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What to look for in a theological college

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Mark Thompson
We asked Moore's principal Dr Mark Thompson what he thinks people should look for in a theological college. He came up with this blog post. It is useful for you, your friends or loved ones, if you or they, are considering further training to be more equipped for ongoing ministry and mission in whatever context.

Moore College exists for one reason: to see Christ and his gospel proclaimed in all the world. We want everyone in this city to hear what God has done in Christ and have an opportunity to respond with repentance, faith and a new life. We want to see them knit into local churches and built up in the faith. We want to see them being shaped in the way they think and the way they live by the Bible’s message about God and his purpose, with its focus on his Son. But there’s more than that. Our vision is not limited to one city or one denomination. We want to see men and women in every nation and people-group on this planet hear the good news of Jesus and be brought from darkness to light. So at the heart of what we do is a message: God’s message about his Son. And that message gives us the twin priorities of mission and ministry. The very particular role we have as a College, is to help prepare men and women for that mission and ministry. Everything we do—our philosophy of education, our curriculum, the pastoral side of College life, engagement in local churches and in annual missions alongside study—is designed to prepare people as effectively as possible to be disciple-making disciples, who know Christ and are committed above all else to making him known.

There are a number of words from Scripture which directly and deeply inform what we do here at Moore College. Of course, Paul’s words to Timothy immediately come to mind:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 2:1-2)

This is, in many ways, a charter for theological education. It is a call to Timothy, and in time to others, to recruit and train and send out men and women to share ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3).

People sometimes ask me what is the most important thing to look for when thinking about enrolling in a theological college.

The faculty

Without doubt the first answer is ‘Look at the faculty’. Don’t just ask whether they are clever, well-qualified, skilled in teaching, with a long list of publications to their name, and all of that. No doubt at least some of that’s important. You want to be taught by people who will stretch you and help you grow in the knowledge of God. But more important is the orientation of the faculty.

Are they gospel men and women first and foremost? Do they know themselves as undeserving sinners who have received the kind of grace and mercy that takes your breath away? Do they highly value the forgiveness of sins because they know that without it they’d be lost?

Are they Bible people? When they teach, is their inclination to go to the Bible first — whether the subject is Old Testament, New Testament, Doctrine, Ethics, Ministry, Mission or even Church History?

Are they mission-minded people? Do they see all they do in the service of Christ and his mission? Instead of being preoccupied with academia and intellectual prestige and international reputations, are they preoccupied with making Christ known in all the world?

And are they people people? Do they care about the lost who without Christ have no hope in the world? And do they care for Christ’s people? Do they have the heart of a shepherd, caring for Christ’s sheep, wanting to protect and guard and guide those who are, placed in their care but actually belong to another?

You’ll find a faculty like that at Moore. They are leaders in their respective fields, that’s true. They have the degrees and they’ve written the books and articles. They know what they are talking about. But more importantly they are deeply Christian, servant-hearted men and women. They think deeply about the word of God. They seek themselves to live under the word of God. And they will want to see you love God and what he has told us and be passionate about passing it on to others — wherever the Lord may take you. They will look out for you, walk alongside you, seek to encourage you and provide all the essential help along the way, because they are pastors as well as teachers. They are your Christian brothers and sisters as well as those who will lead and guide you while you are part of this fellowship.

The curriculum

The second most important thing to look for when choosing a theological college is the curriculum. What is actually being taught? Will you receive the training you need, not just to prepare you for the next couple of years but for a life-time of service as you grow in Christ yourself and seek to help others come to know him and grown in him as well?

So, firstly, will you be immersed in the Scriptures? Will you learn the languages, spend extensive time in the text, be shown how the whole fits together and how the details of each passage contribute to the richness of that whole? How much of the Bible will you have the opportunity to study in depth over the duration of your course?

Secondly, will you be trained to think theologically? This means not being content with just historical or literary approaches to the Bible but recognising this is the word of God, which speaks of God, what he is doing in the world and how he calls on us to respond. Will you learn how to draw together all that the Bible has to say on a topic in a way that does not distort it, to ask the hard questions and listen for the answers? Will you be able to recognise a false trail when you see it and so be able to stand firm against every wind of doctrine? After all, lots of clever things are being said all the time, but not all that is being said is true or consistent with the word of God.

Thirdly, will you be stimulated and helped in mission and ministry thinking? Will you be shown the difference between theologically-driven decision making and simple pragmatics? Will you have opportunities to practice and develop skills in evangelism and Bible exposition and pastoral care? Will you have kept before you a global vision rather than a merely parochial one? Will you be challenged to consider going beyond what is convenient and comfortable to reach people who have not yet heard of Jesus?

A great deal of thought over the years has gone into the Moore College curriculum. A great deal of time has been invested in creating a curriculum with a strong focus on the Scriptures and a commitment original language study, along with important studies in doctrine, ethics, apologetics, church history, ministry and mission. But more than that, there is the wider curriculum: the opportunities for ministry while you are at College, the chaplaincy groups and meals together, the chapel and the annual missions. The whole package is designed not just to give you information. We could do that by just emailing you a reading list, after all! Rather all these elements have been carefully designed to assist you to grow in Christian character, strengthen in evangelical conviction, and develop the skills of a pastor and teacher.

