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How to guard your life and doctrine in seminary

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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