Founders Journal


Founders Journal · Winter 2001 · pp. 1-10, 28

The Pastor as Theologian

Tom Ascol

The story is told of two seminary professors who were walking in a cemetery when one said to the other, "Look, two men are buried in this grave." His colleague asked, "How do you know?"

"Because the tombstone says, 'Here lies a pastor and a theologian.'"

Unfortunately, that is an all-too-common conception. In both the academy and the church the opinion largely prevails that one can either be a theologian or a pastor, but surely, one cannot be both.

I confronted this mentality twenty years ago during an interview with the head of the PhD program at a well-known, conservative theological seminary. When asked what my ministerial goals were, I responded, "To be a pastor." The interviewer replied, "Then I don't know why you would want to pursue PhD studies in theology, since this degree is really designed for scholarly, theological research. You would never use it in the pastorate. In fact, I only know of one man who is a pastor that uses his PhD very much in his church, and that's Jim Boice [the late pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA]. And if you asked him, I think he would tell you that you really don't need a PhD if all you want to do is pastor."

The man meant no slight to the office of pastor, I am sure, but his comments betray an attitude which has wreaked havoc on biblical Christianity in recent generations. The idea that depth of learning and theological concern should be relegated to the classroom while the "practical" aspects of Christianity should be reserved for the church is deadly. It was perverse when liberals espoused it in the first half of the twentieth century and it is no less diabolical when advocated--even if subtly--by conservatives.

The separation of the role of the pastor from that of the theologian is a modern development. A cursory glance over history confirms this. Think of some of the greatest theologians before the twentieth century.

Augustine, the great Patristic theologian was the bishop--the pastor--of Hippo. Martin Luther, whose theological writings started reformational fires across Europe saw himself not merely as a professor but as a pastor.[1] The same can be said of John Calvin, who pastored in Strasbourg as well as Geneva, and Huldreich Zwingli, who fulfilled his calling as pastor of the Grossmünster in Zurich).

This is also true of most of the Puritan writers whose works are gaining new appreciation in our day as well as the greatest American theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Our most significant Baptist theologians have also been pastors: John Gill served as pastor Horslydown for more than fifty years and Andrew Fuller pastored in Kettering for more than thirty years. P. H. Mell served Baptist churches in Georgia for more than thirty years as pastor and John Dagg pastored churches in Virginia and Philadelphia before his academic career. The great proponent for Southern Baptist theological education, Basil Manly, Sr. served as pastor for sixteen years, twelve of which were spent at the First Baptist Church of Charleston.

Such examples could be multiplied, but the point is sufficiently made that there was a time when to be a pastor meant to be a theologian. Those days were spiritually healthier than the times we live in today. If we hope to see a renewal of spirituality and church life, we must work to recover the role of the pastor-theologian.

Modern Separation of Pastor from Theologian

How did the separation of this unified calling occur? One significant factor has been the church's abdication of its theological task. The Apostle Paul declares the church to be "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). This means that the church is the steward of truth. We must recognize, therefore, that God has give to the church the responsibility to confess, reflect upon, and apply the truth, which is simply another way of describing the work of theology.

The Christian faith is inherently (though not exclusively) doctrinal. The truth which God has revealed throughout all of redemptive history and which culminates in Christ is to be explored, understood, explained, proclaimed and defended. Thus, truth is to set the agenda for the church.

Where this understanding of the church prevails, the pastor will be seen primarily as a "truth-broker." He will see himself responsible for doing the work of theology-studying, proclaiming and applying God's Word in such a way that "moral character is formed and Christian wisdom results."[2]

During the last 200 years in America this understanding of the church has been almost completely undermined. It happened quite obviously to mainline denominations in the first fifty years of the twentieth century and it is happening now (for the last forty years) in evangelical churches.

Evangelicals have largely been taken over by the consumer culture where the customer is king. Thus, just like any good capitalistic business, churches have become market driven. Find out what people want and give it to them. Some even advocate this philosophy for church growth in crass marketing language (see, for example, George Barna's 1988 book, Marketing the Church).

What do religious consumers want? Happiness, good child care, social relationships, aerobic exercise classes and twelve-step programs covering everything from weight loss to enhancing one's self-esteem would make the list. It seems that the last thing they want is doctrine. As the church begins to recast its vision in terms of market analyses (diminishing or even dismissing its role as steward of God's truth), it necessarily changes its conception of what a pastor ought to be. Consequently, today the role of the pastor is being modeled primarily after the therapist and manager rather than the theologian.

