Why We Need Pastor-Theologians in the Church
Let me start with the caveats. By pastor-theologian, I don’t mean a pastor-scholar who has one foot in the academy and one foot in the church. I don’t mean a pastor-pundit who regularly comments on the news of the day from a Christian perspective. I don’t mean a pastor-writer who publishes articles, blogs, and books. All of these examples can be a type of pastor-theologian, and in that sense they can all be good and necessary. As someone who dabbles in all of the above, I’ll be the last person to say we have no need of pastors who are involved in scholarship, punditry, and publishing.
But that’s not what I mean by pastor-theologian. What I have in mind is simpler, more explicitly biblical, and therefore more important. When I say we need pastor-theologians in the church, I mean that every pastor must conduct his ministry with an eye to declaring theological truth, diagnosing theological error, and discipling his congregation to be theologically informed and articulate.
A BIBLICAL VISION
This vision of pastoral ministry is not the pipe dream of Reformed eggheads. It is the kind of pastoral leadership set forth in Scripture. For starters, consider that “pastor” is just another word for “shepherd.” Shepherds were rugged individuals responsible for brave compassion and gentle authority. The work of the shepherd was to protect the sheep, feed the sheep, discipline the sheep, and lead the sheep in times of tranquility and in times of trial (see Psalm 23:1–3; John 10:1–15). The elder/overseer was charged with defending the flock from wolves by teaching the whole counsel of God and by refusing to tamper with God’s Word (Acts 20:17–31). That’s the work of a pastor-theologian. You have to be a well-trained and deeply theological pastor to teach daily in the hall of Tyrannus for two years (19:9) and to instruct and admonish your leaders every night for three years (20:31).
And then we have the pastoral epistles. Judging by Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus, pastoral ministry cannot be reduced to warm-hearted sympathy and moral inspiration. Just look at 1 Timothy. Paul tells us that the aim of the pastoral charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (1 Tim. 1:5).And what does this love entail? This love means warning those who have swerved from the truth and made shipwreck of their faith (1:6, 19). It means being able to teach (3:2). It means being a good servant of Christ Jesus, trained in the words of the faith and of good doctrine (4:6). It means devoting oneself to reading the Bible, to exhortation, and to teaching (4:13). It means insisting on what is true and calling out those who teach a different doctrine and do not agree with sound teaching (6:2–3). The pastor-theologian guards the good deposit entrusted to him (6:20).
THEOLOGICAL TO THE CORE
But it’s not just the particulars of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus that underscore the importance of pastor-theologians in the church. If we step out from among the trees and look at the forest, we will see that the very nature of gospel ministry is inescapably theological.
(1) God has revealed himself to us in his Word and given us his Spirit that we might understand his revelation.
Obviously, you don’t need to understand every theme in Scripture in order to be a Christian. God is gracious to save all of us with lots of gaps in our understanding. But if we have a Bible we can read—not to mention an amazing supply of books and resources in a language we can understand—why wouldn’t we want to understand as much of God’s self-revelation as possible? Theology is getting more of God, and pastors are a gift to help us in this upward journey.
(2) The New Testament places a high value on discerning truth from error.
There is a deposit of truth that must be guarded. False teaching must be placed out of bounds. Good teaching must be promoted and defended. This is not the passion of some ivory tower seminary somewhere, but of the Apostles and the Lord Jesus himself who commended the church at Ephesus for being intolerant of false teachers and hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:2, 6).
(3) The ethical commands of the New Testament are predicated on theological propositions.
Many of Paul’s letters have a twofold structure. The beginning chapters lay out doctrine and the latter chapters exhort us to obedience. The two are always connected. It’s in view of God’s mercies—in view of all the massive theological realities of Romans 1–11—that we are called to lay down our lives as living sacrifices in Romans 12. Yes, of course, orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy. But we won’t get to the former without going through the latter. Discipleship depends on doctrine.
(4) Theological categories enable us to more fully and more deeply rejoice in God’s glory.
Simple truths are wonderful. It is good for us to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know.” If you sing that in sincere faith, the Lord is pleased. But he is also pleased when we can sing and pray about who Jesus is and in what way he loves us and why we know this to be true. If we can rejoice in the simple truth of Jesus’s love for sinners, how much more will we rejoice when we can glory in the completed work of Christ, and rest in his all-encompassing providence, and marvel at his infinity and eternality, and delight in his holiness, and mediate on his three-ness and one-ness, and stand in awe at his omniscience and omnipotence. These theological categories are not meant to give us bigger heads, but bigger hearts and better eyes to see and savor who God is and what he has done. Discipleship depends on doctrine.
If you are captured by the vision of pastor-theologians in the church, let me encourage you that you don’t necessarily need another academic degree (though training is important), and you certainly don’t need to be a public intellectual or highly respected scholar (though we need those too). What you and I need to do is fairly simple, but easier said than done. We need to cultivate habits of the mind (by reading books), cultivate habits of the hearts (by growing in prayer, being open to correction, and having the courage of our convictions), and cultivate habits of time (by saying no to good things in order that we might say yes to what is best). This is not the ministry that churches always think they want, but it is what the church desperately needs and what my fellow pastors and I must strive to become.