The Unholy Route

“Can you please put down my proper designation?”

“Oh … you mean Dr. XYZ?”

When I read the Unholy Route a couple of years back, I really felt sad and angry at the same time about what’s going on in church leadership in Malaysia. Here’s what I mean …


For some time now, reports have been circulating of Christian ministers obtaining their PhDs from institutions such as churches and para-church organisations which clearly do not have or lack the credentials to award the title. It is also a fact that there exist seminaries which almost guarantee any applicants their PhD with low entry requirements, cheap fees and little effort.

Similarly, we hear of doubtful practices in the awarding of honorary PhD, which is meant to be a special award bestowed by universities to people who have contributed significantly to society in various fields. Like some shady secular universities, we now have seminaries offering honorary PhDs for reasons that are only known to the recipients.

All these dubious practices have caused people to become suspicious of anyone with a ‘Dr’ to his name. People are now inclined to wonder if the doctorate is genuinely earned or obtained the ‘pasar malam’ (flea market) way, or worse, bought.

Apparently, I did post something on this here in Free PhD? Short Cut Doctorates? in 2003. Now it’s 2005, I guess this kind of practice is here to stay. Unless, more and more Christians in Malaysia are informed and begin asking, “Dr. XYZ, I’m interested to know what was your PhD thesis?
how was the process like? If I’d like to get a copy of it, how should I go about it? …. ” (something along those lines.)

I strongly believe that theology and practical(or relevant) ministry are not mutually exclusive. In fact, true theolocial pursuit really deals with down to earth pastoral and ministry concerns. There are legitimate courses that can sere the local church and beyond like what is mentioned in “Redeeming the D.Min.” by Dr. Leong Tian Fock Of course, there’s ivory tower intellectual approaches (the typical dry professor picture) that doesn’t help. The route of anti-intellectualism is going to hurt us in Asia and Malaysia in particular. But, this pseudo-intellectualism will hurt us even more in the long run.

Ok .. I must admit, this post is more for my own therapy … Read on if you need an extra dose entitled No Short Cuts.. I think for some it will turn out to increase our immunity agaist what will make Christianity sick in our country. I’ve said enough … now get ready for the pastors’ prayer meeting.


Title: No Short Cuts
Description: Two local seminary principals share with Berita NECF their concern over Christians’ fixation with the PhD title. DR EZRA KOK of Seminari Theoloji and REV. DR TAN KIM SAI of Malaysia Bible Seminari also call for a re-thinking of giving out honorary PhDs, a practice that is slowly becoming a contentious issue.
Issue: March-April 2003

How is this ‘pasar malam’ PhD trend developing in the Malaysian Church?

EK: Since people always recognise the PhD degree as an academic degree and no one can actually get the degree overnight without doing some serious studies there are Christians negotiating for honorary titles, such as Doctor of Divinity or Doctor of Ministry. And some would opt for minimal studies to be awarded a doctoral degree, which has no academic value at all.

Do you think seminaries are lowering their conditions or making it easy for Christians to earn the PhD degree?

EK: No seminaries I know of dare to grant such degree for low academic performance since it’s a recognised academic degree. But there are some seminaries granting Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) for very minimal work or research. Therefore, one must learn to differentiate different kinds of doctoral degrees. I would suggest that one list down exactly what are the degrees and the names of the university or seminary.

TKS: Malaysian seminaries that I know of are not offering the PhD. As for seminaries elsewhere, the tendency and danger (of lowering standards) is definitely there, as education has become big global business today.

How are seminaries that dubiously offer the PhD affecting Christian education at large?

EK: When such seminaries give out low (or no-) standard degrees, it threatens our integrity as a Christian college of higher learning. Such dishonesty only brings shame to us and to God. Secondly, it sends a very wrong message to Christians at large. Some people may think that scholarship is worthless, and is cheap to come by.

TKS: Such seminaries are lowering not only the standard of Christian/theological education, but also the prestige and integrity of the genuine degree holders (which is injustice to them). Consequently our degrees may be despised, bringing down also the name of the Church.

What are the reasonable criteria for one to achieve a PhD degree?

EK: In the British tradition, it requires at least three years of full-time research and a high standard doctoral dissertation. The PhD dissertation is expected to break new grounds in terms of knowledge and is publishable. The entry qualification is a good master degree or first class honours in the bachelor degree. A good PhD dissertation is always internationally recognised.

