by Nathan A. Finn
But you must say the things that are consistent with sound teaching. (Titus 2:1, HCSB)
One day, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a fellow church member. We are around the same age, but he was raised in our church and has been a member for nearly 30 years, whereas I joined the church in my mid-20s and have been a member for a little less than a decade. I forget the exact context of our conversation, but I remember him noting—perhaps a bit wistfully—that he remembered what our church was like before all “the theologians” showed up.
I hear this sort of language fairly regularly. Theology or doctrine is treated as something unnecessary for the Christian life—maybe even something dangerous. “People don’t need more theology,” so the saying goes; “they just need Jesus.”
The problem with this sort of thinking is that it assumes we can have Jesus without any sort of reference to theology. But which Jesus are we talking about? The Jesus of the Mormons, who is the brother of Satan? The Jesus of the New Age gurus, who is a spirit guide to lead us to the god within? The Jesus of the (theological!) liberals, who is a great teacher who leads us into a life of peace and justice? The Jesus of American popular culture, who winks at materialism and wants to be everybody’s best friend?
The Jesus That Everybody Needs
As you can see, we need to explain the Jesus that everybody needs. The people in our churches and families and neighborhoods need the Jesus who is fully God and fully man. The Jesus who lived the perfectly obedient life we ought to live, but don’t. The one who died for our sins and was raised for our salvation. The one who intercedes for us now before the throne of God and who will one day return to fix everything that is broken by human sin. That is the Jesus our people need. And we can’t speak of him without being theologians.
The fact is, everybody is a theologian. Everybody thinks about God on some level, which is what it means to “do” theology. The only question is whether you are a good theologian or a bad theologian. As ministry leaders, we are called to be good theologians and to teach our people to be good theologians. Good theologians think rightly about God and live rightly before God.
This does not mean we need Ph.D.’s in theology, or need to read 1000-page theological treatises for fun, or need to teach the middle school boys technical theological terms such as “hypostatic union” or “infralapsarianism” or “inaugurated eschatology.” I’m a seminary professor and even I never use those terms outside of a classroom setting dedicated to training ministry leaders! But we do have an obligation to teach our people to be good theologians rather than bad theologians. They’ll always drift toward the latter. We need to push them in a better direction.
Becoming Better Theologians
If everybody is a theologian, how can we be better theologians and lead those in our churches and ministries to be better theologians. I have four suggestions:
1. Pray for the wisdom to thinking rightly about God and live rightly before Him. I’m not being trite. Good theologians are men and women of prayer who regularly ask for the wisdom—including the theological wisdom—that only the Holy Spirit can give.
2. Study, meditate upon, and memorize the Scriptures. The Bible is the only inspired, authoritative, and fully truthful source for how we should think about and live before God. As ministry leaders, we have an obligation to know the Word, to saturate ourselves in the Word, and to be able to pass it on to others.
3. Share the gospel with nonbelievers and disciple new believers. Part of what it means to think rightly about God and live rightly before God is to be obedient to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. As ministry leaders, we do this ourselves and we teach others to do the same.
4. Read theology. Okay, I admit it: I do think we should read theology. But I don’t mean necessarily humongous tomes or $80 books written by European professors in smoking jackets. I simply mean we need to read thoughtful books by biblically sound thinkers who engage the big issues of the Scriptures and the Christian life. If you even read one book like this per quarter, you will be better equipped to help your people to be better theologians. I would recommend beginning with J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, which is a modern classic.
Everybody is a theologian. Let’s be the best theologians we can be, for God’s glory. And let’s equip our students, Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders to do the same.
Nathan A. Finn serves as director of the Center for Spiritual Formation and Evangelical Spirituality at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in church history and historical theology. He also serves as one of the pastors at First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina.