Responding to an Open Letter to Pastor-Theologians

I recently came across a blog post titled An Open Letter to Pastor-Theologians that was written by Seth Richardson. Should such a letter be written? Definitely. In fact I am kicking myself that I didn’t do it first.

I can see what Richardson is trying to do in this letter and he is correct that there is a need for caution. However, I would say that the danger is more of theologians who feel stuck in a pastoral role. It is not appropriate for a pastor to pretend that a Sunday worship service is a university class. The pulpit is not the place to scratch the itch to be a professor.

Having said that, I think we need more pastor-theologians and not less. I do not know Richardson’s context but I have not seen congregations getting too much theology on Sundays. It is most often too little.

But congregations do not want sermons based on theology and other academic disciplines. Or do they?

I have pastored at four different churches in four different contexts. What I have found is that people are interested in learning more. They come with very intelligent questions. I once visited a lady and she asked my opinion of 1 Enoch. I had a teenager ask me my position on soteriology (yes he used that word). I offered a Saturday morning talk on the Jesus Myth in a small town and about eighty people showed up despite a blizzard.

I think we do our congregations a disservice if we assume that they do not want any intellectual stretching. When I pastored, I did not concede to biblical illiteracy, I aimed my sermons just above the congregation, so that it was a learning experience but not beyond them.

What about nonChristians? Don’t they need something as far away from scholarship as possible? Years ago, my wife and I showed up for adoption classes to find the group discussing the Gospel of Judas. In my role as an army chaplain, I had a soldier ask me to compare the textual history of the New Testament to the Qur’an (this was our very first conversation). There are reason why people watch Bible and religion documentaries. People are curious.

I can imagine Richardson sharing stories of times when this has been abused. I believe it has been abused. Being a pastor-theologian requires sensitivity to the congregation. A pastor should know where their congregation is at, what kind of teaching they can take and when to just preach on immediate needs.

I want to conclude by saying that the Apostle Paul was the ultimate pastor-theologian. He proclaimed doctrine while dealing with specific situations in the churches. He knew when to come down hard and when to be gentle. He fostered relationships with his people that allowed him to pass on theological content effectively. Paul is a good example for all who see themselves as pastor-theologians.

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3 thoughts on “Responding to an Open Letter to Pastor-Theologians”

  1. Hi Stephen, greetings from South Africa. I have been on the receiving end for 30+ years and have always been drawn to a church where I am stimulated to go home and investigate further. Otherwise attending church could become boring. It is not enough to sit passively and listen. Somehow the modern church needs to be encouraged to read and discuss beyond the weekly sermon. I have taught children, teens and young adults – this really challenges one to search for answers. Recently I started mentoring a 60 something new Christian. It keeps me on my toes! I truly enjoy attending the local Baptist church for the past few years. They are passionate about searching the scriptures and encourage each other to learn more. We are busy working through Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Good to be working through this book again as a more mature Christian! The journey is always exciting.

  2. Thanks for your gracious response, Stephen. I love how you’re pushing this conversation further.

    One point of clarification: the issue for me is NOT “should there be more or less deep theological work within the local church by pastors.” If that is the question, then the answer for me is always, YES – more, deep theology is always better than less.

    What I’m getting at in my article is the issue of what gets to *count* as deeply theological – and how does that shape my posture as a pastor? What type of “knowledge” leads to formation into christlikeness and how does that shape my posture as a pastor?

    One my of assumptions is that kenotic self-giving – not just talking about it but participating in it – IS the fundamental theological posture of pastors in the local church. I see Paul’s theological work, for instance, as irreducible from (not compartmentalized from) participating in the life of the kenotic, dying Messiah – hence all the “watch me – do as I do – etc.”

    Thanks again!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the question of what gets to count as deeply theological matters. I think you are arguing for more of a pastoral theology rather than a biblical theology or systematic theology. Hopefully we can find a way to balance it all. My congregations seemed to appreciate the academic side of my preaching, although I did make it as relevant as possible. I would also say that the first apologetics book I wrote emerged not out of a desire for scholarly success but from a pastoral concern for my congregation.

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