This popular worn-out cliché has been echoed in many sermons, monologues, YouTube videos, Instagram reels, and the like. Those who usually vocalize this claim tend either to have no formal theological training, have never entered seminary, and consider it the end of a devotional life. The term, cemetery, gets its wording from the spiritually dead experience that anyone entering theological education would receive as their reward. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and many who graduated have yet to become like the walking dead.
The scenario that is normally played out in the minds of those who say that seminary is a cemetery is that a student who enters, full of vitality and ready to take on the great commission, eventually after years of relentless study, will somehow be dulled and passionless by their experience. Let’s examine one of the first seminary-type settings ever instituted by the apostle Paul and see how those students carried out their calling.
It began in the city of Ephesus during Paul’s third missionary journey (52-55 A.D) where he spends about three months in the lecture hall of Tyrannus with some of the believers discussing the kingdom of God.
8 And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. 10 This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. – Acts 19:8-10
After some time of debating with certain Jews who resisted Paul’s discourse, a new site was discovered in the halls of Tyrannus. Here would be the place where doctrinal dialogues, shaping of Christ-like identity, and scripture exegesis would bring fundamental truths into these lecture halls. This would continue for approximately 2 years and span into other surrounding areas of Asia with a chance for nations to hear the message of the Gospel.
Although we should always be careful in attempting to fit a Biblical narrative into a modern-day scenario, the above text provides the reader with truths we can glean from. Paul met daily to personally invest in the believers where his classes would meet from 11 AM to 4 PM (fifth to the tenth hour). If you calculate the total time spent for 2 years, it will sum up to around 3,000 hours. This is not the descriptive language of a cemetery by definition that houses gravestones but instead of a seminary that seeks to uplift the chief cornerstone.
The gospel came alive to me many years ago in the early 2000’s when I first began my theological education. Learning the Biblical languages, diving into Christian History to discover hidden truths, exploring the Gospels, interpreting the scriptures, and more gave me a deeper holy hunger that would manifest itself into my habits and character as a disciple. It helped me to develop a Christian worldview that aimed, not only at spiritual issues but the practical ones for transformational growth (1 Tim. 4:15-16).
Spiritual maturity is not determined by how much I know of God but by how deeply I know of Him.
Seminary may not be for everyone. Jesus never went yet he taught at the synagogues. Some of our most prolific and gifted ministers never felt the institutional outline of a syllabus at their fingertips. But my desire was always to present myself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (1 Tim. 2:15). Seminary wasn’t just for a puffed-up ego as some would claim but so that I could present the fullness of Christ with conviction and clarity. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel:
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. – John 5:39-40
There are those seeking theological education who embrace it with the notion that it would accelerate them but instead, seminary should do the opposite. It should break down our worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:20-21), it should bring about the mortification of our sin to die (Rom.8:13) and cause us to have radical devotion to God and others.
As a result of Paul’s efforts and impact in Ephesus, leaders were trained, and new church plants sprung up in Asia making it one of the most influential centers of Christianity (Revelation 2-3). They were instrumental in presenting the Gospel to the world to both Jews and Greeks. This was the beginning of a movement and growing pains for the church into maturity. Spiritual maturity is not determined by how much I know of God but by how deeply I know of Him. A cemetery is a place that you go when you die but a seminary is a place you go to live. Paul reminds us of this in Philippians that to live is Christ, to die is gain (1:21).
Those opposed to seminary have one thing right, you do die, but you die closer to the truth and validity of God’s Word. Seminary should cause you to surrender and experience the freedom that comes through rigorist nights and an aptitude for study. What better way to study than to study God? As a current doctoral student, my graduation will not be the apex of my training and quest for learning about the deep things of God. Seminary is a lifelong pursuit that lives in us all. Some of us just choose to approach it differently. What works for me may not necessarily work for you, but to call seminary a death sentence is a fabrication of the truth that is leading many into anti-intellectualism. We are cheating ourselves by just living in the experience without fully understanding the encounter.
A cemetery is a place that you go when you die but a seminary is a place you go to live.
So much more can be said on this topic but for now, I live you with some reflections. Is it helping those whom we are serving to make statements that attempt to discredit one’s pursuit of God in a systematic format? Nor would we convince the addict who may be bound by drugs that support is a waste of their time. A seminary is not a cemetery.
This year we’ve seen a rise in revival culture to many of our prominent theological institutions where hundreds of our young adults have cupelled study with surrender. Historically, revival movements have founded many of our great academic universities that were first established on Biblical principles. When Christ is exalted, He will draw all to Him (John 12:32). May the future of our seminaries continue to birth generations of committed followers into uncharted territories for the kingdom of God.
12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12