"Every church was then a seminary, in which provision and preparation was made, not only for the continuation of Gospel preaching, but for the calling and gathering, and teaching of our churches." -- John Owen, Commentary on Hebrews, Vol. 3, p. 568. (p. 131 in the Crossway Edition edited by McGrath & Packer, 1998)
The local assembly of gathered believers is the primary and best educational institution for BELIEVERS in spiritual and religious matters.* The "church-based education" model derives from the New Testament, and is for all the people of the church. The seminarian model developed from the university's scholastic paradigm, and seems geared to train a "professionally qualified" minister. I have certain presuppositions that undergird and sustain what I am about to write. I will call attention to them, but not go into great detail. Many will agree with most of them, though not all. They are: (1). The Inspiration of Scripture -- all scripture is given by God and is therefore the place we find our instructions for education. (2). The command of Matthew 28:18-20 -- preach, baptize, teach -- is a command to be fulfilled by local assemblies of believers. (3). The local church is by nature and purpose a gathering of baptized saints committed to carrying out the work of Christ. (4). Consistent New Testament practices are authoritative, including that churches should be served by a plurality of elders. Jesus commanded the apostles to teach all things He had commanded them, and they taught the disciples in the churches to follow the commands and traditions they handed down.
Studying the scriptures exhibits nobility (Acts 17:11) and approves us unto God (II Tim. 2:15). This is not and should not be limited to one class of believers. The purpose of religious education is maturation of the saints that they might engage in ministry, be built up as a body with the goal of unity of the faith and knowledge of Christ (Eph. 4:7-16).
"Church-based education" utilizes the institution Jesus built and follows the example of the apostles. In New Testament times, elders received training in and by the local church, the apostles came to the local church, or they traveled with the apostles and assisted them (Acts 11:22-26; 13:1ff.; 14:21-23; 18:2,5,18; 19:8-10; II Tim 4:20; Heb. 6:1,2). All of these examples relate more to mentoring, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training models rather than a classroom model.
"Church-based education" recognizes the giftedness of ALL the body. Some models of education are designed with preachers (that is, ministers as professionals) in mind. Yet the New Testament teaches that all of the body should be trained and equipped for the ministry, and that all the body has gifts for ministry. Training for "the ministry" is not of greater importance than training for "ministry". A sincere effort to equip all the body begins and ends on the local church level.
"Church-based education" offers the best system of "integrated" education with the Lord's basic institution –- the home. In the church, discipleship, ministry experience, and scholarship are integrated -- not only with one another, but with marriage, home life, child rearing, and in a body that is vitally consumed (or at least should be) with the "whole man" minister.
"Church-based education" does not remove the gift of the "preacher-in-training" from benefiting his church, and it does not remove the church from blessing the "preacher-in-training". The young elder/novice remains involved with the congregation and families where God has placed him. Further, the plurality of elders assures he is not thrown into pastoring alone without the skills to do so, and he is not expected to be THE ONE MAN who knows all and does all.
"Church-based education" recognizes the New Testament assumption that churches are equipped to train their ministers. If they are not, they should be. If churches are not fully equipped to train their ministers, and if seminaries are sincere in their desire to best promote the work of God, let them work themselves out of a job by equipping churches to become able to educate their own people, rather than keeping churches dependent upon them.
In the local congregation of believers, we never finish our education and never receive a degree. In addition to theology, hermeneutics, or homiletics, we learn necessary lessons of interdependence, relations, service, self-denial, longsuffering, meekness, kindness, and love. Instead of pre-designed degrees from which to choose, each "course" can be specially adapted with the particular individual student in mind.
According to R. Paul Stevens (Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry, Regent College, 2002, p. 46), "The best structure for equipping every Christian is already in place. It predates the seminary and the weekend seminar and will outlast both. In the New Testament no other nurturing and equipping is offered than the local church. In the New Testament church, as in the ministry of Jesus, people learned in the furnace of life, in a relational, living, working and ministering context." I agree.
* The home is also a God-ordained primary educational institution. But it serves all persons in the home and is not restricted solely to believers or spiritual issues.