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The Pastor Theologian for Today's Culture

The pastor is first and foremost a theologian.

Average Rating:  [see ratings/reviews]The Pastor Theologian for Today's Culture

Princeton Seminary President Craig Barnes recently said that the hardest thing about being a pastor today is simply this: "confusion about what it means to be the pastor." There's probably not another profession that suffers from as great a lack of clarity as to what the job itself is all about. Many pastors feel like they've somehow lost the script that tells them what it means to be a pastor.

That hasn't always been the case. There used to be such clarity about the pastoral calling. For centuries, the church held out a clear and compelling vision of what a pastor is and what a pastor does. In short, this earlier vision of ministry said that the pastor is first and foremost a theologian. But this ancient vision is now buried under six feet of dirt, so we now hyphenate the word pastor to get theologian back into the definition.

What is a pastor theologian?

So what is a "pastor theologian"? The most helpful thing I can say is this—a pastor theologian is one person, not two. You may have heard the story about the girl who was strolling with her father, a country pastor, through the church's old adjacent graveyard. As she read the inscriptions on the headstones, a modestly adorned one caught her attention. It had the deceased person's name, his dates of birth and death, and the inscription: "Pastor Theologian." When this young girl saw those two words, side-by-side, on the headstone, her face lit up with a mix of surprise and concern; she asked her father worriedly, "Papa, why do they have two people buried in there?"

The pastor theologian [is] a trained theologian who combines spiritual urgency with profound learning—someone who's vocational home is in the church as a pastor, but whose calling is to feed God's people as a theologian

Now, this would be funny, if it weren't so true. The fact is, the designation "pastor" and "theologian" almost always refer to two different people, not the same person. And why is that? Because we no longer conceive of the pastorate as a theological calling. Pastors cast vision, mobilize teams, oversee programs, manage budgets, offer counsel to the hurting, and, yes, preach sermons. But we don't expect them to give serious intellectual leadership to the people of God. That's someone else's job—the Bible scholar, the seminary professor, or the academic, but not the pastor.

What I'm speaking to is the unfortunate division of labor that developed over the last two centuries, and that has divorced the doing of theology from the practice of ministry. And with this division of labor, the pastor's role is completely redefined, so that pastors are now practitioners, not thought leaders. I recently encountered a striking example of this division of labor. My colleague and I were asked to speak to a Bible college faculty on the theme of the pastor theologian—not the whole faculty, just the pastoral and educational ministries departments. Not, mind you, the biblical and theological studies departments. When I asked if those departments interact much, someone responded, sheepishly, that they're actually housed in two different buildings!

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Jim Church

February 02, 2016  1:02pm

I wish that I had understood this more clearly when I began my ministry as a pastor. While never "not consciously there" it did only really become abundantly clear only during the last third of my time in ministry. I believe that in large part an absence of sound theology in preaching is why there is so much syncretism and outright poor theological thinking in the pews in our day.

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February 01, 2016  4:57pm

Excellent article. I think it also needs to be tackled from the other end. The definition of what is a theologian also needs to change. People like James Denney would say (in my words) that if I can't preach it,is it true and do I really understand it? The call of a preacher is a theological calling. I also wonder what this 'pastor as theologian' movement says about those pastors who feel that they do not have the calling or gift as 'theologian' or preacher.

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Rick Willis

February 01, 2016  2:45pm

Count me in on this movement. Thanks for the vision.

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January 29, 2016  8:49am

Great article, something I've been challenged with recently. I just read the book, "Love your God with All Your Mind: The role of reason in the life of the soul" by JP Morgan. It challenged me to think about going deeper than simple practical applications alone. Ouch! Thanks for writing. Thanks for challenging me. Also loved the poem about the title Doctor. When people ask me if they are supposed to call me doctor, I simply say, "The only people I ask to call me doctor, are my kids." LOL

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