The Biblical Requirements for Elders

Addendum 1: An Example of How Seminaries Dilute the Biblical Requirements for Elders

In early May (2018), I received a flyer in the mail, the content of which was repeated in an email I received from Reformed Theological Seminary. (I don’t know when/how I ended up on RTS mail/email lists.) The email content is reproduced in full here:

Dear friends,

Spring’s arrival always calls to mind one of my most cherished roles as Chancellor of RTS — the awarding of diplomas to the several hundred men and women now equipped to serve God’s Kingdom in new and important ways. For our newly minted alumni, it is both a celebration of the completion of a rigorous academic journey and the commencement of a new chapter of service and influence for the sake of the Gospel.

Reflecting on the end of a seminarian’s journey also makes me think of the beginning. For many of our students, the path to seminary included prayerful consideration of the means by which they could afford tuition, and how they would support themselves, and in many cases their families, during seminary. It’s a challenge we are all too familiar with and a challenge you help us overcome through your generosity.

Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  1. Students are bringing historically high undergraduate debt (north of $30,000) to seminary with them, and go further into debt while in seminary.
  2. Future ministries are being hampered. Some graduates are unable to go to smaller churches, or into campus ministry, or to the mission field because they are carrying too much student loan debt. Some leave the ministry after only a few years because of the financial burdens.
  3. Seminaries are reducing the required course load for the M.Div. degree (and other degrees) to reduce the overall cost of seminary. The RTS M.Div. requires 106 credit hours but many other seminaries only require 70, 80, or 90 hours for an M.Div.

Students graduating from institutions that have lowered their credit hours are ill-equipped. I regularly hear about graduates from institutions that have trimmed credit hours not being able to pass ordination exams and lacking the biblical and theological knowledge necessary for shepherding the flock. In today’s world, pastors need to know more, not less; for less, not more.

At RTS, we have responded to this conundrum, not by lowering standards, but by giving the most generous scholarship assistance of any seminary in the Reformed and evangelical world. Almost 90% of RTS students graduate with no seminary-related debt. We are able to do this because of you, through over $4 million in donor-supported scholarships and financial aid made available to our students.

As you consider your role in shaping the next generation of Christians through theological education, please know this: You prepare pastors, educators, counselors, missionaries, and others for ministry through your prayers and generosity. And as we think about the role RTS graduates will play in shaping the next generation of the church, I ask that you might consider how you could enable future students through a gift to Core Ministry at RTS. It is the best way to ensure that your investment is used to shape the next generation. And if you’ve already given this year, thank you, and we’d be honored by your spreading the word to others about the value of supporting theological education at RTS.

Your friend,

Ligon Duncan
Chancellor & CEO

As you can see, it is an appeal for donations to help defray the cost of RTS providing scholarships to its students. However, that appeal for donations is not the real issue here. Rather, there is an underlying problem, a problem far more destructive than seminary students entering their “ministries” in debt, only to leave that “ministry” later because of debt.

The real issue is the flagrant disregard of the requirements which the Holy Spirit has imposed on those who would become the Pastor/Elder/Overseer/Shepherd (these terms are equivalent in the NT) of a particular church.

Please understand: my desire is not to “pick on” RTS specifically; moreover, it is not to comment on whatever other “ministries” may be intended in the mailer, or other training which may be accomplished by RTS.

My point here is to deal specifically with RTS’s “preparation” of its graduates to take a “church” as its Pastor/Elder/Overseer/Shepherd—nothing more or less. And to that point, how many of the “106 credit hours” legitimately apply to the 26 requirements specified by the Holy Spirit?

There are 5 questions which top my list of concerns (again, the context is those who graduate in order to take a church as its Pastor!):

  1. How many of the graduates are married, and have children (plural!) of adequate age to demonstrate—without question or ambiguity—that the husband/father “manages (present tense!) his household well”? I could believe that a small minority might satisfy this requirement; I think it is closer to the truth to assume that most have no children/a single infant/very young child/children. I also would find it very easy to believe that at least some are not even married.
  2. How was the graduate’s character observed and evaluated? Is he “above reproach”, “temperate”, “self-controlled”, “of good behavior”, “hospitable”, etc. (for the remaining approximately 15 requirements)? Can these character traits really be observed accurately and consistently in the seminary environment? Do the professors really know their students that well to ensure that they actually could vouch for all these requirements?
  3. When was the graduate truly saved? He must “not be a new convert”! A seminary graduate, even in his late 20’s is barely more than a child! And this is the one who is to “manage the church” and its disparate peoples and very complex needs? Really!?!?!
  4. The graduate must have “a good reputation with those outside the church”. How, exactly, is this requirement met when the student spends most of his time at the seminary or in study/homework? Yes, I realize that many of the students are likely to have part-time jobs. But, really, where are the hours supposed to come from for the student to demonstrate that he has “a good reputation with those outside”?
  5. The graduate must “be able to refute”. This ability can come only from long, consistent hours with the Word, not from the hurried theology lessons consumed on the path to graduation. A twenty-something graduate simply won't have the maturity and experience to fulfill this role.

It should be obvious that the seminary can’t fulfill these requirements merely by means of their curriculum or credit hours. The inspired Word says simply:

1 Tim 3.1b-2a
… if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be

The Apostle who penned those words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit knew very well about dedicated training; after all, his bona fides were quite impressive within the Jewish religious system. But that isn’t what he said; in fact, what he did say implies quite strongly that the process took place entirely within the context of the local assembly, that assembly who was to observe and validate the 26 requirements! If the candidate desired the office and met the requirements he was free to become an elder. It was a very simple, efficient, and effective system.

[There is also the very prominent point that the Apostle put no stock in his prior training. In fact, he had only the strongest contempt for it!]

But. more to the point: where are the presently-qualified elders who are actively mentoring the lives of the young married men in the assembly, to observe and guide them, to prepare them for the day when that potential interest in the eldership may blossom and come to fruition? Where are the assemblies who think of the future generations of that assembly and work to ensure that it will always have godly, mature, dedicated elders?

How often, instead, do we observe assemblies that either are barely alive, or the opposite extreme, assemblies growing to an unhealthy size while they are bloated by the unchecked influx of false "Christians"? Then, how many of those “Pastors” are “recruited away” by even larger churches—because, after all, they demonstrated that they were “successful”?

If the above sounds like a dis of the seminary system, you’d be partially correct.

I think that there is a place for (again, in the context of the elder!) for Hebrew and Greek language training. But even these can be done in the local assembly if it bothers to prepare itself for that task.

[On the other hand, there are a number of very competent elders in history who did not have language training but were experts in the Word—because they learned it from cover-to-cover at the feet of the Holy Spirit.]

Our age has become careless and has

  • replaced character building with scholastic process;
  • patient and quiet learning from the Book with hurried training and exams to prove “knowledge” (that likely is mostly forgotten all-too-soon after the close of the semester or the most recent exam); and
  • a false sense of accomplishment when the Lord’s true requirements have not even been truly considered—much less met.

Do seminaries serve a useful purpose? They might—but then again, they might not.

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