Theologian by Necessity or Choice?- A Look at the Attitude Towards Theology in our Churches

As someone who teaches frequently across several ages in the church, probably the largest complaint I have, or at least the complaint that I most frequently bother my poor wife with, is the fact that I often times feel I cannot go too deep with the material without losing a majority of the audience I am speaking with. This is not an indictment on their intelligence or desire to glorify God, but is just a general frustration at the fact that when several people are gathered in a room on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening for “Bible Study,” the overriding expectation to which they have been conditioned by years of church culture is one of discussion and venting about what is on their mind and not necessarily of mining out with precision and care the finer, deeper points of Scripture. Not only am I bothered by this, but I think it is symptomatic of much that is wrong in contemporary modern/post-modern American Christianity.

Ronald N. Gleason quoting David Wells in an essay entitled “Church and Community or Community and Church?” says that

Wells makes this provocative point: ‘Theology does not fare well in the culture because it is not believed; it does not fare well in the church because it is not wanted.’ And herein lies the crux of the matter and our modern dilemma. This leads Wells to conclude, ‘A church that neither is interested in theology nor has the capacity to think theologically is a church that will rapidly be submerged beneath the waves of modernity.

For clarity, the word ‘theology’ as used here and throughout refers to the studying of God, his character, his will, and his acts. So, the assessment being made by the above quote is that the modern church does not want to be involved in the study of God, his character, his will, or his acts; what they would rather instead is practical, often secular-based psychological counsel and therapy on how to deal with their own individual failings. This charge is supported by the myriads of self-help, personal enrichment “ministries” that many modern, attractional churches offer, which typically bear no resemblance to or provide no foundation from anything found within the pages of Scripture.

To some extent I see those I teach, and most other groups inside the church, as being guilty of this; not out of willful detestation, but just because it is what’s expected. Theology, as they’ve been taught, is boring, stuffy, and, this is the kicker, it often times leads to arguments. Therefore, it is much better to just avoid it than to run the risk of splitting the room over whether Romans 9 is corporate election to physical blessings or individual election to eternal life (it’s the latter, by the way). Thankfully I have seen many young adults at in my congregation realizing that church without theology is not an adequate situation, and thus beginning to make moves towards more theological moments in the Sunday School classroom. Unfortunately, however, this seems to be the exception and not the norm.

What is needed is a strong call to the idea of being a theologian out of necessity. One thing I stress over and over with those that I teach is that one goal for Christians should be to live up to the criteria that Paul lays out for leadership within the church, even if we don’t ourselves wish to attain these leadership positions. And, in striving to meet these criteria we find that one such requirement is what is taught in Titus 1.9: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Therefore, a natural piece of the Christian life is being taught in and holding firm to God’s Word in order to use it for instruction and admonition; or, in other words, being a junior theologian.

We get a similar charge from Jude, who says, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (v.3).” How are we “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered” to us, if we never let it be delivered or never receive it when it is being brought? Clearly our actions of not wanting theology are not in line with the expectations of the biblical authors.

Lastly, Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4.1-4 should sound off as an alarm for our anti-theology congregations. In this passage Paul declares to Timothy that:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

Is this us? Are we those who “will not endure sound teaching.” As much as I would hope otherwise, I am afraid that this is an indictment of the modern/postmodern church. Thus, we need to remove the animosity in our pews towards learning theology and move ourselves back into line with the commands of Scripture. Being a theologian is not a choice, it is a necessity, and it is a task we should all be eager for as there is no greater enterprise than to know God better.

5 Responses to “Theologian by Necessity or Choice?- A Look at the Attitude Towards Theology in our Churches”

  1. jonathonwoodyard Says:

    Todd,

    Thank you for this post! It is a word that needs to be heeded! I think you would enjoy Mohler’s chapter in “He is Not Silent” on the “Pastor as Theologian” (this chapter can also be found in Theology for the Church, edited by Dr. Akin).

    We need minds that think theologically about everything, including Santa, homeschooling, drinking, smoking, cussing, having babies, getting married…..life! Why? Because we believe God is there and has spoken (as Francis Schaeffer would say).

    Interestingly enough, it seems as these attitudes that are anti-theology come from people that you rarely hear talking about Scripture and the Lord. Is that a telling characteristic? I think so.

