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.

21 thoughts on “Are Scholars and Teachers Truly Leading the Church? And Should They?

  1. i like what you’ve written. we’ve placed too great a value on teaching.

    my thoughts are similar, though i’d word it so that the subject of our unhealthy obsession is knowledge. [period. not just teaching.] i’m not suggesting knowledge is bad or even unimportant. i’m only saying that we know far too much about God to live the lives that many of us do. we’re far too intelligent concerning scripture to be as disobedient to it as we are.

    many of us (or most of us?) study the bible 2 and 3 times a week (whether with a teacher or simply with a group of our peers). we know what to believe and why to believe it. but we still can’t find it within ourselves to love our neighbors or desire God more than money.

    we’ve valued knowledge and learning over love and obedience, and the church just can’t function properly that way. this is the exact lie the serpent told adam and eve in the garden. they traded their obedient lives for a chance to know as much as God. and mankind has been making this trade ever since.

    • James,

      Good thoughts, but I don’t think that we can play the game of love vs. knowledge. Too much of Christianity in the West descends into either/or arguments, and most battles can’t go that way in real life.

      You have to have knowledge to do ANYTHING. You can’t even love without knowledge. Knowledge has its place.

      As with anything, the problem is rushing to the poles and playing the excess game. We have to have balance!

      • dan, i agree with you completely. balance is key. i’m only meaning to say that we’re WAY out of balance. for most, christianity has become a list of things to know and believe. i only want the pendulum to swing back towards the middle, but that’s still going to be quite a swing.

        though, for the record, if i’m calling it like i see it… knowledge has been set against obedience (and not love). [love is the/a motivation for obedience, but i’d argue love could very well also be the motivation for seeking knowledge.] i just know that for most christians, the answer is not further bible study (for gaining knowledge at least). but that’s the prescription we keep offering.

  2. I have skimmed Miller’s post and need to read it again.

    Coming as I do from the Reformed wing of the church, there is certanily a tendency toward hero worship and the rock stars of that world are the intellectuals: R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, Michael Horton, etc. That obsession with the intellectual elite leads to the average pastor trying to emulate them by reading all of the right books and being able to deliver an intellectually meaty sermon. Most of them can’t pull it off. Likewise lots of the “laity” are looking for their local pastor to be as passionate as John Piper and as intellectual as Carson. I don’t know if that is true in the broader evangelical world but it certainly is rampant among the more Reformed folks and in that group the academics certainly are leading, at least from afar.

    Signed, a recovering Reformed fan-boy

    • Arthur,

      At a time when I was in desperate need of assistance with life, my car had a problem. My pastor, who at one time had managed a car repair shop, offered to take my car to his people. In the end, he paid for the service and for a set of replacement tires.

      When I was down recovering from surgery, I still needed to tend my property. One of the elders of the church came over and spent the next four hours cutting my grass. Brought his own ZTR mower to do it, too.

      We can all talk about leadership and skills and whatnot, but the fact is that most people experience the Gospel in just this way. When I was in need, someone cared enough to make a difference.

      It’s not about rock stars and guys in ivory towers. Once we learn that, we can be a lot more grateful for what we do have in our leaders. They have their own skills and gifts, just like you and I do. Please, let us all appreciate each person as an individual!

  3. People are generally not just sitting around ingesting intellectual dialog of scholars and having doctrinal debates. The average Christian is living a normal life trying to get by, for better or worse. Definitely not eating up Calvin’s institutes or something, if that’s what he means. If anything, teaching takes a backseat to sensationalized spiritual fads. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to dichotomize ideas and actions. Teaching is an action, and so is identifying wrong patterns of thought and belief.

    This quote tells me I have more in common with him than not:
    “Maybe you could meet in homes, appoint some elders, pray for each other, read the Bible to each other, and then just serve your communities and each other in love.”

    A de-sensationalized teaching, without cult of personality leaders on pedestals who are looked at as superior because of their education, that I can get behind. And I do agree with him that if discipleship is only taking place in classrooms, it’s not really taking place. It’s good of him to highlight the fact that Jesus taught, and he did so by doing, living, and touching. So I think I’m in agreement with his basic goal. I wouldn’t want to discredit concepts like “scholarship” and “teaching” in the process though. I mean one of the things they devoted themselves to in Acts 2 was the apostle’s teaching. I value that pretty highly.

  4. merry

    I like this a lot, and I agree.

    Academic scholars come in handy and I encourage what they do, but aside from specialized knowledge, Christians in general seem to underrate the value of simply being well-educated. I know so many people who haven’t even read through the entire Bible. This confuses me terribly; if you’re a Christian, why wouldn’t you read the Bible and be educated? (Incidentally, I never knew quite how to approach reading the Bible until I took a Hermeneutics class. You think you’d at least learn that in church.)

    However,I had a pastor who was great at being a “pastor” but not so much a “preacher.” He had trouble articulating, was always taking verses out of context and saying things I didn’t agree with. I considered gently discussing a few things with him, but before I had a chance some other people (including a retired pastor, ironically) told him he was a bad pastor, among other things. Ouch! My pastor got extremely discouraged and gave up, and quit the ministry. I feel so bad for him…he may have not been the best speaker, but he is a wonderful person, and what those people said to him terrible. I never want to see that happen again.

  5. A friend’s wife wanted a divorce. He did not. Our state allows for no-fault divorce. Even if both parties cannot agree on the divorce, one spouse can divorce the other after a year of separation. So my friend asked me a Biblical question: When should he sign the divorce papers? Huh. I was stumped. I had heard plenty of heard plenty of teachings about marriage and divorce (and about why one never should divorce) and about whether one could remarry after divorce. But this question had never come up. That is: The divorce will happen, even if one party does not want to divorce because divorce is a sin.

