Earlier this week I was talking with a gentleman who communicated a mild "angst" regarding the fact that the church he was attending (a local church that's healthy and vibrant in many ways!) didn't have much in the way of an organized plan for laying a basic theological foundation as part of how it discipled others. As he and I talked, I wondered out loud if that's because of a certain reputation theological instruction can have as dry, divisive, distracting, and more. If that's what theology is, we need to protect our churches FROM it rather than lead our churches TOWARDS it!
But what if, at its best and when approached as intended, theology ISN'T dry, divisive and distracting? What if theology offers a strong foundation off of which to build, fuel that propels growth, a fountain that quenches our thirst, and a fence that provides protection? What if theology helps set our trajectory so we can worship God in all the ways He's chosen to reveal Himself and continue the mission Jesus sends us on? What if theology is an essential ingredient of the individual Christian life and the local church, helping us love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40)?
What if seeing theology and the local church as separate fields that don't necessarily have a whole lot to do with each other is the wrong way to look at things? What if we approach theology and the local church as necessarily interwoven and symbiotic? This is the stance I (strongly!) take and advocate. Theology and the local church go hand in hand. But what else can we say about what this relationship between theology and the local church should look like? Let me suggest at least three things to get the conversation started:
theology is Done For the Church
Theology is a servant of the church. The church doesn't exist for theology; theology exists for the church - to guide the church towards right worship and equip the church for mission in a larger world. When theology becomes an "end" rather than a "means" things have gotten out of whack. (Indeed, the more we point people towards robust theological thinking, the more it should push us towards worship, holiness, and mission!)
Theology should Happen in the Church
If theology is to be done FOR the church, doing theology should take place IN the church. By this I mean the church should both be a context in which theological instruction is provided. By locating theology IN the church, we protect ourselves from theological abstractions and distractions. (If theological instructors can't connect theological concepts to the broader life of Christian discipleship, their work isn't done yet.) Theology isn't exclusively - or even primarily - for the ivory tower or the academic classroom (though theology in those settings can still be valuable). The best place for theology is IN the church.
(This is where I'm so grateful for recent books that draw our attention back to the theological nature of the local church. See for example The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming an Lost Vision by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, and The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson. My review of the latter book is here.)
Theology is Done by the Church
The local church isn't only the context in which theological instruction should be given. The church is also the community in which theology should be done. Pastors "do theology" as they wrestle through what the Bible says about pressing issues in their community. Small group leaders and members "do theology" as they talk in living rooms and coffee shops about truth from God's Word and how they should think about current events. This "doing" of theology is good - we want to be raising up a generation of disciples who thinks discerningly and biblically about important issues. But this "doing" of theology carries a sober reminder that, as local churches, we want to be helping our congregations do and think about theology well (because it can be done poorly).
And so we see that theology is both important for the life of the church and should be woven into the life of the church. May we continue to pursue a relationship between theological instruction and the life of the local church that is interdependent and mutually beneficial, such that we can so BOTH "I love the local church and need her!" AND "I love theology and benefit from what it adds!"
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