Who Should Set the Theological Agenda for the Church?

Who should set the theological agenda for the church, pastors or professional academic theologians?

That’s the question Gerald Hiestand asks in an intriguing article over at First Things. If you get the chance, go read it here.

Hiestand notes that for centuries the job of determining what the church believes and clarifying the theological nature of those beliefs always rested with pastors. Think Augustine, Luther, Calvin, not to mention most of the church fathers between Augustine and Luther who were clearly pastors of congregations.

However, since the nineteenth century, that task has typically fallen to the professional academic theologian whether in a seminary or university. Think Karl Barth and Paul Tillich. Good theologians perhaps, but not really pastors.

And that’s affected the church’s theology. Hiestand points out the obvious: Pastors ask different questions than professors. And the church longs for different answers than the academe provides.

And this dissonance creates a rift between the church and the academe, between pastors and their theologians. And this rift may well explain some of the theological malaise in which the church finds itself.

That’s the essence of his argument, at least. And I find myself inclined to agree.

Deep down it’s always bothered me that we’ve got people determining the theology of the church who have no real accountability to the church.

By that, I don’t mean that people ought to get punished or disciplined if they don’t give the answers we prefer. Rather, I mean they don’t have to face the laity or the clergy on a regular basis for whom this theology has supposedly been done. They don’t have to answer the hard questions we in the church might ask.

What’s more, since they never really had the church in mind to start with, but only their academic peers, their theology often becomes irrelevant to the church. To such a degree that once we’ve read it in seminary, we quickly discard and forget it thereafter.

Could this be why there is such theological confusion in the church? Are we suffering from a theological amnesia that is the result of an academe-driven theology?

Of course, that raises the other side of the question. Why have pastors given up the task? Why aren’t pastors still formulating the theology that answers the needs of the modern church? To make that more personal, since mostly pastors read this blog, why aren’t you and I doing that theological work?

I know, there are pastors who are doing this to some degree. But, mostly we are not. Mostly we have ceded that ground to the professors at seminary. After all, they are the “experts.”

However, what would happen if we stopped ceding that ground? What if, on the one hand, we demand that professors be responsible to the church for the things they write? And what if, on the other, our best pastors set about the hard work of becoming a modern Augustine, Luther, or Calvin (dare we even say Wesley)?

How would the church be different? Would it be better? Your thoughts?


7 responses to “Who Should Set the Theological Agenda for the Church?

  • larry

    I thought this essay by Hiestand was quite important, and your further questions and analysis are excellent. As a pastor, many things can end up taking priority over being a good, or at least intentional, theologian for your flock – I would describe what I do regularly as being akin to managing a non-profit organization with a thin veneer of theology laid over it. Its not necessarily how I envisioned what it would be like to be a pastor, but if my experience is at all normal, change will be complicated. Local congregations would have to begin to learn to value theology more deeply, and therefore encourage their pastors to take the time to give to it; pastors would have to change some of their own self-perception regarding what their theological role is; and the academy would have to bend a little in order to accommodate the needs of the church.

    Of these, I almost wonder if the pastoral self-perception won’t be the hardest – I have not been pastoring for very long, but I have come to accept my role in a managerial light and enjoy it. For me, I think now I would not want to be any more theologically oriented than I already am, which is nearly certainly less than I should be. . . the interest just isn’t there anymore.

    • Lauren

      Larry, thanks for the comments. I think you are right. It is complicated, and any real change will be hard.

      I agree with you about the modern role of the pastor. You are not alone. Most of what we do is leadership and management of a non-profit organization staffed by unpaid volunteers. That eats up a huge amount of our time each day, for all of us.

      And, frankly, that’s where the rewards are. Congregations and bishops reward pastors for leading and growing that organization, not for formulating good theology.

      However, that doesn’t change the need. We need better theology for the church. Theology needs to speak better to our modern situation as Christians, from a historical, credal point of view.

      So much of modern theology discounts the lived experience of faithful Christians. It starts from the perspective of skepticism rather than belief. For theology to be relevant for our faith it must do better than that.

      Interestingly, the historical solution to this dilemma came in the form of bishops. In the ancient church, the role of bishop was less about managing and appointing pastors than it was refining and clarifying theology.

      That’s what Augustine was doing. He was a bishop clarifying theology for his pastors so that they could preach and teach better. Of course, he was also preaching to a congregation every Sunday as well. Perhaps that’s part of the solution for us today.

      Thanks again for the insightful comments.

      • larry

        The prospect of bishops in the UM church being the leading theologians (assuming that they are selected because they are excellent theologians in the first place) is quite appealing to me. Having read the new biography of Asbury last year, it makes me wonder whether our American bishops have ever really been more theologically geared than they are now – Asbury was certainly quite the practical model. On a kind of related note: while not the case in my conference, I am aware of some conferences in which the superintendents also serve local congregations. I don’t know historically how many congregations Augustine would have overseen as a bishop, but I know my bishop is responsible for over 1000 . . . maybe the superintendents could have the blend of pastoral care for pastors as well as assisting in theological formation, with a foot solidly in the local church as a preaching pastor. Ultimately, however, I LOVE the idea of making our bishops’ role more theologically oriented!

      • larry

        While I love the idea of bishops taking on more theological leadership in the life of the church, I understand the CTA report for the UMC says recommends something that may be seen as a contrary vision when it comes to the emphasis of their leadership:

        “Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops (1) assuming responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering the average age of participants in local church life; and (2) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.”

        Here is what Bishop Shnase said on his blog a couple weeks ago:
        “Many effective and passionate leaders of the United Methodist Church serve on the Council of Bishops, but when we gather as a Council our leadership becomes diffused, blunted, distracted, and of questionable helpfulness to leading the church. I hope this call to reform the Council opens the way to new ways of leading.”

        I don’t know if we can really have it both ways, that our UM bishops can be our leading theologians in the way Hiestand might envision and effectively take responsibility for these other measures of success the CTA is suggesting.

  • John Meunier

    Really interesting post and links, Lauren. I wonder what the model for pastor-theologian would look like. I sense the direction of the church is more and more toward entrepreneurial and managerial pastors and less toward theologian pastors. Maybe you can do both, but humans tend to have a limited amount of time and mental energy.

    • Lauren

      John, I think you are right about the trend of pastoring. It’s more in the direction of Adam Hamilton, not Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

      Interestingly, though, the media and publishing industry put pastors like Adam Hamilton in that pastor-theologian position. Because he has so large a pulpit, they publish his sermons in books for the masses, and whenever anything of interest happens, they call him for a quote. The position is there. It’s just a matter of what one does with it.

      As for your last comment, no, I wasn’t volunteering for the job. I doubt very much that I have the ability to do what is needed, either. I wish I could. It’s one thing to see a need. It’s another to be able to fill it.

      Thanks again for your comments as always.

  • Deandre

    Individuals usually don’t stare for long periods of time at anything that doesn’t attraction to them.

    The society does not sneer at the people who satisfy the counselors
    to get the advice.

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