Are Scholars and Teachers Truly Leading the Church? And Should They?

Don Miller

Donald Miller

Many of my Christian friends have noted Donald Miller’s recent post about rescuing the Christian Church from leadership dominated by scholars. Miller, the firebrand behind the famous (or infamous, depending on your view) Blue Like Jazz, sells his perspective hard. As always, I recommend you read the whole thing.

But is he right?

The Internet is a screwy place. If one were to view the whole of American Christendom by what one reads on the Internet, Miller’s contention might seem accurate. What’s written on the Internet does skew toward academic discussions, and yes, people fight like cats and dogs over doctrines (both macro and micro) on Web sites of all sizes.

But the Internet is skewed toward odd demographic leanings, and as a result, I don’t believe what is discussed on the Internet mirrors the discussion of the average church. Plus, those of us who write about church-related issues should not believe our own press. Fact is, the average Christian could care less about the Godblogosphere.

Or their nearest Christian seminary, for that matter. “Normal” people just don’t have the wherewithal to care about the background machinations of American Christendom. They leave such ponderings for eggheads who write blogs they don’t read or brainiacs who inhabit seminary classrooms they’ll never darken.

Hey, let’s get real, OK?

By some counts, we have 300,000 churches in the United States. In my wanderings through the Church over the course of 35 years, I’ve met perhaps two dozen people I would deem genuine scholars, and not a single one of them was running a church. I’m not sure from where Miller is getting his academic oligarchy, but if even a tenth of those 300,000 churches are pastored by someone who can translate a chapter of John from Greek to English, I’ll volunteer to shine Miller’s shoes for a year.

So much for the scholars. If anything, churches are hurting for a good scholar or two, leaders or laymen. I once attended a church that had a genuine scholar in its midst, and the church leaders would trot him out from time to time to give his academic imprimatur on some supposedly weighty theological matter, and then they would usher him back into his hermetically sealed container to await his next rethawing. If anything, when true scholars do exist in our pews, we tend to treat them as something of a sideshow act. Shame on us, but there it is. In addition, some local church leaders see scholars as a threat, not as a resource. Human nature being what it is, when you’re trying to prepare a sermon on a text and you’ve got someone sitting in the seats who held that passage in Dead Sea Scroll-version in his hands and read the Hebrew right off it, well, it’s a tad unnerving to most guys who barely made it through seminary, if they even made it to seminary at all.

Teachers are another issue, though. And on this, Miller may have a bit of a point. But, as we’ll see, only a bit, because perception and reality are not the same thing.

We have a fundamental problem in the American Christian Church regarding roles and gifts. Somehow, and more and more books are appearing that look at this problem, we’ve developed a way of doing church that focuses all the responsibility and leadership initiative on one soul: the pastor.

Yet even a casual reading of the New Testament tears down our idolmaking for that calling. The pastor simply cannot be the focal point of all ministry within a given church. The Bible makes this clear:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
—1 Corinthians 12:27-30

Fact is, pastor isn’t even mentioned in that passage. The closest we get is apostle, and plenty of folks out there who get all worked up about things don’t believe apostles exist anymore, so where does that leave us?

Well, back at pastor, because our societal and cultural constructs have made pastor the be all and end all of ministry.

I’ve talked to many pastors over the years. Most of them didn’t receive a call to teach others. Most received a calling to help the Church and the people in it however best they could with whatever gifts they had. Though Miller would have us believe that church leadership at the local level is crawling with teachers, it’s really only crawling with those people who have had teaching thrust upon them. And that’s a massive distinction.

For years George Barna has polled the American Church to get a sense of where we’re at. A few years back, he polled pastors and asked them how well they thought they were teaching their charges. The mutual pastoral backslapping commenced, as pastors uniformly believed they were doing a great job teaching. But when Barna polled the congregations of those same pastors, ignorance of even basic doctrine was rampant. The disconnect was startling.

And why shouldn’t it be when we keep expecting pastors to be the primary teachers in a church? They simply aren’t in most cases. They weren’t trained to teach, don’t know how to teach well, and were cast into the role of teacher with the facts, but not the skills.

Scratch the surface of the average church pastor, and you are most likely to find someone who excels at creating vision, connecting to people relationally, or has gifts for administration and management. Some are gifted teachers, but not most, yet they are expected to teach at all times.

Miller is wrong if he believes that scholars and teachers are leading the Church for the simple reasons that genuine scholars are rarities (and even rarer in leadership within a local church) and the average teaching pastor has been ill-equipped to teach. Tossing labels around is one thing, but let’s be honest about the true state of the Church.

The better question is whether we value teaching too highly. I don’t believe that can ever be the case. Barna’s polling not only revealed the overconfidence of pastors in their teaching, but it also exposed the general ignorance about the Faith that wreaks havoc everywhere ignorant Christians go. People ARE destroyed for lack of knowledge. Christians who don’t know what they believe cannot transmit what they believe to others who do not understand. End of argument.

So, where is the balance in all this?

