Donald Miller: Should the Church Be Led By Teachers and Scholars?

“The church,” says Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller, “is led by scholars. Essentially, the church is a robust school system created around a framework of lectures and discussions and study.” And this, Miller goes on to argue in a recent blog post entitled “Should the Church Be Led by Teachers and Scholars?,” isn’t necessarily a good thing:

The first disciples were not teachers, they were fishermen, tax collectors and at least one was a Zealot. We don’t know the occupation of the others, but Jesus did not charge educators with the great commission, he chose laborers. And those laborers took the gospel and created Christian communities that worked, that did things and met in homes and were active. They made speeches, for sure, but so do businessmen and politicians and leaders in any number of other professions. Educators make speeches and do little else, except study for their next lecture. I wonder what the first disciples would think if they could see our system of schools, our million lectures, our billion sub lectures, our curriculums and our lesson plans. I think they’d be impressed, to be honest, but I also think they’d recognize a downside.

…Practitioners care about what works, what gets things done. They have to agree because there are projects on the line. Educators don’t have to agree at all. They can fight and debate and write papers against each other because, well, the product they are churning out is just thought, not action.

Miller’s words are appealing on a certain level. I mean, raise your hand if you want to see the church produce and promote more academics preoccupied with useless theorizing. Still, I found these comments to be problematic for a number of reasons. To help illustrate why, let me include another quotation from later in the piece:

In the great commission, Jesus graduated his first group of students. He pushed them into the world and said, you don’t know everything, but you know enough. You’ll have a guide and that guide will be with you always. Go and teach the world to obey my commands. Because they were fishermen and tax gatherers, they went and did it. Did Jesus teach them for three years? Yes, he taught them by doing, in action, with people, by touching stuff, not by taking over a school and recruiting educators. I wonder what they would have done if they had been professional scholars? My guess is they would have talked the command into a tailspin, dissected it into a million pieces, then divided themselves into different intellectual camps, and built a bunch of schools to teach their various interpretations.

Miller is certainly correct in that we know (at least some of) the disciples didn’t come from what we might consider an academic or educational background. And, to his credit, he does mention that Jesus taught them over a period of three years. But this, he suggests, Jesus accomplished by “doing, in action, with people, by touching stuff, not by taking over a school and recruiting educators.” Well…sure. But what Miller fails to mention is that Jesus also taught them by teaching. It’s not for nothing that the disciples and others routinely call Jesus “Teacher” or its equivalent term “Rabbi.”

In fact, a close reading of the gospels in conjunction with the rest of the New Testament, reveals Jesus rigorously equipping his disciples to be his definitive witnesses once he completed his earthly ministry. Essentially, he created his own rabbinical school to give them theological and ministerial training for their foundational role in the church, a role that would include a great deal of authoritative teaching and doctrinal oversight. So what the disciples were prior to Jesus is one thing, what they became under him is quite another.

Miller also suggests that, if Jesus’ disciples would have been professional scholars, “they would have talked the [Great Commission] into a tailspin.” But this conjecture seemingly ignores the ministry of the theologically trained man whom Jesus actually did call to be an apostle. And judging from the New Testament, one doesn’t get the impression that Paul, having once been educated under a famous rabbi (see Acts 22:3), somehow moved past his former way of life in his post-conversion experience.

In fact, a study of Paul’s ministry finds him to be largely preoccupied with various kinds of teaching. For example, Paul stayed a year and a half in Corinth, “teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). Likewise, Luke describes Paul in Ephesus “reasoning daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus” for two years. In fact, everywhere Paul goes, he appears to be intensely concerned with effectively communicating and defending the truth of the gospel, as well as its implications for every area of life.

Not surprisingly then, when Paul gets extremely exercised with the Galatians, it’s not fundamentally because they aren’t pursuing enough ministry projects. Rather, he’s “astonished” that they are “turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7). Much of his letter seeks to correct this critical mistake.

This brings me to another point. Miller is not the first person to characterize faithful Christian discipleship as privileging practice over doctrine. “Practitioners care about what works, what gets things done.” The idea seems to be that we should all stop arguing over stuff that doesn’t matter and concentrate on doing ministry. This time, the revolution will not be theologized!

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. After all, how do we determine what “works?” What are the things we’re supposed to “get done”? Presumably, we’d want to evaluate both our goals and the means we might best use to accomplish them in light of God’s own perspective. In other words, we’d want to develop a set of biblical truths and principles—a theology—to guide our worship and ministry.

If all that sounds like I’m making the case a bit too neat for the sake of my argument, let me appeal once again to the biblical evidence. Both Jesus and the apostles routinely ground practical applications on thoroughly theological foundations. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul spends the final three chapters laying out several ways in which his readers are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” But he does so only on the heels of roughly three chapters of profound doctrinal teaching.

We could multiply other examples, but suffice it to say that deciding between doctrine and doing is, biblically speaking, a false dichotomy. Rather, one naturally leads to another. No wonder God has specifically called and equipped some to be teachers,

to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:12-14)

More could be said in response to Miller’s piece, but I’ll leave it with this: in light of the preceding passage, I’m betting the church could use more teachers, not less.

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