What does your pastor need to know?

Every so often I see comments about what pastors and church leaders need to have studied, to know and be reading now. At one end of the spectrum is the view that “all we need is the Bible” and we don’t need to make it complicated.  At the other end of the spectrum is the argument is that pastors need an incredible in depth, rigorous and stretching academic theological education. 

Very specifically, there are is a small but noisy faction of theologians who have been arguing that pastors need to be well read in the most challenging of older theological works.  I’ve mentioned before a particular school of thought that I’ve termed “Neo-Classical Theism.”  These are people claiming to have rediscovered “classical theism” or “classical theology.”  Their argument is that the contemporary evangelical church has gone badly astray because it has lost touch with classical scholars and thinkers.  This includes a look back to the very early church and the “church fathers” – people like Athanasius and Augustine.  However, there’s a particular interest in one notable period of history.  The argument is that we lost the insights of medieval scholastics and particularly Thomas Aquinas.   In fact for some, it’s not just that we need to recover the lost insights of such people, it’s the belief that Aquinas and his theology is foundational and essential to all truly orthodox theology.

Now, it is my view that the church as a whole does well to pay attention to its history. We are not meant to try and grow in our faith and knowledge of God in isolation from others. This includes learning from the past.  Does that mean though that every pastor or every church leader needs to know these past theologians in depth? Does it mean that they are essential?

It is also my view that pastors should give serious time to study and training.  We want them to be thoroughly equipped for the work.  I do believe that a robust grounding in theology and awareness of church history is helpful for that. However, I have argued persistently that being properly equipped for pastoral ministry is not the same as being academically educated.

It’s worth just understanding why there’s so much love for Thomas Aquinas at the moment.  First, there’s a belief that pastors have become unstuck in terms of Systematic Theology and especially their doctrine of God and the Trinity.  This has particularly focused on debates about God’s Simplicity and about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity (the so called Eternal Functional Subordination debate).  I don’t intend to revisit those debates here, as I’ve covered them in depth before, except to say that there’s a reason why I refer to the particular school as “Neo Classical” rather than just “classical theists”, the point about neo-classicalism in all fields is that (and this is a little pejorative), it is a modern interpretation of a classical position, not the classical position itself. You will only get the classical position in its pure form by reading the originals -and even then you always have the challenge that you are reading it through your contemporary hermeneutic.  And therein lies the rub.  Too often certain men present themselves as the true guardians of Patristic and Thomist theology as though we aren’t meant to notice that some of the people they are opposing have read, studied, got to know well those same ancient theologians. They have just either come to a different interpretation of what Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas were saying or after much thought, chosen to disagree with them.  You see, whisper it quietly, not only are modern interpretations of ancient authors fallible, so too were those ancient authors. That’s right, even Aquinas.

The second reason I’ve spotted recently is that some people are worried that evangelicals with lively intellects will get frustrated at what they consider to be shallow and poor theology in evangelicalism and scuttle off to Rome to have their intellectual curiosity satisfied by Catholicism’s ongoing honour of these past theologians, now revered as Saints.

This reasoning is a little bit more concerning.  Now, again, I believe that there should be rich and nourishing spiritual food provided for congregations.  However, that is not the same as satisfying intellectual curiosity and that is not the job of the gathered church.  Further, there’s no point being intellectually curious if we are wrong.  And, what is more I fear that this desire to pander to people who want to speculate and ruminate might betray a lack of urgency about our true mission. Worst of all, it suggests a decoupling from a theologian who predates Aquinas and Augustine.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”[1]

And this brings me to a crucial point.  If we are going to answer the question “What does a pastor need to know?” Then we need to think about who we are as pastors, who we’ve been called to serve and how we’ve been called to serve. 

So, let me highlight a few things here for us:

  1. Pastors/elders are not called because of their intellectual ability.  They are not called to be professors/lecturers. They are saved sinners, fellow sheep who have been called by the Good Shepherd because of grace.  The qualifications of elders therefore focus on character, on evidence of sanctification and a close walk with God, not with intellectual ability.  Yes, they are to be able to teach but that is not the same as having academic gifting.
  2. Pastors and elders, as under shepherds are therefore to love the church and to seek to provide for it and protect it. 

This means two things, I think.  First of all, our priority is to know the shepherd’s voice.  Our priority then should be to know God’s Word and to know it well so that we can know him well. Secondly, our responsibility is to feed the church.  We should think of ourselves as shepherds and chefs before we think of ourselves as lecturers and educators!  Again, this puts the priority on knowing God’s Word well.

Now, knowing and being aware of theological thinking and debates from the past can and for quite a few will be helpful. But this isn’t always necessary. The important thing is that your pastor knows his Saviour, knows his Bible and knows you.  Good pastors will know their own congregations well also.  This last point is crucial because there is the risk that a pastor becomes attracted to the idea of being a scholar and sees the joy of his role as being the time he gets alone with his books.  No, the real priority after spending time with God in his word is spending time with the church family.

If you are looking for a pastor or if you are looking to review and check how they are doing, don’t test them on their knowledge of 1000 year old books.  Check how well they know their Lord, how well they know His Word and how well they know His people.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

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