Messengers versus Theologians

Okay, I know that the title is a false dichotomy. The problem is that I don’t think most know that it’s a false dichotomy, hence the reason I’m writing this.

In my travails to find a method of paying for food while I hopefully preach the Gospel in St. John’s after finishing my MDiv, I have had many conversations with pastors, and people in authority over denominations.

The most common question I get is what my goals are for future ministry. While I don’t always say it this way, my only desire is to prayerfully preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ accurately to people who need to hear it. The reason for this goal is simple, it’s what a pastor does. Yes, there is counseling, and visiting, and a host of administrative tasks, but all of those stem from the God-empowered accurate expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s important to remember that the task isn’t one of creativity (save in the means by which you preach it). The message is set, and we don’t get to change it. The Gospel is good news that we do not create, we simply report. Otherwise, we have a good story and not good news. The Gospel is a good story, but not one I wrote. I am called to accurately interpret the scriptures (yes, there is interpretation, but again, it is bounded by accuracy… I interpret what is actually there) to people who are around me, and if a pastor, to those entrusted to me.

This led, in at least one case, to a rather strange conversation about false teaching, theology, and the pastoral call. The man I was speaking to believed strongly in “love” as the central tenet of the Gospel (quite true, but open to misinterpretation), and felt that as long as we were doing good, we were preaching the Gospel.

He was wrong, of course. Good works are a proper and necessary effect of believing the Gospel (and if you are not moved to it by the Gospel, I doubt that you have heard it rightly), but it is not the Gospel itself. The Gospel is what we see in scripture as Christ crucified for our sake, that we might become fit worshipers of a gracious God. God becomes my surpassing treasure, and the good news is that there is a means of getting that eternally in Jesus Christ, through only the work of God for the glory of God.

This led to another short exchange about the question of false doctrine (which he referred to as debating about words). Indeed, there is fruitless theological discussion. There are many important distinctives between denominations that are not central to the Gospel, and we should not treat those with fundamental seriousness. But there are some questions that are central to the Gospel. For example, the statement that good works is preaching the Gospel actually subverts the Gospel. It makes good works for the benefit of others the goal of the Gospel. Thus the ultimate “good” of the good news becomes humanity, or society, but not God. Indeed, it is a close cousin of another false belief that says we are justified by our good works.

This is a central disagreement, where questions of baptism, the tribulation, the sequence and relative value of Spiritual giftings, (while important) are not.

Discerning between the two, using the witness of scripture in the unity of the Church (meaning the company of believers now and throughout history), is proper theology. In essence, theology is about discerning the accuracy of the Gospel we preach. In this sense it is important.

I was little surprised then when the same man claimed then that theology wasn’t that important overall, or that it was too academic. Indeed, bad theology is that, though I would say that he was engaging in that version of theology as we spoke. He was choosing to interpret the revelation of God in a way that ignored the center of the Gospel. He was engaged in bad theology. Had it been good theology, he would have taken the time to question whether what he was saying accorded with scripture. That is good theology, and so far from being academic, it is at the crux of a pastor’s work.

Good theology, the theology that is completely Biblical (meaning using the whole of scripture), helps the pastor to preach the Gospel rightly. That is intensely practical for people in congregations, as it is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that saves.

We are primarily messengers, and only theologians insofar as it makes us better messengers. We dare not reverse those, as if the message serves only our own private theology, we end up preaching a lie.

Author: Stephen Dawe

Steve is a part-time vocational elder Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's as well as a full-time student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the Religious Studies Department.