The Truth about Anti-Intellectualism in the Church

On more than one occasion, I have heard something like this, “Great sermon today Reverend…I saw the Holy Ghost on you and NOT the seminary!” or “it [ministry] don\’t take all that [education]…the Bible is simple.”Have you noticed that some church folks have negative or at best mixed feelings about formal religious training? While we tend to appreciate and celebrate educational attainment in other areas like the hard sciences, theological studies are often viewed with guarded suspicion–a kind of exception to the general rule. Some congregations even prefer pastors with degrees in business over ones with degrees in theology or biblical studies.

These kinds of attitudes are certainly understandable. After all, as a community Black folks haven\’t always had access to formalized education of any kind, let alone theological education. Therefore, the Black Church tradition was forced to flourish without formal training. Yet, in a marvelous and unique way, the Lord used our weakness to “shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) The best of our tradition has even shown the wider “Church world” that formally unschooled doesn\’t necessarily mean anti-intellectual or weak-minded. The Lord blessed the Black Church with a unique ability to express profound biblical truths in poetic, rhythmic, and passionate ways that is nothing less than genius. However, some churchgoers began to take comfort and pride in the “uneducatedness” of their pastors—almost wearing it as a badge of honor.  Even today, religious education is often deemed unnecessary (at best) or harmful (at worst) to faithful ministry.

Here are a few common reasons some churches prefer pastors without biblical or theological schooling.

1. The “It Don\’t Take All That” Approach to Christian Faith: Some church folks simply believe they don\’t need to think very hard about God or the Christian faith. Therefore, they are more comfortable with pastors who won\’t (or can\’t) push them beyond their intellectual and spiritual comfort zones. If we be brutally honest, this strain of anti-intellectualism is more widespread in the Black Church tradition (among many other traditions) than we care to admit. For many of us, church is a place for serious feeling, NOT for serious thinking.

Certainly, we must love the Lord our God with our all our heart (i.e. our feelings and affections) and all our soul. (see Matthew 22:37) But immediately after that, Christian disciples are specifically commanded “to love the Lord your God…with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37b, Mark 12:29b) Clearly the Lord is calling us to love with him with both our hearts AND our minds. Why should we be forced to choose between the two or “check our brains” at the sanctuary door?

Many Christians wrongly believe Jesus calls them to be childlike or simplistic in their thinking in order to participate in the Kingdom of God (see Matthew 18:2-4, Luke 18:17). However, Jesus\’ description actually calls believers to “humble themselves” like children, not to think like children. This is a call to humility and meekness, not to simple-mindedness. In fact, the Scriptures explicitly rebuke some Christians precisely for thinking like children. 1 Corinthians 14:20 says “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” Christians are repeatedly admonished to become more mature in their understanding and knowledge of the faith. (see Romans 12:2, Colossians 1:9, Hebrews 5:11-12, 6:1)

Anti-intellectual pastors can hardly equip the saints to grow in this way. A pastor\’s calling to feed and protect Christ\’s flock may be severely compromised if they refuse to think hard about the Christian faith. How can a shepherd clearly interpret and apply the Word of God to the lives of God\’s people, if they don\’t know anything about the various literary genres and grammatical forms the Bible uses to convey its message or if they haven\’t rigorously studied the core doctrines it contains? We need pastors with the gifts and tools (enhanced and sharpened by formal study) to help rightly divide and interpret God\’s Word, so that we may plainly understand the deep and rich treasures it contains.

Pastors are also called to safeguard the Lord\’s people against doctrinal errors. (see 1 Timothy 4:16, Acts 20:28) Pastors without formal theological training are certainly at a disadvantage when it comes to spotting and challenging destructive doctrine, because they may not be familiar enough with the precise doctrinal formulations of the Christian faith to be able to expose false teaching. They also may not know how God has used Christians throughout the history of the Church to refute some of the very same errors that are rampant today. Although they are deceived, false teachers are certainly not dumb. They use clever devices to infiltrate and bring devastation among God\’s people. Romans 16:18 says “by smooth talk and flattery they [false teachers] deceive the hearts of the naive.” Colossians 2:4 also says that they often use “persuasive arguments” to “delude” the Lord\’s people. How much more wise and studious should the faithful pastor be in order to help expose false teachers and guard the Lord\’s people against the latest twisting of the gospel?

2. The Potential for Pastoral “Uppityness”: Some churches are suspicious of theological education because they think it will make their pastor arrogant, aloof, and/or out-of-step with the faith and culture of their community. They figure, “once my pastor gets all that ‘high-falootin\’ academic stuff he will no longer be ‘down-to-earth\’ or ‘one of us.\’” Parishioners can\’t be blamed for feeling this way, since some of them have been “burned” by newly-educated pastors who suddenly use their education to look down on the communities they came from and serve. Good seminaries rarely make people arrogant or uppity. If anything, formal training should help pastors better serve their communities by challenging them to reflect more deeply on the riches of God\’s grace in Jesus Christ. The “saved and sanctified” seminarian should know more than most that he or she is above all a “grace case.”Far more often, a prideful heart takes the occasion of religious education to devalue and belittle other brothers and sisters in Christ. However theological education is intended to help build up the saints, not tear them down. 

