'The pastor-theologian, I submit, should be evangelicalism’s default public intellectual,” wrote Kevin Vanhoozer in 2009, expounding on his 10 theses—now a whopping 55—on what it means to be both a pastor and a theologian.
Two new books have generated surging discussion on the topic. The Pastor as Public Theologian, by Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, argues that the pastorate has been and should be fundamentally a theological office. The Pastor Theologian (read CT’s review), by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, argues that contemporary evangelicalism has lost sight of the inherent connection between theology and pastoral ministry. Both books seek to reclaim what they see as a lost vision and practice.
I agree that the church needs more leaders who are both shepherds and scholars, credible and critical, in one nature. Missional-practical-theological-pastoral, as Polonius might have put it. Or, to invert a quip from Vanhoozer himself: like Paul, only taller.
But how feasible is it to be both a scholar and a pastor? I suspect many of us know individuals who, by aiming to be both a pastor and a scholar, have ended up being neither. More commonly, some aspire to be both equally, but indicate by their speech and actions—let alone by their weekly timetables—that they major in one and minor in the other.
When N. T. Wright and John Piper were exchanging books a few years ago, both insisted that they wrote as scholars and pastors, filling their books with pastoral concerns and scholarly footnotes in equal measure. But while they are two of the most outstanding contemporary examples of pastor-scholars, critics pointed out that Piper had not published any research on dikaiosunē—Greek for “righteousness,” the primary topic of their debate—for nearly 30 years, and that Wright had spent little time in lay people’s kitchens or around Alpha course tables. No doubt, there is a sense in which everyone who writes for the church should be both theologically and pastorally engaged. But the union of pastor and scholar, shepherd and academic, is elusive.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to bemoan the call for pastors who are also scholars, and scholars who are also pastors. But being a pastor-scholar is easier said than done. And many, like me, who are attempting to combine their pastoral and scholarly work face challenges and live in perpetual tension.
Before I had given the subject much thought, I had assumed that the tension was mostly a question of time. Academic research is incredibly time-consuming, and so is pastoral ministry. So doing both well is beyond the reach of almost everybody. Of course, there are exceptions. Wright is an überproductive individual who, in the last three decades, has managed to churn out popular commentaries and books, write defining scholarly monographs, fulfill various levels of ecclesiastical duties—including serving as bishop of Durham for seven years—and still finds time to travel the world to teach. In principle, however, time is no greater an obstacle for pastor-scholars than it is for, say, pastor-farmers or pastor-accountants—of which there are plenty in many parts of the world.
Now having considered the topic—or, rather, the bi-vocation—more thoroughly, I see three major tensions that make the pastor-scholar something of a unicorn.
The Specialist-Generalist Tension
Scholarship is about mastering an area of research in a way that advances human knowledge. It requires the discipline to restrict not only what you read about, but also what you speak about. Pauline scholars often give an apologetic cough before opining on Jesus, let alone on the Qumran Hodayot (psalms of thanksgiving), on the redaction (editing process) of the Pentateuch, or on philosophical views like Nominalism. If you ask a scholar about their opinion on a specific issue, and they aren’t fully sure of their ground, they will probably express some version of the old mantra: “It’s not my field.” Scholars are specialists and are hesitant to move beyond what they know.
A pastor, by contrast, is a generalist and does not have the luxury of specializing. The people that pastors serve do not restrict their concerns according to their areas of expertise, so neither can pastors. No pastor collared by an anxious congregant who wants the Christian take on divorce, the state of Israel, spiritual gifts, or same-sex marriage can deflect by muttering, “It’s not my field.” They can do their best in the moment and then promise to learn more. But they cannot duck an issue because they don’t know much about it. Their people look to them for theological guidance, and since all of life is theological, they have to know something about everything.
As such, the pastor-scholar faces a significant internal conflict. When a new issue crops up and unsettles people in the church, do pastor-scholars study it briefly, pray for wisdom, and then speak with confidence, at the risk of not being very scholarly? Or do they wait until they have mastered the subject and written a paper on it, even if that means waiting six months, at the risk of not being very pastoral? These are challenging questions that do not have a one-size-fits-all answer, and discernment is needed to determine how to act case by case.
The Practical-Theoretical Tension
Few scholars, at least in theological circles, are motivated by the question, “What shall we do?” Research generates questions, which generate further research. And although implications for practice occasionally follow, pragmatic concerns are ancillary at best. Place Bible scholars like Michael Gorman, John Barclay, and N. T. Wright at a conference table and ask them to talk about the topic of peace in Paul’s epistles—as I remember happening at the British New Testament Conference two years ago—and you’ll have hours of stimulating discussion. But ask any of them about how to promote peace in the Middle East today, and the conversation turns eerily quiet. For scholars, praxis is the tail, research is the dog, and the former is not meant to wag the latter.
