Sex, Drugs, and Seminary: Faithful obedience and ministry formation

Timothy Dalrymple just posted a very interesting piece on his experience at Princeton Seminary: The Young Christian’s Guide to Sex at Seminary. It’s a fascinating reflection on the challenges of being an evangelical at a mainline school, and the “outsider” status he felt like he had there. As he describes it,

My Outsider status became clear to me — if not for the first time, at least in a new way — when I sat with friends on the seminary field, stretching before a game of ultimate frisbee.  It was still my first semester, and I was getting to know the people and the place.  We were talking about the sins that were emphasized in the churches that brought us up.  I said that pre- or extra-marital sex was the grave sin against we, in my youth group and Sunday School classes, were most gravely and constantly warned.  And, I said, I appreciated that, as it had helped me maintain my commitment to abstain from sex until marriage.

I might as well have said that I believe in eating toddlers with chipotle sauce and a side order of puppies.  My friends’ and fellow seminarians’ expressions had gone, suddenly, from benign conversational interest to something that looked like rats and skunks had deposited themselves deep in their nostrils, where they were scratching and relieving themselves and spreading their odors.  This, I saw, was the last thing my friends wanted to talk about.  And such a “backwards” and “judgmental” attitude (as it would later be described to me) really had no place at an enlightened seminary.

And, he goes on to describe a seminary experience that apparently involved a fair amount of drugs, alcohol, and sex, and that seemed more focused on “the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life,” than living obedient lives in “grateful imitation” of the grace we’ve received in Jesus.

I’ll let you read the article for yourself. It’s a fascinating window into one person’s experience.

But, what I really wanted to key in on was an interesting warning that he offers to any seminary student. Dalrymple comments on the fact that seminary was a real low point in his spiritual life, and that he’d heard similar stories from others he went to school with.  And, he thinks that the main reason for this was a simple lack of obedience. They’d gotten so caught up in the isolated, academic life of the school, separated from the pressures of having to live out their faith in the midst of other people, that they’d lost sight of the need to live faithfully.

So, he concludes with this thought:

I believe, and believe very strongly, that one way seminaries can improve themselves is to remember the foundational importance of obedience, to remember that we are saved by grace but called to live lives of grateful imitation.  When we walk in the footsteps of Christ, we come to know him and commune with him — and to know and commune with the Father.  If we want seminarians to see their seminary years as times of extraordinary spiritual deepening and growth, then we need to encourage those seminarians to live lives of integrity and holiness and selfless obedience.  They fill fall short.  But to the extent they try, they will grow.

I found this fascinating, because I’ve never looked at the struggles of the seminarian from this perspective. I’ve often heard people say that seminary was a “dry time” for them, though my experience was quite different. And, I routinely talk to my students about the importance of staying spiritually healthy while dealing with the rigors of an academic program. And, most importantly, I emphasize the absolute necessity of being involved in ministry while in seminary. But, I really haven’t thought as much about what the lack of simple, faithful obedience as an expression of Gospel-driven thankfulness can do to a seminarian. As he points out, lack of obedience in seminary not only impacts your seminary years, but it has dreadful implications for future ministry: “And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?”

If you’ve been to a Bible college or a seminary, I’d be curious to know what you think about Dalrymple’s post. And, was your experience at all like his? Was it a spiritual low point for you? If so, why do you think that was?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on October 28, 2011, in Misc and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Marc,

    i resonate with your comment on the necessity of being involved in ministry while in seminary. during the 4 years of my MDiv studies some fellow students and I under the mentorship of some veterans of the Jesus people movements of the 70s formed a small experimental missional community in the city 30 minutes down the road. after a year of commuting from seminary to the city we decided to move into the city and commute to school. those 3 years of action/reflection in the city made my seminary experience rich indeed – how did what i was learning in the classroom impact our life among the urban poor and vice versa? 13 years later, the community is still here, and we continue to ask those same questions.
    and as for the blogpost’s title, i can testify that when a bunch of unmarried students are passionately engaged in the mission of God together, you can end up marrying each other and discovering the joy of “sex at seminary”…

    • That’s outstanding. We often lose students because we don’t have any on-campus housing, and they’re looking for more of a “campus” experience. But, I really see that as a plus for the very reasons that you’ve described. I love the fact that our students live and minister in the community, and then bring those experiences with them into the classroom.

      And, that’s actually what I thought Dalrymple’s post was going to be about when I ran across the article. I was a bit surprised to see it going in a rather different direction.

  2. I was reflecting on this issue this morning and wonder if one of the back ground issues is that the student goes to seminary full of faith and expectation; only to have their ‘faith’ shattered and de-constructed.

    • I’m sure you’re right. I often describe the seminary experience to working on a car. To really understand the car, you need someone to help you take it apart and examine the pieces closely. But, it seems like many teachers leave students there, with the pieces of their faith strewn all over the ground. A good teacher needs to help you put the pieces back together again. Of course, they never go back quite the way they were in the beginning, and they shouldn’t, but you have to put the pieces back.

  3. Interesting, I wonder if sex, drugs, porn, prostitution, and whatever might still be a hidden, non-discussed subject on seminary campuses. I have the re-collection of my seminary president admonishing from the pulpit during one chapel period: ‘I have heard that a number of you have been visiting the massage parlors on xxnd street. I don’t want to hear of this again.’ Perhaps it was just the period that I attended seminary because the spiritual warfare then was incredible- at the student level and higher. It also seemed a taboo subject matter for discussion. But then I was a whole lot younger then 😉

    • “I don’t want to hear of this again.” What a fabulous solution! I bet if I tried that with my daughters, they would grow up to be amazingly healthy people.

      This is a particularly tricky issue for seminaries (like ours) with behavioral policies. On the one hand, you want your students to live godly lives. But, on the other hand, you don’t want to create an environment where students don’t feel free to talk about issues like this. How is a student supposed to be honest about what they’re going through if they run the risk of getting kicked out of school? I’m sure that contributes to these being such “underground” issues (though I found it fascinating to hear Dalrymple describe a situation where they’re not terrible “underground”).

      Our approach has been to encourage open communication with the idea that we’d rather help a student work through these issues in seminary, rather than wait until they’re in ministry! So, as long as the student takes the issue seriously and evidences a desire to grow, we’re going to do everything we can to take a helping approach rather a disciplinary one. And, I’m constantly impressed with how willing our students can be to open up and share really big issues. So, I think we’re doing better at creating an environment where it’s okay to talk about things like this. But I’m sure we’d be kidding ourselves to think that we’re hearing about everything (or even the majority of things).

  4. I often preach at our youth / young adults service and bring up topics about porn, sex, prostitution, abuse, masturbation, relationships etc.

    They are topics I have rarely if ever heard addressed from the pulpit.

  5. @Marc-I sense you are correct.Times seem to have changed in this case for the good;-)

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