While this can be hard to believe in our current cultural context, there was a time where pastors were considered to be one of the most intellectual people of the town. They were doctrinally grounded and biblically well-versed; more than that, they were also expected to be well-read in other disciplines such as sciences, literature, economics, philosophy and politics. Hence, they were able to apply biblical truth to these disciplines with keen intellectual and spiritual skills, thereby, helping the congregants to think theologically about major issues during that time.
There was a time where pastors were deep thinkers and good theologians. Unfortunately, that is no longer viewed the same way in our current cultural setting. A “pastor-theologian” is reduced to be just an oxymoron. With the advent of church-consumerism, a pastor is now defined whose primary work is to cater to the felt needs of the people by being church CEOs, spiritual coaches, church-celebrities and social coordinators. On the other hand, a theologian is viewed to be a religious expert who labors away from people and spend time among books.
I, for one, believe that pastors should not be divorced from being theologians. I also believe that we have to recover a vision of the pastor-theologian in our churches. Hence, this interview was done so we can have a better understanding why theology is important for the ministry. Because I needed diverse answers for my questions, I prayed to interview a co-Filipino pastor, co-pastors in Dubai and a pastor form an entirely different context. I was blessed to have interviewed three senior pastors of growing and thriving churches here in Dubai, UAE of whom one is a Filipino and two are Americans; and an American pastor leading a vibrant church in Florida, USA. All of these four pastors are active and in their senior roles ranging from five to fifteen years. Their answers were summarized below.
Pastors as Theologians
All these pastors are in unison in saying that pastors should be theologian. A pastor-theologian’s primary role is to preach and minister God’s Word in ways that edify the church, and bear witness to the truths of the Scripture and the gospel to the watching world so as to adorn Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11-14, Mat 28:18-20).
When asked if theology is important, all of them said yes. They say that our love for God starts with the truth in our minds about who God is and what He has done for us in the gospel. These truths must transform us in our minds, then travel to our hearts, and then affect our lives and those around us.
One pastor goes further by saying that everyone is a theologian. Everyone has their own theology or view of God, Jesus salvation, etc. It is just a question whether their theology is biblically right or wrong. Jesus is to be worshipped for who He is and what He has done but it is only through sound and right theology that we can know if we are worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. He adds that the goal of theology is not just for information but for transformation. The more we know God biblically, the more we will worship Him biblically.
Role of Theology in Service to God and Ministry in the Church
Good and biblical theology helps us not to “do church” in any way that pleases us or even anyone for that matter. One of the pastors quotes Ligon Duncan, “The great weakness of evangelicalism today is that we believe our methodology has nothing to do with our theology…” Having a right theology helps us focus on who God is, who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. One helpful way of thinking about it is to understand that the primary purpose of the church is to worship God. Since God is not visible to the finite eye, God has appointed the local church to be the visible display of His glory to the watching world. And for us to do that, we must make Christ and His gospel central in everything that we do in the local church. For example, one can be a good communicator and even an entertaining one, but without theology, this preacher cannot rightly divide the Word and in the process decentralizes God and His redemptive plan.
Furthermore, theology serves as the pathway that guides us in leading the church into the direction that God calls them to be. It is also the fuel that rekindles our love for God and people. And it is the compass that helps us see the true north: everything we do should glorify God. Theology reminds us that we are just undershepherd and Jesus is the Chief Shepherd whom we will all give account one day. Theology reminds us that the church we pastor is not our church but it is the Church of Christ. Therefore, the local church must be fed only by the Word, counseled by Word, and be trained by the Word.
Role of Theology in Liturgy and Ecclesiology
Theology fuels our worship. It introduces us to who God is and what He has done in our lives in the world. And the best way to induce worship is not by looking at our ever-changing feelings but by looking to the One who never changes. Poor theology would lead us to worship that is self-centered and false. The way we pray, sing, practice ordinances and preach the Word should all be pointing to God.
One of the pastors explained that poor theology can also lead to a weakened ecclesiology. Today, churches shifted to multi-site churches and many others are headed to that direction. While we praise God for the outreach they make in the community, church structure is a matter that is addressed in the Bible. The word church in the Bible means a literal assembly, a congregation of saints that gather together in one location worshipping together by singing, listening to Word, practicing the ordinances and exercising church discipline (cf. Acts 19:32, 39-40). We should caution churches who are into too contextualization in order to be relevant or making an attempt to reach the people around them by trying to look like the world, think like the world and talk like the world. Good theology would lead us to a better definition of contextualization and that is translating the Gospel – in both word and deed – into understandable terms appropriate to the audience.
Another pastor, however, explained that we should keep innovating and be creative to reach the world. He views that multi-site church structure is a very effective means. He said that when the early church moved from house-church to buildings, it was not a departure from the faith. Rather, it was a new place and method. We can compromise to the method for as long as we do not compromise on the message. For example, as the world is experiencing COVID-19, the use of internet and streaming become indispensable.
Role of Theology in Evangelism
Evangelism is sharing the good news of Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification. Right theology gives us the right content in our evangelism and the encouragement to share our faith. We should have a deeper understanding of these things so we will appreciate the gift of salvation given to them. The better we appreciate the sacrifice of our Lord the better everyone go to all nations for the sake of the gospel.
Theological Training and Dealing with Heresy
The pastors suggest that people should be trained for theology every week through the pulpit where the point of the passage is the point of the sermon. In that way, we can teach them how to read, study and apply all the Scriptures. Sermons should also be planned weeks ahead, preferably quarterly, so that members would know what to expect and can read the Scriptures ahead of schedule. Weekly bible study in groups should also be done where inductive study of the passages preached is done to reinforce what the pastor delivered in the pulpit. Systematic Theology classes are also a good way to train the people. As people grow deeper, they should be encouraged to do one-to-one discipleship with other members so that they would learn and grow together.
Training the church for theology can also help them avoid heresy and false teachings. When members know the authentic from the synthetic, they would be able to identify false teachings. Foundational teachings should stay secure. It is hard work but it is all worth it. When we avoid false teaching in the church, we also avoid division in the church.
We can stay updated by reading, studying and having a good accountability. We can read books, articles and blogs online from known authors and theologians. We are also encouraged to watch good preachers and teachers of the Word. Attending conferences is also a good source of training. And of course, fellowshipping with other pastors, even with those who have different beliefs, helps us learn more.
Advice to a Future Pastor-Theologian
I also asked them what they can give me as their advice, they were very loving and very affirming when they told me to be faithful, show myself approved as a workman who does not need to be ashamed and continue to preach the Word. As a pastor, it is important that I should keep the main thing the main thing. Make the gospel central in my life and ministry and I will never be wrong. They told me to love the church, care for them and model to them Christ-like humility, service, leadership and boldness. And of course, they prayed for me.
I have learned a lot from this exercise. I learned that every pastor should be a theologian because good and sound theology can impact the many aspects of church and ministry life. It affects how we worship with other people, disciple people, minister the church, and evangelize the world. More so, right theology leads us to a better understanding of God which exalts God even more in our life.