Unlike most denominations, most Charismatic and Pentecostal churches don’t require their leaders to be ordained. This has many pluses. Churches can spring up quickly. Missionaries can be sent out in large numbers. Becoming a leader isn’t a financial burden and can happen as soon as possible. But allowing anybody who feels called to lead also has its downsides.
The main issue is, while the leader might be a good committed Christian, he may not know what he is doing. In most other fields there is an established preparation scheme, usually involving four years of college and possible further training after that. I don’t want a doctor operating on me who hasn’t had many years of intense training. People don’t decide at eighteen they are going to become a surgeon and then start cutting on people right away. They train. While surgery might seem to be more of an immediate life or death issue, I believe pastoring is even more critical since the pastor is dealing with issues of eternal life or death. Therefore, pastors need to know what they are doing.
I’ll call knowing what you are doing “having understanding.” Spirit filled believers tend to downplay the importance of systematic study in favor of the more spontaneous and miraculous activities such as prophecy and healing. That’s wrong. Understanding is incredibly important. Everything we do we do based on our understanding. As people who seek to follow Christ, we shape our lives by our understanding of the Bible – correctly or incorrectly. Where do our beliefs come from? They can be things that we have heard. They can be things that we have studied. They can be things we have guessed at. Which one of these methods is more likely to get us to the truth? Is it likely that the pastor will come to right understanding by guessing? Or by believing what their favorite preachers have said? Or by the pastor studying diligently? The answer is obvious – by studying diligently. A person may respond, “The important thing is not study but God speaking.” This is a false dichotomy. It assumes that God can’t lead a person during their study. He can and he does.
My concern here is pastoral. I’ve seen so many believers tossed to and fro by Charismatic teachers who were doing little more than guessing. Most believers who consider themselves devout feel that they are being led by the Spirit. Given that there are over 20,000 different Christian denominations it is clear that many of us are wrong. The only way to discern the truth, as we all think we are right, is to go humbly back to the Bible to learn what it says. If we feel that God is going to depart from us if we diligently try to understand what he has written to us, may I suggest that we have understood wrongly?
Last week one of my professors, Dr. David Chapman, said studying the Bible is different than any other form of reading that we do. We don’t spend an hour studying each paragraph of a John Grisham novel. We read it. Elementary school teaches us to read but it doesn’t tell us how to study scripture. How do we then learn how to study the Bible? We learn by modeling. We watch people we respect do it and imitate them. The problem is that in Charismatic circles almost no one has been taught how to study the Bible and so modeling breaks down. The Bible was written thousands of years ago in three languages very different than our own in cultures which are different than our own. Understanding the Bible isn’t like reading an email from our friend. We know our friend personally. We know their situation, their culture, their tendencies, and if we don’t understand something they said we can ask them what they meant. We have none of this in common with the Bible. Therefore, the only option is intense study.
You may ask, “why seminary? Why can’t I study on my own?” There are many reasons. The main one is to force you to learn things you would never study on your own. If we are allowed to pick what we are going to study we will choose books according to our prejudices, inclinations, and ignorance. Often we don’t understand the value of something until we’ve learned it. Therefore we need people who have learned the breadth of Biblical scholarship who can separate the wheat from the chaff in the overwhelming sea of Christian books. Also being graded forces us to learn things much deeper than we do in private study. When we are forced to write a paper on a book we know it many times better than if we had scanned it like a Grisham novel.
Let the words of the Apostle James encourage the teachers and future teachers of the church to seek understanding whatever the cost – “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Let us then seek to know the truth and relay the truth as those who will be held accountable.