Jesus Didn’t Choose Scholars…

"A Scholar" by Rembrandt

Huh? What’s that you say? (“A Scholar,” Rembrandt, 1631)

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.

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Micheal Hickerson

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.

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    Mike Austin commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    I’m simply amazed that someone could honestly believe that the problem with the contemporary church is that it is too intellectualized.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

      I agree. Miller also critiques a lack of unity because of theological disputes and our hesitation to take action, and I don’t really see those as major problems in the contemporary evangelical church, either. Or, at least, those issues are no more problematic than our lack of theological discernment and our failure to spend time in prayer and reflection.

  • W. Brian Lane commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    I’d like to know what his functioning definition of “scholar” is. He switches back and forth between the terms “scholar” and “teacher,” but those are definitely not the same role in the academic world.

    I’d also like to know what school system he has in mind that is “led purely by academics.”

    It sounds like his true discomfort is with ideologues in the church, but to brand all scholars as ideologues is a grave misrepresentation.

    Rob Bradshaw commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Michael for your thoughtful response.

    In the UK too an increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-theological mindset is gripping many parts of the evangelical church – something I find deeply disturbing.

    Keep up the good work,


    Elizabeth Ritchie commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    My initial response to the article touches on what might be seen as a side issue, but for me is central. As Miller points out teaching is only one, and perhaps not the most important, aspect of church leadership but Hickerson reminds us of the value and place of teaching. I am a professionally qualified scholar and teacher at a university, trained in thinking and in communicating. Perhaps I could use my teaching gifts and training within my church for the glory of God or to help my church family? Or perhaps not, because I am a woman.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

      Thank you for joining the conversation and raising such important questions. On the question of teaching inside the church vs. outside, I think there are important roles for teachers as church leaders AND teachers outside the church. I hope that gifted teachers will be able to use their gifts and training to build up the body, but I don’t think it’s a requirement for all teachers to do so (beyond their general responsibility as Christians, that is). There may even be a need for the church to be a place where teachers come to rest and be taught. A minister at a church that has a number of college faculty as members once told me that she rarely asks college faculty to teach within the church, because she has found that they need Sabbath more than the church needs them.

      Regarding women as leaders in the church – wow. Very big question. Some resources that have helped guide my thinking have been:
      The Well, which is a web journal created by InterVarsity’s Women in the Academy and Professions ministry
      – Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet, which is primarily about how we read and interpret the Bible, but Scot uses Paul’s statements about women as a “test case”
      This series on our blog from last year

      It’s hard to say more without knowing more about your church, but feel free to email me (mike at emergingscholars dot org) if you want.

        Elizabeth Ritchie commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

        Thanks for thsoe suggestions, Micheal. I found ‘Why Not Women’ by Loren Cunningham to be especially helpful in trying to interpret the Biblical passages on women, leadership and teaching.

    Kevin D. Johnson commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    In my view, the problem is not scholars but the way scholastic effort has been institutionalized and how little that prepares most ministers and others for legitimate ministry. The seminary system itself could use a bit of an overhaul. Paul was a scholar but he apprenticed under a prominent rabbi of the day more than he took classes in abstract theology and the history of Israel. Not that those things don’t have their place, but what really matters for me is that education is provided in an appropriate context especially when we’re talking about the ministry. Additionally, as the comments regarding Peter point out, early catechization of children was likely much more comprehensive than is currently the case in our churches with our own children. I realize there are appropriate academic endeavors outside the local church community that should continue to be highly valued, but we need to rethink both the cost and the irrelevance of much of modern seminary education. Should it really cost $20,000-$50,000 to get a seminary degree plus all the student loans and other economic hardships created by such efforts? Perhaps the schule of the synagogue and more apprentice-like training ought to be considered in lieu of standardized seminary training that costs a near fortune. In saying this, scholarly standards need to remain high, but I don’t see why this can’t be done in a more communal and local environment like the synagogues of old.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

      Great comments, Kevin. My understanding is that Jonathan Edwards trained ministers is a similar apprenticeship model. So, in some ways, the problem is that the church isn’t scholarly enough, especially with the youth involved with church. Christian Smith, in Soul Searching, argued that churches should provide greater doctrinal teaching for teens – after all, he notes, we don’t hesitate to plunge teens into the depths of musical, athletic, or academic education.

      I’ve seen a growing number of “modular” seminary programs, in which the classroom sessions take place in short, 1-2 week modules so that students can remain in their current career/ministry context while they are learning. In another model, one of the ministers at my church participated in a 6-month coaching cohort, which combined face-to-face meetings with distance/online education. Do you think models like these could be better options than the current standard?

    Rich Grassel commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    If we are to take the admonition of Kind Solomon: to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding, then we imitate God, for He is all of these things and more.

    Scholarship isn’t the problem, its scholars with questionable hearts that can be a problem. It is and always has been a heart problem with mankind.

    Let me add a few more names of really bright people who God recruited for His cause. Moses – was educated in the finest Egyptian schools and probably wrote the Pentateuch. King David was clearly no slouch. His poetry is not only studied among Christians, but as literature even in secular universities. Isaiah, was a priest who had to memorize the entire Pentateuch word for word….

