A few weeks ago, writer Donald Miller wrote a blog post — since republished in Relevant Magazine — about the kinds of people Jesus chose as leaders. They were not, he insisted, the kinds of people who lead today’s church.
The church in America is led by scholars. Essentially, the Church is a robust school system created around a framework of lectures and discussions and study. We assume this is the way its supposed to be, because this is all we have ever known. I think the scholars have done a good job—but they’ve also recreated the Church in their own image. Churches are essentially schools. They look like schools with lecture halls, classrooms, cafeterias and each new church program is basically a teaching program.
In sharp contrast —
The first disciples were not teachers, they were fishermen, tax collectors and at least one was a Zealot. We don’t know the occupation of the others, but Jesus did not charge educators with the great commission; He chose laborers.
Our current system — scholars over everyone — is worse than unBiblical. It’s destructive. Miller continues:
Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine? Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the Church. I’m not kidding—you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the Church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.
So maybe if you’re a doctor or a plumber or a carpenter, you should lead the church. Maybe the church needs some of you who don’t write and speak and teach for a living to step up and put some action to our faith. Maybe you could meet in homes, appoint some elders, pray for each other, read the Bible to each other and then just serve your communities and each other in love. Maybe you wouldn’t need a classroom at all. Go ahead, lead. You’re qualified. You’ll have a guide. You’ve graduated.
Miller is absolutely right — Jesus didn’t choose scholars to lead the church.
Well, except for Paul. There’s no question that Paul was a scholar, “advancing in Judaism beyond many [his] own age” (Gal. 1:14), “thoroughly trained in the law of [his] ancestors” (Acts 22:3) in Jerusalem by one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his day, Gamaliel, when Jesus chose him in a particularly dramatic way.
And, speaking of Jewish scholars, if you consider the Old Testament, you have to reckon with Moses, “educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Daniel, too, presents a problem for Miller’s thesis, since Daniel was “in every matter of wisdom and understanding…ten times better” than all the pagan scholars in Nebuchadnezzar’s empire (Daniel 1:20).
Come to think of it, while Miller is right that Jesus called fishermen to follow him, I once spent an entire semester in graduate school examining a single phrase written by that fisherman Peter — “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24) — a quotation from Isaiah 53. Far from an exercise in academic complexifying, I discovered that Peter knew the Hebrew Scriptures with far more depth and subtlety than any of my peers or teachers. Whatever his formal education, by the time Peter wrote his letters, he was a scholar, in the best sense of the word.
Miller makes a fine point when he writes of the importance of action. We follow a Lord who emphasized that the wise man is the one who hears his words “and puts them into practice” (Matt. 7:24). Unfortunately, Miller doesn’t offer a Biblical corrective: he merely replaces scholasticism with anti-scholasticism, substituting one false view of leadership with another false view of leadership. “Go ahead, lead. You’re qualified.” Seriously? Does Miller even know who “you” are?
Here’s where I get my model for church leadership:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13)
Yes, teachers are among the leaders of the church, and so are evangelists, apostles, prophets, pastors, as well as many others in Paul’s other lists of spiritual gifts. Service, unity, and maturity go hand-in-hand with knowledge. If you continue reading Ephesians 4, you’ll see that Paul cares a great deal that we get our thinking right.
Does scholarship and study automatically lead to knowledge of Jesus? Of course not. Are graduate degrees required to be a mature disciple? Again, of course not. But the rejection of education, a false understanding of church history, and the belief that teachers are the cause of Christian discord don’t instantly result in a vibrant and living faith, either. I, for one, think that someone who combines a call for church unity with a casual anathema against millions of pastors, teachers, and scholars could do with some further reflection and study himself.
Does Jesus choose scholars as leaders? No — except when he does.
About the author:
The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.