How Should We Train Our Future Pastors?
This article is written out of conviction that nothing is needed more urgently in the church today than faithful pastors. We assume that most readers will agree.
But the question is: What is the reason for this? Is it that the Lord just hasn't provided the pastors we need? Or is it that our way of pastoral preparation is not really faithful to Scripture?
It is our view that the basic problem is our own failure. We profess to believe the Bible is the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith and practice. But it does not appear, to this writer at least, that we obey it in the manner in which we bring men to the pastoral office.
The Biblical Practice
As we read our New Testament, we are struck by one thing which is very significant with respect to the preparation of pastors in the early church. It is the impressive role played by the local congregation.
Men came to be elders because they were elected out of the local congregation by the people (Acts 6:1-6; 14:23). The requirements stipulated by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 prove this, in our view. He lays down what could be called a list of qualifications. In reading these passages one is struck by the heavy emphasis on nonacademic prerequisites. It is hard to see how these qualifications could have been judged except in a somewhat prolonged association in a congregational setting.
At that time there was not such a wide disparity, as there is today, between teaching and ruling elders (1 Timothy 5:17). From among those called in the manner above to serve as elders in the congregation, some were given by their fellow elders a more specialized or concentrated, task in ministering the word.
No doubt this was due to the fact that in their work as elders, they had already demonstrated special aptitude and gifts for this work. And here, we believe, is an adequate basis for presbytery's supervisory authority in the licensing of those who are to perform this labor (cf. 1 Timothy 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:13). (But this ought to be at a somewhat later point, in our judgment, than it is in our common practice.)
In New Testament times pastors came to office as they were called by people from all walks of life who had known them for some time rather intimately. They became what we call pastors as they proved themselves to be particularly gifted elders. Our present method of ministerial preparation just does not approximate this pattern.
Our Present Practice
But what is our common practice? If a man has a college education and is ready to enroll in seminary, he comes before presbytery. The session of his home church is reluctant to discourage what could be the will of God for this young man! So it recommends him to the presbytery (and the seminary). And then three years later, if he has done the academic work required, presbytery makes him eligible for a call from one of the churches.
et the fact is that far too little is really known about this man in most cases. Is it not true that men make it into the ministry who would not make it into the session as elders? In our pastoral experience we have known of men who were very gifted intellectually and doctrinally, but who were never elected as elders. Why not? Perhaps it was because of a wife who utterly refused to be submissive, or lack of ability to control his own children, or even a bad business reputation.
The point is that the people in the congregation do get to know these men, and they usually refuse to vote for a man who demonstrates a serious lack of the qualifications listed by Paul. Yet our system of pastoral preparation just doesn't provide the needed safeguards where it comes to pastors.
It may sound radical, but we believe the following method of pastoral preparation to be much closer to Scripture. Let a man first come into the picture as a candidate for the pastoral office by serving as a ruling elder. Later if, in the judgment of the local congregation – as well as the session – his gifts and diligent use of same commend him as a potential pastor, he should come to the presbytery bringing with him their recommendation.
Then should follow, ordinarily, the seminary training (or its equivalent). In our view the results far outweigh any temporary pain involved in getting back to a biblical pattern. It might be added here, that the time for a change in this direction is perhaps auspicious. The average age of men entering seminary is higher than it has been in the recent past (about 29, according to our information).
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been noted for its zeal for sound doctrine. What is needed, in the next half century, is not just to continue in this but to match it with biblical practice. There are some who no longer see this as a viable option. To them being a faithful church is a sure prescription for failure.
In our view the truth is exactly the reverse. It is only the church which is willing to be biblical in both doctrine and practice that really does have a future. And nowhere is this more urgently needed than it is in the preparation of pastors.