How Would You Respond to This Pastoral Challenge? Chime in

For my “Teaching Doctrine in the Church” course I am working on, we will begin the class by talking about why Scripture needs “doctrine,” and why churches and Christians need theology. I am going to put forward this hypothetical pastoral situation to my students – how would you respond?

Suppose you, Jane or Joe Pastor, make it a point to chat with a particular church attendee after the service. He has been going to your church for a couple of years and you know him to be a Christian who participates in a Bible study and has friends in the church. After a few minutes of chit-chat you ask, “Hey Bob, we have a membership class next week and I think you would really enjoy it and we would love to have you officially join. We will talk about many things, but especially the theology of our church and the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed.”

Bob, with a confused look on his face, responds quite matter-of-factly: “Pastor, I have a Bible and I read it everyday. Why do I need to learn your ‘theology’ if the Bible tells me what to believe and can answer my questions?”

How would you respond? Remember, this is not just a hit-this-guy-over-the-head-with-a-tack-hammer-and-say-“what’s-wrong-with-you” situation. It is a pastoral moment – how do you shepherd him towards a healthy attitude towards theology and doctrine?

By the way, this challenge is quite prevalent from my experiences. In fact, my home church discouraged me from going to seminary. Essentially, a pastor (ordained, but not seminary trained) told me, “just get a couple of ministry and leadership classes under your belt, and then learn the rest on the job. You can find an older pastor to mentor you along the way.” In his view (representative of far too many churches and leaders) theology is (at best) interesting, but (at bottom) not very useful or necessary for ministry or life. Also, think about what “Christian books” are flying off the shelves at Christian book stores – “Christian living.” People want to know how to love Jesus and follow him. To most of these folks, doctrine and theology are cerebral exercises, mostly unrelated to spiritual disciplines. The disinterest in “theology” (or even sometimes distaste) is systemic in American Christian culture (and also many places elsewhere).

So, again, how would you respond to our little scenario pastorally?

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9 thoughts on “How Would You Respond to This Pastoral Challenge? Chime in

  1. I would respond with the thought that it’s important to read and study the Bible in community. Our church has a few theological distinctives that we believe are important and every attender should be aware of them. We have membership classes to make sure everyone in on the same page and working toward the same vision and mission.

  2. Agreed with Bill about the communal aspect of Christianity.
    I would also use the scenario as a teaching moment for a couple of things:
    -Emphasize how seemingly abstract beliefs do indeed influence how we act and view the world (re: Peter Berger… but simplified, ha!)
    -Highlight the value in understanding the “why” and meaning behind what appears on the supposed “surface level” of scripture
    -Explore how we read the bible. Is it simply an informational tool for a consumer (much like we use Wikipedia)? What might be deeper?

  3. As an 80 year old organist who served in several church in various denominations, when it came time to retire and chose a home church, I settled on an Episcopal church. In their membership class we discussed the history of both the Christian church and the Episcopal church. We discussed the Bible and what the many books contained. I was not asked to believe one of several creeds we talked about (I don’t like creeds), and we were told about various ways to see and think about the celebration of the mass. We were also encouraged to become active in the various outreach programs of that congregation including going out into the area where homeless people congregated at night to offer them food and shelter. That is the kind of Christianity and Instruction I wanted and needed. The priest/paster was always available to answer questions about the various beliefs of the church and theological questions that we might have.

  4. I think I would ask him a series of questions. First I would ask him “If you didn’t have a Christian community around you, would you still be able to understand the Bible?” The answer of course is Yes (his understanding might not be the best understanding but it does occur even on a relative level). The second question I would then ask is, “Well how would you know that you understand it?” If you have nothing to compare it to, no one to struggle through it all, might it not mean that you’re just making up the meaning for yourself?

    If we think about it like this – say a director is trying to do some research on Hamlet. He finds two people who have the answers for his questions about te play, one who is connected to the tradition of interpreting, studying, living the play and the other someone who knows the play well but is disconnected from any one else. The director would gravitate towards the one who is connected into traditions. Is it for the sake of tradition? Perhaps, perhaps not. But implicit within human nature is to trust the testimony of many.

