Yes, you read the title correctly: Pastors who fail to be theologians fail to be pastors. Honestly, it’s kind of weird to me that this even needs to be said, especially when it seems so clear in Scripture. Paul charges Timothy, a pastor, with the care of souls, which includes teaching sound doctrine and protecting his flock from dangerous and vain doctrine. Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, while not a work of systematic theology or dogmatic theology, is thoroughly theological, with rich and beautiful doctrine dripping from each sentence. The gospels likewise are saturated with a rich and cultivated vision of who God is, what his purposes in the world are, and how he is acting to bring his kingdom on earth through Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament (NT) from the beginning to the end—as well as the Old Testament (OT)—is unapologetically and richly theological.
Theology, simply put, is the rational and structured thinking about and reflection on God and all things in relation to God. In this sense, theology is a science—in the sense of a Wissenschaften. Theology is not unbounded speculation either. It is rigorous, structured, and properly ordered to an object of inquiry. Like the other sciences, it is done in community, with other theologians who can offer loving criticism and, at times, correction of theological ideas that don’t pass muster. A theologian is one who engages in the science of God, one who takes up the structured and rigorous task of contemplating God and all things in relation to God. Being a theologian is essential to being a pastor/elder/bishop.
Pastors/elders/bishops, according to the NT at least, are mandated to be skilled preachers and teachers. They are charged with teaching sound doctrine that spurs on the worshipful
contemplation of God in the hearts and minds of their parishioners. Pastors don’t just do
doctrine and theology to help protect their parishioners from bad doctrine, though that is part of their job. Rather, theology is a form of worship and an essential component to an individual’s discipleship, their being cultivated into the image of Christ. Contemplating God and all things in relation to God and attempting to do so well is a form of worship, and a practice that has an edifying and sanctifying effect on believers. Theology is part of the pastor’s own life of worship, and it is part of and essential to their own spiritual development. Show me a pastor who does not work to contemplate the deep things of God, and I will show you a pastor who is not growing in their own relationship with God and who isn’t teaching their parishioners how to grow in their relationship with God.
Not only this, but it is the job of pastors to counsel and comfort their parishioners in times of
need, and to give them guidance and direction. How can they do this well if they are not continuing to contemplate the God who is our source of comfort and salvation? The very basis of our hope as believers and the very source of much of the comfort we receive is grounded in theological beliefs and practices. It is the theology of the Bible that informs us not only of how to live in proper relation to God, but it is this that also informs us on how to teach and comfort others and how to show them how to live in proper relation to God. One cannot be a pastor and not be a theologian, and a pastor who is a bad theologian will be a bad pastor. Being a theologian is not, in and of itself, sufficient to be a good pastor, but it is necessary in order to be a good pastor.
Now, you may be thinking: “This sounds great and all, but ministerial demands do not allow me to sit around all day reading books and thinking about God, even if that sounds like a dream come true.” You know what, you’re right. Ministry comes with many demands, and no pastor has, or should have, unlimited time to sit and do theology. That’s not what I’m suggesting in this article. Again, being a good theologian is a necessary condition for being a good pastor, but it is not a sufficient one all on its own. Pastors are also required and expected to pray for their parishioners, visit and pray with the sick, and lead their local churches, which requires a lot more than simply preaching and teaching. But this does not mean that pastors cannot work hard at being good theologians.
First and foremost, one cannot be a good theologian if they are a poor student of the Bible.
Pastors need to know their Bibles and its contents like the backs of their hands. A pastor who
does not know the Scriptures and who makes claims such as “well, I’m no expert on the Bible,” is failing at the most important aspect of their job, and I would encourage you to seek another church if you are a parishioner in such a situation. As evangelicals who believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture, in-depth knowledge of the Bible and its contents is especially motivated for us. We believe that the Bible is our primary medium of God’s self-revelation today to his church, so it is literally our jobs to know the scriptures and to know them well. If we do not have a solid grasp of the Bible, its story, and its contents, then we will fail to be good theologians, and we will fail to serve our parishioners well.
Second, pastors should make it a point, at some point in their ministry, to learn the biblical
languages. A lot happens in, and a lot of theology even hinges on, what is said and taught in the original languages of Scripture. Certain syntactical relations and their emphases in the Greek of the NT may emphasize or draw our attention to something in particular that is glossed over in our English translations. Not only this, but sometimes the translation of certain phrases in Hebrew and/or Greek is very uncertain. Consider, for example, the classic debates surrounding the proper translation of pistis Iesou Christou in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans. Should this be translated and interpreted as a subjective genitive (the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ) or as an objective genitive (faith in Jesus Christ)? Such translation decisions are far from settled, and NT scholars are split fairly even on it. Not only this, but the translation of this phrase has significant theological implications. Are believers justified, or declared righteous, through “the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ” or through “faith in Jesus Christ?” Knowing the biblical languages is thus important for being a good theologian and pastor.
Third, pastors should be familiar with the history of Christian doctrine. Theology and pastoral
ministry is not done in a vacuum, and we are not the first Christians to think about the Bible and its theological implications. Knowing the history of doctrine not only clues us in on our own doctrinal heritage, but it can serve as a guide to mistakes made by the church in the past and it can clue us in on potential theological mistakes in the future. This is not to say that we should just accept the theological moorings of our fathers before us, but the theological questions we ask of the Bible today have usually been asked by those before us. By reading their works and contemplating their arguments, we not only further contemplate the Scriptures, but we think even more deeply as a community and tradition with said tradition elongated throughout our history—even when we decide we are not convinced by the evidences and arguments of the fathers.
Fourth, pastors communicate biblical teaching and theology to people entrenched in a
particular culture. All of us shaped and molded, to some extent or another, by our respective
cultural contexts. Important for the preaching and teaching ministries of the church is the
ability to communicate biblical teaching and theology in a way that is understandable to our culture. This requires being aware of important philosophical trends and currents that permeate and shape the culture. Here’s an example. “Deconstruction” is a hip new phenomenon in the exvangelical culture today. Christians who participate in “deconstruction” rethink their fundamental Christian beliefs in such a way that often results in them abandoning historic Christianity or abandoning the faith altogether. This shouldn’t be surprising to us because this is literally one of the things that “deconstruction” was originally intended to do when it was developed and proposed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1960s onward. Yes, this phenomenon of “deconstruction” has a philosophical precedent that was set many decades ago by a secular philosopher who had pluralism as one of his highest aims. If pastors desire to speak biblical truth to the culture we live in and combat dangerous ideas for the church, such as deconstruction, then they need to be good theologians. For it is in knowing and contemplating God well that will allow them to speak the truth of Scripture to these issues.
There is more I could say about the importance of pastors being theologians, but I think I’ve
said enough for the time being and made my point. Theology is important, and doctrine is important. It constitutes some of the richest meat that Scripture offers the church today, and
pastors who refuse to be good theologians, I think, are refusing their parishioners this meat in exchange for (often soured) milk. So fellow pastors, elders, and bishops: Let’s be good theologians so that we can be good pastors.
—Andrew Hollingsworth, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy,
Temple Baptist Theological Seminary of Brewton-Parker College, Canon Theologian of Missio Mosaic