Schools of Higher Learning for a Higher Calling

Great Commission window at Immanuel Chapel, Virginia Theological Seminary.

Great Commission window at Immanuel Chapel, Virginia Theological Seminary

What is the Difference Between a Bible Institute, Bible College, Christian University, Divinity School, and Theological Seminary?

Do you feel called to minister to others? When God calls you to serve Him, you will need biblical and theological preparation to pursue that call. But which institution provides the more effective tool for being a servant of Christ? There are a variety of educational options available to you, depending on where your interests lie. These range from theological seminaries and divinity schools to Bible colleges and church-based training programs.

Generally speaking, a stand-alone theological institution is a “seminary,” while a school associated with a university is a “divinity school” or “school of theology.” In both cases, students are considered seminary students. Most theological seminaries are graduate-level institutions, meaning that they offer only masters and doctorate degrees. A four-year undergraduate college degree is usually a prerequisite to attending a seminary.

Bible colleges prepare students for ministry, missionary work, or working with children, and do not require previous college courses or degrees. Christian universities provide higher education to students who want to prepare for a traditional career in the global marketplace, while simultaneously providing a foundation of theological training at the undergraduate level.

Typical majors for those planning on going into Christian ministry and pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree include Biblical Studies, Youth Ministry, Missions, Music, and various degrees to prepare for teaching in Christian schools. If you are planning on teaching immediately after college, make certain that your degree program is accredited.

A Masters in Divinity (M.Div.) is needed for ordination in most mainline denominations, while a Masters in Biblical Studies and Theology allows you to use that knowledge in other capacities in church leadership or education. A Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) is very similar to a Ph.D., with an emphasis on Biblical research, languages, and writing. For more information about what you can do with a theology degree, click here.

When you graduate from a seminary, you will have had many years of scholarly training. If a long-term degree isn’t as important to you or you are more technically inclined, a Bible Institute may be a better choice. In any case, most Christian institutions are homeschool-friendly. The following guide will help you determine what type of school would best suit your objectives.

Theological Seminaries

A theological seminary educates students for leadership roles such as ministers, missionaries, church planters, chaplains, counselors, music and/or education pastors, and other areas of service in Christian ministry. Their curriculum places a strong emphasis on academic study of the Bible and theology, as well as practical church ministry. Seminaries also produce the doctorates who teach religion, church history, or biblical languages in seminaries, Bible colleges, and secular universities. Prominent graduates from Dallas Theological Seminary include celebrities, politicians, business people, athletes, and more.

Most, but not all, theological seminaries are affiliated with a denomination (e.g., Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist). These seminaries follow the teachings of their founding denomination, and their primary mission is that of training men and women for ordained ministry in that denomination. Also, many denominations require certain beliefs to be affirmed for ordination, so students will have to conform to those denominational rules.

Seminaries range from extremely conservative (Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) to extremely liberal (United Church of Christ and United Theological Seminary). Some denominations compile a listing of “approved” schools for members of their denomination or require that students who are considering ordination receive approval for a course of study.

Theological seminaries tend to be a little less expensive than divinity schools. Seminaries that are accredited by a federal agency are eligible for federally-funded financial aid.

Divinity Schools

Divinity schools hearken back to the old days when theology was viewed as a major discipline for general education. Since a divinity school is affiliated with a university, its students can apply for federal financial aid. Like a law or medical school, a divinity school is essentially a theological division within a larger university. Divinity schools provide graduate level degrees such as Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Religion, Master of Christian Counseling, and many more. Divinity students can also take courses in other departments at the university.

In some instances, the divinity school retains the denominational character of the university’s heritage. But because of their attachment to major research universities, there is a tendency for divinity schools to be moderate to liberal leaning in their theology. A notable exception to this is Regent University School of Divinity, which is conservative evangelical leaning.

However, a divinity school is not necessarily associated with a particular denomination. Harvard Divinity School is among a small group of university-based, nondenominational divinity schools in the United States. The others include the University of Chicago Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Some divinity schools are more focused on the scholarly study of religion, preparing students to serve in academic, religious, and non-sectarian settings such as college-level teaching rather than ordained ministry. Other divinity schools are more pastorally-focused on the practical realities of ministry. Yale Divinity School, for example, emphasizes its ministry program, while the majority of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School enroll in its “Religious Studies” Master of Arts program.

The students and faculty at Harvard Divinity School come from a variety of religious backgrounds: Christian (all denominations), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Its academic programs attempt to balance theology and religious studies–that is, the “believer’s” perspective on religion with the “secular” perspective on religion. This is in contrast to many other divinity schools where one or the other is given primacy.

Harvard Divinity School alumni include the poet/essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine.

Christian Universities

Many schools that started out as small Bible colleges have grown and expanded their course offerings so they are now thriving Christian universities. For example, Grand Canyon College became Grand Canyon University. Southwest Bible College changed its name to Arizona Christian University. Some Christian universities offer online degree programs. Liberty University is the largest evangelical university in the world, due to its extensive catalog of online courses.

