helpful insights on the question “Why Seminary?” can be found at the following links:

What Seminary Gave Me

Study

February 4, 2016 Resources: Free Tozer Books; Mr. Simple-Faith

I recently helped a church member search for some Christian content online and stumbled across these free copies of A.W. Tozer’s classic works “The Knowledge of the Holy” and his lesser-known “The Root of the Righteous.” Anything free by Tozer will more than reward the effort of a quick download.

Who’s better, Mr. Bookwork or Mr. Simple-Faith?

How Important Is Doctrine? – Part 4

In our fourth and final post in this series (which started here), we are exploring the severe consequences of ditching doctrine and then building our own models of living and loving. We will discuss two biblical examples of this error.

 

The Carnal Corinthians and the Doctrine of the Physical Resurrection: 1 Cor. 15

As Paul has been doing all throughout 1 Corinthians, he is correcting error in doctrine and practice (read the whole book to see how doctrine and practice are both important). One notable thing about this passage is that Paul is correcting a doctrinal error that many Christians would look to as “secondary” at best: the doctrine of the resurrection. No, I’m not talking about Christ’s Resurrection. I’m talking about the resurrection of our physical bodies. Many Christians today wouldn’t be disturbed by a professing believer denying this doctrine. What’s the big deal?

Apparently it was a pretty big deal to Paul. And for good reason. Paul logically argues that if you don’t have the resurrection of physical bodies in general, then you can’t have the specific Resurrection of Christ’s body. And if that’s the case, we are all hopeless. Our faith depends on His Resurrection, and His Resurrection depends on the reality of bodily physical resurrection (vv. 12-19). In other words, by denying a “minor” doctrine, the Corinthians were implicitly denying the Gospel itself, which is based entirely on the death and resurrection of Christ (vv. 1-4). The Corinthians, in their lack of knowledge, wisdom, and discernment (remember Php. 1:9-11), were eviscerating the Gospel itself due to their own foolishness. Christians are still doing this today. If you are not able to identify them, more than likely you will eventually identify with them.

 

The Curse of Encouraging False Teachers: 2 John

In this passage the Apostle John is addressing false doctrine, just as he did in his first epistle. This time he does it in just one short chapter. For some reason he was unable to write a longer discourse to them at this time (v. 12), which implies that the little bit he did write was the most important thing he could have told them. It was the most urgent, therefore he wrote it right away until he could come to them and tell them the rest in person. What did he have to say that was so important? Take in verses 7-11:

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; 11 for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.

He tells them this: there are a bunch of false teachers out there. They are deceivers and antichrists. What are they to do about it? Watch themselves. What do you suppose he meant? He is imploring them to watch their doctrine and take great care to keep it pure. What will happen if they don’t? They will lose eternal rewards (v. 8). They will receive less than they would have received if they had obeyed him. If that idea doesn’t motivate us, there are deeper problems that need to be addressed.

In verse 9 he goes on to tell us that these Christ-denying heretics are not in the faith. They are not Christians. They are apostates.

Now, do you suppose the apostates were running around saying, “Hey guys, check me out, I’m a Christ-denier! I don’t love the truth! Follow me!” Probably not. Nor will that ever be the case. The deceivers are just that. Deceitful. They are going to say many of the right things. They are going to sound beautifully orthodox to the undiscerning, and even the less-discerning, ear. They are going to deceive those who disdain doctrine, and those who smirk at sound teaching. The spiritually gullible will feed on what the false teachers are selling.

In addition to the harm that this will do to them and those in their sphere of influence, the consequences actually prove far worse than we might expect. How so? In verse 10 John explicitly commands us not even to offer a civil greeting to a false teacher coming to you to hawk his goods. As I understand it, that’s what the word often translated “greeting” means here. Not even a ‘hi.’ Not even a ‘good day.’ Nothing that would encourage him in his work. Here’s the kicker: John says if you even give him the encouragement of a civil greeting, you’re now a shareholder in his wickedness. You now partake in the tragedy of those that are poisoned as a result of your encouragement of this false teacher. If the civility you showed him gave him just enough strength to poison one more person, you own a part of that enterprise. Is that motivation enough to love sound doctrine? Does that make doctrine important enough to take vigorously pursue?

 

What should we do?

Go to the Word. Grow in the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment that only its doctrines can offer (Php. 1:9-11). Mature past the milk and on to the meat of the Word by exercising (Hebrews 5:14)! This is exactly how Paul diagnosed his beloved, foolish Corinthians. After rebuking their milk dependency in Chapter 3,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?

he closes the book with this positive admonition in Chapter 16, which is the antidote to their problem:

13 Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. 14 Let all that you do be done in love.

Additionally, pray! As you pursue God in His Word, pray for His help. Ask Him for true biblical love that is bounded by wisdom, and knowledge, and discernment. This is exactly what James tells a group of suffering saints to do in 1:5 of his epistle (ironically, some scholars even think that their sufferings were related to their lack of wisdom).

Finally, as John said above, watch yourselves! Abide in the teaching of God’s Word (doctrine). You cannot divide doctrine and practice and maintain a grip on the Christian faith. You cannot divide doctrine and love and be faithful to Scripture. It cannot be done for Scripture does not do it, and therefore, we are not allowed to do it either.

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