Does Theology Matter for Normal Christians?

Posted: January 6, 2011 in church, education, theology


It’s a word with the unique power to simultaneously spark two completely different reactions among Christians.  For some people, engaging in a conversation about theology is about as easy as getting a college guy to play Halo 3 and eat pizza.  However, for most, merely mentioning words like “soteriology” or “justification” is enough to elicit bored yawns and rolled eyes.

Why do so many normal Christians find theology so uninteresting?  Why do so many “average Joe’s” think theology is something that is only important for pastors, professors, or worst of all, theologians.

While there are certainly many answers to this question, I think the ultimate reason for this lack of interest is the fact that theology has often been displaced from its true context – the local church.  Doctrine seems unimportant because it no longer occupies a central position in the life and mission of believing communities.

I am blessed to be part of a church that values deep theological reflection and never shies away from teaching the many wonderful (and at times, difficult) doctrines of the Christian faith.  But many churches in this country do not have similar convictions.  Why?

Again, there are undoubtedly many reasons, but I will only highlight two.

What Does “Pneumatology” Have to Do With My Life?

First, I think that churches often fail to make the connection between theology and life.  Many churches, while focusing a lot of attention on “knowing” doctrine, spend little time discussing the practical implications of those doctrines, preferring high and lofty abstractions to down and dirty application.  It’s relatively easy to study Paul’s teaching on the Incarnation in Philippians 2.  It’s much harder to cultivate the “mind of Christ” and walk in humility towards others (the practical application that Paul drew from that theological truth).

Reacting to this tendency is the opposite extreme: because theology doesn’t seem to have an impact on our lives, it isn’t seen as valuable and is therefore neglected.  It’s the “theology is stuffy and irrelevant; just love Jesus and love people” mindset.  Reinforcing this thinking is the all-too-prevalent problem of elitist theologians, Christians who think they know everything there is to know about grace (and faith, and prayer, and spiritual gifts, and demons, and the end times) and yet fail to exhibit grace in their speech and actions (for more on that topic, see this post).

In their book Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write,

“Theology is the task of the local church…because the only theology that matters and is worthy of the name is practical theology.  Theology is the stuff of life.  Theology is a service of worship that extends over the whole of life… Meaningful theology needs to take place primarily in the routine life of the people of God.  It needs to be discourse that engages with life and arises out of life.” (Total Church, p. 155)

When the church fails to make this crucial connection, theology is inevitably relegated to the realm of the irrelevant.

M.Div. = Pastor?

The second reason that theology is often displaced from the local church is because the church has become too reliant upon the academy in regard to theological matters.  This reliance takes many forms, including allowing the academy to set the church’s theological “agenda,” confining in-depth theological reflection and conversation to the academic world, and relying on Bible colleges and seminaries as the primary providers of theological and ministerial training for church leaders.

The problem with this approach to theology arises from the fact that the academy is not capable of playing this role, nor should it be.  Gerald Hiestand, writing for First Things, says,

“Simply put, the questions facing clergy are not always congruent with the questions facing professors. This is not in itself troubling. We need not discount the validity of either set of questions. What is troubling is the fact that nearly all of our theologians have entered the academy, expending the greatest part of their energy answering academic questions. And when academic theologians do get around to addressing ecclesial questions, they tend to do so in academic ways. The chronic “disconnect” between the academy and the church is the inevitable result.”

The authors of Total Church make this point as well:

“The supposed medieval concern about the number of angels on a pinhead may illustrate all that is silly about ‘professional’ theology, but a cursory glance at even some evangelical theological journals reveals contemporary discussions that are no less obscure.  They may sound scholarly and impressive, but they [are] fundamentally sterile and too often irrelevant.” (Total Church, p. 155-156)

One specific way in which this “disconnect” manifests itself is seen in the difference between intellectual knowledge and true understanding.  In his classic book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke writes,

“There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena.  So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up…” (A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, p. 10)

The classroom, although a great environment for imparting knowledge, is not nearly so effective in cultivating “actual spiritual growth.”

This is just one facet of the ever-present “disconnect,” one which I have struggled with personally.  It’s not that the theological institutions have failed; they were never up to the task in the first place!  It is unreasonable to assume (and yet, assume we do) that four years at a Bible college or seminary is all that is necessary for obtaining true theological understanding.

At Home in the Believing Community

It is the church that bears primary responsibility for raising up men and women in the Christian faith, not only through the impartation of theological knowledge, but also in the application of that theology to life.  Only the church can provide the “hermeneutics of obedience”:

“The  readiness to obey Christ’s words is prerequisite to understanding them… The Christian community is the context in which commitment to obedience is nurtured and maintained, and so it is the context in which theology must be done.” (Total Church, p. 159)

As long as the church does not neglect this responsibility, recognizing the limitations of formal theological education, the academy can and should continue to play an important role in serving the church, but not supporting it as a crutch.

Theology must not be removed from the “furnace of life” nor shaped by anything other than the “anvil of the local church,” (Total Church, p. 162).  Where this is taught and practiced, challenges to the relevancy and importance of theology for everyday Christians will disappear.  People will begin to see and savor (to borrow a Piperism) the value of deep theological reflection, leading to increasing conformity to Christ’s likeness.

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