Although Christian universities may have theology degree programs, their main intent is not solely to train students for ministry but rather to develop ethical, educated leaders by providing a broad liberal arts-based educational program taught from a Christian perspective. As such, Christian universities offer a wide variety of degrees comparable to secular schools. However, they still require a certain number of credit hours in Bible studies or other religion classes.

Christian universities offer a great education even to the majority of students who aren’t planning a career in ministry. Since a Christian university degree can be obtained in any number of disciplines, students who graduate from these schools will have a firm foundation in Biblical theology but are well-equipped to pursue a variety of career paths in the global marketplace.

Regent University located in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was one of the first Christian universities in the country. Regent is accredited and offers programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Some of its popular degree program offerings include education, business, and law just to name a few.

Bible Colleges

Bible colleges once served a vital role in faith and learning across America, though fewer exist today. Many of these schools are located in rural or mountain communities away from urban distractions. Bible colleges allow students to delve deeply into God’s Word, while developing practical skills to be used in domestic church ministry or overseas missions. Bible college students often contribute in some capacity to missions and church service work during their time at school. After graduating, they can use that knowledge to work as pastors, teachers, missionaries, evangelists, or church administrators.

Most Bible colleges provide an interdenominational undergraduate education focusing on shared Christian history apart from specific church tradition. But not all Bible colleges teach the scriptures in the same manner. Some Bible college curriculum leans toward a strict, literal interpretation of scripture, while there are charismatic and liberal Bible colleges as well. West Coast Baptist College is a fundamental Bible college in Lancaster, California. The most liberal Bible college in the U.S. is considered to be Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Bible colleges usually require a high school education for admission. They offer entry-level courses in Old and New Testament, and also teach biblical languages. Even though they seek to prepare students for a life of service in Christian ministry in some capacity, they are not the right choice if you are seeking ordination. Bible colleges focus more on Biblical-based education for a lay person, and usually limit degree offerings to the undergraduate level.

Most small Bible colleges are less expensive than other colleges, but that usually means they are not accredited and not eligible for federal funding. However, there are exceptions. Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, is an example of an accredited evangelical Bible college that offers federal financial aid and is one of the most affordable Christian colleges in the U.S. They also offer dual enrollment to high school students at a reduced rate, with credits that are transferable to other institutions.

Even though a Bible college degree is not sufficient for becoming an ordained minister, some Bible colleges are also affiliated with a seminary, making it easy to transition from undergraduate to graduate school. Bethany Divinity College and Seminary is basically an independent Baptist-based Bible college that offers both undergraduate and graduate degrees on one campus. Or you can get your undergraduate degree at Lancaster Bible College and then take graduate level classes at its extension, Capital Bible Seminary.

Bible Institutes

Bible institutes basically provide training for people who want to understand the Bible better and learn how to effectively proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. In most instances, these schools are not accredited, and may not even require a high school degree for admission. Some online programs fall into this category, such as the School of Biblical Evangelism.

Moody Bible Institute (MBI) in Chicago is a notable exception. Fully accredited, it offers both undergraduate and graduate education aimed at preparing students for Christian ministry. MBI is one of the most affordable private schools in the nation. It offers great book learning experiences as well as hands-on opportunities. The school even has an aviation program where you can train to be a missionary pilot.

MBI alumni include Paul Hutchens, author of the Sugar Creek Gang series; Irwin Moon, known for his “Sermons from Science” films; and Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series.

Church-Based Seminaries

A relatively recent trend is the development of seminaries by churches, to train preachers in their respective doctrines. Still rare in the U.S., these schools may offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees that prepare students to understand and apply the Bible and theology in vocational ministry.

A church-based seminary differs from a more traditional seminary in several ways. A church-based seminary is directly accountable to one local congregation, whereas the typical seminary is accountable to a denomination or to multiple churches. Church-based seminaries are smaller than most well-known seminaries, which means a better student-teacher ratio and more opportunity for interaction both in and out of the classroom.

Examples of church-based seminaries include: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, a ministry of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan; Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, a ministry of Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky; and Reformed Baptist Seminary, a ministry of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church in Easley, South Carolina.

virginia-theological-seminary-windowThe cost of tuition at a church-based seminary will be less than most traditional schools. But church-based seminaries typically are not accredited, so credits earned may not transfer to all other institutions. Two of the most well-known fully accredited church-based theological schools are: Bethlehem College and Seminary developed by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and The Master’s Seminary, a ministry of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

Space does not permit a more extensive list of Bible colleges, training centers, and theological seminaries. An internet search would be a good next step in the research process. As with all major decisions, there is no substitute for prayerfully considering which school is the right place for you. Regardless of the institution you attend, trust the Holy Spirit to guide your journey and help you fulfill your divine destiny.

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  1. I think choosing to come to do divinity is a huge decision. It’s a decision that is shaped by many, many facets. However, this place can be groundbreaking as you wrestle with what God is to you and what would this degree mean to you.

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