At the same time that the church has abdicated its responsibility as steward of the truth, the academy has jockeyed to usurp the theological task from the church. Theology has gone professional. The church is no longer regarded as "the prime recipient of theological endeavors" nor the primary context in which theological visions are constructed.[3]

Those who are gifted in certain technical fields which contribute to the work of theology (ie. grammatical and literary analysis; historical, theological and philosophical analysis, etc.) have often been conscripted by academic institutions which have increasingly distanced themselves from the church. Many of the largest and most respected seminaries have no formal affiliation with any church.[4]

Coupled with this is a shift in thinking about the nature of training for pastoral ministry. Instead of pastors training pastors the current model advocates professional academicians as the proper teachers of pastoral candidates. One proponent of this new model explained the rationale for entrusting inexperienced graduates with the responsibility of training men for the ministry: "Most people in middle age and beyond have not remained in touch with the academic subjects to the required level. And people coming out of college aren't sullied by the disillusionment of unfruitful parochial experience, nor by just having gone rusty and not being able to read."[5] A review of theological faculty resumes easily demonstrates how widespread this thinking has become.

Granted, some subjects which are important to a minister's preparation can be taught by those who have mastered the material outside of practical church ministry. But the idea that the professional "teacher track" is the best source from which to draw men to train prospective pastors is biblically tenuous at best and counterproductive at worst. Who would ever think it wise to assign a newly minted pathologist the responsibility of training medical students in heart surgery? The relegation of ministerial training to academicians further contributes to the unhealthy division between pastoral work and theological work.

The result of this professionalization of theology has made it easy, if not preferred and at times even required, for those engaged in the work of theology to forget about the church as their primary audience and to address only other academics. One symptom of this malady is the relative dearth of recent work in the area of ecclesiology. It has become an almost forgotten subject of theology.

These tendencies have had a spiraling degenerative effect. Theology has become increasingly esoteric and church life has become increasingly a-theological. What is greatly needed, then, is a renewal of theology that takes place in the church. The effort for such renewal must be led by pastors. And such pastors must be committed to the work of theology.

Revival of the Pastor-Theologian

Every pastor is called to be a theologian. And both pastors and churches need to begin thinking again in these terms. This will happen when the Bible is regarded as sufficient for defining and directing pastoral ministry. All pastoral practice should extend from theological understanding which is rooted in the Bible. The primary question for a pastor's self-understanding is this: What does God say a pastor should be and do?

This question can only be answered in the context of biblical ecclesiology. When the order and officers of the church are considered, pastors will be recognized as the servant leaders of the church. Apostolic example and instruction provide content for this service and leadership. In Jerusalem the apostles were shepherding the church after Pentecost. In the context of responding to a divisive problem in the fellowship we are taught that those who pastor the church should give themselves "continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4).

Similarly, Peter gives a comprehensive charge to pastors when He writes,

Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away (1 Peter 5:1-4).

These verses address the character, motivation, manner, methodology and goal of pastoral ministry.

While the whole Bible should be perused to determine the nature and role of a pastor, Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus comprise the primary source for such study. They are called the "Pastoral Letters" for a reason. Both Timothy and Titus had pastoral responsibilities and Paul gives them apostolic instruction on how to fulfill their ministries. So it is somewhat amazing to see how many books and articles on pastoral ministry either ignore or give only slight attention to these three letters.

A careful reading of these three letters will show that what Paul repeatedly emphasizes to his pastoral colleagues is the importance of sound doctrine to their work.

In the 242 verses which comprise these three letters, which are in effect divinely inspired pastoral manuals, Paul uses the word, "doctrine" at least sixteen times. Theology was to be at the heart of Timothy's and Titus' understanding of what a pastor is to be and do. Consider of few of the points Paul makes about a pastor's doctrinal responsibility.

• He is to charge people that they teach only apostolic doctrine. (1 Timothy 1:3)

• He is to beware that some professing believers will depart from the faith and will be taken in by deceiving spirits and the doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).

• He will be a good minister of Jesus Christ if he teaches his brethren to see through ascetic gnosticism and he himself continues to carefully feed on good doctrine (1 Timothy 4:6).

• He is to give careful attention to doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13).

