Another fiery minister has been in the headlines lately for organising a Qur’an burning day on September 11. Fortunately, after pressure from the President himself, Terry Jones has backed down. [Admittedly, it’s because of an alleged compromise over the Mosque site at Ground Zero in New York, and not the plea of the President, who with a name like Barack Hussain must be a Muslim.]
Terry Jones – who sadly is not the former Monty Python troupe member, and is thus deathly serious – got me thinking again about the state of Christian leadership and about the role of theological education.
Terry claims to have an honorary doctorate in theology, and may be formally trained as a teacher of the gospel. Who knows? Either way, the trouble is that Christian leaders often hit the headlines not because the gospel is offensive, but because they are offensive, and all too often display startling ignorance of their faith and their world. Christian Higher Education – when done well – is a wonderful antidote to parochial Christian thinking.
Learning vs Book-burning
Why is theological education important? Isn’t having God’s Word in the Bible enough?
Firstly, theological education is important, because, while the Spirit has been given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), that promise is to ‘you (plural)’. The Spirit leads us into truth via the Apostles and by means of the whole community, not mystically delivering truth to the individual teacher. We need to interpret the Bible with the help of the Christian community, and theological education places the future teacher in continuity with the Church community throughout history, and with the best Christian thinking and interpretation available. To suggest that one does not need the help of anyone else in understanding the Bible is as arrogant as saying that your understanding will be flawless, even though no one else in the past has been.
Secondly, and flowing from the idea that truth has been passed down via the Apostles, training is necessary because the Bible is historical Spiritual literature. It is written for us, but not to us. It was written to people whose circumstances and issues and patterns of thought belonged 2000 years ago and older (and even back then, to those who belonged to scripture’s native context, St Peter himself claimed that parts are hard to understand – 2Peter 3:16). Understanding the Bible requires one to understand the time and people to whom it was written, so that the message can be ‘translated’ into our age. You wouldn’t try to translate a document that was written in a language you haven’t learned. Why would you try to teach people about ages, cultures and issues that you don’t understand?
“I’m called to preach, not to study”
For some reason, study is seen as dispensable or even undesirable by many Evangelicals. This is unfortunate, seeing as good training has the effect of greatly enhancing one’s apprehension of the riches in scripture. The Bible itself levels serious warnings against its teachers, such as the warning that even powerful, seemingly sincere ministers will be rejected as false teachers (Matthew 7); or the insistence that teachers will be examined more strictly at the Judgment (James 3:1). Paul even blatantly says that Timothy (and the church elders that succeed him) should do all he can to ensure that he handles scripture well:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2Timothy 2:15)
Paul in 1Timothy 1:6-8 also criticises those who try to teach, but ‘don’t know what they are talking about’, and he says that the law is good, but only if it is used properly. So if you’re called to be a preacher, you’re called also to be a ‘workman’ who needs to handle the word with care, and not those who can be charged with ‘wandering away’ and ‘turning to meaningless talk’. Spare us the meaningless talk, friend. Get some training.
Many are called, but few are chosen
One of my colleagues was speaking about an unfortunate by-product of the 19th C missionary movement in England, which bequeathed to us the idea that a Christian missionary or minister must undergo a special ‘calling’ to ministry. While this surely must have been the experience of many ministers, it was pointed out that countless others with the desire to serve have been put off because the wait for a mystical calling never ended for them. They could not identify a clear, unmistakable call to be a minister.
While the vocation is serious, and while it should not be entered into whimsically, there is also no indication in scripture (particularly the pastoral letters about the commissioning of elder-teachers in which such an idea would be most needful) that an experience of divine calling to service is to be expected. An elder is someone of high moral example, with a ‘track record’ in the faith, and who is gifted with the ability to teach. It goes little further than that. If you feel strongly that you have the potential to be such a person, don’t wait for lights from heaven or writing in the sky.
A word from our sponsors
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