Pastor or Theologian? Rejecting the False Dichotomy
This post is authored by Gerald Hiestand. Gerald is Senior Associate Pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Chicago, Illinois, and co-founder and executive director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Zondervan), and Becoming a Pastor Theologians: New Possibilities for Church Leadership (IVP Academic). His most recent edited volume is Beauty, Order and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic).
St. Mary’s College is grateful for its connections with the Center for Pastor Theologians. Dr. Scott Hafemann, Reader in New Testament at St. Mary’s, is a Senior Mentor at the Center. The following St. Mary’s graduates and current students are active participants in the Center’s fellowships: Dr. Tim Fox, Dr. Trygve Johnson, Dr. Mickey Klink, Dr. Joey Sherrard, and Matt Ketterling.
I’ve been asked to contribute an essay here in light of my work as executive director of the Center for Pastor Theologians—a network of broadly evangelical clergy committed to ongoing theological scholarship on behalf of the church. But in order to introduce the CPT, let me first say a word about the times in which we live.
There are Christians in every generation who rather forlornly assume that their generation, beyond any previous generation, has at last hit bottom. For my part, I’m not certain our generation is really any better or worse than the ones that have gone before. But I am certain that our generation faces intellectual challenges never before encountered by our forefathers in the faith. The waters we sail are uniquely choppy.
Questions related to human cloning, new definitions of marriage, gender reassignment, the advent of social media, computers in our pockets more powerful than what NASA used to put the first man on the moon, religious relativism juxtapositioned against militant Islam, an ever shrinking social and economic global community, an increasingly post-Christian western culture, the rise of the ‘new atheists’, global warming, and more. If ever there was an age that called for careful, theological, and intellectual leadership, it is surely our age.
In past generations, such leadership was primarily the domain of the Church’s bishops and pastors. But since the Enlightenment, the pastoral community has increasingly (and now almost universally) quit the field. The university professor has replaced the pastor as the assumed theological leader of the church. Pastors, we are told, care for people, preach sermons, visit the sick and provide spiritual counsel. Professors, on the other hand, stay above the fray so they can have time and space to think deeply and write penetratingly about the pressing intellectual questions of the day.
The primary problem with this division of labor, of course, is that pastors remain the theological leaders of the church, however much they might wish to delegate this responsibility to the academy.
The capacity of the people of God to think theologically and Christianly about immigration, ISIS, transgenderism, gay marriage, the possibilities and perils of social media, human cloning, and global warming, does not come from what the professors in the universities are saying, but from what their pastors are (or are not) saying. This is not to minimize the important work being done by academics in the universities and colleges. But the burden of leading the church theologically (with all the attending inevitable ethical implications) is a burden that rests squarely upon the shoulders of church’s pastors.
Theology, as a discipline, has the primary function of answering questions that the Church needs answering. The abdication by pastors of this responsibility has, in the main, resulted in a theologically anemic church, ill-equipped to face the brave new world in which we find ourselves. And insofar as post-Enlightenment theologians now reside almost exclusively in an academic social location, Christian theological reflection at the highest levels has tended to become ecclesially anemic, too often disconnected from the real concerns on the ground. We write deeply about interesting ideas, but we’ve forgotten why those ideas are, in the end, important.
But Christian theological reflection is meant to flourish within the ecclesial community precisely because it is the ecclesial community that theology is meant to serve. And it is the Church’s pastors who are tasked with thinking from within and for this community. The people of God will never rise above the theological leadership of her pastors, however theologically astute our Christian professors are in the academy.
Cue the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT). The CPT is a broadly evangelical organization dedicated to recruiting, networking, and resourcing pastor theologians to provide faithful written, intellectual and theological leadership on behalf of the church, in light of the cultural challenges and opportunities of the late modern world.
The CPT operates with the guiding premise that pastors are indeed the theological leaders of the church, and that the pastoral community must once again self-consciously assume the burden of the Church’s intellectual and theological leadership. We at the CPT have in mind a vision of the pastor theologian that extends beyond pastors acting as mere theological middle-men—as though pastor theologians were simply pastors who translated academic theology into terms the laity can understand. Such a vision is helpful insofar as it goes, but sells short the vision of the pastor theologian in it most historic and robust conception. In every age, and most especially in ours, the Church needs pastors who not only translate theology, but who also construct theology. Or again, the Church needs pastors who are writing theology not just to their congregants, but to other ecclesially minded theologians and scholars (a genre of theological discourse that I have termed ‘ecclesial theology’, as distinct from academic theology). The Church needs pastors who operate at the highest intellectual levels, and who are able to tap deeply into the Church’s theological heritage and traditions, who are able to construct theological syntheses that answer the most pressing intellectual questions of the day. The Church needs pastors who do the kind of work done by previous generations of pastor theologians—pastors such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, the Cappadocians—bishops all.
Not every pastor is called to the highest levels of the theological task, of course. Just like not every professor in the academy is a prolific writer and scholar. Some pastors will discharge their theological leadership solely in the context of a local congregation. Well and good. But the time has come for the emerging generation of ecclesial leaders to press into a new future (which is really just a return to our past) where the pastoral community once again considers itself—collectively—to be a body of theologians.
My congregation is the appropriate soil out of which my research projects have grown; their fears, concerns, doubts, joys, and sufferings inevitably become my own, shaping the questions I ask, the way I read Scripture and how I access the rich textual tradition of the church. The books and articles I write, while not always written directly to my congregation, always have my congregation in view. I have found few things more satisfying than seeing the fruit of my theological reflection winding its way into the lives of those whom I love and serve—bolstering faith, steadying weak knees, encouraging love for God and neighbor, and inspiring hope.
I’ll not pretend. Being a theologian in a local church is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been hacking away at it for a decade now, and it is not all rainbows and rose petals. Local churches very frequently lack the institutional infrastructure so crucial to the theologian’s task. Access to scholarly resources is often a challenge. The relational remove from a community of like-minded scholars can be isolating. And many congregants look with suspicion on a pastor who spends time reading and writing about things that congregants themselves don’t understand. But pressing through and beyond such obstacles is worth it. Being a productive theologian in a local church is indeed possible. It won’t look quite the same as being a theologian in the academy. (I’ve written about that here). But for those so called and gifted, I can’t think of a more fulfilling vocation.
For too long now those with intellectual and theological capacities have not considered the pastorate to be a viable vocational home for a theologian or scholar. This false choice has impoverished (indeed imperiled) the church. The nearly sixty fellows of the CPT are evidence that such a vision can succeed. Not every theologian is called to be a pastor. And not every pastor is called to be a theologian (in the most robust sense the term implies). But some pastors are called and gifted to be theologians, and some theologians are called and gifted to be pastors. If such is the reader of this essay, then reject the false division and embrace the historic vision of the pastor theologian.