Theology and the Gospel Ministry
For various reasons, the words “scholar” and “pastor” are not put together as they once were. There was once a time when the minister was the most educated man in the community. And there came with that a concern, and perhaps even an expectation, that his pulpit ministry would bear the characteristics of serious academic preparation. That is not to say that he turned the sanctuary into a systematic theology lecture hall. But it is to say that his formal theological studies, including systematic theology, would be appropriately taught through his weekly expositions of Scripture. So as he was teaching his congregation the Bible, he was also teaching them systematic theology in a way so as to sharpen the mind and warm the heart. The congregation came to know not only what the passage meant and what their response to it should be; they also discovered something of how its themes fit with the rest of Scripture, and something of how the church has communicated and passed on a faithful summary of the Christian faith down through its history.
But these days it seems too often that a scholarly preaching and teaching ministry is somehow thought to be an impediment to pastoral ministry, or at least an unnecessary or distracting pursuit that keeps one from doing more “useful” or “practical” work. Has the church absorbed secular culture’s obsession with the pragmatic category of “results,” which is particularly obvious today in the realm of higher education? Some aspects of the minster’s trade are more measurable than others. It is much more quantifiable to keep track of how many people one has visited or counseled in the past year, than how many quiet hours one has spent in serious study preparing to carefully instruct one’s congregation in the oracles of God. Then add to this today’s intensely therapeutic milieu, and you have a much stronger tendency toward the relational aspects of ministry than the intellectual.
And yet, Scripture says quite a bit about such careful teaching, and it is well aware of the time that is needed to produce it. Consider the following list of some relevant passages and what they emphasize concerning pastoral ministry:
Acts 6:4—prayer and the ministry of the Word
20:28-30—pastoral care in the context of defending the church against error
II Corinthians 8:18—reference to someone who is known for his preaching of the gospel
I Timothy 1:3-4—defending the church against error
4:11-16—being devoted to, among other things, teaching
6:2a-5—teaching sound words
II Timothy 2:1-2—teaching and discipleship
2:15—doctrinal orthodoxy and careful study
4:2—preaching the Word
Titus 1:9—teaching and challenging error
Clearly from these texts, scholarship and theology were very important, indeed, absolutely necessary, to the early church. Granted, we live in a different age, one where churches can be much larger and certainly much more programmed than churches in the first century. But that does not excuse us from following apostolic teaching and example. So what are some things pastors can do in their goal to perform their job description given in the New Testament?
The first thing is to complete as much formal theological education as one can. I realize that family and financial needs can challenge this. But if one is in a church that cares about these things, the leadership and congregation will find it beneficial in the long run for churches to enable their pastors to further their education while serving.
The second thing is to read as widely and as often as one can. Ministry certainly can, and does, make demands that can reduce this component if one is not careful. But churches need to recognize that reading in areas such as systematic theology is an important part of the pastor’s job. It enables him to better perform the tasks and responsibilities given to him in the Bible. Related to this is taking advantage of resources to help the pastor stay current in both theological and cultural matters.
Lastly, I remember something Dr. James Boice said years ago. In one of his sermons from Paul’s great doxology in Romans 11, he talked about what he thought made for a good sermon. He came up with five objectives: 1) it should glorify God; 2) it should be faithful to the Bible; 3) it should have something worth saying; 4) it should say it well; and 5) it should be helpful to those who hear it. I have found this to be very good advice for sermon preparation. It has been said many times that much of the Church’s biblical and theological knowledge is at a very low level. The answer to that is to faithfully preach sound theology over and over again, because as the pulpit goes, so goes the church.
Michael D. Roberts (DTh, University of South Africa) is assistant pastor at Grace Bible Fellowship Church in Quakertown, PA, where he also sits on the committee for the Quakertown Regional Conference on Reformed Theology. He also serves on the Christian Education committee of the Bible Fellowship Church.