There were gathered the most distinguished ministers of God, from the many churches in Europe, Libya, and Asia. A single house of prayer, as if enlarged by God, sheltered Syrians and Cilicians, Phoenicians and Arabs, delegates from Palestine and from Egypt, Thebans, and Libyans, together with those from Mesopotamia.
–Life of Constantine, Eusebius of Cesarea

In every generation, the Church is called upon to apply the message of God’s grace to old vestiges of human depravity wrapped up in new inventions. The central message of God’s “rescue plan”—as Sally Lloyd Jones calls redemptive history—never changes: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3). The many applications and ramifications of that truth look as different as the sins it means to address. Where the expressions of rebellion and denial may have taken new forms, the essence is unchanged: “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Galatians 5:20–21). 

To predict future issues that will challenge the Church—and to properly plan for them—is difficult. Yet, such a task is at the heart of what it means to preside over a seminary. As they help train future pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders for the denomination and the broader church, seminary presidents shape pedagogy, structure content, and direct instructional methodologies. So, how is the next generation of Christian leaders being instructed? What challenges and opportunities do seminary presidents foresee facing the Presbyterian Church in America? And how might this change the way they teach new students?

“The PCA motto in many ways spells our history and our future,” says Dr. Bryan Chapell, president of the PCA’s Covenant Theological Seminary (CTS) since 1994. “We are ‘faithful to the Scriptures, true to the Reformed faith, and obedient to the Great Commission.’ In the first 30 seconds of our history, we decided what it would mean to be true to Scripture. We then spent 30 years arguing about what it meant to be true to the Reformed faith. I think the next 30 years are about determining what it means to do mission as a church in this culture.”

Dr. Jerry O’Neill, president of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) agrees. “Kingdom opportunities come in different shapes and sizes, but they all revolve around the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.”

The Changing Culture Presents the Greatest Challenge

In one sense, the work of a seminary has remained essentially the same—equipping leaders to proclaim Christ to a world in need. In many regards, it is the rapidly changing nature of the culture that presents the greatest challenges. Broadly speaking, creeds and confessions fall with seeming irrelevance on a culture drunk on the pursuits and pleasures of this life, and angered by the contradictions (real and perceived) of confessing evangelicals. Forget the conundrum of Jesus being a liar, lunatic, or Lord. For many outside the church, he is merely an irrelevant semi-historical figure professed by epistemological bigots.

O’Neill notes, “The postmodernism of our day is striking. Absolute truth is anachronistic to the culture. And many who profess to be born again do not really believe that Jesus is the only way of salvation.” Those who do believe that the Bible, O’Neill says, are so confused by the disparate voices within Christendom that they are not sure it’s possible to know what the Bible really means. What’s more, the culture is becoming more and more intolerant of Christians, whom they consider to be intolerant.

“In other words, those of us who believe in absolutes are facing greater and greater challenges from those who consider ‘Jesus only’ people a threat to their way of life,” says O’Neill.

Dr. Carl Trueman, vice president of academic affairs and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) in Philadelphia, takes this a step further. He notes, “The doctrine of Scripture is clearly crucial, and is under fire within evangelical and Reformed circles at the moment.  The nature of human sexuality is clearly going to stay on the radar for the indefinite future, both as it relates to the legitimacy of homosexual relationships, and to the narrower question of the relationships between men and women in terms of church leadership.”

For Further Discussion

Jerry O’Neill says that absolute truth is anachronistic to the culture; he says that many Christians don’t believe Jesus is the only way to salvation, and that many Christians are so confused by contending Christian voices, that they don’t believe anyone can know what the Bible truly means.

Q. Is the PCA producing leaders who make the concept of absolute truth plausible and attractive? And are they training laypeople to do the same?

Q. Are PCA churches places where pastors and teachers bring clarity to Bible—to what it means, teaches, and promises—giving believers confidence that it is their only rule for faith and practice?

Q. Are younger men well equipped to present the Scriptures to believers and non-believers alike? 

 Learning to Pastor in Flux

When faced with such an ideological environment, which is changing more rapidly than any culture before, the issue of contextualization becomes central. However one chooses to define local incarnation, it must include the disparity (and relationship) between large and small churches, urban versus non-urban settings, and ethnic diversity.

Trueman reflects on this disparity, saying, “My observation of the PCA is a tendency to focus on ‘big personalities,’ whether on the right, the center, or the left–as being more basic than historic confessions, or even the Church. There is the tendency to become internally Balkanized, with various factions understanding and applying the confessional standards in differing ways that seem, at times, to be increasingly in tension with each other.” (Trueman is an outsider to the PCA—his credentials resting in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a sister denomination.)

 Seminaries train with an eye to these issues, Chapell notes, “The days are gone when a man who is being equipped for a lifetime of ministry has been exposed to only one worship style, only one evangelism outreach method, and been equipped to deal with only people like himself in his background prior to age 25. Today a seminary education is more about creating awareness and skills to work cross-culturally, cross-denominationally, cross-regionally, and cross-ethnically. The culture itself has become so much more of an amalgam. Wherever a pastor starts, his setting will be in flux, and he needs to be equipped to assess and respond to his changing situation while holding fast to the distinctives that make his faith biblical.”

