Academics in the Church

One of the questions that I was asked at the panel discussion on women in academia was ‘how has your education shaped your spiritual growth?’ I think surprised most of the audience with my answer, unhealthy but my answer was, ‘if it wasn’t for my academic pursuits I wouldn’t still be in the church.’

My experience over the last decade and a half of being in the church has been that the goal is to keep everything simple. The simplest simple is ‘everyone get along, play nice, and don’t challenge anyone.’

If all I needed was a social gathering of people getting along and being friendly with each other, I could join a community group. I could rejoin my bowling league. But being in seminary has plugged me into 2,000 years of theology, 2,000 years of wrestling and thinking, 2,000 years of debate and inquiry.

In January Gerald Hiestand wrote an article for First Things about the exodus of theologians from the church to the hallowed halls of academia:

But since the nineteenth-century (in North America, at least) the center of theological reflection has shifted from the parish to the university. The pastoral community is no longer called upon—as a matter of vocation—to construct theology for those beyond their congregations. Instead, our present context views the academy as the proper home for those with theological gifts. Those with shepherding gifts are directed toward the pastorate. And those who are gifted in both areas? Well, they’ll have to choose. But can this be right? Do we really mean to suggest that the proper home of a theologian is in the academy, disconnected from the pastoral vocation?
The drain of our wider theologians from the pastorate to the academy has resulted in a two-fold problem. First, the theological water-level of our local parishes has dropped considerably. Inasmuch as the pastoral vocation is no longer seen as a theological vocation, pastors no longer bring a strong theological presence to their local parishes. The net effect (particularly in the evangelical tradition in which I reside) is a truncated understanding of theology and its import among the laity. Theology has largely left the local church.

Theologians are being pushed out of the church today. What we need, they say, is more practical training. What we need, they say, is more relevance. Which, has somehow meant that rock bands and strobe lights are more helpful to the church than theology.

My gifting, my calling, my heart is to be a teacher in the church. Whether that means I end up teaching in a college setting, challenging the next generation of ministry workers, or actually going back into the pastorate, my desire is to get people excited about Scripture and to help them jump into the raging river of 2,000 years of Christian thought.

Well… I learned today that my calling is bogus. Educators have been the downfall of the church. The fact that Jesus and Paul were teachers doesn’t matter. What matters is that the disciples were ordinary men, fishermen, with no educational training.

Donald Miller has an article up today that argues that the problem with the church today is that it is too academic. The church is led by educators rather than ordinary folks. And that the Reformation happened because two academics got into a petty squabble!

In the great commission, Jesus graduated his first group of students. He pushed them into the world and said, you don’t know everything, but you know enough. You’ll have a guide and that guide will be with you always. Go and teach the world to obey my commands. Because they were fishermen and tax gatherers, they went and did it. I wonder what they would have done if they had been professional scholars?

If they had been professional scholars? Well, then, I’m pretty sure we would have seen some of them in Athens engaging in public debates with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. Oh wait. That happened.

It looks like the push to get academics out of the church continues.

Update: Check out Chuck’s reflection on this issue here.