Why Doesn't Beeson Offer Online Education?

There is a growing trend in theological education—and in education in general—to offer instruction online rather than face-to-face in a seminar room. Online education is cheaper for students and for institutions. It allows students to study on their own terms without disrupting their lives or careers. In spite of these purported advantages, we do not believe that distance learning is the best way to prepare for ministry.

In the journal Colloquy, Beeson professor Paul House makes the case that person-to-person interaction is the biblical pattern for ministerial training:

The Bible highlights face-to-face theological education. God sent his son, not just his word. Moses, Elijah, Huldah, Jesus, Barnabas, Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla mentored future servants of God. They did so face-to-face in community settings. They did so individually and in groups. They ate together. They prayed and worshipped God together. They suffered and shared together. They did use the medium of writing to advance their mission, but always to supplement synchronous education conducted in the same location as the learners. Jesus was able to send twelve disciples and then seventy disciples through such personal means. The early church multiplied disciples and ministers in this fashion.

Granted, we follow this pattern imperfectly even at our best. On campus we offer students tutorials, seminars, lectures, mentoring groups, chapel services, cross-cultural mission opportunities, and community events. We offer respect, support, and love to colleagues. Sometimes we are not sufficiently caring, and sometimes our students and constituent churches use us as credentialing factories. But at our best we hew towards the personal pattern. We try to do what Jesus did—teach, touch, and model in person. Even in our extension work we try to have an onsite person teach, a person who can answer questions, model community communication skills, pray with students, and give a human face to an institution perhaps far away. This work is not as personal as we should be on campus in community, but it tries to hew to the personal pattern.

This ancient pattern reflects ministry and human need. Ministers deal with people face-to-face, in community, and in real time relationships. The voice of the people’s shepherd, the touch of the deaconess’s hand, and the presence of God’s servants at crisis moments will last when all hard drives are discarded. Traditional personal programs sometimes fail. They often settle for less than their potential. We must strive harder to reach the biblical pattern, not seek a lower common denominator. 

Granted, online education was not an option in biblical times. Yet we see the apostle Paul not content merely to send epistles to the churches he planted. Instead he travelled around the Mediterranean world at great personal peril to visit them and spent months and years training up leaders.*

Education is costly, but we believe that theological education is an investment in the church of Christ, and we try to mitigate the costs by providing student scholarships. The quickest, cheapest route to ministry may not be the best one. Most of us would not want to be operated on by a doctor who had received all of his or her training online. Should we have a lower standard for our pastors?

It is worth disrupting your life to build relationships with wise and seasoned faculty members. Not only will you learn from them, but they will get to know you well enough to speak into your life and offer personal accountability.

  *“Hewing to Scripture,” originally published in Colloquy, the magazine of the Association for Theological Education (Volume 18, Number 2 Spring 2010).