Of course, some preachers pursue religious degrees for the wrong reasons in the first place–either purely for professional/financial goals or selfish ambition. This is a sad view of theological education !Rather than serve their current congregations, some shady characters view formal training as a convenient means to “graduate” to a higher paying or more educated congregation. There is even a growing movement among some preachers to find the quickest and easiest way to simply get some academic “letters” behind their name. Apparently, being called “Reverend Doctor such and such” is more impressive than “Reverend,” “minister,” or “pastor” these days. But the desire to possess degree without the actual training to help serve the saints or simply to move up the career ladder may already indicate an unhealthy appetite for personal glory. Such motivations point to a pre-existing pride condition, not to the dangers of formal study itself.

3. The Sermonic Lecture: Some congregations suspect that a formally educated pastor will inevitably preach sermons which sound like dry academic lectures. Perhaps nothing is more distasteful to a Black Church congregation on Sunday morning than a stuffy, cold, professorial sermon. I love theological studies, but even I can\’t tolerate this sort of thing. Thoughtfulness does not mean dispassionate, aloof, or boring. Religious education should lead to even more passionate, engaging, and dynamic gospel proclamation in a style which fits the natural makeup of the preacher and the congregation. As pastors reflect more deeply on Jesus Christ who is “the life” (John 14:6), they should preach in even more lively ways. As they are moved through the intense systematic study of God\’s word, they should invariably preach more moving and engaging sermons.

Many church folks have been confused and bewildered by certain overzealous seminarians, who think they must use every “10 cent word” they hear in the classroom directly on the congregation the following Sunday.  The very purpose of learning theological terms is to more clearly understand, interpret, and articulate the contents of God\’s Word. When the terms don\’t serve this purpose, they can be safely dropped (unless of course the terms in question are actually found in Scripture). Sometimes pastors must teach certain terms not explicitly found in Scripture (like “Trinity,” “incarnation,” or “omnipotence”) to help clarify truths or concepts that are found Scripture. However, there is a delicate balance here which varies from congregation to congregation. If the preacher needlessly uses obscure or inaccessible terminology often, there may be a few things going on. 1. He may be sinfully attempting to demonstrate his own intellectual greatness. 2. He may not understand theological categories themselves well enough to explain them clearly or simply. Or 3.He may be too detached from the congregation to realize he\’s confusing them. In any case, formal theological schooling doesn\’t seem to be directly at fault here.

Don\’t Get Me Wrong Saints!

I am NOT saying that pastors without formal theological training are dumb, deficient, or unfaithful. Certainly there are brilliant and faithful pastors out there who, for various reasons, haven\’t had any formal theological training.

I am NOT saying that theological education is any substitute for the Lord\’s calling on a pastor\’s life. No amount of formal training can make a person called or gifted for gospel ministry. (However the Lord often uses formal schooling to enhance and sharpen the gifts he has already given a person.)

I am NOT saying that anti-intellectualism is only a Black Church issue. This post only highlights its unique manifestations within Black church tradition. However anti-intellectual tendencies also extend into much of the broader Church world (particularly in evangelical and fundamentalist circles).

So What Am I saying?

As a tradition, we should do even more to value and support the theological growth of our leaders through good seminary education. Ideally, this will only enhance their ministry gifts and in turn bless the churches they serve. Here are some practical suggestions churches might consider to promote the intellectual and theological development of our pastors. 

Practical Suggestion 1: Alongside the latest building fund, why not also fund our pastor\’s biblical studies and books for the building up of the saints? (Trust me… he needs his ministry gifts sharpened more than he needs a new suit or a new pair of “gators.”)

Practical Suggestion 2: As we evaluate the strengths of potential pastors, let\’s deliberately prefer ministry candidates who understand the importance of their own theological growth and development. (We expect the professionals who deal with our bodies, minds, and money to have formal training and study. We should expect at least this much from those who deal with our souls! If they haven\’t received it already, they should have a mind to get formal theological training as soon as possible.)

Practical Suggestion 3: Bring at least as much of your mind to your Christian walk as you do to any other area of life. Don\’t be “street smart” and yet “Bible dumb.” As you grow in your knowledge of the Word, it should encourage your pastor to grow as well. (Even anti-intellectual pastors don\’t like to know less about the Bible than the average lay member.)

Brothers and sisters, it\’s “TIME OUT” for anti-intellectual Christianity. In today\’s world “it [ministry] really DOES take all that.” The Church needs the sharpest trained minds at her service, shepherds who love God with all their hearts and minds—who think hard about the riches of our faith and explain them with clarity and precision. Our Lord is worthy of nothing less.

Mika Edmondson is an ordained Baptist minister. He holds a Master’s of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School (Nashville, TN) and is currently working toward a doctorate in Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He may be reached at medmond3@calvinseminary.edu.

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