The High Calling of the Pastor-Theologian

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In a previous article, “Everyone’s (Not) a Theologian, But Pastors Should Be,” I argued that all Christians should be intentional students of theology, but not all Christians are theologians properly-so-called. The best way to improve the state of theology in the local church is to retrieve the classical vision of the pastor as a theologian who guides the church in thinking about God, themselves, and the broader culture.

It bears repeating that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), and pastor-teachers are the ones that God has “given” to the church “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:11). Pastors are uniquely called and qualified to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” “to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). They arise from among the word-community and are recognized as being specially gifted to serve the body as its primary teachers.

“Able to Teach”

A pastor should be examined to ensure that his character befits the nobility of this task and that he has the necessary intelligence, knowledge, and speaking ability to lead the church’s teaching ministry. In other words, he must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). R. S. Taylor does not pull any punches:

The Bible says pastors are supposed to be “apt to teach.” How can they teach if they do not study? There is a silly notion abroad which affects to despise theology. The writer heard an ordained minister say, “Thank God, I’m not a theologian.” Then he should have surrendered his credentials. What is a theologian? He is a serious and systematic student of God and His redemption. It is the duty of every preacher to be a theologian.

Taylor goes on to quip, “For a preacher to despise theology is as incongruous as for a doctor to say, ‘Thank God, I’m not a medical man.’ An intelligent man would not go to him, no matter how sugarcoated were his pills.”

Every pastor must be deeply committed to his role as a serious and systematic thinker about God and his redemption.

Perhaps we have minimized this biblical qualification in an attempt to solve our shortage of pastors. But hospitals do not attract doctors by lowering their standards. The business is too serious. I’m reminded of a story about a recruiting seminar where representatives from the Air Force and Navy gave speeches about the perks of joining their branches. The recruiting officer from the Marines simply stood at the podium in silence, eyeing up the crowd, then remarked, “Two of you might make it in the Marines. See me after the seminar.” Everyone lined up to join the Marines. If we want more people to “aspire” to the office, we need to treat it as the “noble task” that it is (1 Tim. 3:1). This does not mean setting an unrealistic standard, but it does mean renewed attention to the biblical expectations.

A friend of mine belongs to a group of churches with a high standard for elders, and it has motivated many young men to aspire to the office. He is currently training for eldership in his church, which involves around two years of theological education—reading and studying the church’s preferred systematic theology under the supervision of other elders. Whether or not this is necessary, we can learn from the seriousness with which they take the pastor’s teaching responsibility.

In his classic book Preaching & Preachers, Martin Lloyd-Jones recalls a young man who felt certain that he was called to preach and was encouraged by a visiting preacher to enter the ministry. But “the actual fact was that the poor fellow lacked the mental ability necessary to the making of a preacher. It was as simple as that.” Lloyd-Jones continues,

We have got to emphasise natural intelligence and ability. If a man is to ‘rightly divide the word of truth’ he must have ability. The Apostle Paul says that he must be ‘apt to teach.’ As preaching means delivering the message of God in the way which we have described, involving the relationship between systematic theology and the exact meaning of the particular text, it obviously demands a certain degree of intellect and ability. So if a man lacks a basic minimum in that respect he is clearly not called to be a preacher.

The point is not that every pastor must be an expert on every question in theology (I’m certainly not!). Rather, every pastor must be deeply committed to his role as a serious and systematic thinker about God and his redemption.

Immersed in Theology

Pastors are called to “keep a close watch” on themselves and their teaching and “persist” in this to save themselves and their hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). They are to “give themselves continually” (KJV) to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4), to “labor” or “work hard” (CSB) in teaching and preaching (1 Tim. 5:17). They are to “devote” themselves to the public reading of Scripture, teaching and exhorting from God’s word (1 Tim. 4:13). They are to “practice” these things and “immerse” themselves in them (1 Tim. 4:15). In other words, the pastor’s theological task is all-consuming. Other duties (e.g., pastoral care for the sick and dying) are not separable from this task (see “The Pastor as Theologian,” a podcast discussion with David Fry).

Teaching pastors are called to devote the necessary time to think and study at length about the doctrine which has been entrusted to them.

The pastor is to be absorbed in a level of intensive study and teaching-discipleship that is impossible for everyone, and he does this for the sake of the body. If the pastor is a diligent learner and an effective teacher, serious Christians will be excited to hear what he is learning. This freedom to study and think is consistent with what Gregory of Nazianzus describes concerning “the permitted occasion” for theologizing:

It is when we are free from all external defilement or disturbance, and when that which rules within us is not confused with vexatious or erring images; like persons mixing up good writing with bad, or filth with the sweet odours of unguents. For it is necessary to be truly at leisure to know God; and when we can get a convenient season, to discern the straight road of the things divine.

When Gregory speaks of knowing God, he has in mind the deep truths about God that cannot be understood apart from the prolonged meditation that is so difficult in our rushed culture. Pastors have been given divine permission to spend time “at leisure,” that is, to prayerfully calm their souls before God, think, read, and quietly reflect on behalf of the church.

Teaching pastors are called to devote the necessary time to think and study at length about the doctrine which has been entrusted to them (2 Tim. 1:13–14). There is never a time for the pastor to “just preach.” He is called to “preach the word…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). He must be well prepared and his sermons both substantive and sustaining (see “The Pulpit Ministry of the Pastor-Theologian,” the second part of a podcast discussion with David Fry). As Lloyd-Jones puts it, “Preaching is theology on fire.” 

Theology is For Churches

Pastors are called to be theologians because theology is for the people of God. Theological education belongs in the local church, and ordinary Christians who are serious about their faith will appreciate pastors who do not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

Pastors are called to be theologians because theology is for the people of God.

Sadly, theology has been exiled to the academy, and many pastors no longer think about themselves as theologians. In Becoming a Pastor Theologian, Todd Wilson and Gerald Hiestand go as far as to say that “there’s probably not another profession that suffers from such a lack of clarity as to what the job itself is all about.” They continue,

What makes this crisis of identity among pastors especially tragic is that there used to be such clarity about the pastoral calling. For centuries, the church held out a clear and compelling vision of what a pastor is and what a pastor does. In short, a pastor is a theologian. But this ancient vision has been obscured by the separation of the roles of pastor and theologian—a tragic division of labor that continues to bedevil the Christian ministry and the church.

This is not to say that there is no place for academic or professional theologians. But they exist to serve pastors and churches, and their work should be aimed at the ecclesial community. In many cases, as Vanhoozer contends, “theological minds need to return to where they belong: in the body of Christ.” In an article on W. B. Pope, Fred Sanders urges academic theologians,

Be involved in pastoral ministry. Pope was in full-time ministry for years before he became a theologian. If that isn’t your vocation, do everything you can to be connected with the actual life of a congregation at multiple levels. Don’t just play theologian, but put yourself on the front line. A Lutheran theologian I studied with once said, “It’s not enough to be a church-based theologian. You have to be a church-basement theologian.” You have to understand what doctrine is for. It’s not for theologians, it’s for churches. (emphasis mine)

The church is a pillar and ground of the truth, a community of the word, a people who examine the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11). The first mark of the fellowship created at Pentecost was that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Can this be said of us today? Theology does not live in an ivory tower; the local church is its zip code. It belongs in the pulpit, in the pews, and around the dinner table. In a time when theology has been evicted from the church, the answer is not for everyone to think about themselves as a theologian. Rather, it is for pastors to recover their birthright and lead the whole church in the study of God.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.