I am cautious about pragmatic practitioners and scholars. I fear that any attempt to explain this may alienate people I love and care for, as well as trust. But I also believe that it’s helpful for different perspectives to interact and communicate about their ideas. It’s good for the church and I believe it can glorify God if done truthfully with love. None of us are immune to having ideas that need to be tested more and, upon further inspection, abandoned.
I should clarify that I’m not necessarily suspect of everyone who falls into this category. I have gained a tremendous amount of help from scholars and have learned a lot from pastors who have been “doing the stuff” for a long time and have provided me with practical aids to ministry. But I think these two camps are often suspect of each other without a healthy suspicion of themselves. Therefore, being the guy who is often committed to the radical middle, here we are! These are generalizations, so don’t take it personal and realize I’m talking about people who are generally identified as “evangelical.” I realize not all pragmatic people and biblical scholars are alike. So let’s go…
I’m Suspect of Pragmatic Practitioners
When I think “pragmatic practitioner” in relation to ministry, I’m thinking primarily about church planters and pastors with zero to little formal theological education. They are very practical, down to earth, and concerned with getting the job done. These folks have received their training from popular level books on subjects related to church growth, preaching, and other things related to ministry (e.g., Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Francis Chan). They are generally very passionate about Jesus and ministry. They breathe life into the communities they are a part of and touch thousands of people’s lives. Pragmatic practitioners love the church.
And I’m suspect of them.
It’s not that their influences are bad either. I really like Francis Chan and I’ve learned form both Warren and Hybels. It’s just that those types of authors are the deepest, for lack of a better term, type of reading they do. And I’m even more suspect of these folks when they are training up other leaders and/or influencing churches. I’m a little suspicious and cautious about some of the ideas that are generated by these people because of a couple observations:
Sometimes these pragmatic practitioners take shortcuts. I’ve noticed that there is a trend with some of these people to read the latest book on whatever idea is trending and apply it with very little reflection. Discernment isn’t even a part of the promise. However, I think models and systems need to be thoughtfully considered because not all models and systems are as helpful as they first appear. In fact, some models may hurt the church in the long run! And that’s part of the reason why I’m a little cautious here… the attitude seems a little short-sighted. The emphasis is on dealing with issues currently with little consideration for what the future may hold. Not all programs will help your church continue it’s mission! In other words, if it’s easy, it’s probably too good to be true.
Sometimes these pragmatic practitioners are opposed to biblical scholarship and care only about whether something works. I think this group of people would do well to read a systematic theology and to purchase a good exegetical commentary or two. Furthermore, people like me wouldn’t have a heart attack when their biblical interpretation skills are lacking because they are aware that the different genres of Scripture have different rules of interpretation. You don’t read a romance novel the same way that you read a study of American history or the same way that you read comics. If you do, you’ll misunderstand the intention of the author, right? It’s the same with the Bible. I’ve actually heard folks in this crowd use part of the Wisdom Literature (i.e., Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs) in the completely opposite way that the original author intended! Some texts that were contextually in opposition to the idea that “money equals happiness” are used to support the idea that being rich is a sign of God’s blessing. In other words, if you don’t take the apostle Paul’s advice to properly interpret Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15), you may teach some very questionable doctrines and practices.
Sometimes these pragmatic practitioners have a thin understanding of how healthy their church is and whether they are being successful. Some people are very focused on numeric growth. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve met another pastor to have them ask me how big the church is that I serve. The common assumption is that bigger is better. The solution to this is not to make the equally incorrect assumption that growth doesn’t matter or that numbers have no indication that a church is healthy. I’m convinced that we should be concerned with reaching as many people with the gospel as we can (cf. Matt. 28:13-20) and it’s interesting to me that the historian Luke keeps track several times of numbers in Acts (cf. Acts 2:41; 2:47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7). But bigger does not equate to better and God often uses the smaller and lesser known of this world to carry on his purposes (cf. the story of Gideon in Judges 7, esp. v.2). Therefore, I think pragmatic practitioners need to be careful not to assume that large numbers is the same thing as being healthy. A river can be a mile wide and an inch deep. We need to ask how well our congregations are loving people and how well they understand the gospel and nature of God and whether Scripture actually functions as an authority.
For these reasons, I’m a little cautious to blindly embrace the advice of these people because I don’t always know what kind of pragmatic practitioner I’m dealing with. In fact, just the other day I was having a conversation with a friend who was telling me about how he’d a couple church leaders and even a Bible college president absolutely butcher some biblical texts while still giving the appearance that they were scholarly. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard a sermon where the pastor will say something like, “In the Hebrew [or Greek], the verse actually means…”, and then go on to make a completely false statement.
I’m Suspect of Scholars
I’m talking primarily about biblical scholars and theologians. These people have formal theological educations and absolutely love Scripture, theology, and things related to those subjects. They like to read Hebrew and Greek and find books like Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics fun reading. They can get caught up in the intricate details of the biblical text in a way that most people find either boring or unimportant and they rightly understand why it isn’t boring and is important. Biblical scholars love texts.
