Carl Trueman: Advice to seminarians and PhD students – be humble servants of the church

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“Too many theological students come unstuck not because they do not master the sophisticated intricacies of their chosen fields of specialization but rather because they failed their apprenticeships in the basics, the corporate disciplines of church attendance, submission to elders, hard work for the local body, and the individual disciplines which flow from these: private prayer and Bible reading, a crying out to God for his mercy, and a burning desire to be mastered by the Word of God.

Successful theological students are never the subjects in theological study; rather they are always the objects of God’s grace. And the church is the place where they will be held accountable for these things. The church, not the seminar room, provides their only true home, their best classroom, and their best form of strenuous spiritual rest. Theological study at the highest level is a high calling indeed; but just for this very reason those who pursue it need to make especially sure that they truly are humble servants of the church.

“The simple way for theological students to resist both the temptation to pontificate beyond their pay grade and the temptation to pride and the moral and intellectual problems that inevitably come in its wake-fall is to find the proper context for accountability, to find their true home; and the good news is that this true home is easy to find—simply join an orthodox, gospel-believing and proclaiming church as member, submit to the elders, attend the corporate worship services, fellowship with the saints on a regular basis, get involved in the day to day work of the local body, even if it is ‘only’ the cleaning rota (and, hey, worshipping in a dirty church quickly reveals how important that is), and pursue a disciplined life of private devotion.”

“Church involvement is absolutely critical for any healthy Christian life because it constitutes a basic reality check. Most Christians spend their weeks surrounded by people who are not Christians, being exposed to ideas, images, and values which are antithetical to Christianity which sell us myths as if they were reality, which teach us that madness is sanity and sanity is madness. Time spent with brothers and sisters in Christ on the Lord’s Day is thus time spent resetting your moral, spiritual, and intellectual bearings.

Whether you are a banker being tempted to greed by life during the week or a New Testament PhD student being bombarded with scholarship that mocks God’s word in the classroom from Monday to Friday, meeting with the people of God, singing his word, hearing his word read and preached and, indeed, meeting with the Triune in the awesome context of a worship service, is vital to your well-being.

You need to be there; and in nearly two decades of teaching, I have never yet met a student who messes up badly at an intellectual level who did not first mess up at an ecclesiastical level, whether through wrong choice of fellowship or no choice of fellowship at all. Put simply: if you are not involved in a church, then do not look for sympathy when your life leaves the rails and dives into a ditch.”

– Carl Trueman, “Minority Report: A Question of Accountability,” Themelios 34.2 (2009): 158-161.

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