3 reasons every pastor needs to be a theologian
God calls the pastor to be first and foremost a theologian.
While it may be difficult to believe in our current cultural setting, there was a time when the pastor was viewed as a town’s leading intellectual. Pastors of what seems like a long-lost era were doctrinally grounded and biblically saturated, to be sure; but they were also well-read in other important branches of study—literature, economics, politics, philosophy, and science—and were therefore able to apply biblical truth to these areas of inquiry with keen spiritual and intellectual skill, helping their people think theologically about major trends within the church and the greater society.
Most importantly, the pastor was a theologian. Today, however, the pastoral office is no longer viewed in such categories. At worst, the title “pastor-theologian” is a contradiction, for to be a pastor is to be one whose primary work is people and their spiritual well-being; to be a theologian is to labor away from people among books, and mainly in the area of academic scholarship.
The pastor-theologian, despite what history may tell us, appears to be an ecclesiastical impossibility in our current age.
This is due, at least partially, to the fact that the larger contemporary church has loaded the pastoral role with responsibilities and expectations that hinder if not altogether prohibit the work of theology. As Owen Strachan asserts, the pastor is seen chiefly as a “leader, organization builder, administrator, coach, inspirer, endless problem solver, spiritual pragmatist, and so much more.” For a pastor to consider how he might engage in important doctrinal discussions and cultural issues, pursue some form of theological writing, and make scholarly contributions to the larger Christian academy is to indulge in pointless fantasy: his role and his time preclude these kinds of endeavors.
The Enlightenment changed pastoral ministry in Europe
But the popular reshaping of the pastoral role is also a symptom of the massive rift that has slowly but surely formed over the past 300 years between the church and the academy (i.e., the university). Due to the Enlightenment’s (c. 1685-1815) detachment of biblical authority from rational inquiry, the contribution of the Christian pastor in any realm other than religion was greatly diminished. As the Enlightenment’s suspicion of authority pervaded Europe, Christian theology was soon viewed to function only within the realm of “faith;” other areas of inquiry—especially science—functioned within the realm of “reason.” Faith dealt with that which was private and non-falsifiable; reason traded on that which was public and empirical. Autonomous reason, unaided by divine revelation, was now valued as the chief means by which all people would be able to arrive at universal knowledge.
Theology, therefore, no longer referred to objective truth about the Creator and His ways, but as a collection of improvable propositions that have no authoritative bearing on other areas of study. The separation of faith and reason led inevitably to the detachment of the church and the academy. “Over the space of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson observe, “the universities [in Europe], which had been largely conceived and reared in service of the churches, gradually became institutions of the state.” The sociological fruit of this institutional rending was that the pastor was now marginalized in terms of intellectual contribution to the greater society. The scholar, however, was lionized.
Three factors changed the role in North America
While not dismissing how the Enlightenment served to undermine the pastoral role in North America, the factors that led to the separation between the church and the academy are slightly different than in Europe. The three major features of colonial and post-colonial life that sharpened the divide between pastoral ministry and the work of theology were (1) urbanization; (2) the Revolutionary War; and (3) the development of divinity schools.
As David Wells points out, before the small and scattered towns of the fledging American colonies started to see significant population growth, it was usually the pattern that each town had one church with one pastor, with the church at the center of the town’s spiritual and social life.5 Because of this societal structure, the pastor’s engagement in and influence on the town’s religious and civic life would have been significant. The pastor would have likely been the most educated person in town, and training for the ministry would have taken place primarily within the ecclesial setting as young men learned theology and ministry skills from the pastor himself.
As these towns grew in number, they soon became too large for only one church. The pastors who once enjoyed substantial political and cultural influence soon found their authority and social status reduced. Furthermore, the spirit of democracy and societal egalitarianism generated by the Revolutionary War had persuaded a new generation of would-be spiritual leaders that theological education—in the church or elsewhere—was no longer needed for ministry. True piety, they claimed, was only hindered by much theological learning; all that a minister needed for gospel proclamation and growth were the Spirit and the Scriptures, and sometimes not much of either.
The early 19th century also saw the establishment of several divinity schools in North America. Whereas theological education in colonial America was previously the domain of the local church, with the development of divinity schools the primary sphere for pastoral training was now located in an institution outside the church. “By the mid-nineteenth century, the pastor theologian in North America had been replaced by the professor theologian.”
The fracture between the role of the pastor and the work of the theologian has only widened and deepened since the separation began in Europe and North America over four centuries ago. But this development is neither healthy for the church or the academy.
As pastors increasingly view their role as managers, spiritual coaches, corporate executives, and social coordinators, and professional theologians drift further from the needs of the church into more refined areas of expertise (intelligible to only a handful of highly-trained scholars), both institutions will suffer. Here are three reasons we need to recover a robust vision of the pastor-theologian for the local church.
1. The pastor-theologian model is biblical
Because of its detachment from theology, the church has grown spiritually weak, socially compromised, and susceptible to hazardous doctrinal trends. Likewise, due to a decreased interest in and connection with the genuine needs of Christ’s church, the Christian scholar is in danger of producing material of little spiritual and theological benefit for the most important institution in the world, the body of Christ. And what is most concerning about the present situation is that this cycle is self-perpetuating: unless something foundational changes in the culture of the church and the academy, the rupture between the pastor and theologian can only worsen as time goes on.
But for the sake of Christ’s bride, we cannot throw up our hands in resignation. We can, one church at a time, one pastor at a time, recapture the glorious office of the pastor-theologian for the glory of God and the eternal good of his people. We will be aided in this endeavor by first reminding ourselves that the model of pastor-theologian is biblical. It’s not enough to point to historical precedent and start framing our vision around early church or 17th century ideals. We have to first be convinced that God calls the pastor to be first and foremost a theologian.
