Joe Hellerman is a man who I respect even though I have never met him. Perhaps one reason is selfish: he wrote a blurb for a book I wrote. However I just read an interview with him and one particular response to a question posed to him caught my attention and confirmed my respect of this New Testament scholar. He was asked if there was one piece of advice he would give to those entering the realm of New Testament scholarship. His reply was the following:
The church. Do it for the church!
Please do not go into New Testament scholarship (a) because you got some warm fuzzies from that ‘A’ you earned in Greek exegesis, or (b) because you love to study the Bible. Go into New Testament scholarship because you want to serve the church.
I would (and do) discourage anyone who is not presently in a ministry position in the local church—and who plans to stay in one throughout his/her education—from doing a Ph.D. in New Testament. This doesn’t mean he/she has to be a full-time paid pastor. But it does mean, in my view, he/she should be teaching AND shepherding others in the local church throughout (and after) the academic training.
I have met with the same group of elders in my church every Tuesday morning for 10 years, simply to pray for one another and for our church family (no church business at these meeting). To these men, the august string of academic letters after my name mean nothing. These guys are my brothers in the Lord, first, and my partners in ministry, second. And because of the close brother-relationships we share, these men do more for my spiritual life (and, consequently, more to keep my scholarship biblical) than any of my academic peers in the field of New Testament studies.
You will likely discover (as I have) that the people in your local church who are not biblical scholars will teach you more about following Jesus than any scholar or any book you’ll ever read. I simply cannot overemphasize this truth.
So, if you are unwilling to (a) be a true brother in relationship with others in the local church, and (b) shepherd the flock of God, please do not bother with a Ph.D. in biblical studies. We don’t need any more non-relational “loners” in biblical scholarship. We have lost too many well-meaning conservative Ph.D. students to the enemy, simply because many of these folks did not keep their feet firmly planted in the nurturing relational soil of the local Christian church throughout their scholarly pilgrimage.