Theological examinations are an event that seems to make even the most confident of theological students a bit weak in the knees. The student has studied hard, poured hours and hours, weeks, months, even years of their life into preparation for serving the church and now they come before their governing body for examination.
Seriously, why? Why do we put our students through this ordeal? Why do we give them so much reason for stress? Why do we ask every pastor within the bounds of the classis or presbytery to take time out of a day to show up for these exams? Why do we ask elders to take off of work (Side note: it's often a much greater sacrifice for an elder to attend these meetings than for pastors. We should thank them for their willingness to serve. We should also meet at times that are conducive to their involvement.) and come listen to candidates answer questions?
Is it really worth all of that?
Yes, but only if we understand why we're examining and if we do it properly.
Like many things in the church it sometimes seems as though we've forgotten the "why?". We've gotten so accustomed to doing things just because "that's just what we do." Of course we cannot accept this but we also should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. So allow me to offer a three fold theology of examination to answer the question, "Why should we do theological examination."
1. We should do examination because it is good for the church. Peter wrote in II Peter 2:1-2, "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed." Later he goes on to say, "They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption."
As a church we must ensure that false teachers are kept out of the church and that the sound doctrine of the Word of God is taught clearly and accurately. (2 Tim. 4/Titus 2:1) Those who are led astray will share in the destruction of the false teachers. For a classis or presbytery to faithfully carry out their duty to ensure the sound preaching of the Word within the bounds of their ministry requires a rigorous examination process. Once sound doctrine has been lost it is increasingly difficult to regain. Vigilance on the front end is essential to avoid pain and destruction spoken of all-to-often within the Scriptures.
2. We should do examination because it is good for the candidate. James writes, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Each teacher will give an account of his teaching before the Lord. On that day the excuse, "But I thought it was true!" will be insufficient. If a candidate's exposition of the Word would be anything less than faithful according to our best understanding of the Word (often expressed within our confessions) then we should preserve and protect them from the strict judgment which all teachers in the church will endure.
In a more pragmatic sense we should also protect unfit candidates from the eventual heartaches that often accompany the inability to find a call or the rejection experienced when one is asked to leave a call on theological grounds.
3. We should do examination to ensure that ordained ministers and teaching elders are qualified according to the Scriptures. In multiple places within the New Testament we can read of the requirements of leaders within the church. Paul instructs us of these things in both 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2 and Peter writes in 1 Peter 5. To act as though these instructions are mere recommendations is to consign the church to error, pain, and eventual death.
So, here's a few brief thoughts on how to approach classis or presbytery exams:
1. Approach exams with grace and love. We should not be adversarial in the church. If a brother is unfit for ministry we should tell them that, and it should be said with tears in our eyes.
2. Approach exams with a willingness to do the extra work required from a rigorous process. Does a candidate need a better understanding of justification? Then you should be willing to talk with him about it. Does a candidate need more time to reflect on the pastoral nature of being a minister of the gospel? Take him under your wing and have those conversations. Will a young man who feels a call to gospel ministry need a mentor? Then be willing to mentor him. Will a family within the church be upset if their son is not approved? Then be willing to have a conversation with them and their son. Having examinations where it is possible that candidates will fail is not an easy endeavor, we must be prepared to deal with the consequences and to do so graciously and lovingly.
3. Approach exams as if they mattered. They do. It matters what sort of food is fed to our bodies, how much does it matter what kind of food is fed to the souls of God's people. It matters whether our candidates are able to rightly divide the word of truth. It matters whether our candidates are candidates who will thrive in ministry and whose ministries will thrive through the work of the Spirit through their preaching of the Word. Giving students easy exams is a waste of everyone's time and is of no benefit to the church of Jesus Christ. Passing students just to avoid the hurt feelings or difficult conversations of "what now?" is nothing more than theological neglect. We must have an appropriately rigorous process in which we seek the good of the church and the candidate with an eye on the coming of the Lord. "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word." (2 Tim. 4:1-2a)