Pastors Should Be Theologians


There are Christians in every generation who forlornly assume that their generation, beyond any previous generation, has at last hit bottom. After a year like 2020, that may seem especially true. Though we’re not certain our generation is really any better or worse than the ones that have gone before, it’s true that our generation faces intellectual challenges never encountered by our forefathers in the faith. The waters we sail are uniquely choppy.

We face questions related to race, Christian nationalism, politics, human cloning, new definitions of marriage, gender reassignment, the advent of social media, computers in our pockets more powerful than what NASA used to put the first man on the moon, religious relativism juxtaposed against militant Islam, an ever shrinking social and economic global community, an increasingly post-Christian West, the rise of the “new atheists,” and more. Few if any of these threats existed before. So we need careful theological and intellectual leadership.


In past generations, such leadership was primarily the domain of the church’s bishops and pastors. But since the Enlightenment, the pastoral community has increasingly quit the field. The university professor has replaced the pastor as the assumed theological leader of the church. Pastors, we are told, care for people, preach sermons, visit the sick, and provide spiritual counsel. Professors, on the other hand, stay above the fray so they can have time and space to think deeply and write penetratingly about the pressing intellectual questions of the day.

The primary problem with this division of labor, of course, is that Scripture establishes pastors as the theological leaders of the church, however much they might think they have delegated this responsibility to the academy (e.g. Acts 20:28-31; 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:2,8; Heb. 13:7). The driver of the bus may wish to delegate his job to the guy sitting in the second row, but the duty and responsibility of driving the bus remains with him all the same. [1]

The capacity of the people of God to think theologically and Christianly about immigration, ISIS, transgenderism, gay marriage, critical race theory, the possibilities and perils of social media, human cloning, and global warming does not come from what the professors in the universities are saying, but from what their pastors are (or are not) saying. This is not to minimize the important work being done by academics in the universities and colleges. But the burden of leading the church theologically (with all the attending inevitable ethical implications) is a burden that rests squarely upon the shoulders of the church’s pastors.


Theology, as a discipline, has the primary function of answering questions that the church needs to answer. Because pastors have largely abdicated this responsibility, too many of our churches are theologically anemic and therefore ill-equipped to face the brave new world in which we find ourselves. And insofar as post-Enlightenment theologians now reside almost exclusively in an academic location, Christian theological reflection at the highest levels has tended to become ecclesiastically anemic, too often disconnected from the real concerns on the ground.

We write deeply about interesting ideas, but we’ve forgotten why those ideas are, in the end, important. It has been well said: “A Church without theology impoverishes and blinds, but a churchless theology melts away into caprice.” [2]


Christian theological reflection is meant to flourish within the ecclesial community precisely because it is the ecclesial community that theology is meant to serve. “The Bible’s home is the church, not the academy. The church is the place where Scripture was nourished, recognized as canonical; the church is also the place where Scripture, in turn, nourishes the church and where it functions as her canonical guide.” [3]

And it is the church’s pastors who are tasked with thinking scripturally from within and for this community. The people of God will never rise above the theological leadership of her pastors, however theologically astute our Christian professors are in the academy.


In every age, and most especially in ours, the church needs pastors who not only translate theology, but who also construct theology. The church needs pastors who are doing theology, not just consuming theology. We need pastors who are even writing theology to other ecclesiastically minded theologians and scholars (a genre of theological discourse that we have termed “ecclesial theology,” as distinct from academic theology). The church needs pastors who operate at the highest intellectual levels, and who can tap deeply into the church’s theological heritage and traditions, who can construct theological syntheses that answer the day’s most pressing intellectual questions.

In our own small way, we hope our own parachurch ministry, the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT), helps in this cause. The CPT is a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor-theologians to provide faithful, intellectual, and theological leadership to the Church in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world. We believe that pastors are the theological leaders of the church, and that the pastoral community must once again self-consciously assume the burden of the church’s intellectual and theological leadership.

Yet never mind CPT. More than any organization like ours or like 9Marks (9Marks told us to include them), the church needs pastors who do the kind of work done by previous generations of pastor theologians—pastors such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, the Cappadocians, Calvin, Wesley, and Edwards.

Not every pastor is a Calvin or is called to write theological scholarship for other scholars, of course. Just like not every professor in the academy is a prolific writer and scholar. Some pastors will discharge their theological leadership primarily in a local congregation. Well and good. But the time has come for the emerging generation of ecclesial leaders to press into a new future (which is really just a return to our past) where the pastoral community once again considers itself collectively to be a body of theologians.


The congregation is the appropriate soil out of which our respective research projects have grown. Our people’s fears, concerns, doubts, joys, and sufferings inevitably become our own, shaping the questions we ask, the way we read Scripture, and how we access the rich textual tradition of the church. As such, “The church is less the cradle of Christian theology than its crucible: the place where the community’s understanding of faith is lived, tested, and reformed.” [4] The books and articles we write, while not always written directly to the laity, always have the laity in view.

We have found few things more satisfying than seeing the fruit of our theological reflection winding its way into the lives of those whom we love and serve—bolstering faith, steadying weak knees, encouraging love for God and neighbor, and inspiring hope.


We’ll not pretend. Being a theologian in a local church is not for the faint of heart. We’ve been hacking away at it for over a decade now and it’s not all rainbows and rose petals. Local churches very frequently lack the institutional infrastructure so crucial to the theologian’s task. Access to scholarly resources is a challenge. The relational remove from a community of likeminded scholars can be isolating. And some congregants look with suspicion on a pastor who spends time reading about things that congregants themselves don’t understand or aren’t interested in. But pressing through and beyond such obstacles is necessary for the surviving and thriving of the church.

And beyond this, the task of actually writing theology for other pastors and theologians makes the challenge even more difficult. Being a productive writing theologian in a local church is possible, even if difficult. It won’t look the same as being a theologian in the academy. (We’ve written about that here and here). But for pastor theologians so called and gifted, we can’t think of a more fulfilling vocation.

For too long now those with intellectual and theological capacities have not considered the pastorate to be a viable vocational home for a theologian. This false choice has impoverished the church. Not every theologian is called to be a pastor. But every pastor is indeed called to be a theologian—whether to one’s own local congregation, or even beyond to the broader ecclesial community. If you bear the burden of ecclesial leadership, then reject modernity’s false division of labor and embrace the historic vision of the pastor theologian.

Authors’ note: An earlier version of this article was originally posted on the theology blog of St. Andrews University.

[1] In this regard we are grateful for ecclesiastically sensitive academic theologians like D. A. Carson, David Wells, and Kevin Vanhoozer who acknowledge the theological priority of the church’s elders, overseers, pastors and bishops in “ensuring the integrity of the church’s gospel witness.” Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 447. For more by Vanhoozer, see Drama, 445-57, as well as his work, along with Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision (Grand Rapids, Mich,: Baker Publishing, 2015).

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology: Approaches to Understanding It’s Role in Light of the Present Controversy (San Francisco, Cal.: Ignatius Press, 1993), 48.

[3] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011), 138.

[4] Vanhoozer, Drama, 25.

Gerald Hiestand

Gerald Hiestand is Senior Pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Chicago, Illinois, and co-founder and board chair of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

Todd Wilson

Todd Wilson is the Co-Founder and President of the Center for Pastor Theologians.

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