  5. I was actually just thinking about this before coming and reading your post. I think I would start by acknowledging to this person that they have a point – we can do a lot without focusing consciously on the study of theology, just as your (Nijay’s) pastor was able to do ministry for years and not think theology was all that important. But, most of us do have some sort of theology, whether we realize it or not. A biblical passage can be taken in multiple ways, and we’re probably making a decision about how to take it based on our theological assumptions, even if we think that we’re just reading what the Bible says. Then, there are places where the Bible seems to be saying multiple different things – how do we figure out what to think in these cases? Finally, how do we adjudicate between people’s differing convictions (once we determine they’ve both read the Bible closely and used it to get to their convictions)?

  6. Thanks for the comments so far.

    Bill – well said – it is important we foster unity. But also remember (on your first note) that this person is already involved in a Bible study.

    Billy – yes, Peter Berger is exactly what I thought! I will take it from Luke Timothy Johnson’s approach (similar to Berger) where the creeds reinforce a Christian worldview when understood properly.

    Laurence – I am curious why you don’t like creeds (esp ecumenical creeds and basic ones such as Apostles’ Creed). Is it that you don’t like creeds per se, or how they are used?

    Isaac – thanks. Again, this man is in a Bible study. I like your Hamlet example. I might use that! It is also a good plug for seminary!

    Bill H – spoken like a true SPU/SPS grad! So proud.

    • Nijay,

      I think “bible study” in this situation is a little bit too vague considering that it takes on so many different forms in different movements – for some its literally just a hang out, for others its an exploration of the creeds, for others its membership classes.

      So I think that even though he’s going to a Bible study his statement – “Pastor, I have a Bible and I read it everyday. Why do I need to learn your ‘theology’ if the Bible tells me what to believe and can answer my questions?” – folds back on to the situation. I would be asking myself why does he go to bible study in the first place if he already knows how to ‘read the bible for himself’? If it doesn’t for ‘theological thought’ then I think there is a divide here between ‘theology’ and ‘studying the bible’ which is dangerous and prolific among many believers.

      In my mind, if he’s making a statement like this the bible studying is not doing it’s job (of course this depends on the type of bible study) and/or this person has misunderstood (or perhaps emulated) a separation between “deep theological reflection” and “reading the bible for myself.”

  7. Nijay: I think that creeds are kind of like a straitjacket and do reduce one’s desire to explore all aspects of faith and belief. I studied for the ministry in the 1950’s, was drafted (I didn’t want to use a student deferment) and stayed in the military for eight years and never returned to my ministry studies. I did attend college for seven years.

    During that time in the USN, in addition to my regular electronics job, I served as an organist and helper to chaplains. My church background is so varied that I do wish to keep exploring all aspects of Christianity as well as other belief systems. My family consists on one Jew, one sincere and active Roman Catholic, one Lutheran minister, two Methodists (my father was a lay-minister), and free thinking me.

    I read a lot for a 80 year old and value my Kindle as my eyes aren’t so good any more and the Kindle allows me to magnify the type. My favorite authors are N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan and many others. Trying to put them all into one creed or any creed would be difficult. I am half way through N. T. Wright’s 1700 page “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” and it is quite a book. Paul is my main guide to faith. I think of him as a short, scrappy, loving man who probably wouldn’t have subscribed to any one creed.

    I just don’t like having to say I believe in something permanently and forever and saying a creed (and I’ve said many in a variety of churches) seems to limit my thinking.

  8. It seems to me, that like most people who do not believe theology is important, this attendee needs to encouraged to see how doctrine affects our worldview. When faced with similar circumstances, I have encouraged such individuals to meet one on one with me so that we can continue the discussion. Most often, such individuals just need someone who loves them to help them see the relationship between doctrine and our views!

    Tim

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