Just as a side note: it is almost impossible to attend to all four of those things—growth in knowledge, character, conviction and skills—if you try to squeeze a course in theology into your spare time. It needs concentrated effort and that effort will require you to put other things aside, just for a while, in order to be best prepared for the future. I do not believe there is a better theological curriculum in Australia than the curriculum here at Moore College. But have a look for yourself, compare it to what you find elsewhere, and see if you agree.

The graduates

So when choosing a theological college, the first thing to look for is the faculty, and the second thing is the curriculum. The third important thing to look for—or really to look at—is the kind of graduate it produces. Do people come out of this particular theological college confident in the word of God? Or do they come out confused by the spectrum of opinions being voiced by theologians and others around the world, and so never being able to make a stand? I remember a dear friend of mine on the other side of the world telling me that after he had finished his theological training there it took him two years to regain his confidence in the Bible. Do people come out of the college you’re considering able to teach the Bible faithfully, clearly, coherently, and persuasively? Does this college produce good and effective pastor-teachers? Does it produce theological leaders, those who are able to serve others by pointing out how the teaching of the Scriptures addresses current issues and warning when attractive but deeply flawed ideas are being promoted through books or conferences or elsewhere? Does it produce people who genuinely care and indeed love the people they’ve been given responsibility for? Another friend of mine wrote a few years ago: ‘My aim is to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love’. People like that are gold. Does the college you are looking at produce people like that? And does the College you are looking at produce people who last the distance, even in the face of adversity? Enthusiasm and passion are one thing. Having the resources to keep going over the long haul and especially when things are tough, is quite another.

I came to Moore College as a student, a very long time ago now, because I had heard graduates of this College teach the Bible and I wanted to teach the Bible like that. I had been the recipient of pastoral care and mentoring from graduates of this College and I wanted to pastor and mentor people like that. I saw the transparent daily walk with Christ of graduates of this College and I wanted to mature into a Christian like that. The graduates of a College often display the values of the College as clearly as anything else. But not always of course. It is always possible to have a bad experience and think every graduate is just like him! Check out a few, I think.

So the faculty, the curriculum and the graduates. That will give you a good idea about a theological college.

Why theological college at all?

But why study at a theological college at all? Why even consider putting yourself through the expense and the time and the effort? Here I want to point you to one of the other words from Scripture that deeply informs what we do here. This time they are words of the Lord Jesus himself, spoken to his disciples while he was travelling around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and affliction. The crowds used to come to him. Large crowds full of need and uncertainty. Crowds who had no assurance, no true knowledge of God, no hope. He had compassion on those crowds, we are told by Matthew in Matthew 9, because they were ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. They needed someone to teach them. They needed someone to guide them. They needed someone to care for them. They were stumbling around in the dark – facing a danger they didn’t have any idea was facing them. And seeing them, having compassion on them, Jesus said to his disciples,

The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. (Matt 9:37-38)

Jesus saw the need of those who had come to him. But the issue was there were so many. And if that was the case in the time of Jesus it is most certainly the case now. We live in a land which is discarding its Christian heritage at an alarming rate. People are lost. Some of those who are not lost are nevertheless frightened. The need for those who will take the gospel to the world, and who will minister the word of God to his redeemed people is greater than ever. And is that not much more the case when you look out from this city to the world? Europe and the UK need to be re-evangelised all over again. It’s tragic but it’s true. Rapidly growing churches in Africa and Asia are suffering from a lack of trained Bible teachers who teach God’s word rather than their own ideas. University students need to hear the gospel from those who know its true and love to tell it, because all they hear from their lecturers is a ridicule of Christians and Christian faith. Children in our schools need an opportunity to hear the truth, because an anti-Christian agenda is being relentlessly driven by education authorities all over our land. There is no limit to the opportunities. We need more gospel workers today than we have ever had before.

And so we as a College want to train people to share the gospel but also to recruit others to share the gospel with them. The need is great. Without the gospel people are lost and in danger. But because faithful men and women in previous generations gave themselves to this task of sharing the gospel, teaching the Bible and loving the people, you were able to hear and grow in faith. It is the most urgent need of the moment. In the last few months alone, I have had people contacting me from Africa and Asia and England and the US, asking whether I knew of trained people who would come. And we want to help.

So there is very good reason to consider getting the best and most thorough theological education so that you can play a part in this mission. Not just tomorrow but for decades into the future, if the Lord does not return first. The choice to get that training is a very significant one. The decision about where to get that training is just as significant. Don’t let slogans or advertising rhetoric decide the matter for you. Consider the faculty, consider the curriculum and consider the graduates. Come along to Moore at any time, meet the faculty and the students. And pray that the Lord will give you wisdom and guide you, and open a wide door for effective ministry for you, a ministry that lasts the long haul and sees many men and women pass from death to life.

Mark Thompson is the Principal of Moore Theological College, the Head of its Theology, Philosophy and Ethics Department, and someone who is still overwhelmed every day by the wonder of the gospel of God’s son — forever the powerful way God saves people.