Protestantism and Elitism

I have just started reading an interesting book called Protestantism in Guatemala by Virginia Garrard-Burnett. Protestantism has a long history in Guatemala, by this account, with the Inquisition actually having done some 21 Protestants to death (of course, two of these, at least, were suspected of piracy; but the fact that they were charged as Protestants gives rise to some intriguing reflections on the relative severity of these crimes). However, modern missionary involvement in Guatemala actually came about when the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, in 1882 asked the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to send him a missionary. The man who was sent was John Clark Hill, originally headed for China, and it seems to have been something of a disaster.

The invitation from President Barrios automatically put Hill into an elite class: indeed, one of the reasons given for his less-than-successful speculation in railroads was that his mission board did not adequately support him to live among his target group –the social elites in Guatemala City.

And that background brings me to the point I would like to comment on here. I hope that in general the churches of our time have not focused on the wealthy and glamorous in their missionary endeavors. Indeed, there are many missionaries who have cheerfully undergone privations to work among the poor of God’s universal flock. But there is one area in which we perhaps have not distanced ourselves adequately from a cultural elitism. It is in the area of training foreign nationals for the ministry. When they are invited to the US to study, it is often with the prerequisite that they should have a bachelor’s degree or some equivalent. Now the reasoning for this policy is understandable: but particularly when speaking of those training for the ministry from third-world countries, the practical result is that the only men given the highly-lauded advantage of a seminary education in their preparations for the ministry, are necessarily those who have something of an elite status when compared to the general population.

Now, let me be clear that I am not calling for uneducated ministers, or that I am an unqualified egalitarian –I am not. But it ought to be patently obvious by this stage in history that a college education does not in itself guarantee that the possessor thereof is in any way a member of an intellectual elite –that ounce for ounce his brain is better stocked or more functional than someone else’s. And so in requiring a college education for entrance to seminary, particularly in cases where such a thing is generally obtainable only by a privileged member of a given society, we do what lies in our power to limit pastoral ministry to members of a sort of aristocracy which though it might have held Moses and Paul, would not have included Peter or indeed, our Lord.

If we seriously believe that a seminary education is essential to a due discharge of pastoral ministry (itself a proposition that would be difficult to sustain with historical example), then surely we cannot confine it to those who may happen to have money or social position: not, that is, unless we have forgotten Paul’s striking words:

not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called.

Now if this is true of effectual calling, by what conceivable logic could we reverse the statement when we speak of the calling to the ministry?

So it seems that we have three courses open to us if our doctrine and our practice are to coincide:

1. We must revise our seminary entrance requirements at least in the case of foreign students.


2. We must not insist upon a seminary education as always necessary for the faithful discharge of pastoral ministry.


3. We must revise our theology.

Any takers?

4 replies on “Protestantism and Elitism”

I would not nudge entrance or performance requirements and No. 3 is an obvious red herring. I say nay to No. 1 because university standards are already so much lower than what was considered peasant competence in the 17th century that there should be no further lowering. I might concede that testing options could replace an actual undergraduate degree in exceptional cases.

I think of O. Palmer Robertson and his seminary in Uganda (I think). This is the right idea: the priority shouldn’t be consideration of altering entrance requirements for foreign students–the priority should be setting up seminaries in foreign countries.

I’m nudgable into the #2 slot, and in fact already there. Caveat, however, that this is a marketplace issue; no church or denomination is required to alter its requirement of a seminary education; it is up to the callee, as it were, to locate support, whether or not he is a seminary graduate. I’ve seen very good preachers with and without seminary degrees, and very poor ones with and without. Obviously, the fact of the degree does not make one a pastor and preacher. God does. Seminaries are convenient places to learn things that separate the learned from the ignorant, but so are very faithful pulpits. I do think exposure to peer review and interaction is important at some point, but this, too, can be gained from the right sort of church environment. A degree can be a gnostic idol, but that, too, is a marketplace issue.

I don’t worry about cookie-cutter graduates coming out of a seminary, because I see very positive individual distinctions in different pastors from the same seminary, and very good preaching in different pastors who took up study outside a seminary. I do not think a classical seminary education is irrelevant in the mission field just because it doesn’t prepare the pastor to cope with cultural differences. The principle is, “All are one in Christ,” not “When in Guatemala do as the Guatemalans.”


You are of course correct that 3 is a red herring. I think the establishment of local seminaries could be a good idea, of course; but if the entrance requirements are culturally unrealistic, it is not much better than having one halfway around the world. And yes, it is the churches who decide these things, not the seminaries; but there is obviously a degree of interplay between them.

It is exactly the principle you enunciate at the end which made me write this post. “All are one in Christ” –and therefore elitism is unacceptable. God calls whom He chooses: and surely most of those whom He chooses for the ministry do need some preparation. As churches, then, we should not impose requirements which limit the ministry to a social or financial elite. Hopefully all ministers will belong to an intellectual elite, at least in the sense of having good brains diligently employed on noble topics; but such men may well be called into existence by God from the day-laborers.

I don’t think standards should necessarily be lowered either; but I don’t think that college/seminary are guarantees that those standards are met. Is that not the place for the ordination council?

[…] I did a blog post some time ago on the presumably unconscious elitism that sometimes arises from a rigid list of academic requirements for ordination. I think it’s also worthwhile asking whether John Witherspoon did us a disservice: whether Samuel Johnson (I think) was not right. In short, whether the lecture model is really the best didactic method. __________________ Ruben Zartman Iglesia Biblica de Padierna Distrito Federal Spanish Blog -Teologia en Mexico English Blog -The Howling Wilderness […]

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