“Should the Church Be Led by Teachers and Scholars?” The question is Don Miller’s. Much ado was made on the Internet over his recent claims that churches are essentially schools under the domain of ivory tower lecturers. The comment stream is still going over at RelevantMagazine.com where his post reappeared.
For the most part, I (respectfully!) disagree with Miller’s observations (see my post here). The claims are oversimplified. And in many circles, the church is conspicuously led by celebrity personalities, not by stodgy academics. If churches are schools led by teachers who just lecture us week by week as pupils, then Christianity is a shocking, educational fiasco with our widespread biblical illiteracy and our astonishing ignorance of our rich theological traditions. If only we were more heedful of our teachers and scholars perhaps we would be less shallow. If only we were more like schools, perhaps we would be enlivened by a more compelling theological vision of God.
But Miller is on to something.
Here are the claims he seems to be making with which I agree…
1] Theological Teaching must bear Ethical Fruit. Miller is disturbed over the ease with which we talk about Christian truths while failing to live out their implications. He wants an action plan, not just a syllabus. He wants “doing” to accompany the “knowing.” The particular academics I read call for nothing less than the same. Pauline scholars talk about “the indicative” and “the imperative.” The Apostle would devote space in his epistles for the soaring theological vision of who we are in Christ (indicative) but then he would devote space for describing how we are to live out that vision (imperative). Miller wants to bind ethics (action) to our thinking.
2] Academic Debates Fracture the Church. No denying that claim. It is true. And doctrinal warmongering is abounding today (especially on comment streams).
I believe strongly that some hairs have to be split. I believe that sound doctrine must be responsibly protected. But I also believe that so many of our impassioned theological movements today are, sadly, overreactions to oversimplifications. It is not that we should cease the academic debates. It is that we should conduct our debates more responsibly. For starters, perhaps we should resist ratcheting our theological systems so tightly. Systematic theology may be falling on hard times at the moment when so many are rejoicing over its comeback, because the tighter you clamp down on your jots and tittles the more likely that the mysterious, uncontainable subject matter might puncture leaks in unsuspected places. In the frantic attempt to keep everything in tidy order, we can become defensive jerks.
I am not sure if Miller has taut systematic theologies in mind, but he rightly bemoans unnecessary divisiveness caused by vicious academic fighting.
3] Churches Need to Be Led by Normal Folks. Miller is miffed by the absence of bankers, landscapers, plumbers and nurses at the helm of local churches. I grew up Baptist, so “congregational polity,” the “priesthood of the believer,” and “soul-competency” are in my ecclesial vocabulary. Jesus’ choices of fishermen and a tax collector for disciples should certainly inspire the non-elites in the church, whether our collars are dyed blue or white. I have dug many ditches (literally) with a graduate level theology degree. I’ve worked for four lumber yards , two landscaping crews and two construction outfits while pursuing my own education. One of my brightest mentors was a rough divorcee who lived out in a little boat docked on the edge of a nearby river. Ambitious intellectuals have a lot to learn from folks like my river-dwelling friend.
(A word of caution, though. Outside the church, no construction crew or accountant firm or plumbing company is led by novices. Extensive training, even if that training has occurred in lecture rooms, must be duly respected and highly valued.)
Should the church be led by scholars? Yes, I would say. But with electricians and homemakers and nurses at their side.
Overall, I am disturbed by the anti-intellectualism on one extreme and the intellectual elitism on the other that Miller’s blog post has exposed. We’ve a lot of work ahead of us. And overreacting to others’ oversimplifying are not among them.