The Theologically Disciplined Church
Many western churches are withering spiritually because their pastors and church members have bought into the lie that rigorous theological study is outdated and unnecessary. Yet, many of the churches in which pastors are committed to historic theology miss the mark when it comes to ensuring that sound doctrine isn't as dry as the Sahara. It’s a tragedy whenever that which is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) is presemted in a bland and tasteless fashion. Meticulously examining the whole counsel of God can be a daunting task for pastor-teachers and church members alike. However, if we would learn to approach the discipline of theological study and teaching in a local church with the right frame of mind and heart, we will find it to be incredibly rewarding.
Over the past several years, I've been teaching through the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith in the church that I pastor. Having done so, I've reached the conclusion that there are at least five disciplines that can help pastors, teachers and church members work together to make robust theological study through a confession of faith exciting and profitable:
1. Be Patient.
Church members must learn to be patient with their pastors. Faithful ministers want to be as accurate as possible, and yet they have the difficult task of doing so in a way that is as understandable by as many congregants as possible. While your pastor knows a lot about the theology he is teaching, it isn’t something he learned the night before. He’s likely trying to break down a significant amount of knowledge into bite-sized pieces, and that’s not always an easy task. Be patient with him and offer constructive feedback to help him be a more effective teacher.
Pastors need to remember there will always be people in their midst who are hearing what’s being taught for the first time. Try as you might, it will likely take more than one pass through teaching on the Trinity before everyone starts to have some clarity. Take it slow, and if at all possible, don’t force yourself into a timeline through a confession of faith. The truth is worth the time it takes to make it known in an understandable way.
2. Challenge Yourself.
Church members don't need to beat themselves up because they can’t keep the distinction between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace straight all the time, or be able to explain the doctrine of divine simplicity. Biblical truth doesn’t immediately fall into place when we first start to dig deeper. It takes time and hard work. God has made Himself known, therefore, we ought to challenge ourselves to know Him to the greatest extent possible.
Pastors need to frequently remind those to whom they are teaching theology that while the Bible contains the most profound and necessary truths for salvation in simple words and concepts, we will never—even when glorified— know everything that can be known about God. We should want our minds to be stretched and our intellects challenged. The Reformed Confessions admit that not all doctrinal issues are alike plain in themselves (LBC 1.7), Even the Apostle Peter admitted that some of what Paul wrote was difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Breaking truth down as much as you can is paramount. Use illustrations where ever possible. Make sure that you are citing the great theologians from the history of the church. Many times, the best way to say something is to quote someone who has already said it--and, said it better than you could have said it.
3. Ask Questions.
Church members should ask as many clarifying questions as they deem necessary. Don’t be shy. The old adage is doubly true when it comes to theological study: If you have a question, two or three others are almost certainly wondering the same thing. I have often found it to be the case that the questions posed to me when I’m teaching are often the very thing that I needed to remind me to discuss something important that I forgot to mention (or that I had not prepared to mentioning, in the first place).
Pastors should ask a lot of questions while they’re teaching to make sure everyone is tracking along. I generally stop after a few minutes or after reading a lengthy quote and ask, “Can someone give us a quick summary of what we’ve just said?” Don’t lament the fact that questions are being asked and you’re thrown off track from what you hoped to accomplish. Questions are usually a good indicator that people are paying attention and eager to learn. And of course, never be afraid to simply respond to difficult questions with, “I don’t know, but I can find out.” Nobody expects you to know everything, and if they do, their problems are bigger than you.
4. Embrace Humility.
I once met a man who told me that he had decided to read through the Bible so he could master Christianity; but, by the time he got through the book of Isaiah, he could hardly lift up his head. The Lord brought him to the end of himself that he could see the greatness of our infinite God in relationship to our finitude. We must approach our study of the Scriptures and theology with great humility. We’re walking upon hallowed ground and should never tread flippantly. The eternal and all powerful God has made Himself known to us in order to invite us to commune with Him. We must pray much and think often on the things that we're learning. If we let it simmer, in time a thorough study of theological truth will leave us in awe of the majesty and glory of God. As we do, we will inevitably cry out, “Less of me, O God, and more of Christ!”
5. Be Zealous for Application.
While I love reading and studying theology, I have to move beyond a mere theoretical or expositional understanding to apply it in teaching. Church members also must train themselves to be thinking through how to apply what they are learning to their own personal life with their family, with their co-workers, or on the golf course with friends. After all, every aspect of life is theological. The more we understand, the more we are called to live as responsible stewards of the rich repository of divine truth. We must ask ourselves, “How does God’s immensity affect what I’m searching for online while my family sleeps? How does the grace of adoption change the way I interact with fellow church members? How does the covenant of grace instruct me to deal appropriately with my sin, or how to respond when I have sinned?”
Application can be some of the more difficult work of teaching theology. It is incumbent on pastors to help church members understand that what we love to study isn’t merely important for gaining intellectual knowledge; it is necessary for conforming us into the image of Christ and providing us with a firm foundation on which to walk on our journey to glory. Application in our teaching helps reinforce the truth that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Learning the discipline of robust theological study is essential for the health of the body of Christ. If pastors and church members alike would approach theological study with the right attitudes, expectations and motives, they would certainly find it to be a far more rewarding venture than we ever thought possible.
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