Bad Students

Bad Students

Church history is full of bad theological students who went on to do good things for the kingdom. David Brainard, missionary to the North American Indians, was dismissed from Yale College in 1739. David Livingstone, the missionary explorer, was the subject of an unfavourable report from the informal academy of Rev. Richard Cecil of Ongar, where he was sent for residential training and the London Missionary Society sent him back for more work in 1839. Gratton Guiness, the great revivalist preacher and founder of the UK Bible College movement did not complete his course at New College, St. John’s Wood, London in the 1850s. And there are many more.

Why are bad students bad? Some are bad for bad reasons, some for good reasons and most for a combination of the two. Sometimes the fault is as much in the system as the student. Maybe a student is pushed into an academic level or mode he or she is not suited for, or which they consider will not prepare them for their future. They could then become fearful and lose heart – and even occasionally resort to forms of plagiarism to keep up. Or the rules structure of the college may be so all pervasive that the naturally rebellious find it hard to live within all its un-necessary elements. Where there are faults on both sides, as guardians of the college side, it is hard for us not to rest all the blame on the student.

Sometimes it is just a matter of timing in a person’s life. Maybe a student is not yet ready to make the sort of commitments needed, but these will come later. Some years ago, it was very moving for me to receive a past student into my principal’s office, who came back simply to apologise for the sort of student he had been while at college. He was right to apologise, he caused me grief, but now he is in a very useful work for God.

There are many other reasons why students are problems to us. So how should we behave towards them? Firstly, we cannot condone wrong doing, it must always be pointed out clearly – and often it must have consequences. Secondly, we need to create, as far as possible, a safe atmosphere in the college, where students can make their mistakes and mess up, even sin, in a forgiving environment. A place where humble people are on hand to pick them up when they fall and set them on the way again. Let them have their falls now at college. After all, there are plenty of situations in Christian service which are not as forgiving or caring. Thirdly, we need to believe in redemption as well as teaching it in the doctrine classes. This means we practice mercy and patience whenever possible. Of course, occasionally a bad apple has to be removed from the barrel, but students change, they are at the most changeable time in their lives, and they change when someone believes in them and gives them a second chance.

Mercy and patience are the marks of God’s dealings with us all. Patience is a fruit of the spirit and, as our Lord said, blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

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3 Comments on “Bad Students”

  1. Cristian Says:

    Hmm, very good, very wise and thought-provoking. I agree, some people, like Peter, need another chance and they’ll do great in ministry.

  2. Campbell Hamilton Says:

    The ideal here represented is surely the best model for theological training; providing a place of safety where people can be cherished, nurtured, mentored and prepared for works of service. I have spent almost 20 years of my life in theological education as a student, full time lecturer and latterly part time tutor, and I am deeply committed to this work, and yet I have serious reservations as to whether the prevailing system is fully capable of this degree of sophisticated and grace-filled nurture. But then, surely, the ideal also describes how the Church ought to be, a place of safety where humble people can pick up those who stumble and assist them to a place of redemption and peace, without being judgmental. Perhaps when we get more churches like that we will get more colleges and places of training like that too. Or perhaps, the colleges/training schemes can show the rest of us the way.

  3. kaitiaki Says:

    Sometimes a student will learn the lessons required to be a good student but not see the need to apply them until placed in the situation where those lessons have to be used. Then it is the student’s response to those he (or she) is working with which becomes the goad. A love for God’s people has often been the source for the desire to improve one’s grasp of the language and theology of the Bible and a dependence on the leading of the Holy Spirit the discipline necessary to turn a “bad” student into a good one.

    In a day in which the majority of those entering the ministry are expected to have a Master’s degree, one has to ask if a theological degree really prepares a man or woman for the ministry in the Church. What cannot be required for such degrees is devotion to God and his Church since academic excellence is only a small part of the qualifications for ministry. Nor is it possible to examine and determine (as a part of an academic degree) the student’s growth in holiness.

    Thank you Graham for a challenging article on a subject about which there is less discussion than should be the case.


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