Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Don Miller: Who should run the church?

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 stake—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 discussion—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!” (Luke 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.


  • Barton

    Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that guys like Miller will write off a post like this because, well, this is the sort of thing they are trying to get rid of. It is difficult to argue with a man arguing against arguing… Even when your argument is so biblically and logically sound.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Charlton Connett


    Excellent post. I think it is also helpful to remember that Paul said that some division is natural and necessary, as it reveals who is truly a Christian, and who isn’t. If we removed all the intellectual divisions and simply unified around the “work” being done, then the necessary divisions that Paul speaks of could very easily be lost, and the distinction between Christian and non-Christian could be obscured.

  • Travis Hilton


    You have hit on one of the biggest problems we face in churches today. Miller is simply reflecting what a lot of American Christians already embrace. Many who have been given a seminary education will go to their churches and think that much they have learned is irrelevant to their ministry. If it was a school that was faithfully teaching not contrary to scriptures, they should be able to see its relevance if they are called to preach and teach in the local church. People who are embracing pragmatism have to reject much of what the scripture addresses or reinterpret it in such a way to justify their practices.

  • Derek

    Pauline scholars have often noted that Paul’s writings are 50% orthodoxy and 50% orthopraxy. That seems like the right mix for an elder/leader to maintain.

    Interesting that Don Miller referenced Lutherans. If it weren’t for Martin Luther, a whole bunch of us (including Catholics!) might be “doing” lots of stuff, like buying a ticket to heaven in the form of an indulgence.

  • Scott

    I can’t help but reflect that most of the objections to this article are from and based on the very thing Miller is trying to remind us about. Let’s all have a philosophical argument about the scholastic validity of his claim and thereby lend credence to the argument that most of the professionally religious spend an inordinate amount of time staring at their eyelids and sermons and blogs and too little time living the life of the fisherman.

    Most pastors need to get a real job…

  • spencer maccuish

    This is an excellent post, thank you. Could it be that the problem lies in that we have created too much division between the academy and the church? Perhaps we need to bring the scholars back home to the church so that what we see in the context of the church is both robust scholarship along side of the practice that flows out of that thought.

    Right now perhaps our structure allows for some of Miller’s concern, however unfounded it may be.

  • Lucas Knisely

    I find myself wanting to redeem what Miller is saying and have a slightly different discussion. Mainly because, “able to teach” is among qualifications that are all character qualifications. If we think about, “able to teach” with reference to a man’s character, I think we will arrive at a less than scholarly conclusion. A man who is able to teach is one who is willing to study and be diligent and disciplined in doing so. Now this might mean he decides to spend his time, money, and energy on Seminary, but we should not reverse this. In other words, the church should be building up and raising men of character who are able to teach (diligent/disciplined), not sending everyone to Seminary in order to be “able to teach”. I hope I am being clear. Hoping to acquire the character qualification of “able to teach” from Seminary is as silly as hoping to not be a “lover of money” by taking financial classes. The character of a man is what is important, not his scholarly abilities. And if we couple this with Paul’s warning that knowledge puffs up, I think it should be clear we have an over emphasis, and in my opinion a misunderstanding, of this one character qualification, “able to teach”.

    Full disclosure: I am currently at Seminary, and I am not saying Seminary is wrong or bad.

    Now, a major problem is that we, in a large sense, treat the office of pastor/elder like a profession. You get your degree, build your resume, and then shop yourself around. Pastor search committees is something you won’t find in the NT. What you find are churches being charged to raise up and train their own leaders. So I think Miller, while possibly trying to take up defense for Bell, is putting his finger on a larger problem. Everyone wants to defend the local church and the autonomy of the local church, but then we want to take our local church hats off when it comes to finding and hiring leaders/elders/pastors. We have, in my opinion, misunderstood, “able to teach” and have thus taken it up to become a “first requirement” or the most important qualification.

    Now, to clarify, I think we should refute false teaching in the public arena when the false teaching is present in the public arena. I am more speaking to the way the church presently views leadership and qualifications.

    Also, I would say we do not need “teachers” and “doers”, because teaching IS doing. Which is why being able to teach should be linked to a man’s character. The labor of teaching the flock is more dependent on a man’s character than his knowledge.

  • donsands

    “The labor of teaching the flock is more dependent on a man’s character than his knowledge.”

    I have to say I love the fact that my pastor studies very hard to teach the Word of God with authroity and integrity. God has given Hia church gifts in His giving pastor-teachers. And of course a pastor, or shepherd must have good character, if he is called to shepherd the flock (1 Peter 5:1-5).

  • Charlton Connett


    Without going into long detail, I do think you have hit on one of the great failures of the modern church, even if Don Miller did not directly bring it up. I went to and graduated from SBTS, and I found it to be a wonderful school where I was challenged and my faith was deepened in ways I cannot capture in a simple blog post. However, the seminary exists because churches do not do what they should be doing. It is the local church’s responsibility to educate, disciple, train, or whatever other term you want to use, mature believers who are capable of pastoring, teaching, and leading (depending on the gift and calling of the individual). The local church has not done that.

    I agree with you that instead of doing what we should be doing, local churches simply outsource that responsibility to seminaries, because the local pastor’s are not trained themselves, or because they do not see it as their responsibility to train young men to fulfill those roles.