Ideally, the Church should…

Teach its people the Faith.

Encourage the giftings of each person within the local church for service to that church and the greater whole of Christendom.

We’re not doing either of those well.

If you’ve read me long enough, you know I have a beef about our lack of a cradle-to-grave educational plan in our churches. We must have one. Each church must determine theirs.

AND we need to identify the gifts and talents of people in the seats so that they are released to minister as God would have them. Sadly, the “pastor as church emperor” stifles that potential. If anything, the pastoral role should be just one of several. Many pastors don’t preach well. Then who is the best preacher in the church?  Many pastors are less-than-ideal comforters of the bereaved and hurting. Then who are the best comforters? Many pastors don’t listen well, either to their people or to the Lord. Then who are the best listeners and the best prophets? Many pastors don’t teach well. Then who does? Let’s get the right people in the right roles and start doing this right. And if that means the pastor reads the Scriptures on Sunday and someone else preaches or teaches, then fine. If that means that no one is paid staff, then fine. If that means the staff is huge and paid, fine. If that means that the whole church lives in one large apartment complex and does a kibbutz-type thing, fine. But let’s stop whatever we’re doing with the current model because it just doesn’t work all that well.

In short, does the Church function as a body with Christ as the head or with the pastor as the head? We know the answer. Now what are we doing to rethink how we do church so that everyone in the church is operating in their genuine giftings and receives the honor due them?

Ultimately, this is what Miller is aiming for. Taking a potshot at scholars and teachers isn’t the way to get there, though. We know the Church is a body, so let’s stop shooting that body in the foot.

YOU Feed Them


Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish–unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And they did so, and had them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
—Luke 9:12-17

I’ve probably heard more sermons on the feeding of the 5,000 than just about any other miracle in the Bible. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on the aspect of it I’m going to write about today.

Some people will contend that I’m critical of the Church. Fact is, I love the Church. I want to see the Church be all she can be, because I know that when she walks in the fullness of her beauty, she takes on the transcendence of her Lover and the world around her transforms.

Which is why I am so crestfallen when I hear Christian people tell me how they are suffering in the midst of the plenty that is their own local church. Basket of breadI hear from people with basic needs that any person in the church could meet with a modicum of effort, yet that need goes unfulfilled.

Honestly, I can think of few things more crushing to the spiritual life of another than to sit in church on Sunday and hear a sermon on God’s bounty, surrounded by people who are abounding, but not being one of them.

Increasingly, there exists a Christian rhetoric that states, I don’t have to do anything to help you because God will help you on His own, if someone prays hard enough. The problem is that the more I read the Scriptures, the more I’m convinced that mentality is the exact opposite of what God is trying to tell us about the way He works.

In the feeding of the 5,000 in Luke, Jesus makes—what is to me, at least—one of the most startling statements in the New Testament. The disciples, sensitive to the growing need of the crowd for food, alert Jesus to the problem, but He responds that the disciples should feed them. Almost instantly, the excuses start.

How the rest of the miracle unfolds is also telling. It happened while the disciples finally did the work that Jesus requested. As they handed out the food from the baskets, the miracle progressed. It didn’t happen before the work. In other words, Jesus didn’t make extra baskets of food materialize at His feet before the dazzled onlookers. Only as the disciples walked from person to person handing out food did the true nature of the miracle unfold. Jesus asked them to feed the crowd, and they did.

We gloss over that the disciples were active participants in the work of meeting the needs of others. The disciples were partners in the miracle.

Paul writes:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
—Romans 10:14-15

In short, the Lord wants the Gospel to go out, and it goes out because a real person delivers it. No one will hear unless a flesh and blood human does the work.

Paul also writes this:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.
—2 Corinthians 5:20a

The king empowers an ambassador to be his full representative. An ambassador can make decisions and perform actions as if the king himself were making or performing them. The king’s decree and charge make that power possible.

This comes by the Holy Spirit living in us. A couple verses before, Paul wrote this:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
—2 Corinthians 5:17-19

Note well that final phrase.

Paul also writes:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:18

The new birth and our transformation into Christ’s fullness make it possible for us to be ambassadors.

2 Corinthians 5 concludes with this amazing statement:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
—2 Corinthians 5:21

Christian, you are the righteousness of God! Wherever you go, you are His salt, His light, His full representative, His very image.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
—2 Timothy 3:16-17

…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
—Philippians 2:13

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:10

Are we walking in those good works that God prepared beforehand?  Are we seeing the need and filling it because God has equipped us to meet needs because He Himself lives in us? Or are we reading the Bible just to fill our heads with more knowledge about work we aren’t doing?

This passage is telling:

And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.
—Acts 3:2-8

What is notably absent from that healing and the way Peter and John worked? I’ll let you think about that for a while.

God intends for us Spirit-filled believers to do the work. We’re already equipped. We’re already charged.

But Dan, what about these?

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
—John 15:5

But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
—Luke 18:27

Folks, these two verses are the poster children for misapplying Scripture and for making excuses for dumping all the responsibility back on God to make anything happen.

