The Scholar-Pastor

A few years back a book came out, pointing out the need for pastors to be more scholarly and for scholars to be more pastoral. Coming from someone like D. A. Carson, the exhortation is easy to receive, given how he has modeled both. It is rare to find both scholarship and a shepherd-heart in one man. Pastors should certainly be given to intellectual discipline, and Christian scholars should see the pastoral application of their academic labour, though few men are a pure mix of both.

I respect genuine pastors. I respect genuine scholars. What I find more difficult to respect is the man who is neither, but pretends to be a form of both, and assumes the prerogatives of both.

After all, a true scholar has

  1. achieved a terminal degree in his area of study, the Ph.D. or its equivalent, mastering the tools of research, and fluent in the conventions of academic writing and argumentation: when he writes or teaches, you can hear the dispassionate tone of the humble researcher;
  2. mastered comprehensively the literature in his discipline;
  3. understood the broader conversation within and surrounding his discipline;
  4. contributed to the conversation, and submitted his work to peer-review.

That eliminates most of the self-appointed scholars right there. Truthfully speaking, most pastors have not been trained in this way, or reached this place of learning. Most don’t desire the life of a scholar, and aren’t inclined to it. Most lack the time for the kind of full-time reading and writing that scholarship requires. Scholarship is a vocation in its own right, and pastoring usually precludes being able to be a scholar. Certainly, I’m not a scholar, though I read them, and benefit from their labours.

On the other hand, a pastor has

  1. desired the office of pastor, which includes not just teaching, but leading (as an overseer), and providing an example and wisdom (as an elder) in a local church;
  2. submitted his life to the scrutiny of a local church, to whom he is accountable, so that he can be examined for the presence of the the character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3;
  3. been either recommended by a group of pastors (1 Tim 4:14) who are in a better position than most churches to test his life and qualifications, or been sent by a local church (Acts 13:3), and been consequently called by a local body of believers to shepherd the flock;
  4. given himself to the best equipping available to him, so as to fulfill his calling (2 Tim 2:15).

Not every public speaker or teacher in Christianity is or needs to be a pastor. The body of Christ is blessed with apologists, itinerant preachers, and people with particular ministries that supplement the church. I’m thankful for these, insofar as these bless the local church, as ours certainly has been by them. But the best of these teachers always admit that they are not called to shepherd the flock, but to their particular ministry focus. The most honourable of these can tell you which local church they belong to, who their teachers are and who they are accountable to. The academy has true scholars. The church has true pastors, supplemented by teachers.

What is intolerable is the man feigning scholarship, and acting like a pastor. He’ll travel around and take up pastoral duties (counselling intimate situations, installing pastors, baptising, disciplining, giving communion), but take no week-to-week responsibility for any group of people. He’ll act like a bishop over multiple churches, supposedly protecting people from the false shepherds, but he himself is submitted to no one, anywhere. He’ll cast stones at faithful shepherds, and accuse them of “heavy shepherding”, but he’s never shepherded anyone, in any real sense. And if people seem to smell a rat in his maverick ways, he’ll begin to speak academese to the unlearned, quickly reminding them that the Learned One is speaking. He conveniently switches roles so that when his scholarship appears shoddy, he pretends to be a generalist pastor, and when he appears to lack pastoral qualifications, he pretends to be a scholar on a teaching tour.

Both pastors and scholars have submitted to tough callings, and accepted both their privileges and responsibilities. You’ll notice that real pastors and real scholars accept the burdens of their callings along with the joys. They know who they are, their domains of expertise and authority and what they can realistically achieve.

But beware the man who seems claim all the privileges of both pastoring and scholarship, while dodging all the burdens of either calling: the burden of watching for the souls of one congregation or the burden of academic peer review; the burden of submitting to ordination councils or the burden of getting a terminal degree; the burden of labouring in one place for many years or the burden of mastering his discipline. Deliberately avoiding burdens is the work of sluggards and shysters. 

In short, a fair question is this: if he is a true leader in the church or the academy, then to what, and to whom, has he submitted?

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