Church members should be theologians. Of course, not all church members have to get degrees, write books, or lecture on the hypostatic union. But theology shouldn’t be confined to the academy either. God’s Word creates the church and the church protects and promotes God’s Word. So, in a way, theology is what breathes life into the congregation and the congregation’s life puts theology on display for the world to see.
Let me give you three reasons why church members should be theologians:
Church Members are Christians and Christians are Theologians
The late R.C. Sproul famously quipped that everyone is a theologian. The real question, Sproul explained, is whether or not the Christian is a good theologian. Christians can’t avoid theology. Even non-Christians are naturally theological. We all have some knowledge of God, even if we suppress that truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-19). As those created in the image of God, we will necessarily have formed thoughts concerning the major heads of Christian doctrine – who God is, who we are, who Jesus Christ is, etc.
Christians are expressly theological because we’ve been saved through true knowledge of the gospel. Our theological center has been replaced. Before, we thought about everything through the lens of our love for ourselves and for our sin. Now, after being made alive by the Spirit, we put on a new pair of lenses. Everything we feel, say, and do is dominated by the reality that our Triune God rules over all things and has saved a people from Himself and for Himself. Christians are people dependent on the truth. It’s the truth, after all, that Jesus said would set us free (John 8:32). Christians should strive to know everything about their Creator and Savior. Eternal life is knowing the Son (John 17:3).
Congregational Churches Need Theologians
Some may be content to have the church’s leaders be the their theologians in residence and that’s not a bad impulse. God gifts His church with elders to lead the congregation, particularly through the preaching of the Word (Eph 4:11). Those who are “able to teach” should be well versed in theology.
But God doesn’t want sound doctrine to stay in the leadership. Knowing sound doctrine is every church member’s job description. The organization of the church in the New Testament necessitates it. Jesus did not give the keys of the kingdom, that symbol of authority giving the ability to make declarations about who belongs to the kingdom, to the elder board. He didn’t give them to a presbytery or a bishop. Christ invested His authority in the local, gathered church (Matt 16:13-20; Matt 18:15-20).
What does that mean? It means the congregation is the final earthly authority for the church’s membership and doctrine. Church members have to theologians because the church’s duty requires it. That’s why baptist churches have historically adopted statements of faith and required their members to sign them. In doing so, churches are charging their members to not only understand the theology of the statement of faith, but also to be able to promote it by using to build the church up into the maturity and to protect it by being able to recognize false teaching when it threatens (Gal 1:8-9).
Pastors, please avoid adopting statements of faith broader than what you require of your members. There shouldn’t a separate expectation for elders and members when it comes to this document. Elders should lead the church in its understanding and appropriation of the church’s doctrine, but it cannot believe it for them. Doing so will hinder the membership’s spiritual growth and place her in danger of corruption.
Evangelism Requires Theology
Church members need to know good theology because church members have the responsibility to share the gospel with those around them. Systematic theology develops articulations of key biblical topics and applies them to the world around. Church members interested in taking up Jesus’ Great Commission have to know what it means that Jesus is the one who has all authority and what He demands from the world.
Challenges to the gospel aren’t limited to the world of academia; church members will face them in their everyday life. Whether they be Mormon’s or Muslims, prosperity gospel adherents or nominal evangelicals, many of our neighbors are still blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4). The glory of God is the only thing powerful enough to open their eyes and satisfy their hearts. Theology helps us to expose what’s false in their worldview, but theology, most importantly, helps us to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
How Church Members Use Theology
Quickly, let’s consider a few ways church members can use theology to help build the church up in love, holiness, and unity.
Having a solid grasp on biblical doctrine helps us to disciple one another. We change by beholding the glory of God (2 Cor 3:18). Theology helps us toward that end. We have the opportunity, nay, the responsibility, to help one another grow in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). As we understand our Bible’s better, we’ll begin to see our lives transformed. This life transformation spreads from person to person, member to member so that the whole body grows up in the maturity.
Good theology also equips us to disciple one another when things aren’t going well. Consider the person in your church who is depressed. Maybe your first instinct to to pass them along to one of the professionals – be it a staff pastor, elder, professional counselor, etc. Sometimes, depending on the severity of the issue, that is exactly the right instinct. But when ordinary members know theology well enough they themselves are able to counsel the depressed brother or sister. Your church can begin helping one another when your church thinks well theologically.
Furthermore, sound doctrine helps us shepherd one another when we are in sin. Sometimes we need to be able to hold out the objective truths about God and His gospel to those who are struggling in their fight against sin – God’s immutability, Christ’s active obedience, and His present intercession. Other times we might have to warn a fellow member who is recalcitrant in their win. Here we’d need to know about Christ’s demand we repent, the nature of regeneration, and the need for perseverance if we’re to be saved. Good theology gives us the categories to encourage the faint-hearted and admonish the idol.
I hope it’s clear by now why church members need to be theologians. Local churches define God’s character to the watching world and display His character in their lives together (Eph 3:10). So good theology isn’t a matter of having our i’s dotted and t’s crossed – it’s a matter of life and death. Good theology, for the church member, is how we tell the truth about God and how we dwell together in a way that honors the Lord Jesus Christ.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.