How to guard your life and doctrine in seminary

April 21, 2021

Perhaps more than any other New Testament verse, 1 Timothy 4:16 arrives with both warning and promise for the ministry. The warning is more implicit; the promise is unmistakably explicit. Paul writes to Timothy: “Pay close attention to yourself and to the teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”

Note carefully the truth contained here. Implicitly, if we are careless with our doctrine or our living, our soul – and the souls of those to whom we minister – are endangered. How is this the case? If our lives or doctrine are off, we will prove an untrue guide for the sheep. We will invariably point them off course, leading them away from the Chief Shepherd.

Yet this warning is also pregnant with promise. As we guard our lives and doctrine, we ensure salvation for ourselves and those to whom we minister. Sound doctrine and sound living indicate we are authentic followers of Christ. They indicate a steady guide who leads the sheep toward, not away from, Him. 

While in seminary, much time will be devoted to your doctrine. It is a time of doctrinal formation – and that is a good thing. A seminary that does not prioritize your theological formation is not worthy of your tuition.

If you are not careful, though, an imbalance can develop. Books commenting on Scripture can replace the reading of Scripture itself. Paper writing can dry up your prayer life. Exercises for ministry formation can supplant actual, hands-on ministry. In other words, your doctrine can flourish wile your spiritual life flounders.

In his must-read book Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson comments on this phenomenon by telling the story of one “Ernest Christian.” Ernest was converted in high school, was deeply involved in his college ministry, was growing immensely in Bible study and prayer, and sensed a call to vocational ministry. After being affirmed by his church, he moved off to be trained at seminary. Carson continues:

After Ernest has been six months in seminary, the picture is very different. Ernest is spending many hours a day memorizing Greek morphology and learning the details of the itinerary of Paul’s second missionary journey. Ernest has also begun to write exegetical papers; but by the time he has finished his lexical study, his syntactical diagram, his survey of critical opinions, and his evaluation of conflicting evidence, somehow the Bible does not feel as alive to him as it once did. Ernest is troubled by this; he finds it more difficult to pray and witness than he did before he came to seminary.

Anyone familiar with seminary life knows this story is too often true. Students arrive “bright eyed and bushy tailed,” ready to conquer the world for Jesus. They get immersed in academic work and theological debate – only to one day realize they have left their first love (Rev. 2:1-7) and forgotten why they are even at seminary to begin with.

This doesn’t have to be the case! There is a better way. Remember the apostle’s dual emphasis in 1 Timothy 4:16, and stubbornly guard both life and doctrine as you learn and grow. 

In truth, we must not choose between love of God and love of doctrine; it is not an “either/or” but a “both/and.” How do you truly love someone you don’t really know? The great Presbyterian theologian B.B. Warfield underscores this point:

Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response. “Than ten hours over your books on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology.

The heart posture with which you pursue your education will make all the difference in the world. Reject a dry, stuffy faith built on knowledge alone; choose instead a thoughtful, deepening faith built on truth and love. 

Keys to guarding your life in seminary

In light of this danger, here is some practical wisdom that has proved helpful to me over the years. Consider five keys by which you can guard your life in seminary:

  1. Cultivate the spiritual disciplines. The spiritual disciplines remain the lifeblood for every believer. Prayer, worship, Bible intake, journaling, and others are essential for a growing follower of Christ – regardless of age or season of life. Forge these in seminary and prioritize them day by day. They will carry you through seminary and propel you forward for a lifetime of ministry.
  2. Establish healthy habits. Habits are easy to make and hard to break – bad habits at least. Good habits, meanwhile, require intentionality on the front end but can provide a lifetime of structure and reinforcing practices. Set your rhythms accordingly: awaken early, read your Bible before textbooks, commune with God before conversing with others, integrate fasting, pray with your spouse before going to bed, and so on.
  3. Prioritize prayer. As a nonquantifiable discipline, prayer is easy to gloss over. We know when we’ve read three chapters of Scripture; we may not be as aware when we’ve rushed through our prayer time. So keep a prayer list and a prayer journal. Tracking what you need to pray for will bring added motivation. Documenting God’s answers will inspire you all the more.
  4. Think devotionally about your studies. While some professors will draw the lines from their lectures to your spiritual formation, others will not. But you can draw them. Ask yourself questions like, What can I apply from their reading to my spiritual life? What sin does this lecture prompt me to confess? How will this assignment strengthen me for ministry in the local church? What new truth about God did I learn today? As you learn to ask the right questions, you will find yourself getting more out of seminary, spiritually speaking, than you ever imagined.
  5. Look for Jesus in all. Jesus is the apex of Scripture; therefore He should be the apex of your studies. Listen for Him in every lecture. Look for Him in every reading. Ask your professor how a given biblical passage connects to Him. For additional reading on this topic, I recommend How to Stay Christian in Seminary by David Mathis and Jonathan Parnell.

At the beginning of this chapter, I mentioned our move to Louisville for seminary training. That was early August 2001. Thankfully, for the three years prior, I served under Dr. Steve Lawson at Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Dr. Lawson was a pivotal influence on my life. He became not only a mentor but a dear friend and remains one to this day.

Dr. Lawson always took interest in young men called to ministry, and there were a number of them in our church. But I sensed he took a particular interest in me. One day I asked why. He reflected, “If a man has $100 to invest in a business, he wants to invest it in the business that will bring the greatest return. I am investing in you because I believe you will bring a return for the kingdom. Make sure you do just that.”

Dr. Lawson’s words inspired me then – and they still do. They convicted me then – and they still do. Such words remind me that my ministry is a stewardship – and so is yours. 

Many have invested much in you. God has called you. Christ has strengthened you. The Holy Spirit has gifted you. Churches have supported you. Pastors have mentored you. Family members have sacrificed for you. Benefactors have invested in you. Professors have taught you. Fellow students have encouraged you. 

You are a steward of a precious call, and so many others are invested in it with you. Therefore, you must guard your life and your doctrine. And seminary is one of the best places to establish healthy patterns to enable you to do just that. 

Excerpted from Succeeding at Seminary: 12 Keys to Getting the Most Out of Your Theological Education by Jason K. Allen (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission. 

Jason K. Allen

Dr. Jason Allen is the fifth and youngest president of Midwestern Baptist Seminary. He has served as pastor and interim pastor of Southern Baptist churches in Alabama and Kentucky over the past 15 years. He currently serves the church more broadly through writing and preaching ministries, including his own website … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24