The issue of women’s roles in the church—which is proportionally larger and applicably broader than suggested by recent discussions at the PCA General Assembly—is just one example of this tension.

“As a denomination that embraces the biblical roles of men and women, and that limits ordination to men called by God and approved by the church, we will find ourselves—along with traditional Roman Catholics and some Anglican groups—being labeled anachronistic,” says Dr. Michael Milton, president of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) Charlotte, and interim president of RTS-Orlando. “The pressure will only increase for us to bend toward the culture.”

Chapell identifies this debate about women’s roles as a small part of a greater cultural assault on the family. “Gender issues are going to be on the table for many years. As long as the culture is, in my mind, in radical opposition to a biblical model of family, home, gender, and church, the church itself is going to wrestle with how to speak to that culture and how not to be too influenced by or reactive to the culture. And the only answer is to keep asking, ‘What does the Bible say?’”

Bryan Chapell, president of Covenant Theological Seminary, identifies the current debate about women’s roles as a small part of the greater cultural assault on the family. “As long as the culture is in radical opposition to a biblical model of family, home, gender, and church,” he says, “the church itself is going to wrestle with how to speak to that culture and how not to be too influenced by or reactive to the culture.”

Q. Are leaders in PCA churches teaching, encouraging, and properly defending the biblical model of family, home, and gender?

Q. Are our churches—leaders and laypeople—speaking into the culture effectively on these issues?

Q. Are we being overly influenced by the culture? Or overly reactive to it?

Q. Are we, as a denomination, going back to Scriptures, asking: What does the Bible say?

Coping with Brokenness

And yet for many headed to (or in) seminary, this is their cultural milieu. O’Neill notes, “A good number of our students are coming to us from broken homes, and their lives are not as stable as they were in previous generations. What’s more, they are often in debt, and have little training or skills in dealing with personal finance. Some students come with a passion for truth and a strong foundation on which to build, but others come with little understanding of the historic Reformed faith.”

Not unique to RPTS, this profile exemplifies the background of seminary students the nation over. When the downward trend of relational dysfunction spirals out of control—high divorce rates, conception out of wedlock, a fatherless generation, youth engaging in sex before marriage, and marriages failing in the wake of destructive relational patterns—the church’s role in framing an understanding of family, parenthood, sexuality, and marriage is heightened. Sexual issues—abuse, neglect, and addictions—are a crucible of testing for the North American church. The modeling of family and marriage that begins in the church intensifies at the seminary as students are trained both in how to deal with their own brokenness and how preach to and counsel others in these areas. Framing these discussions tenderly, honestly, with grace and compassion—but also clarity and truth—is the role of leadership. How are seminaries engaging more intensely in the mentoring aspects that are a critical part of this relational pedagogy?

Covenant Seminary, for example, hosts weekly Covenant Groups that cluster a small group of students around a faculty member to help process the past and the present, pray for one another, and look toward future ministry opportunities. RTS offers regular lunches to nurture mentoring relationships. RPTS offers weekly advisory prayer groups. WTS has set up a mentored ministry component to their vocational courses, which involves students working closely with local pastors in real ministry situations. And all the seminaries agree that the pastor-scholar model is central to their faculty structure. This pastor-scholar model echoes from the early days of church history, when the first systematic theologians were pastors as well as advocates of doctrinal truth (Irenaeus of Lyons is a famous example).

Milton best articulates the model by saying, “The emphasis that I have advocated, along with our faculty, has increasingly focused on preparing pastors through a more Genevan model whereby pastor-scholars are training up pastor-scholars for the pulpit and the mission field. While seeking to strengthen our grip on academic research and strong biblical scholarship to help our future pastors understand the challenges they will face, we are increasingly vocational, increasingly focused on presenting the ordinary means of grace—word, sacrament and prayer—as the primary tools for the work of ministry.” Milton also regularly hosts students in his home as part of the intentional RTS commitment—formal and informal—to see students developed in this manner.

Clearly, mentoring is crucial in faculty-to-student relationships. Parity and diversity among seminary faculty vastly deepens the formation of future pastors, who will themselves be called upon to model and mentor at the local church level. The beauty of this is reflected in Eusebius’ description of the Council of Nicaea, quoted at the head of this article.

Addressing Blind Spots

Speaking to the issue of parity and diversity, Chapell says, “The seminary’s primary job is one of creating awareness and equipping pastors to handle difference. At Covenant Seminary, students take courses from Dr. Phil Douglass to become aware of the different personalities of churches and the ways in which conflict can arise in the local church. When they take classes with professor Jerram Barrs, a native of England, students become aware of the presumptions of our American culture—and aware of the filters people already have in place for an evangelical Reformed message. And they learn not just what filters are in place but how to penetrate those filters, both conceptually and relationally. When students study preaching with me, they are not only being exposed to a model that gives basic footing on how to preach, but also—and perhaps more importantly—they are learning how that model may need to change based on where they go and to whom they are speaking.”

