Bible Explorations | Billy Honor
Would Jesus go to seminary?
Thoughts from a seminary graduate | Read: Luke 2:41–52 and 4:14–30
One of my fondest memories from my days as an undergraduate student in Bible college was an exchange between one of my professors and a classmate. During a class discussion on various requirements for ordination and becoming a pastor, my classmate mentioned that his congregation was currently looking for a new pastor. Our professor asked, “What are the requirements?” My classmate responded, “They must be at least 40 years of age, married, and have obtained a seminary degree.” Without hesitation my professor retorted, “With those qualifications, not even Jesus could be your pastor.”
I must report that I wasn’t ready for this response. My professor with one sentence had rocked my impressionable 20-year-old theological mind. Prior to this moment it hadn’t dawned on me that Jesus’ age, marital status, and lack of formal theological education would have excluded him from being the pastor of many of our churches.
Prior to this moment it hadn’t dawned on me that Jesus’ age, marital status, and lack of formal theological education would have excluded him from being the pastor of many of our churches.
— Billy Honor
After I left class that day, I went straight to the library and began my search to discover what Jesus’ actual qualifications for ministry were and why those qualifications weren’t good enough for many churches. Finding answers to these questions was important to me because I was about to spend the next several years of life at seminary in preparation for pastoral ministry. So if there was a chance that the life and ministry of Jesus offered a better, less expensive method of ministry preparation, I wanted to know about it.
Now, over a decade later, even as an ordained, seminary-educated pastor, I find myself still pondering questions about Jesus’ preparation for ministry. In particular, I often wonder if Jesus would go to seminary if he were alive in our times.
Obviously, answering a question like this is difficult, because there was nothing like the modern seminary in Jesus’ day. And the Bible tells us very little about Jesus’ life prior to the beginning of his public ministry. Despite these difficulties, I think the Gospels provide enough for us to imagine how Jesus might view seminary education.
The Gospels make clear that Jesus was a serious seeker of knowledge and wisdom. For example, Luke 2:41–52 tells a story of the boy Jesus hanging out in the temple with the Jewish teachers, asking them questions and sharing his own understanding. And Luke 4:14–30 portrays Jesus the young adult as knowledgeable of Hebrew Scripture and engaged in the process of developing his own theological identity.
At their best, seminaries provide a unique environment where individuals are shaped to be servant leaders in church and society. They also provide a place where searching, sometimes disgruntled, persons can think critically about the state of the church and discern ways to make it more faithful to the gospel. I find it hard to believe that Jesus would pass on an opportunity to engage in the type of theological community and conversation that seminary provides.
But this does not mean that Jesus would require a seminary degree for entrance into pastoral ministry. He certainly didn’t require that of his disciples; his requirement seemed to be simply that they follow him in a kind of peripatetic field education. Any absolute requirement of a degree may have struck Jesus as too legalistic, on par with a rigid adherence to Sabbath law without concern for circumstances. If Jesus did attend seminary, it would likely be primarily for theological engagement, not ministerial affirmation.
And, in the end, I believe that seminary is indeed a place where Jesus would have wanted to be. It was Jesus, after all, who taught his disciples the importance of loving God with their minds (Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27). And few places offer contemporary followers of Christ a better opportunity to love God with their minds than our seminaries.
Billy Honor is the pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in College Park, Georgia, and a graduate of Johnson C. Smith Seminary.