    After meditating on what Scripture says about marriage, divorce, and sin, I told my friend, if he had pursued what Jesus said to do since his wife was presumably (since I did not know her) sinning against him (Matthew 18), then he should treat her like an unsaved person, and as Paul wrote, if the unsaved wants to leave, let her leave (1 Cor. 7). Sign the divorce papers.

    I cannot tell you how many Christians, both clergy and laity, would go on and on about how unbiblical my instructions were for my friend when what I just laid out sounds pretty cut and dry to me; while many of these same people would give my friend nearly Scripture-free pep talks and encouragement to pray and other such things.

    • Oengus,

      I realized long ago that I could be an utter crackpot and still be able to gather a couple dozen blog readers who would hang on my every word. No one who blogs should ever believe their own press. Too little humility in the Godblogosphere explains much.

  6. Dire Dan: “pastor as church emperor”

    You have said a lot, Dan, enough to get me started going in a dozen different directions. But I’ll refrain except to add my two measly pesos. There are some big and influential groups out there (I won’t mention them by name) who have “pastor as church emperor” as their fundamental organizational principle, only they would use more majestic and “biblical” sounding terminology to describe it, but it really amounts to the very same thing. I watched over the years as what started out as a dynamic movement, which I was involved with, became increasingly stifeled, until the churches became entirely focused on and revolved around the celebrity pastor and his “gifting”. I guess what I am saying is that now most of the rank and file in the congregation simply cannot imagine anything operating any other way than this—they really do like their pastor-emperor calling all the shots.

    Over time, the celebrity pastor gradually dissolved into pixels projected on a big screen at one of the several campuses of his giga-church, or on the big screen at the stadium ballpark during one of his evangelical mass events, or else pixels projected on his blog or his organization’s web page. He’s really big time now. While I was in a bookstore, I now found out that some Bible publisher now has a special edition of the Bible out with his specially selected notes in it.

    But in the end, I just got tired of it all, the pixels and whatnot, so I packed up and left. There was just no way to change the system. Often, I suspect, the way it is is the way that everyone wants it.

    • Oengus,

      For any of us who come from a charismatic background, it’s hard to find pastors who aren’t gunning for superstardom—or for mimicking their favorite superstar. I wish there were a whole lot less of those guys who are supposedly blessed with an “apostolic ministry” and a whole lot more of those who say, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

  7. Hans

    As usual you have given us a lot to chew on, I wasn’t able to access miller’s post so I can only comment on the above.

    Firstly regarding….. ‘The better question is whether we value teaching too highly. I don’t believe that can ever be the case.’… I feel we far overvalue teaching and by extension teachers and as a result undervalue actual learning. Teachers have become sort of demigods and students seen as cannon fodder for their existence. Education has become an industry in itself, seeking its own end and glory. ( I am referring more to the secular world here, but unfortunately the church seems to follow the world into the morass rather than lead out of it)

    We need to promote and value actual learning and by extension mentoring and discipleship. A true teacher is always a student first but unfortunately many teachers forget that.

    I had a powerful word spoken over me in a profound circumstance by a couple of acknowledged prophets which left no doubt that it was the Holy Spirit speaking, included in what was said was ” because you have humbled yourself and taken the lowly seat of a student you will come to know more than your teachers ”

    over the course of time I noticed that most of my ‘teachers’ never knew that they were teachers

    We need less ‘classroom teaching ‘ and more ‘on the road to Emmaus learning ‘

    Faith just cannot be taught , it has to be demonstrated, practiced and experienced, I have my own twist to James words regarding faith/works
    in that it is our very faith itself that needs to be worked as in when we are challenged by the Holy Spirit to take a step of faith and act one it it gets returned to us as knowledge ( the Lord proves himself ) and that knowledge becomes the word of our testimony and a springboard to even greater acts of faith etc etc

    “If that means the staff is huge and paid, fine.” Dan, I hear and share your cry for the church ,but I really feel most of the systemic problems we anguish over are the result and inevitable outcome of having paid positions, in a comment in one of your recent posts someone said it so clearly, ‘ how do you get someone to see when their very lively hood depends on them not seeing’

    “pastor as church emperor” ….. well isn’t that pretty much what bible college and seminary college teach them to be…..

  8. Hans


    Back again, I was able find Millers blog and read the whole thing , so to answer your original question ‘ is he right ?’ I would have to say he’s more right than wrong in the angle I think he is coming from.

    Churches should be led by the elders but what happens is that they hire a pastor and in that process credentials more often end up taking priority over gifting, and the moment someone is being payed for their services they become “the professional” and you know how our society tends to defer to the professionals in just about everything, so a lot of the leadership the elders should exercising gets deferred onto the pastor who has been groomed through tradition, schooling and self interest to take on as much of the leadership role as allowed

    Dan , are you familiar or read any of the writings of George H Warnock

    …….I work my Father’s fields, not because I’m payed a wage but because I eat at my Fathers table and have an inheritance coming , yes the Father does have fields worked by Sharecroppers for a percentage but they do not have a place at the table nor a piece of the inheritance…….a summery/paraphrase or gist of one of his writings from memory

    Scripture does differentiate between true shepherds and hirelings..

    Please don’t think I have a hate on for those who are payed or mean to be as harsh as I may sound. Its just that I see the dynamics that are in place. You will never get those who payed by the system to radically reform the system, be it the political system, education system, medical system, or the church system

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