    You may like this quote by Dr. Mohler: “When a denomination begins to consider doctrine divisive, theology troublesome, and convictions inconvenient, consider that denomination on its way to a well-deserved death.” Can we say that this is true of life in the SBC?

  2. Todd Burus Says:

    Thanks for your encouragement. As far as the Mohler chapter goes, I already beat you to the punch. I bought and read that book within 48 hours of it hitting the shelves in Gainesville.

    One thing that I see this leading to is growth in the emerging church movement, particularly among the ones who avoid theology because it causes arguments. It asserting one doctrine as truth over another causes fighting then the only “logical” solution is to not assert anything as the truth.

    I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that quote represents the SBC, though it is true of some views there. My concern with the SBC is blindly asserting some doctrine and convictions while denying others because that’s “what we’ve always done”, which I think in the long run can have the same effect. I think it is clear that a lot of the animosity against Calvinism in the SBC (particularly the lay animosity) isn’t coming from people who genuinely disagree with it but instead from people who have been indoctrinated against it and been fed misrepresentations of what Calvinists actually believe.

  3. theology in church? « Interstitial Says:

    [...] in church? Posted on December 11, 2008 by bkingr Yesterday Todd Burus put up a post regarding his church’s general lack of receptivity to learning deeper theological points. let [...]

  4. bkingr Says:

    Hey Todd, good post. I taught young adults in a large traditional SBC church for ten years or so. After a while, I started to teach expositionally through books of the Bible. We did Romans and Hebrews and got into some very sticky wickets. My class had no hesitation about getting into these things at a very deep level even though there were substantial disagreements among them. We had a lot of fun and everybody was engaged and participated.

    The kicker is that our class grew quickly and it grew large. I think that people crave real interaction/wrestling with God’s word and the truths contained therein. I just don’t think most believers know that is what is missing from church until they experience it. Obviously, our class wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea and there were plenty of other options available at our church. But for the ones willing to stretch their brains, they loved what we were doing.

    Later in Arkansas, I started teaching a class of more senior adults. I used the regular explore the Bible curriculum to teach I Peter, but I still hit the issues we encountered head on. after about the second session or so, one of the men in the class got in my face after church and forcefully asked me “how dare you make us think that hard that early in the morning, what do you think you are doing?” then he grinned and slapped me on the back and said that I was the best teacher he had ever heard.

    I really think there is a hunger for knowledge of God on the part of His people. I just think that most of the time that hunger goes unrecognized for what it is.

    I love your blog. Keep up the good work.

    Keith

  5. Keith Walters Says:

    Everyone is a theologian whether they intend to be or not. When you listen to music, watch a film, or have a conversation you are learning about an individual’s theology. When you observe an individual acting lawlessly you are observing their theology in action. There is “there is no fear of God before their eyes” their theology is of a God who is without wrath and justice. The problem with the church is not that they lack theology; the problem is that every Sunday countless pastors espouse a theology of triteness and a God whose glory is severely diminished. They do this by downplaying theology by treating well educated individuals as if they, though illumined by the Holy Spirit, cannot grasp, nor would they care to grasp, the theological content of the Scriptures. They do this by acting as if they are the sole guardian of theology in their church and as if these things are best left to ivory tower theologians.

    I also have to say that talk is cheap. Like James I would argue, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You say that you love theology and that your church loves theology but how does this play itself out in the context of life? Does your theology really matter? Does your theology shape your methodology; does it drive the way you do ministry? This brings me to a second and equally dangerous issue in the American church. Yes, there are churches like the ones described in my first paragraph who wholly unconcerned with biblical theology and there are churches who talk as though they are concerned with theology but are ultimately driven by pragmatism.

    I think we can see these two extremes first, in the form of liberal emergent churches who while not maintaining the theological claims of Scripture attempt to live out a kingdom ethic in the form of social ministries and secondly, in the form of conservative churches who would give verbal assent to the claims of Scripture yet fail to live them under these claims.

    We need a church that sees theology as vital not merely as knowledge but as truth for life.

    Todd in light of this post I hope you find this encouraging: http://keithwalters.org/2008/12/13/the-gravity-of-gospel-ministry/

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