The Role of Education and Authority In the Church

David Lipscomb (1831-1917) co-founded the Nash...

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The scene unfolds something like this. The young minister arrives at his first congregation and begins a textual study of a book of the Bible. This Sunday’s lesson is a little more involved, as there are some textual variants to deal with, a couple of translation issues that are reflected in the differing English translations, and of course some interpretation and application questions. The young man has done his homework well, however, and he enters the auditorium confident and excited. His confidence and excitement are destroyed within about 10 minutes as somebody sitting three pews from the back raises his hand and his voice in objection. “I disagree with you” he starts out. “I can read my Bible as well as you and it says…” He has read the text maybe all of three minutes ago, in a Bible that he only opens on Sunday morning, and which he leaves on his assigned pew so he will not forget to bring it each Sunday. All of those who have entrusted  him with their emotional support as the defender of their faith nod in complicit agreement.

After a few months the minister resigns and moves to another congregation. After a few years of the same treatment he decides he has had enough and leaves the ministry all together. There is even a likelihood that he may leave the church. No one likes staying in a place where they are ridiculed for something that is precious to them.

I do not know if the above scenario would or could take place in a congregation where the minister receives a specific “ordination.” My uneducated opinion is that if a group of people invests a certain authority in their minister through a formal “investing procedure,” whether it is ordination or not, they would grant him a measure of authority that would extend to all aspects of his ministry, teaching included. Within the Churches of Christ, however, there is very rarely any “investing procedure” as we believe we are all a “kingdom of priests” and that each and every member is a minister of the Lord’s church. Equality, however, has led to an anti-authoritarian sentiment, and very specifically an anti-education one.

My question is this: why do we advertise for someone to hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and then hire the man only to ridicule his achievement and destroy what little authority he might have? In ministry there are only three ways to obtain authority: education, age, and experience. Okay, so if we hire a young man (and job posting after job posting indicates that a man over 40 is last week’s newspaper, as far as Churches of Christ are concerned) with no experience or maybe just a few years of experience as an associate minister, the ONLY authority he has left is his education. Ridicule that, belittle that, minimize that and he is a ship without a sail. He is utterly worthless behind the lectern or the pulpit. Why do we do this to our young ministers and ourselves?

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the joke about the scatological meaning of the initials “B.S.,” that “M.S.” means “more of the same” and “Ph.D.” means “piled higher and deeper.” For a man who has spent countless hours and even more money trying to learn all he can in order to more effectively serve a congregation these jokes are cruel, and they hurt. It is a “humorous” way of a congregation saying, “listen, you may be a nice guy, but we know as much as you do, so don’t try to snow us with all your book learning.”

The most distressing thing to me is that we have ministers who promote this very anti-intellectualism! I know why they do it. It is uncomfortable to hold an opinion, or to be convinced of the correctness of an idea, only to have someone prove you are wrong. Humility demands that once you learn you were wrong, that you change and hold the true teaching. However, it is simply far easier to condemn the one who challenges your conclusions as being a stuffed-shirt educated liberal than it is to actually do the research to see if that person is indeed correct. Maybe he or she is right, maybe he or she is wrong, but you will never know unless you find out. Sometimes that means you must actually know Hebrew or Greek, or that you read more broadly than your circle of friends. Preachers, of all people, do not like to be shown to be less educated than they think they are. So, the fear of having someone more educated than they are confront them is in many, many preacher’s eyes.

For those of you who are wondering, this post is only partially autobiographical. I have been blessed with wonderful congregations who have been willing to listen to someone who values education very highly. However, I have had more than my fair share of individuals who have crossed over from the “ignorant” section to the “stupid” section. We are all ignorant of a great many things, myself included. The huge difference between ignorance and stupidity is that ignorance recognizes its limitations and seeks to improve. You cannot teach, or argue, with stupid, as the saying goes. Ignorance says, “I didn’t know that, show me where I was wrong or what I need to learn.” Stupid says, “My mind is made up, quit trying to confuse me with relevant and meaningful facts that contradict my prejudices.”

How many of us would go to a doctor who only had  two years of medical school? How many of us would trust our life’s finances to an individual who had only taken two years of accounting at a junior college? How many of us would get on an airplane knowing that the engineer that designed it had spent two years or less studying physics and the complexities of aeronautics? And yet we routinely make fun of our spiritual leaders if they have committed themselves to a four year college or university, and we really make fun of them if they have earned a graduate degree.

I just don’t get it. Why do we do this to our young ministers and their families? We need good men behind our pulpits and in our classrooms. But every time we tear down someone because they have a greater education than we do we tear down that part of the body of Christ. Not only that, but we tear down our future. We guarantee that our sons and daughters will choose fields of expertise other than Bible and theology, because everyone knows you can’t be a good Christian and be smart at the same time.

Can somebody help me here? What is it about ignorance that is so appealing? If it is not ignorance that is appealing, then why do we disparage 4 year degrees and graduate studies? Why did we get here, and what can we do to change this anti-education and anti-authority attitude within the church?

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on February 26, 2012, in Church, Education, Leadership and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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