A word for pastor-theologians and theologically minded pastors

There is, of course, a sense in which everyone is a theologian; for everyone comes up with some kind of story or system to account for God (perhaps even those who reject the idea of his existence). And every pastor/minister/preacher is a theologian. It’s just that some are more aware of it, more intentional and more zealous about being theological than others.

Some of their sermons are likely to appeal more to head than heart; they will communicate more intellectual rigour than raw passion. There is more likely to be careful and detailed reflection on the theological nuances of a sermon.

If you are younger and blessed with a decent brain, it’s an appealing path to pursue. Maybe you will be Northern Ireland’s answer to John Piper or Tim Keller!

I’m all for theological pastors. For the most part (I make the odd exception), I’m no real fan of superficial, casual or downright careless handling of the biblical text. Long live pastor-theologians and theologically minded pastors.

But I have a caution or two. One is that, badly done, theology (even good theology) can lead to pride; but there is another. Stay with me.

One of the earliest New Testament letters was written to Christians in Galatia. Apparently some of Paul’s opponents had come through behind him, telling his converts that Paul had only given them gospel ‘lite’. He had not painted the full picture, conveniently leaving out the law of Moses and its requirement for circumcision. When Paul heard, he was incensed. He used some very strong (and even rude) language about his opponents. His gospel was the true gospel. Faith in Christ was enough. Adding the requirements of the law of Moses was to undermine the value of Christ’s work and would mean submitting to a form of spiritual slavery.

There is plenty of theology in Galatians. Plenty of Old Testament exposition, with references to Abraham, his faith and his sons. Fascinating stuff. Paul would not have shied away from taking on his opponents in a no holds barred debate.

But he was not just a theologian. He was a pastor. He was perplexed for his ‘little children’; he entreated them; he wished he could change his tone with them; he was even enduring pain for them.

The goal of his work was that Christ would be formed in them.

The theologians (there they are!) debate whether he means Christ being formed in individual Galatians or within the community of the Galatians (some think both), but let’s not worry about that here. The goal and driving force of Paul’s ministry was his desire that the people he led to faith would demonstrate Jesus.

That’s a pastoral concern. Even when it calls for some heavy theological weaponry.

And therein, I think, lies that challenge for theologically minded pastors. For when you preach – even in the middle of a theological controversy – your goal has to be more than winning an argument or a debate. It certainly ought to be much more than demonstrating how clever and theologically skilled and sophisticated you are (or think you are!). Your goal needs to be to see Jesus become more clearly visible in and among your people.

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