How to Stay Christian in Seminary
by David Mathis
“The point is this.” I love it when Paul says that in 2 Corinthians 9:6. He makes sure he has our attention and tells it straight. Behind the reasoned prose and the rhetorical flourishes, here’s what he’s getting at—plain, simple, straightforward. “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Beautifully direct.
The same humble approach helps when we take up the topic of “staying Christian” in seminary. There is so much (good) advice to be given. There are many experiences to be relayed, warnings to be sounded, commendations to be issued, and commitments to highlight. There are particular truths to emphasize, and practicals to give it flesh.
But when you boil it all down, what’s the point? Is there something that holds all the advice and recommendations together? When you tell it straight and cut through all the fluff, what’s at the heart of staying Christian in seminary?
The point is this: Be a Christian in seminary. The key to staying Christian in seminary, and in every season and avenue of life, is being one.
Perhaps the greatest danger the seminarian faces in each generation is the temptation to put some aspects of his Christianity “on hold” while he goes through this “season of preparation for ministry.” We are enticed to give ourselves a pass from everyday Christianity while we prepare to be an instrument (ironically) of everyday grace to others.
Whether it’s the Tempter himself, sin in us, or just naiveté, the seminarian can begin to reason along these lines:
I don’t need regular personal prayer and devotional Bible intake; I’m steeped in this stuff all the time.
I don’t really need to get deeply connected with a local church, where I can be ministered to and minister to others; my seminary community will do just fine. Besides, this is a temporary season—no reason to put any roots down here.
I don’t need to play the man at home while I’m in school; my wife can hold things together temporarily and be the buckstopper while I study.
And so, the seminarian starts down the slope. He thinks that somehow his real-life Christianity can kick into gear once his real life starts on the other side of graduation. He subtly puts “on hold” his own daily pursuit of God’s ongoing grace and walking by faith in Jesus and His gospel so he can better ready himself to introduce others to the same normal Christian life he has so strategically neglected.
Maybe it would help to hear that seminary is real life. All of life, cradle to grave, is real life in God’s economy. For the Christian, there are no interludes, no pauses, no “seasons” when the main things go on hold as we prepare for the next. There is no Christian summons to neglect securing your own oxygen mask so that you can get trained to help others with theirs. You will only suffocate in the process.
How tragic it is when the zealous seminarian, inundated with assignments and captured by the drive to succeed academically, begins to disregard the very means of grace God used to cultivate his initial zeal for gospel ministry. The result is heartbreaking: seminary wrongly pursued begins to squelch the very zeal that led him there in the first place.
How tragic it is when the zealous seminarian is inattentive in ministering first to his wife and kids because he’s in a season of “preparing for ministry.” The Apostle Paul wouldn’t be impressed.
How tragic it is when we begin to be impressed with how much we’re learning, how much we know, and what a great gift we’ll be to the church after graduation. The Apostle would remind us: “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1–2).
Chase the trail of “staying Christian” in seminary long enough, and you’ll realize it’s less about what a special season seminary is and more about what Christianity is in every season of life, in every age of church history, in every place on the planet. Staying Christian in seminary is about staying Christian in general.
The way to stay Christian in the long run is to be a Christian every day. It’s walking daily in light of God’s fascinating and extraordinary grace to us in the gospel. It’s being fully reliant on God’s Spirit, going deep in God’s Word, among God’s people. It’s keeping both eyes peeled for Jesus—not only in the Scriptures, but in every avenue of our existence. Fight pride. Serve your wife. Be eager to meet the needs of others, minister and be ministered to by fellow believers, and share the gospel and yourself with those who don’t know Him.
There is no holding pattern for the Christian. God’s calling to seminary doesn’t trump—it complements—His calling for us, by His grace, to be the kind of husband, father, friend, and follower of Jesus daily that we hope our post-seminary formal ministry will one day produce.