The Accountability of the Church Intellectual

In the journal Themelios, theologian Carl Trueman offers some sobering advice for students considering pursuing doctoral studies (“‘Do not do it if you think you are going to find a job at the end of it; do it for the sake of doing it. There are almost no jobs going in academia these days . . .). But he also provides some pastoral counsel that is relevant to those who aspire to be intellectual leaders in our congregations:

Protestantism, by prioritizing a book, the Bible, and the written and spoken word, inevitably has an inbuilt gravitational pull towards intellectualism. Proper Protestantism is not about religious feeling or psychology; it is about truth—defined, proclaimed, believed. This is not a bad thing; indeed, I would argue that the theology of the Bible demands that it be so; and this is why the calling to scholarly study is so important for evangelicals. . . .

Yet Protestantism’s theologically driven orientation to the Book, to books, and to words, does mean that it has a vulnerability which can be easy to exploit. Such an intellectual and literary orientation means that sometimes the mere ability to grasp concepts and to articulate them can easily provide a fast-track to having influence. Rare is the theological student who has not felt the temptation to sit in church on Sunday and to do little more than silently critique the exegesis and theology of the pastor. Even more so will the same student find it hard not to sit in condescending judgment at the often muddled attempts of the people at the church Bible study to make sense of some passage of Scripture or other. Yet the qualifications for leadership in the church as laid out in the New Testament include far more than the ability to grasp theology. Just because one has enrolled in a PhD course or read D. A. Carson or N. T. Wright does not mean that one has the right to speak in church, and certainly does not exempt you from sitting under, and respecting, the authority of the properly established eldership of the church. Nor, incidentally, does completion of a PhD or even being hired to teach Bible at a college. I am always saddened by those who rant on and on about the ‘self-appointed people’ saying this, that, or the other, when, in fact, the targets of their rage are often office-bearers in the church while the ranters themselves have nothing but a PhD, an annual contract from some outfit somewhere, and a website. From a biblical perspective, who, one wonders, is the truly self-appointed in such contexts?

Ouch. I’ve been guilty of this myself, looking down on godly and exemplary church leaders because—unlike me—they haven’t read the right books on theology. We Protestants (especially us evangelicals) often have an aversion to ecclesiastical authority that causes us to think we can stand—and think—alone. We overestimate our own understanding and importance and underestimate our need for guidance and accountability.

Although directed to seminary students, the rest of Trueman’s practical advice provides a useful corrective to our radical individualism. It’s well-worth reading in its entirety.

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