The brief silence before the clanging of forks on plates at family gatherings is when the vote is cast for the most spiritual among the group. Some families default to the father figure, or if there is a pastor in the room, there is no question. In other gatherings, the cousin who went to seminary might be asked, or the aunt who leads a Bible study, or even the teenager who has been fired up since youth camp. In this ordinary yet liturgical moment, when someone is singled out to say the pre-meal prayer, the theologian is acknowledged for a sort of expertise.
Theologians– whether greying and widely published or freshly converted and aspiring– have a unique field to say the least. By definition, the theologian is a knower of God. It is his or her task to study the Triune, to know who he is and how he works, to plumb the riches of his majesty and communicate his nature to others. Since Yahweh is infinite in his perfections, the Christian theologian has a well to draw from that never ends. The theologian is striving to be an expert on the incomprehensible one. What a glorious, monumental task indeed!
Yet, take pause, and consider– is this not the task of each and every Christian?
The answer is yes and no. Every Christian is a theologian, but not every Christian makes the study of theology their field of expertise. All children of God bear the joyous responsibility of knowing their Father through the study of his Word and are thereby theologians in a sense. But those same children of God may also be nurses, electricians, computer programmers, or any other kind of professional. They have different, valuable fields of expertise.
This creates an interesting dynamic for the self-identified theologian in relating to fellow Christians. There is a distinction between someone who invests significant resources in the study of theology, and the average Christian who reads the Scriptures and attends church faithfully. The former has chosen to make theology their vocational pursuit, whereas the latter may have an expertise in another field. That being said, there is so much in common with the two that we must be careful how sharp our distinguishing lines are. Every Christian has the same sacred text, and every Christian is indwelt by the Spirit of God. These realities have two clear implications for how theologians ought to relate to fellow Christians, and one for how theologians relate to non-Christians.
Remember that you have much to learn from non-expert theologians.
The transformational work of the Spirit of God through the power of the gospel transcends every book you have read and every class you have taken. You can have multiple doctoral degrees in theological studies and learn from the 9-year-old being baptized after demonstrating true faith in the risen Christ. The recovering addict who turned to Jesus in a rehabilitation ministry might show you something about grace you could have never put the words to. You can learn from the divorcee who is confused about a lot of secondary doctrines, but knows profoundly the depth of forgiveness found at the cross and extends the same forgiveness generously. You may know a lot more about the attributes of God, church history, or the order of salvation then any of these people ever will. Regardless, they have been transformed by the Spirit of God in salvation and can therefore display, however imperfectly, the character of God to you.
Be willing to share your expertise with boldness, love, and humility.
Even in light of the aforementioned point, the Christian world desperately needs the voices of well-trained theologians. Doctrine matters, and it matters to the faith of every Christian. Trained theologians need to be theologians in their churches, utilizing their field of expertise to build up their brothers and sisters in truth and love. If the knowledge the theologian gains from his or her studies never contributes to the health of the local church, something has gone very wrong. The truths of the Scriptures are meant to be communicated, and how much more should those who are our “experts,” be serving us with their commitment to right teaching.
Remember that non-Christians hardly see you as an expert.
While those in your church may receive your humble contributions with respect to your expertise, you will not find the same reception from the non-Christians in your life. All people, whether Christian or not, will go to a lawyer with legal questions. They will go to an interior designer when they want to decorate their homes. But they will not all go to the Christian theologian with their questions about God. This may seem simple, but it ought to produce a humility in us in our evangelistic efforts. In conversations with non-Christians, your credentials will often make little to no difference to them. Those neighbors need you to communicate the gospel to them without unnecessary jargon. They need you to pray for the Spirit to awaken them to its truth, and they need you to demonstrate faith and godliness to them. But remember, they likely do not think they need any of that, much less will they necessarily have an appreciation for your expertise.
Christian Theology is a field of study unlike any other. Its experts must remember that they are mere sinners saved by grace, just like all of their other brothers and sisters. They must steward their expertise well to the benefit of the Church. With non-believers, they must accept that they are not likely to impress, but must play the role of a gospel witness as any other Christian could and should. Theologians at every level: Employ your expertise with humility in every interaction for the good of your brother and the good of your neighbor to the glory of God.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.