“I”m not a theologian, but…”. Years ago I heard this said with the meaning that the person respected the theologians (a term meaning someone who studies God), but didn’t see himself at that level. Nevertheless, he had something to say. Today, I hear it more and more from platforms, pulpits, microphones and keyboards, and the meaning is crystal clear to everyone who hears it: I’m glad I’m not a “theologian” because my faith is “heart” faith, not academic and irrelevant.
In visiting churches over the last 8 months I have heard this said over and over, and the meaning comes across very clearly. The response: “We’re glad you aren’t one of “those” and we certainly don’t want to be irrelevant.” It is used to excuse sloppy scholarship and teaching from the Bible, sociology or the headlines with a loose relationship to accuracy or truth. In other words, if I’m not a theologian, my faith is “real” and “from the heart” and if I’m wrong on a few things, well, don’t be one of those nit-pickers who can’t understand what’s really important.
What do people in the church learn from this? Bible study at any deep level (as opposed to “I read it and this is what I feel about it”) is not only unnecessary, it’s not good . So the average person in the American church can’t study the Bible without a book telling him what the Bible says. She can’t tell you the difference between the Old and New Testaments. He can’t tell you what part of the Bible to look when you need guidance. She can’t look up a word to see what the Greek or Hebrew actually says. They can’t and don’t check their preachers and teachers to see if they are actually teaching accurately and faithfully. The average Christian today is Biblically helpless.
When I bring this up to ministers who have no training in Bible and theology and clearly don’t desire any, more often than not I hear Paul cited: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1b). Rarely do they stop to quote the next sentence where Paul says the one who thinks he knows something needs to know more! In fact, Paul is not anti-knowledge. In his writings, he refers to knowledge 27 times in a positive way–something we should strive for, pray for, be grateful for! Only in this one passage referring to a person who has knowledge but isn’t using it lovingly with regard to the person who doesn’t have the knowledge (whom Paul refers to as “the weaker brother”) does he use knowledge in anything but a positive way.
You may say, “So what? Aren’t you making a big deal out of something that isn’t a big deal?”
No! It is a HUGE deal, because the American church is intentionally dumbing itself down at a crucial time.
Historically, educational institutions have experienced “institutional drift”–a drifting from their roots and mission–over a period of 80-100 years. This is a cycle that goes back to Harvard, a school founded for the express purpose of equipping ministers and educating Christians to be more faithful. It didn’t take long for it to leave this primary mission, but other schools came along and “picked up the ball” as it were. This cycle continued until about 20 years ago when the federal government made it almost impossible for colleges to exist without regional accreditation–which requires focus on many things not related to scripture or ministry. (I don’t believe this is a conspiracy, at least not in human terms, but it is a reality nonetheless.) There are very few new schools with a fresh and solid commitment to teaching the Word of God.
The vast majority of schools that used to faithfully train future church leaders to study the Bible and serve the church are no longer faithful to that calling. Most have questioned the legitimacy and authority of scripture. They have shifted their morality to satisfy state and federal authorities–or simply to be more popular so that they can gain more students. Churches have seen this, and so no longer look to Bible colleges and Seminaries to train their leaders. Instead, they bring on staff from within, hiring people with little or no training but with a “heart for ministry”. Some say they will train these people, others simply don’t value such training. In fact, today it is very common to find Senior Minsters of churches who are themselves untrained and who seem to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. The message to their people: they are just like them–not dry and heartless, filled with “head knowledge”. To be clear: I am not against hiring from within, or even hiring those without training. I am against leaving them that way.
This ensures that meaningful discipleship never takes place. Disciples must study the Word! But it is a major problem for another reason. Now that it is so difficult to start new colleges to meet the need that older ones are no longer addressing, who is going to provide that training? It is and always has been the job of the church to do this. But many churches are not about to do this, because they don’t value it and/or because the leaders aren’t capable of teaching someone to study at a level they themselves are unable to study. If this continues, the “norm” in churches will be to accept whatever makes people happy or comfortable. Witness the reluctance of large churches to confront sin, preach repentance, or buck cultural trends like acceptance of homosexual marriage.
Please understand, I am not saying every minister has to have a graduate degree in Bible or theology or even ministry–though I can’t see how this would be bad.
I am saying that if a preacher, minister, pastor doesn’t understand the Bible, isn’t capable of studying the words in the original level for themselves (It isn’t difficult–I can teach anyone how to do this in an hour!), doesn’t study the background and cross references of passages they are teaching on–that church leader isn’t about to teach people in their church to do so. They aren’t going to value education so much that they start educational ministries at a collegiate or graduate level in their churches (something any church with 1000 or more in attendance is capable of doing). The result? Education is turned over to those who no longer believe in the Bible. Many church leaders, including preachers and teachers of mega churches, simply don’t understand the scripture they are teaching, and instead settle for sermons and teaching that are humorous and emotionally touching. And the Word of God fades into the night.
This doesn’t have to happen.
I challenge every Christian to learn how to study the Bible for yourself, and then hold your church leaders to that level of scholarship in their teaching! If you don’t know how to do this, contact me. I am teaching a class this fall for anyone from our neighborhood to learn to do just this. When a teacher or leader in your church says “I’m not a theologian…” stop them, and ask them simply “Why not?”.
I challenge every church leader with a strong Bible education to make it their mission to pass their knowledge on to their congregations.
I challenge every minister who doesn’t have this training, regardless of how large their church is, to get it. Now. And let your people know you are doing this!
I challenge every church leadership to commit to a high standard of training for their staff and themselves in Bible, theology and ministry.
Such training is available, either formally in a college or seminary (there are still some who are faithful!), or by bringing in someone who has the ability to teach and train them and their leadership.
If anyone is willing to take up this challenge, please let us help! I don’t write this article in anger or a critical spirit, but in hopes that church leaders might pay attention to what is happening and take scripture seriously. There are many organizations and individuals who would love to assist such congregations. One such organization is The Essential Faith Project, which I started to help churches make, assess and strengthen disciples.
If we can help in any way, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am praying for you. Know Jesus. Be Faithful.