    I normally like Donald Miller, but what I read above leads me to conclude that he wrote anything but a carefully crafted and thoughtful critique of what plagues the contemporary church. Thanks for posting…

    Teluog commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    Anti-intellectualism is a trap. I continue to run into Christians and those interested in theological matters who try to do away with the use of logic and argumentation . . . . by using logic and argumentation.

    And of course, every Christian, intellectual or anti-intellectual, uses an English translation of Scripture, which took thousands of hours months and years from studying the original languages.

    Miller’s anti-intellectualism is a recipe for disaster. There are already reports of youth dropping out of the church when they reach the college-level because they were poorly educated at youth group. And I think it’s obvious enough to many people that many others in the church do not know their Bibles that well. Scholarship is a part of the foundation of a healthy church.

    And let’s not forget that Jesus himself was a teacher, and his apostles were well trained in their days thanks to their teachers, and a couple years with Jesus made them exceptionally knowledgeable of the Scriptures.

    David Suryk commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    How many of the Twelve could actually write? I’ve read (from some society for the study of Judaism) that about 3% of the people were literate. And by literate generally meant they could read. A strong oral tradition was essential for disseminating knowledge. And fewer could write (“know the letters”). Use of secretaries to send essential letters was a good business and they charged by the line. These secretaries knew which intros and endings were appropriate. Some secretaries were told the message and were trusted to write the letter that communicated the essential info. Other secretaries were used to take down precisely as dictated. It’s estimated that the first letter to the Corinthians would have cost (in today’s dollars) about $2,100. Thus the Corinthians were stunned at how long the letter was (aka, how outrageously expensive). Cicero is said to have written very long letters, but Paul wrote several very long letters. We today get into the bad habit of thinking all first-century people were just like us and can read and write and have bad memories for long sustained discourse (not to mention such things as splitting up religion and politics). In more recent times, the Lincoln-Douglas debates contained long, sustained arguments which the people listened to and came back for after meals. I attended the debate at Knox College, my Alma Mater, and it was an impressive event. Back to the first-century. Letters such as Paul’s were costly to write, though Tertius, who “wrote” Romans (Rom. 16:22) could have donated his services freely as a Christ-follower. Thus the letters Paul wrote were very carefully crafted and paid attention to key rhetorical moves (e.g., the letters to the Galatians is understandably different from the letter to the Romans. Paul knew the Galatians and could get up in their faces. Not so the Roman believers whom he didn’t know nor they him. So his rather abstract arguments using imaginary interlocutors was the acceptable rhetorical move to people not known to one another. Paul either knew some “agitators” had their minds set to visit Rome, or Paul knew that such agitators would likely go to Rome. Paul wanted the Roman believers to have his long, expensive letter in hand when or if they should arrive. But Paul was a scholar of first rank.

    What do we know of Peter? of John? of James? If being a “scholar” meant having the ability to read and write, then he chose fishermen who could read and write. Perhaps being in business such as fishing required these scholarly skills.

    But I do wonder whether John the son of Zebedee could write.

      Brian Pugh commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

      The irony is that Jesus basically turned the 12 into scholars and teachers.

    Brian Pugh commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    I wonder if Miller is confusing poor education with education, or even a quality education. It seems like he is confusing his poor church experience as a child and assuming that kind of poor education is the problem across the board… but maybe education and scholars seem like the problem because they are not always done well. What if educators are missing the boat? Is the problem education per se, or is the problem poor educators who teach the wrong things poorly.

    Also, great line Mike that he doesn’t know who “you” are. My experience is that people are not ready, they haven’t graduated and as a result they have no idea what to do! So Miller’s solution, meet on your own, serve your own communion, lead (submit to no one!)… that sounds like unity to me!

    So yes, we do need to do more! But we need to know what to do and the doing that Miller is prescribing is basically the same “doing” that he seems to be criticizing, you know, the “doing” that many churches already do.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 29, 2011 Reply

      I don’t know what Miller’s church background is, but I happen to belong to a tradition that calls Christians to unity, appoints laypeople as the leaders of the church, doesn’t see the need for pastors to have advanced degrees, and endorses the idea of Christians serving their own communion, obeying the “plain reading” of the Bible, etc. In other words, we’ve been following Miller’s advice for 200 years.

      Schisms based on theological minutiae have been one of our movement’s curses almost from the beginning. So that’s another reason I’m not impressed with his take.

    Ken Litwak commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    Besides all the good points made by others, I think that Miller has fundamentally failed to consider what the twelve apostles knew. They knew Koine Greek better than any person alive today. They knew the Scriptures far better than most Christians I know. They doubtless knew Aramaic better than anyone alive today. They knew, perhaps without having special terms for them, all the cultural values that drove their society. They knew all sorts of things that we cannot readily find out. So if someone wants to say that the Twelve were not scholars, that’s fine as long as Miller can tell us how we can get to the stage of detailed first-century knowledge the disciples had. If Peter or Andrew or Matthew could come forward in time to today, they could run circles around anyone when it comes to first-century linguistic and cultural knowledge. Rejecting scholarship with no qualification seems to me to be a way to be allowed to give any biblical text any meaning one wants because it would be too restrictive to attempt to find out from scholars anything that might actually aid us in understanding the Bible better.