This does not imply that a pastor must be skilled in every conceivable branch of technical theology or broader areas of learning—although he should have some interest in these fields. Rather, to be a theologian is to first be concerned with the study, preservation, and proclamation of historic Christian doctrine at the local church level (1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 1:9; 2:1; 4:2). The pastor is tasked with shepherding the flock among him (1 Pet. 5:2), so his work of theology is first and foremost for his people. This labor will be expressed in preaching, teaching, discipleship, counseling, and writing as the pastor thinks carefully and rigorously about how to apply the truth to his people in their present setting.
But the very nature of this work requires that the pastor be well engaged with broader theological discussions and trends so that he can guard his people from what is wrong and unhelpful and inform his people of what is true and useful. We see this modeled by the authors of the New Testament epistles as their teaching dealt directly with contemporary false doctrine and false teachers (Gal. 1:8-9; 3:1-2; 4:7; 2 Pet. 2:1ff).
Practically, then, the pastor-theologian will keep his mind attuned to the ideas that are percolating at an academic level through regular reading, conference attendance, intentional research, and other means. Yet, this kind of study and research is no mere intellectual hobby for a pastor. A theologically indifferent pastor is like a shepherd who has no interest in wolf taxonomy. He may prefer to avoid these subjects, but precious lives are at stake, so he must find a way to remain current with trends in the greater theological world.
2. The pastor-theologian model is historical
We must see that the pastor-theologian model is historical. Although the pastoral role is no longer viewed, by and large, as the primary place where a theologian would ply his craft, the truth is that this recent trend is contrary to historical precedent. “Throughout most of the church’s history,” Hiestand and Wilson comment, “the pastoral vocation was a primary vocation for theologians and biblical scholars. One need only to think of history’s most important theologians to be reminded that the pastoral office was once compatible with robust theological scholarship.” But not only was the pastor viewed as a theologian; he would conduct his labor of theology within the context of the local church and his ministerial duties. Owen Strachan explains:
[Early church pastors] did not separate from the people and the ministry to learn theology but instead tilled the rich soil of Scripture in the context of pastoral work . . . it would have been unthinkable for these early pastors to give up the grind of weekly Bible exposition in order to sequester themselves in theological meditation to mine more deeply into the Bible’s doctrine. On the contrary, reading the Bible for sermon preparation was itself an opportunity for real theological work, a glorious exegetical grind.
Yet, when it was necessary, these pastor-theologians would engage rigorously with contemporary theological and cultural issues, expending significant energy and time to write, teach, even attend conferences in order to set things in order and give doctrinal aid to the greater church.
With varying degrees of consistency, this model of pastor-theologian held sway in the early and medieval church and through the Reformation. The post-Enlightenment aftermath, as we saw, successfully dismantled the connection between the pastor and the theologian for much of Europe and North America. But for most of church history, this was not the case. To recapture the ideal of pastor-theologian, therefore, is not only to reinstall the biblical model; it is to return to the historical one as well.
3. The pastor-theologian model is necessary
We must see that the pastor-theologian is necessary. Foundationally, a pastor is a preacher and teacher of Christian doctrine for his local congregation. He shepherds his people, in large measure, by attending to biblical exposition in the pulpit, the lectern, and the counseling session. His primary labor of theology, therefore, will be located in his weekly sermon preparations and in his teaching, preaching, writing, and counseling ministry. He will also take careful note of recent scholarship in order to protect his people from dangerous theological trends and to remain well informed of useful new resources for his people.
But the pastor-theologian is also necessary for the greater church. Beyond his labors among his immediate flock, the pastor-theologian should be encouraged to take his pastoral experience, intellectual rigor, and broad knowledge of various biblical and theological topics to the academy as well. So long as academic specialists are allowed to constantly refine and narrow their areas of expertise, they are in danger of losing a sense of the true nature and purpose of theology.
Indeed, some of the most unbiblical theological statements I’ve heard have come from theologians who have so narrowed their scholarly interests that they’ve lost their grip on the whole counsel of God’s Word or so sequestered themselves in their technical reflections that they have little awareness of the spiritual needs of ordinary Christians in the local church setting. The pastor-theologian, working primarily in and for the local church, can take his skill as a generalist and his insight as a shepherd of people to the guild in order to help the academy produce better resources for the greater church.
How do we recover it?
How can the local congregation partner with and encourage their local shepherd to start or continue his pursuit of becoming a pastor-theologian? Most importantly, once you are convinced that this is the biblical, historical, and necessary role of the pastor, you can pray that your shepherd makes the work of theology a priority in his daily ministry preparations and labors and has the time to do so. You can also pray that your pastor has the opportunity to engage the greater academic community at some level.
Above all, value the role of the pastor-theologian. When a pastor takes some time, after fulfilling his immediate pastoral duties, to engage in theological reading, writing, and, if the Lord wills, publication, he is not participating in mere ivory-tower banter that has no bearing on the life of the church.
Rather, by utilizing his gifts and experience in this way your pastor-theologian is acquiring greater skill to better serve his flock while also supplying the academy with a much-needed pastoral perspective on its work of theology. Perhaps with some effort and much prayer, we can recapture the vision of the pastor-theologian for the glory of Christ and the health of his bride.
Can I be both a pastor and a scholar? (Tom Schreiner)
Am I a pastor or am I a scholar? (Jeff Robinson)