When you go to college and seminary, you meet a lot of people. My interests have led me to dedicate much of my time and passion to the fields of theology and philosophy, having been a student in these areas for a number of years. I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of leaders (and aspiring leaders), both in the church and in academia at large, with all sorts of platforms and ministry emphases. Admittedly, I do not know most of the folks I’ve encountered on a personal level and in every case I recognize that a man’s heart is only fully known by the Lord. However, I can say that I’ve perceived a general pattern of common pitfalls that seem to shape the attitude and countenance of a number of us who study in these areas. Thus, my purpose here is to both appeal to others to avoid these pitfalls and, frankly, to get these struggles off my own chest.
1. A Hyper-Critical Spirit
There’s a certain stereotype that some seminary students fall into when interacting within the body of believers in the local church. To many of those in the body, the theology student is known as intelligent but hyper-critical, nitpicking about every tiny nuance of error in the pastor’s sermon and constantly harping on tedious theological distinctions that are likely brushed off as irrelevant by the rest of the congregation. Likewise, the philosophy student often gets a similar reputation as one who calls for every phrase spoken to be qualified. Sure, some of these perceptions are due to a backlash from those in our churches that simply don’t like that their shallow version of Christianity is being challenged. However, I don’t think that’s the whole story here.
Given the nature of this site and the fact that I’m personally committed to the study of these fields, I would hope it is exceedingly clear that I do applaud any believer who acts as a guardian against the invasion of heresies in our ranks. I also stand firmly opposed to the rise of anti-intellectualism in our churches. However, the existence of these stereotypes, in part, speaks not to the inappropriateness of defending doctrine, engaging in theological discourse, or philosophizing, but rather to the hyper-critical spirit of some us doing these sorts of things. A slight disagreement here or there with the pastor’s message or a somewhat mis-phrased comment that we deem theologically incorrect is not cause for disregarding the rest of the sermon as inapplicable. Nor is it cause for disrespecting our fellow brothers or sisters by calling them out on each mistake. And the critical thinking skills that we’ve attained do not preclude us from our responsibility to encourage our brothers and sisters, rather than always looking to criticize every word they utter.
A slight disagreement here or there with the pastor’s message... is not cause for disregarding the rest of the sermon as inapplicable.
Drawing distinctions and analyzing arguments is what we do, and what we’ve been trained to do. Let’s not forget, however, that we must do this in relationship and unity with each other. This means extending to one another a certain degree of grace and charity, especially as you interact with those that haven’t progressed in their theological understanding to the extent that you have. It means recognizing that any intellectual gifts you have come from the Lord (not yourself), and ought to be used in the genuine edification of the body. While this certainly may involve correction, rebuke, and use of critical thinking in the protection of our doctrines, it does not involve intellectual snobbery or disrespect.
2. A Lack of “Epistemic Humility”
I wish I had come up with the phrase “epistemic humility” but alas this is the creation of minds far more clever than my own. Essentially, this means that you don’t know everything and you should act in accordance with this fact. We can all peg the first year seminary or religion student when they know just enough to get themselves into trouble. However, even those who’ve been studying the sacred doctrines for their entire lives and have been entrusted to teach others ought to still recognize their need to learn from others, even those with fewer degrees and credentials. What I’m talking about here is about not brandishing one’s sword of intellect for the purpose of flaunting it as the lord of your small group fiefdom. Rather, those who’ve been trained in these areas have the responsibility of serving others, recognizing that they too may very well have much wisdom to impart, though perhaps without the jargon we’ve memorized.
3. An Underdeveloped Prayer Life
Just because we have knowledge of God, doesn’t mean that our communion with Him is without effort on our part. Many folks pay lip service to the importance of the spiritual discipline of prayer, but it’s been my experience that relatively few have a very developed prayer life in practice. Certainly, this problem is probably an epidemic of the church at large, but nevertheless it is all the more disturbing that it exists in the context of seminary, Christian academia, and ministry because these would be the men and woman one would expect to be experts in the practice of certain spiritual disciplines. Moreover, I recognize that my idea of a rich prayer life may be different than yours. Still, it is undeniable most of our puny prayer lives would pale in comparison to Christ’s, which is the standard we should be measured by. I often wonder why this deficiency isn’t the topic of more discussion in our circles, and why the great privilege of doing theology and Bible study is so rarely adequately balanced by Spirit-filled fervent prayer.
Still, it is undeniable most of our puny prayer lives would pale in comparison to Christ’s, which is the standard we should be measured by.
4. A Narcissistic Mindset in Christian Community
The scholar, the minister, and the Christian philosopher all find a common biblical duty in their responsibility to serve the church of Christ. I repeat—to serve. Again, here, I’m talking about a purified intentionality and a motivation that ought to play itself ought in how brothers and sisters are treated in the local church community. The pastor ought not sit high above on his high horse of a pulpit, unreachable to his people. Likewise, church does not build its programming around the seminarian’s new-found expertise and the philosophy student is not exempt from being involved serving a local church body just because they now have a keener intellect than many of the average Joe's in the congregation. It’s easy to feel that you’re not being fed because the advanced teaching that you receive from your course work is more instructive than what you receive Sunday morning. Let me give you some advice though—even if you’ve heard that preacher’s points before or can anticipate every application, go to church to serve others. Church isn’t about you anyway. Get over yourself.
I suppose in some ways this article is a commentary on and confession of my own sin. As so often is the case, sin is more easily perceived in others by those who struggle with the same issues themselves. I know that the Spirit of Christ is at work in me to see me make less of myself and much more of Him. To that end, may our sanctification, brothers, purify us of these pitfalls daily, giving us the mindset of our Lord Jesus. Finally, let me be the first to say that I can think of a great deal of those in my life that have avoided these pitfalls, to varying degrees, and it is those folks that I’ve found to be true role models. May we all endeavor in the power of the Spirit to follow their good example. Amen.