One Thing Jeremiah Wright Has Right: The Pastor Is a Theologian (and the Theologian Is a Pastor)

One Thing Jeremiah Wright Has Right: The Pastor Is a Theologian (and the Theologian Is a Pastor) April 1, 2008

There’s been much to-do about Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. I came across a helpful collection of resources from NPR on the theological stream in which Wright fits, the black liberationist theologians and preachers. If you have a few moments, take a listen. NPR, of course, slants strongly left, but they’re well-researched.

Beyond that, I don’t have much to say personally about Rev. Wright that has not been said. (Russ Moore, for example, has some helpful thoughts on this subject.) It’s not really my bag to write about what other people who share my general perspective have written. With that said, there is one aspect of this whole controversy that I haven’t heard much discussion about. It is clear that Rev. Wright styles himself as the thought-leader of his church. He does not seem to adhere to the “CEO” model of ministry or something like that, at least not in his pulpiteering. No, he’s almost old-fashioned in that he clearly attempts to teach his people a theological system (that of black liberation theology). It so happens that I think that this system veers well off the scriptural course, and that is hugely lamentable, but I do admire one (and only one) aspect of Wright’s program: he does not shirk back from arbiting theology and doctrine to his people. He is clearly the theological gate-keeper of his church. He is unquestionably the doctrinaire of his congregation. He jealously guards the right to provide spiritual direction to his people. In this light, Rev. Wright fits comfortably in the historic stream of theologian-pastors, a line that is slowly reviving after being crushed by the heel of pragmatic, anti-doctrinal ministry methodology.

Do not be confused. I am in no way endorsing Rev. Wright. I simply found it fascinating to find a man, albeit a man I view as tragically misled and confused, claiming unapologetically the role of pastor-prophet in an age dominated by “visionaries”, “CEOs”, and “professionals”. This is not to say that there are not others who fill this role. In recent decades, we have seen something of a renaissance of the theologian-pastor in evangelical circles, with men like John Piper, Phil Ryken, Mark Dever, John Stott filling pulpits across the world. Each of these men could easily be an academician, but they have all chosen the pastorate as their primary role. There are many others who fit this same bill who are currently pastoring, and there are many, many more–a whole movement’s worth–who are currently in training and who will, I would predict, fundamentally change the face of the American pastorate in coming years. Many Christians of my generation has rebelled against a vacuous, doctrinally wispy life and have instead embraced a robust, meaty way of thinking and living as redeemed people. A sizeable corps of young men have committed themselves to years of academic and ecclesiastical training in order to serve churches as theologian-pastors. These are exciting, heady times, and they signal, I believe, a coming shift for the American church–and, one can hope, for the global church.

Okay, okay, you may be saying. Great. But what’s with all this confusing language–“pastor-theologian” versus “theologian-pastor”? And furthermore, Owen, why have you reversed these terms? Because of this: I think we might be misusing the term “pastor-theologian”. This term should properly refer not to a person who is first and foremost a pastor, but a theologian. “Pastor” in such a phrase is modifying “theologian”, after all. Therefore, those of us who want to be pastors should call ourselves, most properly, “theologian-pastors”, because there the modifying word is “theologian”. Does this make sense?

But with this minor squibble aside, let me say something that I’ve been thinking a bit about. Just as we need “theologian-pastors” (by which I’m referring to theologically astute pastors), so also are we in great need of “pastor-theologians” (by which I’m referring to academic scholars who bring pastoral concerns to bear on their work). There is a gigantic need for exegetes, historians, theologians, systematicians, and philosophers who see their work as done, generally speaking, in service of the church. Perhaps you’ve encountered scholars who don’t seem to practice such a philosophy of scholarship, but who do theology in such a way that they talk in abstracted terminology, chase rabbits (for multiple books or classes) that have little relevance to an actual person, and generally show evidence of forgetting that their ministry is accountable to their local church and responsible for equipping pastors and laypeople. Such a class of thinker, it is hoped, is on the wane in Christian circles, even as the ecclesiastically attuned class of theologian is on the rise.

These scholars do not study, publish, and teach to pursue their own eccentric interests and doctrines, but to assist Christians in the task of understanding the Bible and its teachings as they apply to life and ministry. For this class of thinkers, church members are not a burden, but an audience; questions of all theological stripes are tackled not simply to satisfy one’s curiosity, but to teach believers; and writing is composed not to wow fellow academics, but to instruct local church pastors and their members. This is not to say that there is no place for theological, historical, exegetical, and philosophical works of advanced depth and narrow focus; there is, and I would never seek to belittle such projects or demean them as unvaluable. These endeavors may well have value, perhaps great value, and we should regularly encourage our scholars to undertake them and to engage in the highest levels of scholarship. At the same time, it is my personal conviction that we should encourage our gifted scholars and teachers to reach us with their teaching–and not only this, but to aim at us. How blessed we would be if theologians styled themselves as pastor-theologians, and aimed to instruct the local church not incidentally, but primarily.

We need theologian-pastors (shepherds). This is our greatest need. But we also need pastor-theologians (scholars). We must be careful not to think that only one group is important. We do not need merely a continuing recovery of a vital, doctrinally focused pastorate. No, we need the continuing recovery of men like Carson and Sweeney and Ware and Mohler and Hamilton and Packer and Akin and Wells who engage in the sacred task of Christian scholarship in order to bless, help, rescue and vitalize the local churches that populate our world. Here’s hoping that the future will bring, as I think it will, an army of doctrinally savvy, theologically precise, culturally engaged pastors who will lead local churches with great energy and faithfulness. And here’s hoping that marching alongside them will be a great cavalry of scholars, who will help those pastors to steer Christians away from error, to love truth and live life doxologically, and to emerge victorious in the great struggle for true life that engulfs us all.

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  • Anonymous

    Well said Owen. Thanks for the post.

    Josh Chatraw

  • Steve Patton

    I would agree with your comments absolutely. I’ve believed for a long time that pastors and churches desperately need scholarship that is less “ivory-tower” and more “real world.” The men from whom I learned the most were those who not just dealt with tough issues academically but did so within the framework of the church.