Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

11 Jan 2022

Newsflash: Personal Discipline Is Not Legalism

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I attended Bible College in the 1980s and seminary in the 1990s. The time I spent earning my Master of Divinity at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary still stands for me as the most grueling four years of my life. But I had accidentally prepared for it for years, under the guidance firstly of hard-working parents, secondly of a Bible-saturated church, and thirdly of a college that emphasized personal discipline. These together made the seminary experience more manageable. 

When I went to Bible college, the academic rigor was not particularly extreme. The challenge was instead establishing routines to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. And we all did that together. We got up early enough to make our beds, clean our rooms, dress according to specific standards, and hurry across campus to designated locations to have devotions at 6:30 AM. Every day. And we received citations for failing to do any of these things, failing to do them punctually, or for failing to do them well. The pedagogical method was similarly pedestrian. We listened, read a lot, memorized a lot, took a lot of objective tests, and wrote lengthy research papers that were graded with formulaic precision. 

Every year, the president of the college stood in chapel and explained why they asked these things of us. These rigors were not implemented because reading extensively, writing carefully, rising early, being tidy, or even having daily devotions were morally requisite of believers, but because personal discipline and the development of a work ethic were. Frequently cited was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mnemonic rubric: “Sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” 

Most of us have not maintained the specific, artificial disciplines imposed on us in college, but we bought the idea that we needed to develop discipline and the grace of hard work, and accepted these exercises as means to those ends. There were always a few simple-minded students who thought the specific requirements were themselves biblical imperatives, but this error was relentlessly countered by the administration. We often enjoyed a hearty laugh in chapel at the expense of “culotte evangelists” and proponents of “denim-devil” theology. There were also a few students who simply hated discipline and called it legalism. But for the most part, we knew the difference between cultivating discipline and harboring legalism. We were pretty bright in those days.

In the years since then, however, it has been determined that this approach was legalism. It remains acceptable for drill sergeants and coaches to impose artificial standards of conduct on athletes and soldiers to prepare them for their tasks, but Christianity must be liberated from these appurtenances (Paul’s appeals to both concepts as metaphors of the Christian life notwithstanding). Writing research papers and taking objective tests also smacked of artificiality, and so it was recommended that these be phased out, too, replaced with group projects, learning by doing, peer-advising, and mental health counseling. Yeah. 

The impact on seminary life has been nothing short of stunning. Many who inquire about enrollment deem a full seminary load impossible; find the expectation of comprehensive Bible knowledge (born out of disciplined and extensive Bible reading) too severe; frown on the very idea of memorization and have no skills to that end; and have never personally prepared a polished, propositional project of significance, much less done the kinds of exhaustive research necessary to it. Still, they are quite eager to offer extemporaneous contributions to the collective, prefaced by “I think…” or “I feel…” 

Thankfully, not every prospective seminarian is so ill-equipped, but many are.

I’m not suggesting that Bible Colleges are to blame, though several have seemed to lose their raison d’etre rather suddenly and cataclysmically in recent years. I admit to sympathies here, not only because (1) my experience at one Bible college played a key role in my ministry preparation but also because (2) Bible colleges have been tasked, by parents and churches, with the very difficult and somewhat unnatural task of functioning in loco parentis and in loco ekklesia. The problem, I would suggest, is much deeper than Bible colleges. The source of the problem, ultimately, is a general sense, born out of sentiments endemic in broader culture, and perpetuated at times in Christian homes and churches, that cultivating discipline and developing a work ethic are somehow dangerous, legalistic, or antithetical to the Christian Gospel. This is patently false. 

Bottom line: if you want to prepare for seminary (and specifically, for Detroit Baptist Seminary) and ultimately for pastoral ministry, start by learning the discipline of sustained reading, the long task of thorough research, the meticulous skill of writing cogently, and the meaning of hard work. Then, having cultivated these disciplines further in seminary and made them field specific to Christian ministry, you will be better positioned to be a workman worthy of his hire. 

1 Response

  1. Thanks for that! We all seem to so quickly forget the pervasive human tendency to oversteer. Seeing a problem, we wildly spin the wheel in the opposite direction. In this case, the reaction against discipline wasn’t even a reaction to the right problem, so we oversteered when all we really needed to do was adjust speed a little to avoid slipping into a hazard that wasn’t even in our lane. I might be overworking the metaphor, but there’s no need to swing three lanes to the left to avoid a stalled vehicle on the shoulder.
    We need to recover a belief in excellence for the glory of God and a belief in the discipline that is part of the pursuit of excellence.

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