TKS: Generally speaking, the candidate concerned must have at least five years of substantial post-graduate study. For instance, to qualify for a PhD in theology, biblical studies, or missiology, the candidate must have had at least two to fours years of master’s programme (MA/M.Div/M.Th or equivalent), plus another three years or so of doctoral programme. Of course, the doctoral programme must come out with a substantial academic product. A D.Min. must have at least four years of intensive post-graduate studies, plus a few years of professional experience.

Also, how long does it normally take for one to complete the doctoral programme?

EK: Since it requires at least three years of full-time research, not that many people can complete the dissertation in that time. However, one should aim to complete and defend the thesis within four years. Nowadays, some universities allow students to do the research part-time, which is no shorter than six years. Again, the question is not so much the length of time, but the quality of the product; in this case the dissertation and advancement of knowledge.

TKS: At least about three years of intensive study and research after a solid master’s programme.

What do you think should be the criteria in awarding the honorary PhD?

EK: Personally, I don’t agree with awarding honorary PhD at all. If one wants to be awarded an honorary degree, negotiate for something else and don’t confuse the public.

TKS: I think the PhD should remain as an earned degree and not an honorary degree. In the case of an honorary degree, the word ‘honorary’ should appear with the designation, for instance: Honorary Doctor of Ministry, or Honorary Doctor of Theology.

Do you personally know of any seminaries or institutions or para-church organisations that are conferring PhD (honorary or otherwise) without having the accreditation or rights to do so?

EK: No, but I do hear of schools granting honorary doctorates with very minimal research, and some with so-called recommendation. In some case, all that is required is to pay a small sum of money.

TKS: Not in our Malaysian context. But I have come across a couple of D.Min. holders who obtain their degrees by submitting B.Th-standard papers or through correspondence courses. In the first case, the D.Min. holder only has a B.Th to start with. The one by correspondence was based on a Bachelor in Engineering degree, and was not even a full-time pastor.

What do you say of such institutions?

EK: I think it is better for them to close down. It is shameful. For those who were granted such degrees, may I suggest that they disown the degree for the sake of God and integrity.

TKS: Such institutions are doing harm to Christian theological education and the church.

Do you think the increasing number of people pursuing higher qualifications is due to the higher expectations from the Christian community?

EK: Yes, the Christian community is certainly expecting their leaders or pastors to acquire higher degrees, as does the society. Society is changing drastically, and we need to keep on pursuing knowledge in order to respond to the needs. But we need to look at the challenges in the right perspective. The higher expectations are urging us to give our best to the Lord. We pursue knowledge, not for the sake of knowledge, or for our own fame or popularity, but for God.

TKS: I think a healthy congregation would not expect the pastor to hold a doctoral degree. Rather it would expect the pastor to be a faithful and efficient preacher and teacher of the Word, and a loving dedicated servant-leader worthy of emulation. A doctoral degree is non-essential.

Will achieving higher qualifications really enhance one’s ministry?

EK: No. In fact there are people trying to divert attention from their failure by pursuing higher degrees. Thus, it is important to look at one’s calling to ministry. What is God’s purpose in me? What is the focus of my ministry? Furthermore, pursuing a higher degree does not make one cleverer. One must also learn to integrate knowledge and thus to grow in wisdom. For Christian pastors and scholars, we must integrate knowledge with spirituality and our love for God.

TKS: If (the course is) related and relevant to the ministry, generally speaking, it should help enhance one’s ministry. But enhancement can come by various ways. The most important is life-long spiritual, moral, intellectual, and ministerial pursuit of the pastor himself.

What is your advice to the church and to Christians about academic qualifications?

EK: There is nothing wrong with academic qualifications. We are not anti-intellectual. In fact I always encourage our younger pastors to pursue higher education whenever possible. But one must remember: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). As for the church, we must not idolised degrees. Earning a degree, even a PhD, does not make one a spiritual leader, pastor or scholar. At the end of the day, it is who we are, and not what we do or what we acquire, that counts before the Lord.

TKS: Give due respect to hard-earned and recognised degrees. Reject counterfeitsor cheap stuff from ‘pasar malam’ (flea market) type of degree mills and the commerciali-sation of degree within the Christian circle.

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