Donald Miller asks an interesting question at his website: “Should the Church be Led by Teachers and Scholars?” His contention is that unlike the original disciples who were fisherman and tradesman, the Christian church today has ceded its leadership to the academics. Churches today are basically schools that are run by teachers. As a result, we have a lot of arguing about doctrine in our churches and not enough doing Jesus’ commands. Miller writes:
“Church divisions are almost exclusively academic divisions. The reason I don’t understand my Lutheran neighbor is because a couple academics got into a fight hundreds of years ago. And the rest of the church followed them because, well, they were our leaders. So now we are divided under divisions caused by arguments a laboring leadership might never have noticed of cared about. Practitioners care about what works, what gets things done. They have to agree because there are projects on the line. Educators don’t have to agree at all. They can fight and debate and write papers against each other because, well, the product they are churning out is just thought, not action.”
I suspect that the background to Miller’s remarks is the dust-up over Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I have read many complaints about the shrill tone of the debate and about how nasty Bell’s critics have been. And I have seen others suggest that for love to win, the critics need to back-off their criticism of Bell’s book. Miller’s post seems to be in that same spirit, though without mentioning Bell.
I think Miller actually asks a good question, but I think his analysis and answers need to be tweaked a bit. Well actually, tweaked a lot.
To begin with, I think it’s a profound misunderstanding of the apostles’ ministries to suggest that they were doers as opposed to teachers. They were both. And even so, we can think of at least one instance in which their doing had to make way for their teaching. The diaconal ministry originated so that the apostles could give themselves wholly to teaching the word and to prayer (Acts 6:2-4). When we remember the fact that Paul says that church leaders must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), it becomes clear that the church’s apostles and earliest leaders were teachers by calling.
The apostles aside for the moment, is it really true that what the church needs are leaders who merely “care about what works” as opposed to those who care about doctrine? I think such a suggestion is unhelpful and spiritually dangerous.
Sometimes the biggest challenge to Christianity is not out-and-out heresy, but pragmatism. Pragmatism in the sense that whatever works must be right, quite apart from academic debates about doctrine. Nevermind what the Bible teaches about this or that thing you might be doing in your spiritual life or in your church. If whatever you’re doing appears to be working, then it must be okay.
But how do we know if something is “working”? There are lots of people out there who can gather a crowd by calling people to follow Jesus. The question is, which Jesus? You don’t have to look very far to see that there are a lot of Jesuses out there, and they aren’t all the Jesus of the Bible (2 Corinthians 11:4).
Pragmatism alone doesn’t give us the resources to distinguish, for example, the Mormon Jesus from the biblical Jesus. In the end, we are going to have to talk about the interpretation of the Bible, about doctrine, about history and theology. You will either talk about such things in your church, or your pragmatism will eventually open people up to believing that Jesus is Satan’s brother, that Joseph Smith is His prophet, and that we all should be wearing special underwear.
This is not to say that Christianity could do without pragmatically minded people. We need people who are doers. We also need people who are thinkers. Moreover, we need all the people in between. And they need each other (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Even though we need the pragmatists that God puts in our midst, it’s not enough to say (as Miller does), “Let’s stop arguing about doctrine and just obey Jesus.” But doesn’t Miller understand that there are serious differences over what it means to obey Jesus’ commands?
Just yesterday I taught my Sunday School class Jesus’ command in John 14:1, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me.” You can imagine that obedience to that command would look like one thing to a Southern Baptist (like myself) and an entirely different thing to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon. How are we to sort out these differences without talking about what the Bible teaches and, yes, occasionally drawing attention to the places where we disagree with others?
In other words, debates about doctrine cannot all be reduced to squabbles about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Sometimes, there are really weighty matters at stakeâ€”matters that relate directly to how we obey Jesus’ commands.
There has been a lot of debate abroad in the wake of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. There are weighty, eternal matters at stake in this discussionâ€”not the least of which is the doctrine of hell. How does the pure pragmatist enter in to this discussion without reference to doctrine? Without reference to serious thinking about what the Bible teaches?
Even the pragmatist who simply wants to obey Jesus’ commands has to obey this red-letter command from Jesus Himself: “I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (LukeÂ 12:5).
Jesus is telling His disciples to fear the God who casts people into hell. Who is this God? And what is Hell? How does my thinking about Jesus’ words about hell elsewhere inform the way in which I am to fear God? If I am not fearing the God of hell as Jesus commanded, am I fearing God at all? There is some doing commanded here, but the doing flows forth from some serious thinking about the words and aims of Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples in the Great Commission to “teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Notice that Jesus’ command includes a teaching component and an obedience component. You cannot have one without the other. Great Commission Christians are those who teach Jesus’ words and deeds with a view to calling people to obedience to the same. Or if you will, there’s a thinking part to the Great Commission and a doing part, and it’s deadly to bifurcate the two.
Miller asks an interesting question, but in the end doesn’t give the most helpful answer in my view. It sounds like he’d like the thinkers to make way for the doers, for the theologians to make way for the laborers, for the Biblicists to make way for the pragmatists. I say, let no man separate what God has joined together. We need both.