The truth is that God lives in you. He is always in you. Where you go, He is. You are the righteousness of God. Anything is possible because God is working through you.

There is NEVER a reason for a fellow believer to be in want. NEVER. If a local church contains people with plenty and people in want, there’s only one word for that church: Ichabod. The glory has departed.

This issue makes me angry. It makes me furious when the Church has been equipped, approved, and charged with the task by God, yet the people in the Church won’t do the work. They throw it back in God’s lap and ask Him to do the work for them instead. As I see it, that’s a complete dismissal of our identity in Christ and a rejection of the Holy Spirit in us.

How ironic that we abort our responsibility when confronted with people in need, yet what follows are the first things the newly Spirit-filled Church did:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
—Acts 2:42-45

If God puts someone with a legitimate need before me, there’s nothing for me to pray about. I already know what to do. I’m to do the work and meet the need as best I can in light of all that Christ has given to me and done for me. And if the need is too great, then I pull the rest of the Church in and we meet the need. When we do the work because we have the faith and the equipping for it, then the miracle will progress through us because of what Christ has already done in us.

If we learn no other truth this year, that one will be enough.

My Island, No Trespassing


I like to watch people. The backstage of an event is often more interesting to me than the event itself. What happens when no one is looking (except for me) I find fascinating.

Recently, I’ve been watching what may be an interesting cultural trend.

My son is part of a weekend program that offers many challenging classes for gifted students. We love it. The two classes he takes have about 30 kids in one class and 15 in the other. Because some families have more than one kids in a class at a time, parents are not always fully represented, so some kids are in class by themselves, while others are there with one or both parents.

Both classes involve a lot of construction. The kids may build complex items, such as a soldered circuit board. Pretty ambitious stuff. Again, challenging for the kids.

I’ve been there for both classes. What has struck me is the dynamic of helping others.

When presented with a task, the majority of parents focus solely on helping their own child, despite the fact that other children have no parent present to help. Also, while plenty of opportunities to assist the teacher of class exist, not many people jump at the chance.

A few parents assist those children who have no parents present. A few generally help the teacher with whatever needs to be done to make the class work. A few. But most parents turn all their attention to their own child.

I’ve written many times about the island mentality in America 2010. I  see a country where people increasingly focus on their own family unit to the exclusion of others. Some believe this is the aftermath of cocooning wrought by 9/11. PangeaI contend that cocooning has transformed into islanding.

Some scientists say that the continents began as one land mass called Pangaea. Time and tectonics eventually tore Pangaea into smaller chunks that became the recognizable individual continents and islands.

In many ways, our communities and sense of common national identity are being torn asunder by the tectonic shifts of societal change. The entire idea of  community increasingly suffers when people turn their community into a sea filled with tiny islands with a common sea between them, but no real contact between the islands. The sea, rather than being a means of travel and connection, becomes a moat that keeps others out.

What is particularly sad is that these human islands “evolve” their own ecoculture that, in time, cannot abide the ecocultures of the other islands. Anyone who follows the travails of Australia in that country/island’s fight against cane toads and rabbits knows that being too different in one’s ecoculture wreaks havoc when an outsider comes in.

So, some islands work very hard to keep the outsiders out. And the fracture lines keep widening.

This should not surprise us, though. Darwinism, one of the core philosophies of contemporary society, wormed its way into the minds of too many people. We made peace with the “selfish gene” and incorporated “survival of the fittest” into our worldview. We see others as competition. “Only the strong survive.” We must protect our own, even if it comes at the expense of others individually and our communities as a whole. Or so it is said.

A couple months ago, I mentioned that the youth pastor at my church lamented his inability to get youth groups from other churches together to do combined community projects. Too many other churches feared their youth would be poached by a “competing” church. Island thinking exist in Christianity, too.

God didn’t make us to live as islands, though. Our families are not intended to be so sacrosanct that no one else is allowed in,  or that others exist only to get in the family’s way.

This is especially true of the Church. Jesus repeatedly said that the family of God is not an island, that ANY who do the will of God are invited in. There are no strangers, only those who have not yet come into the fold. And on the cross, Jesus shattered the idea of boundaries of biological family by entrusting His mother to the care of His youngest follower, and vice versa.

If we are to be a true reflection of the Church that God intends, we have to get rid of the moat. We can’t be an island, other than to be a place of refuge amongst cultural and societal insanity. Because the model we have from the Bible is not an island. Nor does the Bible preach the nuclear family to the detriment of those whose biological family does not look like our own.  The Church should NEVER be afraid of the outsider, because such was each one of us before Christ restored us.

Is it that hard to put down “our thing”—whatever it may be—to help another?

Do we not have some sense that we are diminished ourselves when others go wanting?

Why must we work so hard to protect our own that we have nothing else left over to give to those not our own?

Must we live by the survival of the fittest?

And lastly, why are we so proud of our personal island when God has no place for islands in His Kingdom?