I’ve been around Southern Seminary as a student, a professor, and now as dean of students for long enough to notice patterns. There are certain sins that people in our community struggle with most, disordered ways of living that are particular to men and women training for ministry.
One of the major sins I consistently encounter is what I would call a “performance identity” in academic pursuits. It manifests itself in many forms: plagiarism, lying on reading reports, dishonesty, and cutting corners academically. But those actions are just the behavioral manifestations of a deeper problem. A heart problem.
That’s why I call it a performance identity: We try to ground our personal significance and meaning in our performance, and we need our grades — the gauges of that performance in an academic environment like Southern Seminary — to be as high as possible.
Most of the time, we aren’t intending to do this when we take on the noble task of ministry training. But we always take on noble tasks with mixed motives. There are many good and virtuous reasons why people come to seminary — we want to engage our minds with the truth, to serve the church well, to reach out to unbelievers, and to do all these things with excellence. Of course this is important and necessary, and the desire to know the truth, serve the church, and present the gospel is a genuine motivation for virtually everyone I meet at this institution.
But we are often less aware of the many self-serving motivations that drove our decision to come to seminary and continue to drive us to excel. We experience a deep need to be recognized, and we want to feel like we are doing something meaningful. Particularly in the millennial generation, we have been taught to think that we should be immediately aware of the significance of our work. We want to do something great, and to know it’s great while we’re doing it. We aren’t satisfied with the quiet growth of a mind over time. We want more immediate indicators of significance. The closest thing we have to this are grades.
The problem with good grades
Now, satisfaction and fulfillment does indeed come from what we do and how we perform in our work. That is a good and God-designed reality, but it is not an ultimate one. Some students at Southern have left careers that were very lucrative — working as lawyers, doctors, or tradesmen— in order to pursue God’s calling in ministry. Others are fresh out of college and they’re just trying to establish a career for the first time.
For both, grades often become the ultimate barometer of the wisdom of that decision. Students want to know they made a wise choice to attend seminary, and they want to meet the objective standard that measures their success. Sometimes the grade becomes the main objective instead of the knowledge of God. Rather than pursuing communion with the living God through an honest grasp of the material in their courses, sometimes students pursue the recognition of a high GPA.
This principle can be well summarized with a biblical phrase that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians 3:
We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Phil 3:3-7, ESV).
In many cases, we are pursuing what Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh.” For Paul, his “confidence in the flesh” before his conversion was made up of things like being circumcised on the eighth day or being a Hebrew of Hebrews — but for us it’s an “A” in Tom Schreiner’s New Testament Theology class or finishing in the top 10 percent of students in our language courses. There are all sorts of ways to measure our success academically, and we can place our confidence in our achievements rather than in God and his call on our lives. If you read over Philippians 3, you’ll see that confidence in the flesh is anti-confidence in Christ. Part of what Paul had to learn is that all those things are rubbish — they are nothing to him because they can’t compare with the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord and being found in him.
Rooting out disordered motivation
I encourage students not just to fight at the level of knowing what plagiarism is and avoiding the procrastination that makes it attractive. That’s important, but what’s far more important is committing to the regular heart assessment of confessing the sin of being motivated by confidence in the flesh. It’s a daily responsibility to confess and repent. As we study the Bible and discover such motivation lurking in our hearts, we must repent — even while reading.
Every time we step in the pulpit, every time we care for people, every time we write that paper, we must be aware of why we do it. If students can learn now to give to Jesus their desire for significance in their performance, they will establish good patterns for when they get into ministry, and the pressure to do this grows even greater. When we entrust ourselves to Christ in the labor of study, we will not measure our significance in grades. And all of a sudden, we find academic dishonesty less tempting. It doesn’t make as much sense to cheat when you don’t need the grades so desperately.
None of us will carry our academic transcripts into the presence of God. We wouldn’t dare think of it. The only factor that determines the significance of our lives is the love of God in Jesus Christ for us. One day, we will know this entirely.