In my previous post considering Dan Wallace’s recent article discussing online vs. in-person education I concluded that, especially regarding theological teaching, in-person education is superior to distance education—all other things being equal. But rarely if ever in life are all other things equal. Thus, we inevitably are forced to weigh a variety of factors beyond the intrinsic value of any particular item.
A BMW is superior to a Mitsubishi. If you were offered either for free (with no difference in future tax or insurance implications), you would almost certainly choose the former. Unfortunately, you will not ever be forced to make this decision (or probably be offered any car for free). So other factors will inevitably come into play in whether or not you ever get either kind of vehicle, including your personal finances, the initial cost of each, safety scores, ongoing maintenance, preference in style, etc.
Almost all decisions in life involve weighing a variety of factors. Those who are wise are able to determine which factors are truly more significant, while those who are foolish treat unimportant factors as central.
When a student is determining how and where to receive his theological education, he must consider various factors, including the faculty, library/research resources, doctrine, tuition costs, ministry philosophy, location, family situation, current and future ministry plans, etc. When these factors are all considered, some students may find that the value of distance education compares favorably with the value of in-person education. But one factor seems to often tilt the scales in favor of distance education—a factor that should be almost irrelevant for those truly seeking theological education. That factor is convenience.
One of the biggest selling points for online education is its convenience. You can now get your degree without any real disruption to your life. Fit your training where you want it in your schedule! In his article, Wallace contrasts that mindset with the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples.
“[Jesus’s] closest followers also made massive sacrifices to learn from the Master. Jesus scolded those who would not make the sacrifice to follow him….“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26–27). Those closest to him understood this—at least to some degree. Peter spoke for the rest: “We have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10.28)….
Making a sacrifice to uproot and move across the country (or across the globe) for the sake of the best education is the stumbling block to more and more would-be students today….[Though for some moving is not an option] some students are simply lazy. Online classes are, frankly, more convenient. Numerous pupils in theological institutes live on or close to campus but take courses online. Why? Sometimes it is because their schedule will not allow them to do otherwise. But often it is because they want the sheepskin with as little effort as possible. Countless numbers could make the sacrifice but view the degree as more important than the education. They intentionally settle for second best.”
In my previous post noting the biblical importance of person-to-person interaction in communicating God’s truth, we looked at Paul’s command in 2 Tim 2:2 for Timothy to teach faithful men who could themselves pass on the entrusted message. It is interesting to note that the very next command is for Timothy to “suffer hardship with [Paul]” (2 Tim 2:3). We live in a day when suffering and sacrifice are increasingly foreign concepts. Everything is driven by convenience and ease. If we find something hard, we assume we must be doing it wrong. This mindset is especially dangerous for those entering the ministry.
All Christians, but especially ministers, are to have the single-minded devotion of a soldier (2 Tim 2:3-4). In a day that emphasizes multi-tasking, pastors need to stay focused on pleasing the one who called them without being distracted by other pursuits. They are to be like disciplined athletes, who committed themselves to master their sport in accordance with the rules in place in order to succeed—nearly always accompanied with great sacrifice (2 Tim 2:5). Pastors must be like hard-working farmers, who day in and day out must diligently labor if they want to receive their crop (2 Tim 2:6).
Perhaps most importantly, Paul emphasizes that it is only those who are willing to suffer in this way—in a single-minded, disciplined, hard-working manner—who will receive the reward: their share in the crops, the crown of glory, and the ability to please God.
If you believe you are called to serve God in the gospel ministry, then you have been called to share in the suffering that all of God’s true servants have endured. You are not called to a life of convenience and ease but of hardship, difficulty, and sacrifice—setting the example for the life all of God’s children experience (Rom 8:17). Yet God’s ministers (and all of God’s children) gladly embrace this life of suffering, because the suffering cannot even be compared to the future glory that is ours (Rom 8:18).
If this is what gospel ministry entails, how could we ever prioritize convenience in preparing for that work? If you choose an online degree, a shorter program, or a program without a biblical language requirement because of convenience, what does that say about your commitment to the task you claim God has given you?
If you believe God has given you a desire to be a church leader but are looking for the most convenient way to get a theological degree in preparation for that work—STOP! Either start approaching this work with the whole-hearted, serious, sacrificial labor it requires, or stop pretending you want to serve the Savior who “suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet 2:21).
Is it difficult to take a lower-paying job that allows greater flexibility for schooling in order to be better prepared for ministry? Yes. Is it a challenge to move to a new location so that you can receive more from your theological education? Certainly. Is it a sacrifice to spend hours and years getting properly equipped for a lifetime of ministry? Absolutely. Is being in gospel ministry hard? Yes—it is supposed to be.
It is worth it? Yes!
“Jesus…suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:12-14).