• He is continuously to take heed to himself and to the doctrine, with the assurance that by doing so he will save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

• He is to aspire to become worthy of double honor by ruling well and laboring in word and doctrine (1 Timothy 5:17).

• He is to regard the Scriptures as being profitable for doctrine (2 Timothy 3:16).

• He is to preach the word because he knows that the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

• He is be so doctrinally grounded that he can refute false teaching by sound doctrine (Titus 1:9).

• Everything which he teaches is to be consistent with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

• In doctrinal convictions he is to have integrity, be reverent and incorruptible (Titus 2:7).

How in the world can any man hope to pass the apostle's admission test to pastoral ministry if he is not committed to being a careful theologian?

It has often been said that a man has no right to be a theologian until he has become an exegete. That is certainly true because the Word of God is the fundamental source for all theological thinking. However, it is also true that a man has no right to become an exegete without going on to become a theologian. The Bible teaches theology and the exegetical task is not complete until theological confession, reflection and application takes place.

The Pastor's Work Defined Theologically

The pastor's work cannot be satisfactorily defined without employing theological categories. Think of some of the major responsibilities of the pastorate: praying, evangelizing, preaching, teaching, counseling (preventative and remedial), administration, maintaining an exemplary personal and domestic life, overseeing the church's life and ministry, providing leadership (in worship, vision and mission), and training leaders.

All of these tasks can and should be theologically defined. The Bible compares the work of an elder or overseer to that of a shepherd. That is what "pastor" means-shepherd. When Paul addressed the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 he said, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood" (Acts 20:28).

This shepherding motif encompasses all of the tasks listed above and can be categorized under four heads: leading, feeding, caring, and protecting.


God calls pastors to give decisive leadership in the church. They are to "rule" (Hebrews 13:7, 17; 1 Timothy 3:4-5, 5:17), not in a heavy-handed way but with genuine authority which has been vested in their office by Christ Himself. Furthermore, they are to lead in such a way that other believers will be able to follow them with spiritual profit.

In order to lead the church effectively a pastor must have a clear understanding of the intended destination. Where is the church supposed to go? What is it supposed to do? How you answer these questions will determine the character, impact, and effectiveness of your ministry. The Bible must be consulted to determine both what the appropriate functions of a church are (worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, fellowship, etc.) and how these functions are to be carried out. This requires theological thinking.

Consider, for example, worship. Many of the most heated skirmishes in the so-called "worship wars" have arisen because of a failure to ask one basic question: What is worship? Without a clearly defined, biblically based understanding of what it is we are supposed to be doing when we gather for worship we cannot even begin to lead a congregation to do it. You will never hit the bull's eye if you do not know what the target is.

After worship has been biblically defined then other, more practical questions can be pursued. How should a congregation worship? Should congregational worship include choirs? Should offering plates be passed? Should Scripture be read? Should their be preaching? Liturgical dance? Drama? Musicals? Orchestra? Incense? Are any of these activities always--or never--appropriate? Are any of them incidental? Are any more important than others?

I am not suggesting that every pastor will answer all these questions the same way, but these and similar questions must be asked by anyone who is called to lead a congregation to worship. In other words, a pastor needs to work out a theology of worship and seek to teach it and apply it in the life of the congregation.

This is also true for evangelism. Like worship, evangelism is so much a part of the fabric of evangelical church life that pastors often assume that everyone knows what is meant by the word. But, again, the basic question must be asked, What is it? A biblical definition of witnessing and evangelizing must be distilled from Scripture.

Once this is done then other questions must be considered. Who should do evangelism? How? What is essential in evangelism? What is optional? What is the goal? What constitutes success?

When working out a theology of evangelism a pastor will be forced to think through other theological categories such as anthropology (doctrine of man), pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit), Christology (doctrine of Christ), soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). This requires theological thinking and when applied to every area of church leadership will enable a pastor to help cast a theological vision for the congregation he shepherds.


Like a shepherd, a pastor is responsible to feed his flock. The primary means by which this is to take place is preaching. The division of the "pastor-theologian" into two separate roles has had a devasting impact on preaching. Pastoral preaching has become all but void of doctrinal content. Consequently, church members are often not as stable as they ought to be and are easily led astray by charismatic false teachers. Where this malady long prevails theology is judged as irrelevant and theologians as being of little use to the church.

