Helping Ordinary Christians
About a dozen people were circled around me for a small group study at our rural, country church. The subject was “The Cross and the Trinity,” a small detour from our 6-week study on the Apostles’ Creed. We discussed how the unity of the Godhead means that on the cross, the Father could not have utterly forsaken the Son, and that this myth tends to make people think of the Father as “the harsh one” and the Son as “the loving one.” In truth, I explained, the Son is just as angry towards sin as the Father, and the Father is just as loving as the Son, since these two are one God with the Holy Spirit. When we hear “Trinity,” we should think, “That’s my God!” A woman spoke up: “Just the other day, I wrote in my prayer journal, ‘God I fear, Jesus I love, and who is this Holy Spirit? Now I’m starting to understand. You’re answering my prayer.”
I couldn’t help but rejoice: “This is what it’s all about!” I encouraged the group to pray John Stott’s morning prayer as we continued to explore the joy of knowing our God and Savior as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Good morning heavenly Father,
good morning Lord Jesus,
good morning Holy Spirit.
“You have to understand what doctrine is for. It’s not for theologians, it’s for churches.”
Helping ordinary believers in the local church to better understand God and his wonderful works (theology) is the joy of my life. And it’s why I feel disappointed when people learn about my love for theology and suggest, “Maybe you’re called to teach at a Bible college.” The intentions are good, but they reflect a troubling mindset: the pastorate is not seen as a place for serious students and teachers of theology.
A Modern Division
The modern division between the church and the academy has left ordinary Christians destitute of good theology and confused about matters as basic as the Trinity (who the Christian God is). In Bible college, I was repeatedly told, “This is a place where you can learn why you believe what you believe.” What a travesty! That’s the job of the local church! If pastors and churches aren’t helping ordinary Christians to understand why they believe what they believe, what are they even doing?
This division has not always existed. Think for a moment about the most influential pastors in history, from Irenaeus, Augustine, and Martin Luther, to John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. Or consider the most influential pastors of our day, from John Piper and John MacArthur to Tim Keller and N. T. Wright. What do they have in common? They are (or were) pastor-theologians. And they have all published theologically-robust sermons, podcasts, articles, and books.
For most of history, to be a pastor was to be a pastor-theologian; sadly, the pastorate is no longer seen as a place for serious students and teachers of theology.
For most of history, to be a pastor was to be a pastor-theologian. This was the consensual understanding of the pastoral office for nearly two millennia. A pastor is not a person who gets up to the pulpit to “just preach.” He is a diligent student of all Scripture who immerses himself in the study of divine things so that he can bring theology to bear on the life of the local church. He is theologically qualified, “skillful in teaching” (1 Tim. 3:2), and preaches with “complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Theology is for Churches
As a pastor, it’s my duty and privilege to help ordinary believers in the local church to understand how the truth about who God is and what he has done in Christ (theology) has relevance for every area of life. And so far, I have found that people actually want theology. It’s not just “the younger generation” that is restless for answers; it’s forty, fifty, and sixty-year-old believers who are regularly telling me, “All my life, I have never understood why we do x. Why has no one ever explained this to me before?”
Since theology is the study of God and all things in their right relation to him, we need a theology of everything. A theology of modesty, for example, places modesty in its right relation to God and what he has done in Christ for us and for our salvation. What local churches need to live mature Christian lives is a theology of everything from work, marriage, and politics to atonement, justification, and holiness.
Pastor-theologians are not like cardiologists or dermatologists who specialize in one thing; they are like Family Practice doctors who generalize and thus need to have a firm grasp on every area of theology.
While pastors can greatly benefit from the training and resources provided by theological specialists in the academy, pastors have the high calling of being pastor-theologians, theological generalists, to their local congregations. Pastor-theologians are not like cardiologists or dermatologists who specialize in one thing; they are like Family Practice doctors who generalize and thus need to have a firm grasp on every area of theology. Even if they will never dive as deep on some questions as a specialist in the academy, their general knowledge gives them certain advantages even on those questions. In an article on William Burt Pope, my favorite Methodist theologian, Fred Sanders writes,
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.
Let No Man Despise Your Calling
We would be better off if some of our Bible college teachers were in the pulpit, and some of our pastors were in the pew. Many are good men, but they are simply not qualified to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). R. S. Taylor once “heard an ordained minister say, ‘Thank God, I’m not a theologian.’” Taylor insisted, “Then he should have surrendered his credentials.” I agree with him. “It is the duty of every preacher to be a theologian,” Taylor concludes.
We would be better off if some of our Bible college teachers were in the pulpit, and some of our pastors were in the pew.
If you love God, love theology (the study of God), and love people, you may very well be called to the pastorate. Do not allow anyone to discourage you from the high calling of being a pastor-theologian.
- [Podcast] The Pastor Theologians Podcast from the Center for Pastor Theologians
- [Book] Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision
- [Book] Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision
- [Podcast] David Fry and Johnathan Arnold, “The Pastor as Theologian”
- [Podcast] David Fry and Johnathan Arnold “The Pulpit Ministry of the Pastor-Theologian”
- [Article] Johnathan Arnold, “Everyone’s (Not) a Theologian, But Pastors Should Be”
- [Article] Johnathan Arnold, “The High Calling of the Pastor-Theologian”