Benefits for Members of the Clergy
Theological education is required by many denominations as a prerequisite for ordination, but even when it is not required, vocational ministers derive many benefits from formal and informal engagement with the Christian intellectual tradition. Some of these benefits directly impact the way ministers do their job. For example, most of the best preachers I have sat under held advanced theological degrees, and those that did not were continuously engaged in the task of reading widely and deeply. It isn’t just that these people had been formally trained in the art of preaching; it is also that they have a body of knowledge that is substantial enough to make their sermons both accessible and meaningful.
Other benefits that ministers derive from theological education may not be as directly related to specific tasks that they perform on a daily or weekly basis. Nevertheless, they are still quite real and worthy of our consideration. Theological education can help a minister sharpen her or his vision for the church or parachurch organization that he or she leads. Theological education can provide the minister with resources that he or she can use to strengthen the ministry of others. In a residential context, theological education can provide ministers with an opportunity to connect with others in their field and to learn from their experiences.
Benefits for Lay People
Members of the clergy are the most obvious beneficiaries of theological education, but lay people can also benefit from substantive theological training. On a personal level, it can help them better understand their faith and, in so doing, facilitate spiritual growth. On a congregational level, it can give them resources that they can use to help their church minister more effectively. It can also help them understand some of the challenges faced by members of the clergy and thereby help them be better church leaders.
So, how do you go about obtaining some theological education if you are a layperson? One way to begin might be to ask your pastor to recommend books that you might read. John Stott, N. T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Gordon Fee and other scholars have written books that are accessible to a wide variety of people but that also can also expand their knowledge and provoke their imagination. There are also very good websites (like Biblical eLearning and N. T. Wright Online) that provide high quality video lectures (and other materials) on a variety of subjects.
There are also a number of options for pursuing a more formal theological education. One way to do so is to minor in religion at a Christian college or university. Not everyone has this opportunity, but, if you do, it can be a relatively straightforward way for you to obtain some basic theological knowledge. A lot of seminaries, including B. H. Carroll, provide laypeople options for auditing or enrolling in graduate-level courses. Enrolling for credit would allow the student to pursue a certificate or master’s degree, but whether you audit or enroll, the real benefit is the knowledge that you gain.
Benefits for the Church
Theological education benefits members of the clergy, and it can also benefit lay people. But the big winner is the church itself. Sometimes the Christian intellectual tradition is thought of as a source of theological controversy—and, therefore, of disunity. But sometimes a thorough knowledge of the Christian tradition can head off theological controversies before they have a chance to pick up momentum and cause real damage. People understand from the outset that there are certain things the church has always believed and that these things are not negotiable if one wants to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
More importantly, life raises some really difficult questions. We need every resource we can muster if we are going to address those questions in a way that honors God and helps people. Are we denying the Holy Spirit his role as authoritative and empowering agent for our lives if we engage the Christian intellectual tradition to address our most difficult questions? Absolutely not. We are opening ourselves up to hear how the Spirit has spoken to other believers, and, in so doing, we are allowing the Spirit to speak to us in our pain and uncertainty.
A Closing Thought
Are the people and institutions that make up theological education perfect? Certainly not. We can always do our job better, and sometimes we lose our way. That is why it is so important to root theological education deeply in the church.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that most of us really are trying to serve God and God’s people. We want to help the church be all that it can be, and, on balance, I think that we can do a good job. If we are going to do better, we need your help. We need your prayers. We need your feedback, both positive and negative. We need your support and encouragement. And, yes, we need your money. I hope that you will join with us as we seek to equip God’s people for the work to which they have been called, and I, for one, am humbled by the opportunity to be part of this noble endeavor.