And I’m suspect of them.
I guess I should be honest. I’m not really as suspect of biblical scholars and theologians as I am of pragmatic practitioners. But I am not as quick to embrace the “scholarly consensus” as other others often are. Perhaps you want to know why. Here are some different observations that I’ve made:
Sometimes scholars aren’t as honest as they should be. It’s frustrating to me that I’ll read a scholar who will make suggestions that other views and positions are “easily refuted” or when opposing scholars are presented in less than favorable terms just because they oppose one’s view. This used to happen a lot when scholars would talk about Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians and their views. Advocates of the continuation of the supernatural spiritual gifts were presented as being driven by experience rather than biblical texts. This overlooked the work of the Pentecostal scholar Gordon D. Fee and the Charismatic scholar Roger Stronstad or the Third Wave scholars Wayne Grudem or Sam Storms. One of the reasons I have a hard time with most of what John MacArthur writes is because he’s not honest in his assessment of views he disagrees with. In other words, if you don’t represent others and their views honestly, it’s hard to find your contribution worthy of consideration; if you can’t be honest about others, how do we know what you are saying is true?
Sometimes scholars think they are correct about everything because they are correct about something. Listen, scholars are people and they make mistakes and overlook information just like anyone else. A PhD doesn’t equal perfection and having an awareness of the hundreds of interpretive choices for 1 Peter 3:18-20 does not mean you are aware of the intricacies related to pastoring people and the dynamics of the relationships involved. I see this problem in several scholarly groups that I’m a part of. Biblical scholars think they are specialists in psychology and medical doctors think they are specialists in theology. Scholars shouldn’t assume they are specialists in every discipline and every field just because they are scholarly! This makes me cautious and suspect of scholars who see the need to write on every subject under the sun. That doesn’t mean that scholars shouldn’t write outside of their field but that they need to be honest (once again) and careful (once again). In other words, having a degree does not give you permission to speak on everything as a specialist.
Sometimes scholars are really good at seeing the bark on the tree but miss the forest. In other words, scholars are often great at understanding the intricacies involved in determining the actual meaning of the δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē, or “justification”), but unable to comfort someone when they are grieving the loss of their child. Wise people will understand why having a robust understanding of Justification can and should influence the way that we comfort grieving people. But there are many biblical scholars who understand the complex issues related to diagramming and parsing a Greek verb forms but can’t pray for someone. The kind of scholars that are helpful are the ones who can show us why understanding the bark has bearing on the forest.
For these reasons, I’m cautious to give scholars the complete benefit of the doubt. I realize there are limitations to scholarship and that some issues related to being a pastor are not covered in biblical texts. In fact, not only are some of the issues we are facing in today’s world not covered in the biblical text, they haven’t been dealt with throughout church history! Furthermore, I think scholars are limited if they aren’t dealing with normal people who work normal jobs and have normal problems.
You might notice that I clarified that, in general, pragmatic practitioners love people and scholars love texts. That doesn’t mean that practitioners are opposed to loving texts or that scholars are opposed to loving people… those are just the directions that they lean. I would also venture to say that both groups of people love God. Thus, I think both groups can be benefited when they consider the contribution that both groups can make and learn from the other’s strengths.
Pragmatic practitioners can learn from biblical scholars. They don’t need to get master degrees in biblical studies to be faithful to Scripture and helpful in their ministry focus. When they are preaching through books of the Bible, their sermons can be greatly enhanced if they take the time to consider the work of scholars, be it biblical scholars or theologians. Pragmatic practitioners can also avoid many harmful ideas and models or systems if they take the time to consider the criticisms of people who have spent a significant amount of time studying the relevant subjects. Pragmatic practitioners should be humble enough to learn from scholars.
Scholars can learn from pragmatic practitioners. They don’t have to give up their passion for books and thinking either. But they can listen and learn from normal people. In fact, if they are doing their scholarship for the glory of God and the good of people, they would be wise to consider how they can best carry that out. Scholars also need to understand the limitations of their studies because scholarship can not replace what I call the “God factor.” That means that having a lot of information does not replace people’s need for God to work in their lives. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work through the communication of information but that the communication of information does not equate to God. God is more than just information and spiritual life does not come simply from memorizing words and ideas.
I’m a pastor. And I’m very interested in biblical scholarship and how to make it practical for people who don’t know Greek or study exegetical commentaries. So I’d really appreciate if more pragmatic practitioners took care in reflecting on the ideas they are speaking on. I’d also appreciate if scholars would remember that not everyone has a PhD in New Testament studies with an emphasis on the Pauline influence upon the infralapsarian and supralapsarian debate. A lot of non scholars can’t even pronounce those words and are trying hard to just pay their bills and raise their kids without messing them up.
What do you think? What would you add as reason to be suspect and what advice would you give?