Recently, I presented a short paper on The Pastor as Theologian to the pastors of the York Simcoe Association, a group of churches affiliated with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada.
Though written primarily for colleagues in ministry, I felt the subject was important for anyone with a concern for the spiritual well-being of evangelical churches generally, and Christians personally.
This is an edited version of that paper.
We are all theologians
Theology is the study of God and of his relationship to this world. Because of this, theology must never be seen as merely
… an interest or hobby that we can add to our list of favorite activities and diversions. It pertains to the whole of our lives, and must shape and inform our thoughts and activities in every sphere of existence. Without the knowledge of God, the knowledge of our selves becomes distorted and futile, and any meaning and ultimate satisfaction becomes utterly impossible.
(Accessed on December 19, 2018)
It is vitally important to recognize the role theology plays in our ministries since we are continually confronted by questions with profound, life-altering implications. These are some of the questions I have faced during my pastoral ministry. You would have a similar list.
- What career path should I pursue?
- If God chose us to salvation before the foundation of the world, why do I need to evangelize?
- My husband never shows any love for me. Why do I have to go through life unhappy?
- Should we pull the plug on Dad’s life support?
- What happens when I die?
- My mother and father, who were murdered by the Nazis, lived a righteous life. How can you believe they are in hell just because they didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah?
- Why can’t I leave my marriage? I don’t love her anymore.
- Why did God let her die of cancer, leaving me with three young children?
- I know what I’m going to do is wrong, but God will forgive me when I confess it. Right?
- I am getting a divorce. I hope God will forgive me.
- I want to be a lukewarm Christian.
Our response reflects our theology – our understanding of God and of his ways. It is not a matter of debate as to whether or not pastors (or Christians in general) are to be theologians. We are all theologians of a sort. According to writers at Bible.org, whenever we wrestle with the questions of life, we are doing theology.
Everything is affected by your theology. For example, if your theology denies the existence of God, then your morality is going to be affected since its basis is not a personal and timeless being. With a theology of atheism (i.e. belief that there is no God) morals become relative to the time and situation. In this case, what is true for one generation may not be true for another. If your theology denies the sinfulness of man, then a bloody sacrificial death to atone for sin becomes repulsive, since, according to your theology, men don’t need to have their sin atoned for. If your theology is polytheistic (i.e. belief in many gods), then you will constantly be trying to figure out which god or gods you should encounter, pray to, and/or appease in order to make their situation “right.” The implications are endless.
In short, theology is a set of intellectual and emotional commitments, justified or not, about God and man which dictate one’s beliefs and actions. (emphasis authors’)
(Accessed on January 9, 2018)
So, what kind of theologians are we? One way to answer this question is to look at our pastoral practice – at the model of ministry we follow.
We have a problem
While I am disappointed in recent revelations concerning some of his ethical positions, I believe Eugene Peterson identifies a systemic problem in contemporary pastoral ministry in Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Though written 31 years ago to an American audience, I believe Peterson’s observations ring true today in both the USA and Canada.
American Pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling (emphasis author’s). They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. …
… there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God (emphasis mine). It is this responsibility that is being abandoned …
Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape
of Pastoral Integrity, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987, pp.1-2.
Peterson is blunt, but is he fair? Are pastors abandoning their calling? Peterson comes from a mainline perspective, and perhaps his words reflect that context more than an evangelical one, however evangelical leaders were raising similar concerns in the early 1990’s. For example, David Wells, currently the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, wrote in 1993:
The disappearance of theology from the life of the Church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today but, oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world – in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture ….
David Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened
to Evangelical Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993, p.95.
In 1992, John Seel surveyed twenty-five prominent evangelical leaders, seeking their views on the then-current health of the evangelical movement. Their response appears to echo the concerns of Peterson and Wells. Richard L. Mayhue summarizes eight dominating themes arising from Seel’s research:
- Uncertain identity – a widespread confusion over what defines an evangelical.
- Institutional disenchantment – a perceived ministry ineffectiveness and irrelevance.
- Lack of leadership – a lament over the paucity of leadership in the church.
- Pessimistic about the future – a belief that the future of evangelicalism hangs in the balance.
- Growth up, impact down – a confusing paradox without immediate, clear explanations.
- Cultural isolation – the post-Christian era has fully arrived.
- Political and methodological response provides the solution – unbiblical approaches to ministry are emerging.
- Shift from truth-orientation to market-response ministry – a redirection from preoccupation with the eternal to concern for the temporal in an effort to be viewed as relevant.
John MacArthur, Jr. and The Masters Seminary Faculty,
Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry: Shaping Contemporary Ministry
with Biblical Mandates, Word Publishing, 1995, p.4. (emphasis mine)
The tsunamic cultural shifts underway in our culture (e.g. think how quickly we went from Pride celebrations to same-sex marriage to transgender rights) pose major challenges to evangelical Christianity. In many places, the response has been to adjust the content and methodology of ministry with little regard for its theological implications.
For example, David Powlison believes the 21st century church is plagued with a therapeutic gospel focusing on “instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class” people: the craving to be loved for who we are; to experience personal significance and success; to gain self-esteem; to be entertained; to live with a sense of adventure – to have a thrilling and moving life. Powlison says:
In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me [sic] who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.
The therapeutic outlook is not a bad thing in its proper place. By definition, a medical-therapeutic gaze holds in view problems of physical suffering and breakdown. In literal medical intervention, a therapy treats an illness, trauma, or deficiency. You don’t call someone to repentance for their colon cancer, broken leg … You seek to heal. So far, so good.
But in today’s therapeutic gospel the medical way of looking at the world is metaphorically extended to these psychological desires. These are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word “Jesus,” but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel.
(Accessed February 6, 2018)
In some ways, the therapeutic gospel mirrors Eugene Peterson’s contention that pastors have become religious shopkeepers. We expend enormous energy and resources attracting people to our properties and programs. As long as the seats are full, or filling, and the bills are paid, and our people satisfied with the church, we feel good about what we are doing. Yes, we desire professions of faith, baptisms, and gaining new members. But are we as passionate for the long-term, time-consuming and often messy work of making disciples – of accompanying our people on the journey to spiritual maturity?
Some years ago, I had a young mother visit me seeking counsel in dealing with relatives who were creating major problems in her marriage. The complicating factor was that these relatives were actively involved members of the church she attended. One of the relatives was an elder there. After several sessions, during which she said she had tried unsuccessfully to get help from her pastor, she agreed to letting me contact her pastor.
When I met with him, he acknowledged that the problems were rooted in the meddling of the young woman’s relatives. As to why he had not addressed those issues with the parties involved, he said he couldn’t deal with it because it would split the church. The relatives had lots of influence in the congregation. My response, probably not entirely Spirit-filled, was to remind him that church was more than a rocking worship band playing the latest contemporary songs, followed by a cleverly prepared, entertaining sermon. It also included the dirty work of confronting sin and leading people to reconciliation and a better future. It wasn’t the best pastor-to-pastor conversation I’ve had.
Let’s face it; the challenges faced in working with troubled individuals, and the often-unachievable expectations confronting pastors, are enormous. We can never do all that needs to be done. We are busy with preaching, teaching, counseling, committee and board meetings, hospital visits, funerals, weddings, and perhaps home visits. I once answered a business man who asked me how my “business” was doing: “I’m in a growth industry. I deal with sin, and every time another person is born, there is more sin to deal with. I will never be out of work.”
[To be continued …]