    I know that when I first began to seek to be a teacher I was told by my Sunday School teacher that I could not teach others because I wasn’t old enough, and the class would not listen to me (an assumption I was later able to prove false, but that’s another story). Likewise when I first went to my pastor with a desire to learn and to determine where God was calling me (knowing only that I felt called to some kind of official ministry, whether teaching or preaching I did not know), he was non-committal and non-encouraging. I could be wrong, not having gone to many mid-sized churches, but it seems to me that many other churches and pastors are the same way; instead of encouraging and training up those who express interest, they either discourage or leave them to find their own way.

    Now, having graduated seminary and spent a year looking for a church, I can honestly say that you have nailed it in that most churches treat the position of pastor as a profession, not as a calling. Unfortunately too many pastor’s do the same thing. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that people are praying that I can find a small church so that I can get some experience. Likewise I can’t tell you how many even small churches I have received letters from saying that they appreciate my resume, but they are looking for someone with more experience. Unfortunately most churches, and Christians, have failed to do what we are supposed to do. But, I think the failure of behavior (at least in this regard) is due to a failure of sound teaching from the pulpits, and by those who stand in the pulpits, so that the two ideas, doing and teaching, are not so easily separated.

  • Alex Humphrey

    I really enjoyed this post, Denny. I am a fan of Miller’s and was troubled by his post for many of the same reasons you pointed out.

    I appreciate your kind brotherly response to his blog and I like how you handled your objections – well thought out and not mean.

    I may disagree with Donald here (at least his seemingly extreme stance), but I still like the guy a lot and will continue to read his blog (as well as attend his seminar in June!)

  • John

    Charlton, I’m going to disagree with you slightly, and say that seminary exists because the church is doing their job to train up future pastors. Seminary (esp. in the SBC) is about pooling resources so that men can spend a lifetime of studying Greek and theology and academics and pass the best along to the next generation. Not every church is gifted to adequately equip the next generation of preachers. I understand your point, and agree that a great many churches need to focus on organic replication, but most of the churches I have been a part of could never equip a pastor like seminary does.

  • Charlton Connett


    You’re correct, most churches cannot equip a pastor as a seminary does, but the problem is that they should be able to. Does it make sense, and has it always made sense to have schools that offer specialized training? Of course! (Even in the time of Christ we know that there were specialized “schools” where men could get intensive training.)

    Shouldn’t a church be able to provide a theological training comparable to a seminary? I mean, if a pastor is doing his job, should we need seminaries teaching Systematic Theology I, II, and III? Should we need classes specifically covering hermeneutics and exegesis? While I totally agree that advanced studies in Greek, Hebrew, church History, and other fields are reasonably beyond the ability of the average (and even above average) church, there is no reason that a church (more specifically, those who are theologically trained within the church) should not be capable of teaching at least one to two years worth of what I learned in seminary.

    The fact that churches aren’t capable does not mean that they should not be capable. It means that we have a failure in the system. Will things ever be different? Who can tell? I tend to think that this (the way things are) is the way things are going to be, I just don’t think that this is the right way things should be.

  • Murf

    Barton says:

    “It is difficult to argue with a man arguing against arguing… ”

    Lovely. Great comment that sums up a great frustration for those of us who care about doctrine.

    Great post Denny. I appreciate that you spot leaven in the lumps.

  • John T. Jeffery

    Denny: I appreciate your reaction to Donald Miller’s blog post. I find the following statements by this author problematic:
    1. “I think the scholars have done a good job, but they’ve also recreated the church in their own image. Churches are essentially schools. They look like schools with lecture halls, classrooms, cafeterias and each new church program is basically a teaching program.”
    2. “Church divisions are almost exclusively academic divisions.”
    3. “So church leadership went from fishermen, to government workers, to scholars.”
    These statements seem to demean the doctrinal significance of the historical divisions, preaching by definition, and the need for educated teachers and preachers. This author seems to ignore the significance of the three years the disciples spent with Christ, and the educational level of the Apostle Paul. The notion that “scholars” have “recreated the church in their own image” appears to be particularly unwarranted and offensive.

  • Murf

    How about we simply do what these passages say: Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim 3:1-13.

    The apostle states very clearly in Titus:

    “He must whold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Tit 1:5-9).”

    I did not find Miller’s complaint without basis. 4-6 years for seminary, thousands of dollars you don’t have, seminaries battling one another over doctrine,… it IS a mess. I also do not see the correlation with “Love Wins.” Conjecture, perhaps?

    Even discipleship is a mess with many academics and pastors just doing it their own way.

    To not go overboard and fully endorse Miller’s complaint, it should be noted that 3 years with the King of Kings, and firsthand experience with the cross, was the best education and discipleship that one could ever get.

    Every one touts how Jesus used unlearned men. Yet the crazy thing is that the educated of Jesus day (scribes, pharisees, sanhedrin, etc.) were AMAZED at the learning and boldness that these common fisherman had (Acts 4). The New Testament is full of instances of the educated, commoners, Romans, and Greeks getting SCHOOLED by Jesus, the apostles, and other heroes of the faith. That was because the were men of study, meditation, prayer, and sincere belief in Christ.

    Paul could not have stood on Mars Hill, and marched through Greece, and debated Greeks without having a serious command of the Greek langauge, and much learning on the Gospel and Hellenistic culture.

    However we do it, we must be educated.

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