Theology matters deeply. It summarizes and articulates what you believe about key topics that matter deeply. As Christians, the Bible must inform and invigorate our theology, as it is the final standard of authority for us — the primary means by which we discover who God is, what He's like and what He's doing, and what that invites us into. (You can find a bit more on the value of theology here, here, and here. It's something I plan on continuing to write about and advocate for.)
But agreeing that theology is important doesn't end the conversation; rather, it opens up the conversation to other worthwhile topics — topics like "What does theology offer?", and "How should we define it?"
Or another topic, "How do we do theology well?" There are so many things to factor into doing theology well: for example, (1) we do theology with the whole Bible as our final authority, (2) we do theology in a spirit of confidence and humility, (3) we do theology for the purpose of increasing communion with the Triune God and advancing His mission in the world. All of these (and more) are important and worth continued reflection.
In this post I want to focus on the relationship between theology and the local church. Specifically, I want to make a brief and very introductory case that when thinking about theology and the local church, four prepositions should shape the relationship: we do theology for, in, by, and with the church.
Theology for the church
I'm not saying anything novel or surprising here, but it nevertheless deserves to be reinforced again and again (and again): theology is for the church. Theology is "for the church" in that it builds the church up, and guides the church along. Theology should serve the church. Five pictures regarding HOW theology can serve the church are included here.
Theology in the church
Full disclosure: I remain an advocate of formal theological training, and I understand (and believe in) the reality that institutions of higher education (like seminaries and Christian graduate schools) are valuable both for training pastors and teachers (and missionaries and many others), and for helping the church think well about Christian ideas — both their influence and their integration. AT THE SAME TIME AND IN THE SAME BREATH, we can't and shouldn't reserve a formalized approach to biblical and theological education to the institutional academy. The local church has a key role to play here, and there are so many ways for this to find expression.
This value of theology happening IN the church is a driving force behind this site (if you want to dig in, I encourage you to explore the "catechesis," "teaching" or "theology" categories of this site, or spend some time looking through our "library"). Or if you want a single, book-length treatment of this, I'm a huge fan of J.T. English's recent book called Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus. My doctoral project on discipleship pathways in the local church also include thoughts on this, as part of a larger framework.
Theology by the church
When I talk about theology BY the church, here's what I have in mind: Those producing theology for the church, and those teaching theology in the church, should be deeply involved in the local church themselves. Those who teach and write theology FOR the church and IN the church, should themselves be shaped BY the church. The theologians aren't just contributing their thoughts (though of course they are doing that); they're also receiving from others.
This doesn't mean that to teach theology for and in the church you have to be a pastor or in full time local church ministry. But I would recommend that those who teach theology for and in the church should themselves be involved and invested in a local church themselves.
So for those theology professors out there who make a vocation out of full time teaching: First, thank you! We need your service. And then second: Get (or stay) involved in a local church. Become a member. Join a small group. Receive from gathered worship. Volunteer in an area outside of your expertise. I believe this can make you a better theology teacher, and it will add layers and depth to both what and how you teach.
Now for everyone else: We need you engaged in thinking theologically as well! We need you to teach a theology class, or bring theological wisdom into small group discussions, or help champion theological formation in other creative ways, etc. There are so many ways to apply theology done BY the church.
Theology with the church
I'll be quick here, but the final preposition "with" reminds us we're never alone — even as an individual local church — as we do theology for, in, and by the church. We need to benefit from the church around the globe and the church throughout history. Let's do theology with the "big C" church.
Theology and the church aren't hermetically sealed off from each other. The church and theology go hand-in-hand. As we consider this vital, dynamic relationship between theology and the church, these four preposition provide a helpful way by which we can "live into" this dynamic today. Let's do theology "for, in, by, and with" the church.
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