Douglas A. Sweeney will help to lead a microevent on “Ecclesial Theologians: Vital Renewal for the Church” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 25–27, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon! This article is published in partnership with Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.
Twenty years ago, I taught a seminary course in which I gave the students an in-class assignment. I had them jot down a list of their favorite theologians from throughout church history. Then I asked them to identify the ones who worked primarily in ecclesial vocations (as pastors, bishops, and other teachers of the church).
This proved to be a life-changing exercise for many. When I asked the students to share what they’d written, names like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Spurgeon, and King echoed across the room. When the students stopped and considered how many of these individuals worked primarily as clergy, my point was made before the lecture began.
Most people from church history who continue to inform Christian thinking today worked mainly as ministers in ecclesial settings. Some taught from time to time in Christian colleges and seminaries. Most wrote books. But they spent the bulk of their time with their parishioners, preparing to teach and preach in ways that met their daily needs, helping them to do all Jesus had commanded, and praying God would bless their efforts for his glory.
During the past two centuries, things have changed. Christians today don’t look primarily to pastors as their most important intellectual guides. Professional academics and social media influencers have usurped the role clergy formerly played.
There are understandable reasons why this has occurred, and we can’t simply return to how things were before. But neither should pastors see this as a reason to abdicate their charge to serve the whole counsel of God’s Word to God’s people. There are modern ways for pastors to take the lead once again in renewing and informing the intellectual lives of God’s people.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, when Christendom dissolved, modern research universities rose to great prominence, and technological changes facilitated democratizing trends across the globe, the clergy began to lose the cultural authority they’d formerly taken for granted.
Christians today don’t look primarily to pastors as their most important intellectual guides. Professional academics and social media influencers have usurped the role clergy formerly played.
Luther and Edwards enjoyed legally sanctioned status as intellectual leaders. The laity were expected, often required, to attend and support their teaching ministries. People’s livelihoods and prospects depended on compliance with the state-church structures that organized their worlds. As a result, pastors could serve most citizens a well-balanced diet of divine revelation, interpreting and applying it to the struggles of their everyday lives.
When these state-church structures were removed, however, the laity no longer had to eat what they disliked. Church leaders now had to use voluntary means to gain a hearing from the public. It’s hard to persuade those who don’t have to be there—who don’t have to do anything they don’t like—to choose intellectual effort and theological nourishment in Sunday morning services. It’s easier to draw a crowd and hold their attention with the biblical equivalent of fast food, pandering to unhealthy tastes.
That’s what many evangelical churches did. As a result, over time, most people looking for experts on life’s big questions went elsewhere for nourishment. They consulted academics and public intellectuals with big media footprints.
The consequences for everyday discipleship and witness have been tragic. Surveys show most Christians today are theologically illiterate, malnourished by the people called to feed them.
Our churches need pastors who will lead theologically. “For though by this time [our laypeople] ought to be teachers, [they] need someone to teach [them] again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12).
We can’t go back in time. Nor do many of us want to. The specialization of disciplines in modern universities and growth in human knowledge during the last two centuries have proved a mixed blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. We now know more about the Bible, the history of Christianity, and the world than we did before.
We’ll always need schools to offer specialized training to our ministerial leaders. Seminaries especially offer such a rich curriculum of specialized studies in subjects that pertain to our Christian lives and ministries—Hebrew, Greek, church history, philosophy, psychology, hermeneutics, intercultural studies, and more—that it’s hard to think of teaching God’s people without them.
Surveys show most Christians today are theologically illiterate, malnourished by the people called to feed them.
But the kind of education God’s people need today is too important to be left to academics and other non-ecclesial thinkers. Such people often hold to Christian orthodoxy lightly, if they value it at all. Their work is often energized by secular concerns. They’re motivated by tenure and promotion within their schools, fame and fortune in the media. They’re not driven mainly by the needs of church people.
Let’s work for a day when professors in the seminaries deem themselves handmaids to pastor-theologians—and pastor-theologians take the lead in informing God’s people theologically. Pastors are generalists. They’ll always have to rely on the findings of experts as they carry out their work. But they ought to be the first stop for people who are wrestling with life’s biggest questions.
The Lord has told us to feed people the whole feast of faith—vegetables and all. Let’s help one another be faithful to the task. The vitality of the church depends upon it.