Covenant Seminary has also begun a fully-integrated team-teaching approach for a number of courses. Not only does this help expose potential theological blind spots in a single teacher’s approach, but—contrasted to some stay-and-learn models—it also encourages transformation under a “chorus of voices” rather than a “series of soloists.”

Denominationally, this chorus must expand ethnically or else the PCA will face near-certain irrelevance. Changing demographics promise to reduce Anglo populations in North America to a minority within 25 years. And whereas Presbyterian polity and hierarchy are easily compatible with many Asian cultural and authority structures, the same assumptions fail in the horizontally-structured communities of Latin America.

Seeking Diversity

Each seminary is addressing the issue of diversity differently. RPTS, for example, has pursued and developed a close working relationship with several urban black churches in Pittsburgh. O’Neill says, “We are blessed to have a tremendous relationship with African-American Baptists, in particular, but also the African Methodist Episcopoal (AME) and AME Zion churches. Regularly students in chapel request prayer for the funerals of people we have read about on the front pages of our newspapers, while others report on their involvement in a local jail ministry. Each of these has pushed us out of our ethnic bubble as we equip students for ministry.”

None of the seminaries is satisfied with its current progress in this area of diversity. Milton adds, “We are not where we want to be. Diversity remains one of our goals. At the same time, we must not measure our success in reaching out to other ethnicities by the number of African-American students that we have—but more in terms simply of listening. We are also pursuing denominational diversity. In this regard, RTS Charlotte has 30 denominations represented, and across the RTS system we have more than 50 denominations represented—which allows us to reach into other ethnic groups as well.”

Trueman raises one concern, however. “I believe that American seminaries and denominations need to watch themselves lest they fall into an unhealthy Messiah complex.  The salvation of the world does not depend on the ability of any single seminary or denomination to reach every part of the globe or every ethnic group. We need to avoid falling into the narcissistic trap of thinking that this day and age presents ‘unique opportunities’ beyond the kind of unique opportunities every era of the Christian Church has faced.”

Q. Is diversity within the PCA an important issue?

Q. Is it important to our health and mission to be more ethnically and socially diverse?

Q. Must individual churches, therefore, become more diverse?

If the cumulative challenges facing the PCA appear herculean, God has provided indicators of grace throughout. The demands of ministerial preparation are great—in information as well as transformation—but the learn-as-you-go pedagogy of Generations X and Y lends itself to rapid change. Historically, people have learned information, knowledge, and skills for the purpose of retention and recall. Today’s youth (as tomorrow’s leaders) prefer to learn where information, knowledge, and skills are stored. Thus, they are masterful at the art of finding. This makes them more rounded in nature and general acuity—necessary skills for rapid adaptation to a rapidly changing context.

Trueman explains, “More students require more flexibility in their education. This is sometimes a function of the consumerist ethic bleeding over into education, where the latter is just one more commodity on the market. But more often than not it is a necessary accommodation to the fact that education is expensive, many students have families, and thus they need to work while also studying.”

To accommodate this new way of information storage and learning, seminaries are offering resources to pastors and missionaries abroad. Covenant Seminary and RTS (through its Virtual Campus) both offer online classes. Covenant Seminary’s Worldwide Classroom and iTunesU page offer 20 complete master’s-level courses online for free.  And RTS, in addition to its iTunesU resources, is seeking further opportunities for partnership with Apple Inc, says Milton. These tools, not intended to replace traditional living-learning communities, seek to aid and complement ministry practitioners in the field.

Torn, Persecuted, Yet Ever Advancing

Where there are differences in emphasis and focus for each of these seminaries, there is harmony in their optimistic outlook for the advancement of the gospel. Milton says, “I would rather be living in this time than in any other time in human history. We stand, as a denomination and as seminaries, on the precipice of a new day, but must always turn again to the ‘old paths’ to walk, with gospel confidence, into tomorrow. Redemption is on its way.” 

Chapell concludes, “The primary goal that Covenant Theological Seminary is seeking to equip people with is this: a profound understanding of the love of God in Christ graciously revealed. This is far more constraining for the human heart than more rules or less rules.”

Trueman echoes, “We have a job to do—train people to communicate the gospel, to be pastors, to be teachers. Let’s concentrate on that, do it faithfully, and trust that when the Lord provides such opportunities our students will be well-prepared to serve in every situation.”

The Church today is not unlike the Church of yesteryear: the challenges morph, the points of conflict come and go. But in the end, the Church is like that of Acts—torn with discord from within and persecuted from without, yet ever advancing: unhindered. In this regard, we are all living in the chapter of church history that follows Acts 28, culminating in the glorious fulfillment of Revelation 22.

Joel Hathaway is the director of alumni and placement services at Covenant Theological Seminary. He blogs about economics, finance, and politics at