Pastors, on the other hand, are driven by practical questions. How do people flourish? What are the most effective ways of making disciples? How do we reach our communities with the gospel? These questions require theoretical solutions in some sense, and separating the practical from the theoretical is futile and often counterproductive. But the impetus comes from the tangible result in the real world, with the scholarship functioning—if at all—as a means to an end.
In principle, there is no reason why this should not bring about a creative tension, or even a dialectic, between theory and practice, with each informing the other. The fact that it often does not, with scholars neglecting or even patronizing the practical, and pastors neglecting or even disparaging the theoretical, is no doubt attributed, in part, to the third tension.
The University-Church Tension
It is difficult to overstate how context intensifies these tensions. It is not simply a matter of resources, the availability of which are totally different when you work in a university rather than in a church. Nor is it merely that the university timetable focuses on educating a select group of students who are usually young, intellectually able, and interested in the subject. Compare that with a church environment, where the pastor interacts with an intellectually and socially diverse group of individuals, some of whom have little interest in what the pastor is trying to teach them.
At a university or seminary, you are surrounded by colleagues who are experts in their fields, and who continually spar, challenge, debate, and provoke new avenues of thought, thus challenging you to rethink the ideas you have come to accept. In a church, your colleagues—who may not even be pastors or theologically trained, if you even have colleagues around during the week—are likely to defer to you on theological matters, look to you as an expert, and thereby reinforce the perspectives you already hold. This, then, makes a significant difference in the way you think about your own convictions, their contingency, your need for nuance, and your susceptibility to change, as well as the extent to which you understand points of view which you do not hold. In a university, your mistakes are likely to be more scrutinized, more critiqued, and therefore more short-lived. Your conclusions need to be substantiated, and your representations of alternative views need to be fair. The university-based individual, therefore, has various advantages.
Yet the pastor has advantages, too. Full-time academics have to play by all sorts of scholarly rules, many of which constrain them from speaking with confidence about any number of issues. The academy loves nuance and finesse. But when transplanted into a local church context, such speech can seem evasive, flowery, and obscure.
Pastors, however, do not have to speak as if they are merely offering provisional opinions, and instead can speak as heralds of a divinely issued message. Pastors do not have to show how self-critical they are, and how aware they are of every perspective. They can often ignore, as plainly asinine, papers which play with biblical texts in ways the author never intended. A pastor can call a spade a spade, preach the gospel with confidence and without footnotes, and disregard guild speak like “Godself,” “liminal,” “Other,” and “performative.” The church loves clarity and courage. But when used in a scholarly context, such speech can seem inflammatory, simplistic, unrepresentative, or naive.
Yet a pastor can interact with ordinary people living ordinary lives. As a result, the pastor is forced to think about how the truths he or she is studying relate to preaching, pastoral care, and prayer.
Other tensions abound, which, though manageable, can also make life difficult for the pastor-scholar. For instance, there is the novelty-fidelity tension. Scholars advance human knowledge by offering new evidence, new interpretations, or new syntheses. They can’t get published, far less promoted, without bringing something new to the table—and their new insights often irritate pastors. A pastor’s job is to preserve Christian faithfulness to the gospel by reinforcing old truths and habits. They cannot pray, let alone preach, without bringing something old to the table—and frequently, their old doctrines bore scholars.
Tensions, however, are not necessarily bad. As one who has nearly completed a PhD dissertation on the warnings-assurance tension in 1 Corinthians, I’ve come to realize that some tensions are not supposed to be resolved. We simply need to learn how to manage them. Thankfully, there are a number of helpful resources—in addition to the two mentioned above—available for those who, like me, feel called to serve both as pastors and as scholars. And these sources will help Christians who are neither pastors nor scholars appreciate—and know how to pray for—those who strive to be both.
Michael Kruger, for example, has an excellent taxonomy of six different types of pastor/scholar, which may help people place themselves and their gifts on a scale. Don Carson and John Piper wrote The Pastor as Scholar & the Scholar as Pastor, available free to download at Desiring God. Both Vanhoozer and Hiestand recently explained their proposals on the Mere Fidelity podcast. And for the contrarian type, Mark Jones has explained why he thinks it is impossible to do a good job at being both a pastor and a scholar at the same time.
I’m too much of a novice to offer advice at this stage in my life. But it seems to me that the categories presented by these writers are helpful when it comes to knowing how to use our gifts wisely. This morning I read some in a theological commentary on 1 Kings, then worked on my sermon for Sunday, and then wrote this article. This afternoon, I will probably read some of John Barclay’s new scholarly tome Paul and the Gift, and then attend two meetings with my church leadership hat on. I know many individuals whose working days look somewhat like mine. So it may be that the tensions of the pastor-scholar—for all the personal challenges they present—are good for the church. After all, Paul dealt with them, and he didn’t do such a bad job.
Andrew Wilson is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of The Life You Never Expected. Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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