How important, really, is thorough training and systematic study for ministry? Australians have not historically placed much value on study. Pentecostals even less. We tend to be highly pragmatic, and that has shaped our approach to ministry. We hear about a new idea that works, and we just go and do it. That has often been a strength, and why Aussies tend to make an impact wherever they go in the world.
Furthermore, Australian Pentecostals have rightly emphasised the empowerment of the Spirit and recognized that the Spirit will use whoever is available regardless of their educational background. Again, this has been a great strength as we have typically not allowed a lack of formal qualifications to hold us back from “having a go.”
An unfortunate consequence of valuing pragmatism and Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered ministry however, is that we have tended to devalue formal education. Yet, acknowledging that God can and does use people even without formal education, is not the same thing as saying there is little value in study.
We should perhaps revisit our assumptions about how well-trained some of the heroes of our faith actually were. Let’s take Paul as an example. We love to read in Acts about the power encounters and the supernatural ministry that took place through him. We celebrate Paul’s emphasis in his letters on the Spirit’s work (e.g. 1 Cor 12 & 14; Gal 3:2-3, 5:16-25) and power (e.g. 1 Cor 2:4-5; Eph 5:18). All too often however, we forget that Paul was among the most theologically educated Jews of his day. Paul’s training was likely even more rigorous than a university degree today. As you read through Paul’s letters, you cannot help but see the marks of his education as he unpacks the Hebrew scriptures in light of Christ’s coming. Paul’s capacity to clearly and contextually articulate and apply the gospel and to develop deep foundations in the churches he planted was informed by his formal study of the Scriptures through the Jewish training system and at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel.
The prophet Daniel is another example. Daniel began his formal education quite early on in life. In his case, not just in the Hebrew traditions, but also three years of being educated in Babylonian scholarship (Dan 1:3-5), which was the peak of education of its day. The fact that he (and his three fellow Hebrew exiles) excelled in the courts and governance structures of Babylon was not just due to God’s favour – though that is also clear – but also because they applied themselves to learning the language and literature of the Babylonians. Notice that this level of education was no hindrance to how God used Daniel and the supernatural visions revealed to him.
One important implication from this brief reflection is that there should be no dichotomy between Spirit-inspired, Spirit-empowered ministry and thorough training and systematic study. In fact, formal study can add a depth and richness that God can use to impact the world for generations to come. If I could paraphrase the writer of Hebrews: time does not permit to talk about Ezra; Apollos; Augustine; Martin Luther; John Calvin; John Wesley; Jonathan Edwards; Charles Spurgeon; Karl Barth; Martin Luther King Jnr; Tim Keller; Nicky Gumble; J.John; N.T. Wright; and many others whose ministries were far-reaching and spanned generations. These heroes all had periods of formal education and were committed to their own intellectual and theological development, without denying the Spirit.
Is formal study everything? No. Will education guarantee effective Ministry? No. Will it lead to writing something that lives on for centuries? Not necessarily. But, just as it deepens and hones the knowledge, understanding and expertise of the likes of the skilled technicians, mechanics and health workers that we so rely on in our everyday lives, so also it can it add a depth and richness to our ministry that could potentially change the world. I believe Daniel and Paul would both wholeheartedly concur.
 “But wait a minute…” I hear some of you say. Didn’t Paul state in Philippians that he counted all his previous achievements as rubbish (Phil 3:7-8)? Not exactly. Paul was countering those who were boasting in things of the flesh – in this case, boasting that their circumcision seemed to elevate them in God’s eyes. Paul then proceeded to play their game: “If anyone can boast, I can, here’s all the reasons for it…” (2:4-6). He then turns the tables and states that no one can stand before God based on their own merits – all the things that would elevate him from a human perspective don’t count for anything before God, being made right with God is solely based on faith in Christ, nothing else. Paul didn’t count his training or education as rubbish, only that they did not give him any higher status before God.