      David Suryk commented on April 29, 2011 Reply

      The premier qualifications for the Twelve were that they were with Jesus and then later, were witnesses that he had been raised from the dead–they had seen the risen Lord. Paul later joined the ranks of apostle (to the Gentiles) because he too had met the risen Lord. The key question is not were they scholars, but were they witnesses. The risen Lord Jesus didn’t show himself to the world but to witnesses, witness who would bear testimony of Jesus and his resurrection. Koine Greek was the common language for daily life in the empire and Aramaic the common language too of first-century Palestine. It could have been that the males knew Hebrew as well in order to hear (if not, to read) the “Hebrew” Bible.

      The key thing is that the early disciples (including the Twelve) knew the Lord Jesus and later came to understand why the Messiah had to suffer, die and be raised (and on the THIRD day!). Spending 40 days with the Lord before his ascension was clearly key as well. Pentacost clearly was transformative too. Whatever the status of the earliest disciples (whether scholar or not), God equipped them for his purposes for them to bear testimony to Jesus the risen Lord to whom all nations are to give their “obedience of the faith”. Paul is a standout in many respects. God equips us all who believe to be his witnesses.

      A thought here too–the good old InterVarsity practice of the daily quiet time is the spiritual practice of being with the Lord and knowing him as Lord. Such spiritual practice helps us better bear witness to the Lord.

      I fear that too many scholars today, in revolt against anti-intellectualism too often fail to spend the quality time in Scriptures (we know them well enough, right?) and in prayer (the Lord’s will be done irrespective of my prayers, right?). I guess I long for Christian scholars who know the Lord in an ongoing living way and who bring the mind of Christ to bear on all their scholarly endeavors with the view of an integrated life–and not just a “personal” life or just an “academic” life. We need more Christian scholars who are regularly in the presence of the Lord in his word and in prayer AND in the worshipping community of others in the kingdom. These are also the sorts of people who will be able to testify with a fuller life to those around us whom Christ summons to “repent and believe.”

    Jacqueline Elizabeth commented on April 28, 2011 Reply

    It’s one thing to disagree with Mr. Miller, but quite another to call him anti-intellectual. He is not advocating the elimination of scholarship, doctrine, or education in the church. He is making the wider point that Christianity tends to be rather academic. And it often is. He is not critiquing all education in the church, but is rather (like he does in most of his writing, if you’re familiar with his style and voice) calling out ‘scholarship’ that ignores right living. Because the word ‘scholar’ is lacking definition in this discussion (some of which is Miller’s fault), equivocation abounds.

    Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are both necessary and not mutually exclusive. I consider myself a scholar and perpetual student, but all the right doctrine in the world does little to move that knowledge from my mind to my heart. It takes both learning about God and relating to God for the His Truth to pierce our hearts. So, rather than defend the need for genuine biblical scholarship when it technically wasn’t being attacked in the first place (thereby also proving his disclaimer that posts like this tend to cause dualism because people run to extremes), it would be far more advantageous to actually read his entire piece and acknowledge that there’s at least some truth to his point. His suggestion that those who aren’t scholars should lead the church does not automatically imply that those who are scholars should not lead the church. It’s not an either/or. Then again, most things aren’t.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on April 29, 2011 Reply


      I agree that dualism and division plague the church, and that knowing about God is worthless unless one actual knows God, too. I wish Miller had focused his column on those important truths, instead of taking needless swipes at scholars, teachers, and academics, and turning it into an “us-vs-them” situation as he does near the end of his post:

      “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.”

    John Mulholland commented on April 29, 2011 Reply

    I wonder if it is important that Jesus recruited as disciples people who did work – at the very least fishermen and tax collecter, and then later with Paul a tent maker.

    Maybe a perspective we need to have is that Jesus gave great value from the beginning of his ministry to people who had jobs and work to do. By contrast to Jesus’ time, today teachers, scholars and scientists are a major part of the work force. One might expect Jesus to choose one of them as a disciple, were He doing His human work today.

    Jeremy commented on May 3, 2011 Reply

    It seems to me that the important subtext in Miller’s article is a very valid criticism of the church that it is often too embroiled in intellectual debates, stifling its ability to be an effective body of laborers for Christ.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on May 3, 2011 Reply

      I agree completely that disunity and the desire to argue rather than work together are major problems for Christians. However, I don’t see how those problems have anything to do with whether one is an intellectual, scholar, or academic.

    Joe Whitchurch commented on November 22, 2011 Reply

    Great thoughts and challenges and nuance all concerning a very interesting subject. About the beloved apostle John who Jesus chose. I’m not as certain as David that the simple Greek of the gospel by his name and the complexity of Revelation while he was on Patmos do not indicate the growth of yet another young fisherman and a fire-breathing one at that into quite the scholar. I’ve heard it was a later John but am not convinced. Disciples are learners and lifetime learners of Christ…well…all the above.

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