Every pastor is a theologian. Not just the nerdy ones. Not just the ones with doctorates from well-known schools. Every pastor.
In my 2016 message at For the Church, a conference staged by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I made this case. (See the video above.) As I contended at FTC, biblical texts like 2 Timothy 1:5-14 show us that the pastor is inescapably, and preeminently, a theologian. How is this so?
First, the pastorate is an office created by the gospel. It’s what Paul–and Timothy–is set apart to preach. Take away the gospel, there’s no pastorate. Give the church the good news of Christ’s vicarious atonement and victorious resurrection, and suddenly pastors have something to declare. Because the pastorate is a gospel-created office, it cannot help but be deeply theological. Pastoral ministry is most fundamentally oriented to God. Pastoral ministry, in other words, is about God. It’s not first about people, though it very much is about people. It’s about God.
Second, pastoral ministry is the constant exercise of “divine business.” In our 2015 book on the pastor-theologian, The Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer and I share this marvelous phrase of Jonathan Edwards’s. Everything a pastor does–shepherding, counseling, discipling, administering, and so on–is inherently God-centered. To paraphrase Edwards, the pastor is always acting either to God on behalf of the people, or to the people on behalf of God. There is no such as non-God-oriented pastoral ministry. One can perform religiously-oriented goods and services while holding a clerical position. Many, in fact, do. But this is not pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry is divine business.
Third, pastors minister theology. You can’t help it if you’re a pastor. When you counsel a young married couple struggling to make it through thickets of sin, you’re going to offer them wise counsel, yes, but it’s going to be God-shaped counsel. If you’re helping an aged saint prepare for soon-coming death, you’re going to minister God’s truth to them. If you’re raising up teens to be men and women of God, you will root them in the deep things of God. Sure, you can give practical tips and reassuring words in general terms. But anytime a pastor speaks truth to his struggling sheep–and that better be often, even if briefly–he is ministering theology.What a glorious office this is.
Fourth, pastors play theological defense. The promotion of Christ’s gospel entails the certain advancement of Christ’s kingdom. Pastors play offense, in other words, in their ministries. But Paul also speaks in 2 Timothy 1 of the need to guard the “good deposit” (13). Elsewhere he speaks of the need to guard the sheep (as Peter does at some length). Pastors must theologically protect their people. How can they do this but by engaging the powers of darkness with divine truth?
My message–located above–unfolds these themes. This work of developing pastor-theologians is why I am at Midwestern Seminary and, in the broadest sense, why I am in ministry. I want to do my very humble part to send out an army of officers into fields of harvest. I want to do my very small part to furnish pastors with excellent training, not merely adequate training. I hope to impress upon students the high and holy nature of their calling, and to help them see that they need fear man or labor for his approval. They are workers unto God.
This does not minimize my delight in training future scholars. What a privilege such work is. Both callings are vital; here is one short book by John Piper and D. A. Carson that can help the rising generation figure out which role fits them best. But note this key takeaway: we need a much greater number of pastor-theologians than scholars.
My interest in the pastor-theologian overlaps with my interest in the evangelical mind. I believe these two themes elegantly cohere and reinforce one another. A strong pastoral corps helps create a strong appetite for truth and thinking among God’s people. Because of this, it is exciting to see a renaissance of sorts taking place in the church on the pastoral front. There is so much reason for discouragement today; these are strange times in a cultural sense. But I can tell you with certainty that the rising generation is hungry for truth, starving for resources, and eager to go to hard places in order to promote the gospel.
If you sense this call, do not dally. Do not mess around. Get the best training you can. Prepare well and deeply. Then, launch out, and work to preach the gospel and advance the kingdom.
Remember: there is no other work like this. It is divine business we are discussing.