Pastors, or ministers, are those who serve in local churches as minister of the gospel. Their vocation is primarily one of proclaiming the word of God in order to equip the believers to live as faithful witnesses of the gospel. While the aim is not to become a good theologian, the pastoral vocation is a theological enterprise. In other words, serving as a pastor is to serve as a pastoral theologian. The questions then is what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve?
The issue the above question asks is raised in the book The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting An Ancient Vision by Geral Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Before getting into this issue more, there is a related concern that needs some attention. Within the Churches of Christ there are still some who think negatively of theology. This sentiment is rooted in the Restoration vision of just going back to the Bible without realizing just how indebted such a vision is to modernity and enlightenment thought. As the C.S. Lewis quote in the picture above suggests, everyone has a theology. So the only question is whether we have a good or bad theology… a well informed theology or a theology formed by ignorance.
While theology proper refers to the study of the Christian doctrine of God, the task of theology is more expansive in that it deals with how the Christian faith is understood and practiced. So I agree with Hiestand and Wilson in their description of theology as attempting to “make sense of the world in which we live, of God, and of ourselves. It teases out the connections between ideas and actions and helps to create new ways of imaging reality — ways that are distinctly Christian, or, we might say, distinctly real” (p. 55). So when we declare the Christian doctrine “Jesus is Lord!”, the task of theology is expounding on what it means for Jesus to be Lord, how that shapes our understanding of history and the way we live as followers of Jesus. We do this theology, of course, by engaging the Biblical text in conversation with Christian tradition and our located culture (more on that later) even as we draw from our abilities of reason and experience.
The question then is to what end is the task of theology? This is where I differ with Hiestand and Wilson. Their vision of a pastor theologian is what they refer to as the restoration of an “ancient vision” where the pastor “constructs and disseminates theology for the broader church” (p. 80). Their vision is anchored in their belief that there is an unhealthy gap between academia, where many academic theologians serve, and the church, where pastors serve. The ideal is a return of pastors doing academic theology for other pastors rather than leaving that work to the academic theologians and thus filling the perceived gap between theology and church. However, I’m not convinced that this is as big of a problem as they think. While there are some academic theologians who seem uninterested serving the church and some pastors who seem uninterested in theology, there are plenty of academic theologians interested in serving the church with their academic discipline (e.g., Walter Brueggeman, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright) and plenty of pastors interested in theology (myself included). The need is for a culture among local churches that embraces the theological enterprise and encourages their ministers to serve as pastoral theologians.
“…good pastoral theology is contextual theology.”
So let’s briefly hone in on the questions of what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve? Hiestand and Wilson suggest “the renewal of the church depends on the renewal of the church’s theology” (p. 123). Church renewal actually depends on much more but good theology is certainly an imperative. However, I believe the pressing need for this theological work is on the local. That is, every local church exists within a particular cultural context that must be considered if the church is to embody the gospel in a meaningful way among the local community. So it is within this local cultural context where scripture and Christian tradition must be engaged along with reason and experience. Why? Because while good theology is expressed in beliefs and practices that are faithful to Jesus, the local church must also contextualize this expression to what God is doing among the local church and local community. The pastor’s theological task is to help the community of believers to both understand and articulate these beliefs in concrete practices so that there is congruency between how the local church lives and what it proclaims as faith. In this sense, the task of good pastoral theology is contextual theology.
Let me offer two hypothetical but very real examples of contextual theology. Let’s say that there are an influx of Muslim refugees who have very little in terms of basic physical needs (food, clothing, etc…). How will your local church respond? Beyond generalities, I can’t answer that question because part of that question will depend on how your church understands the gospel (or not), how different people view Muslims, and so forth. However, answering the question of how the church should respond involves doing theology for the sake of the local church. Likewise, the same is true when a church is having to navigate the waters of conflict when two or more believers are in sharp disagreement with each other and where there may be potential offense (sin) involved. How the church responds and engages in this conflict, ideally toward full reconciliation, will involve doing theology and this is part of the pastor’s task whether it be in preaching, counseling, or just reflecting in silence for the sake of gaining clarity.
For the record, I don’t think Hiestand and Wilson would disagree with me on the need for pastors to be engaged in theology among the churches they serve. Where we differ is on the need for more pastors to be engaged in academic theology. It’s not that I’m opposed to academic theology and value greatly from those who are blessed with a Ph.D and a seminary position to teach and research from. I just believe local churches need pastors who are also contextual theologians for their local church and community.
What say you?