Babylonian Seminary

[3] Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, [4] youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. [5] The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king. [6] Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah. [7] And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego. (Daniel 1:3-7 ESV)

I’ve recently started reading the book of Daniel again. While the book of Daniel is full of amazing theology, history, and prophecy, today I only want to take one obscure point and with that point to poke popular missiology. Here is that point: Daniel and his friends were asked to study the language, literature, and religious practices of the Babylonians for three years before they were qualified to serve as leaders in pagan Babylonia.

Why does this matter? Popular missiology (the study and practice of missions) contends that multi-year seminary-type preparation of leaders is a modern Western concept. It claims that for the needs of the Great Commission today, we should jettison such slow, non-reproducible, knowledge-centric leadership training. In its place we need to create streamlined rapidly-reproducible leadership lessons that pump out leaders at a much faster rate – something like ten leadership development participatory bible studies. After all, can’t we trust the Spirit of God and the word of God to raise up qualified leaders? Why should we ask locals to sit under training for so long and under the instruction of foreign teachers? God forbid we train leaders in ways that echo those of the older Western paternalist missionaries, stuck in their colonialist mindsets. We are beyond that, aren’t we?

My contention is a simple one. Multi-year leadership training is a global concept, one embraced by all epochs of church history and even practiced before church history began. It’s not a modern Western imposition on the rest of the globe, even if we grant the questionable point that if something is Western then that automatically means it should be jettisoned. Multi-year leadership training is a simple outworking of what many civilizations have found to be universal wisdom – it takes some years to really know a man and to impart to that man the knowledge and skill necessary to lead well. This was not only true of ancient pagan Babylon, but also of the ancient Christian training centers of Edessa, Gond-i-Shapur, Ireland, and the those medieval European centers of clergy training that would form the basis of our modern university system. Jesus himself invested three and a half years in those who would become the first leaders of the global Church.

While living in the US, for three years I took part in a church-based pastoral apprenticeship. Then after I graduated, I helped to lead that apprenticeship for two more years. Though I was skeptical in the beginning about the length of time being asked by the elders (three years?!), over time I came to see the wisdom of taking the slow route when it came to raising up pastors, missionaries, and church planters. Sometimes a man would make it two and a half years through the program only to flame out in the final year, some character or doctrinal issue finally bubbling up to the surface. It was often very surprising when this happened, and this in our own language and culture, where we have a much easier ability to discern character and belief. On the other hand, for the vast majority of the men that made it through the apprenticeship, at the end of those three years we could say with confidence that we really knew their life and doctrine. Many of these have now gone out as pastors, church-planters, and missionaries and are raising up leaders in their own contexts.

But what about Paul? Didn’t he appoint elders much more quickly than this in the churches he planted? Yes, there is some evidence in the book of Acts that Paul didn’t always take years to train and assess potential leaders before they were appointed. This is a valid point, and one worth exploring further. But it’s the whole counsel of the word we need here, not just the book of Acts. When the instructions for leader qualification of 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (written by Paul) are taken seriously, we will often find that it takes years to soberly assess and inculcate these character traits and skills in the men of our churches – especially when we are working in a different language and culture. And this should probably be considered normal. Who, after all, plants lasting churches as quickly as Paul did? So shouldn’t it be normal if our leadership development runs a little slower than his did also? I for one recognize that there are some real discontinuities between my gifts and Paul’s, just as there are also some continuities. That capital or lower-case “A” in apostolic makes a real difference. But I digress from my simple point.

If anyone states that multiyear leadership training is a Western concept (and therefore bad), that person is simply speaking ahistorically. It’s popular to take pot-shots at seminary in missions circles. Yet the common witness of the Church throughout the centuries has been that an investment of years in faithful men leads to trustworthy leaders, who will then be able to train others also (2 Tim 2:2). What may be truly Western (in the bad sense) would be methods that insist that leaders can be multiplied rapidly and exponentially like some kind of pyramid scheme.

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