Scholars, Teachers, and the Church [Updated with correction]

Speaking of teachers and scholars, here is a photo of Professor of Education Mary Poplin speaking to  InterVarsity staff at our 2011 staff conference

Correction (5/18/11): In the post below, I attributed a blog post to V. Philips Long of Regent College, when the post was actually written by Phillip J. Long of Grace Bible College. The text of the post has been corrected. ~ Mike

Last week, my response to Donald Miller resonated with many, many people, resulting in (by far) the highest number of comments, page views, Facebook shares, etc. of anything we’ve posted here. I think philosophy professor Mike Austin expressed a common reaction among Christians with an intellectual bend:

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

There was also some slipperiness on Miller’s vocabulary, as physicist W. Brian Lane noted:

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.

In the comments, two distinctions repeatedly came up: the difference between teachers and scholars (not to mention pastors); and the difference between teachers/scholars within the church and outside the church. By “outside the church,” I don’t mean non-Christians, by the way — I’m talking about, say, a high school physics teacher or a professor of Italian literature, who exercise their teaching and scholarly gifts primarily in secular contexts. Most of our readers fall into that category (or hope to, at least). This week, I’d like to spend some time parsing out those distinctions. But first, a couple of questions for you: What examples have you seen of scholars and teachers serving the church or in secular fields? What kinds of scholarly work are needed in the church?

Teaching as an Office of the Church

Ephesians 4 is perhaps my favorite chapter in the entire Bible. If I were ever to tattoo a Bible verse onto myself, it would likely be Eph. 4:5 — “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” — which is a bit odd, since I’ve been baptized twice, but that’s a story for another day. As I quoted last week, it also includes a powerful statement about not only who should lead the church, but also how and why.

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)

Teaching, then, is clearly an ordained office of the church. But teaching is only one aspect of scholarship, and for some scholars, it’s the least important aspect. Some individuals, both in the church and in the academy, are remarkably gifted in their ability to explain difficult concepts to a general audience, inspire others to pursue knowledge, and guide novices into the deeper world of knowledge. Others, though, are better equipped for the pioneering work of original research, and might actually be fairly awful teachers.

Scholarly Work Other Than Teaching

These are two sets of related, but different, gifts and skills. As part of a session with a career coach, I recently took the Strong Interest Inventory, which categorizes hundreds of jobs according to the usual interests and passions of people with those jobs. Interestingly, the SII splits the career of “college faculty” into two separate jobs, which are (unfortunately, I think) called “college professor” and “college instructor.” The former requires high investigative and artistic (i.e. creative or connecting) interests, while the latter requires high social interests. The passage I quoted above addresses the teaching office, but look at what comes immediately after:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who the head, that is, Christ. (Eph. 4:14-15)

Paul continues a big further down:

…you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts… …You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. (Eph. 4: 17-28, 22-25

Thinking…understanding…ignorance…the attitude of your minds…truth — isn’t it striking how Paul repeatedly comes back to our intellect as an integral part of spiritual formation? As you may have experienced first hand, there is a way of reading this passage and others like it that strongly contrasts the “knowledge of God” with the “knowledge of the world.” I’m not going to spend time addressing that today, except to note that Paul writes that our “new self” is “created to be like God.” That’s creational language from Genesis 1 — language that is tightly connected to God’s commands to subdue the earth, work the garden, and give names to the animals — or, as I like to say, the divine invention of civil engineering, agricultural science, and taxonomic zoology.

The Need for Truth

When Paul warns against being “blown here and there by every wind of teaching,” he probably has spiritual teachings on the top of his mind. One of the great gifts of Biblical and theological scholars to the church is to sift true and false teachings, true and false interpretations of scripture, true and false understandings of God. Philip Long, Old Testament professor at Regent College (and my former Hebrew teacher) Phillip J. Long of Grace Bible College recently called sound exegesis a moral responsibility for pastors, with the accompanying requirement that they spend time in the text, do their own exegesis as they are able, and draw on the best resources they have available, including scholarly works. However, there are other kinds of “wind” out there. For example, in my field — campus ministry — I am extremely grateful for the work of sociologists like Christian Smith, Elaine Howard Ecklund, and George Yancey. Their research provides reliable information — truth — about the religious beliefs of students and faculty, so that I can do my work from a firm foundation, rather than relying on false assumptions or my own limited personal experience. Truth also has a physical component, as we discover how God made the world. Over the weekend, I received an email from a chemistry professor looking for resources for using science and engineering to serve global needs. This is another area where scholarship and research is irreplaceable. James writes:

Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing for their physical needs what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

To cite just one well-known example, where would medical care be today without the germ theory of disease? The research that led to the discovery of microorganisms has enabled us to provide for others’ physical needs to an extent unimagined by our distant ancestors. In the course of answering the professor’s email, I discovered that the ASA is developing a resource page about using science and technology to serve the poor.

Teaching and Scholarship as a Vocation

This brings me to my final point. Donald Miller made a big deal of the fact that Jesus’ twelve disciples were fishermen and tax collectors. In last week’s comments, John Mulholland made an important point about the cultural changes that have happened since the first century:

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.

Other examples of “careers” held by Jesus’ disciples beyond the Twelve occur to me: Martha, the householder; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who might today be called philanthropists (Luke 8:2-3); even the “Gadarene demoniac” in Luke 8:26-39, who went straight from being homeless and destitute to serving as an evangelist. This might sound strange coming from someone whose entire job revolves around helping Christian students become professors, but being a scholar or teacher is just a job like any other. Yes, it’s a job with unique challenges. I also believe that scholars and teachers have a strategic role in our cultures and churches. Nonetheless, it’s a career like any other than Christians might pursue. We ought to encourage scholars and teachers — or students on their way to those careers — in the same way we would encourage any other Christian:

to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

What examples have you seen of scholars and teachers serving the church or in secular fields? What kinds of scholarly work are needed in the church?

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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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    Mel commented on May 3, 2011 Reply

    I don’t consider myself an intellectual though i am educated, but i certainly see and uphold the need for earnest scholarship in all areas especially those areas that pertain to faith. (arguably that’s everything but i mean mainly Biblely stuff.)

    I do think it’s interesting, as regards this article’s section “Scholarly work other than teaching” where the author is quoting Paul and his references to the mind, then commenting on our intellect’s role in our spiritual maturity, that she doesn’t note the cause of mental issues is “due to the hardening of their hearts…” It seems to me then that the catalyst that will change our intellect to accept the truth would be the change in our hearts. This seems primary. I know that her main purpose here is to point out the importance of the mind in light of Don Miller’s comments. Still I think it’s worth noting in as much as how the heart and the mind interact.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on May 4, 2011 Reply


      Thanks for your comment. I realized after you posted it that my caption under the photo made it sound like this was Mary Poplin writing. Nope – it’s just me! Mary would have had a much more balanced perspective on the heart’s role in leading the intellect.

      You’re absolutely right, though: the head and the heart are intimately connected, and the heart clearly leads the head in the passage you mention. Interestingly, many professional scientists (who are often stereotyped as “all head, no heart” by nonscientists) have reflected on how their emotions drive their scientific work, especially feelings of wonder, awe, and curiosity. For example, see this Books & Culture article.

        Mel commented on May 4, 2011 Reply

        my bad, Michael. I wish i could blame that error on spellcheck.

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