In former, spiritually healthier days doctrinal preaching was the norm. Just as the great theologians listed above considered themselves to be pastors so they also understood their chief work to be preaching. Their sermons which have been handed down to us in written form are filled with doctrinal content.

The great Welsh preacher of the last century, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said this, "I would lay down a general proposition that preaching must always be theological, always based on a theological foundation."[6] That is to say, preaching must always teach. And what is to be taught is biblical doctrine.

This conviction is clearly seen in the preaching of the Puritans of the seventeenth century. After introducing the theme and direction of his sermon it was common for the Puritan pastor to set forth his exposition of the text under the heading of "Doctrine." Only after this were applications (called "Uses" or "Rules") made. J. I. Packer explains the Puritan approach to doctrinal preaching,

To be a good expositor … one must first be a good theologian. Theology--truth about God and man--is what God has put into the texts of Scripture, and theology is what preachers must draw out of them. To the question, '"Should one preach doctrine?", the Puritan answer would have been, "Why, what else is there to preach?" Puritan preachers were not afraid to bring the profoundest theology into the pulpit if it bore on their hearers' salvation, nor to demand that men and women apply themselves to mastering it, nor to diagnose unwillingness to do so as a sign of insincerity.[7]

Packer appropriately summarizes the importance of this approach by noting, "Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ's sheep. The preacher's job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers--in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats."[8]


The role of counseling in a pastor's ministry is the subject of great debate. Martyn Lloyd-Jones had little confidence in the post-World War II counseling movement in the church. He argued that careful expository preaching could accomplish more than much of the personal work which counseling proponents advocated. Yet, he also acknowledged at least a supplementary role for personal counseling in pastoral ministry.[9] However much emphasis is given to this type of ministry, the work should be carried out theologically.

I have never encountered one counseling problem that did not have at its root a doctrinal misunderstanding or misapplication. That may sound over-simplified and impractical, but only if we forget how profound and practical God's truth is.

Counseling has become so psychologized in our day that we have a hard time even thinking of it theologically anymore. Yet, the biblical writers constantly use doctrinal truth to get at practical problems and issues in the lives of people. For example, issues of finance (especially giving) are addressed theologically by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. One of the greatest Christological affirmations in the whole Bible is stated in this context as a basis for sacrificial giving: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (8:9).

Ephesians 4 is a classic example of using theology to address personal problems. The chapter begins with a call to living humbly, patiently and lovingly with each other (1-3) which Paul urges on the basis of the genuine unity which believers have in Christ (4-16). In verses 17-32 he takes up the issues of dishonesty (25), anger (26), thievery (28), foul speech (29, 31), bitterness (31) and forgiveness (32). All of these practical counseling issues (and even more which spill over into the first 7 verses of chapter 5) are addressed on the basis of the believer's new life in Jesus Christ (17-24).

The Bible is filled with this kind of theological reasoning about personal problems. A faithful pastor must equip himself to follow this approach if he is going to be biblical in his ministry, which means he must train himself to think theologically about every area of life.

As I have progressed in age and experience my counseling has become more refined and straightforward. Thinking theologically about personal problems has led me to one basic exhortation which, I believe, has universal application. In all my counseling I try to say one thing: Be a real Christian and act like it.

For the unbeliever, a pastor has nothing to offer but the gospel (which is really everything). A man cannot have the kind of marriage he ought to have unless he first submits to Christ. So why spend hours on communication skills and personal habits when a man's fundamental need is to become a real Christian? For the unbeliever, all counseling issues are issues of evangelism.

For the Christian, all counseling issues are issues of sanctification; learning to live up to what has already been attained; learning to engage the spiritual warfare more effectively; learning to live by grace; to trust Christ; to repent sincerely; to forgive; to accept forgiveness, etc. When approached on this basis every problem which a Christian has can and should be evaluated theologically. For example, self-pity will be unmasked as the shadow side of pride and can be therefore fought more effectively. Sinful anger will be revealed as nothing more than unbelief--a lack of confidence in God whose providence orders our lives. The angry believer is, therefore, forced to deal directly with His Creator and Redeemer and rescued from being sidetracked by focusing on secondary causes.

Without a theological understanding of sin and its impact on the human personality, of grace and its power over sin, of Christ and His ministry to believers, of the Spirit and His ministry, of the Word and its usefulness for sanctification, of the Christian life and its goals and purposes, a pastor's efforts at counseling will be either very superficial or ineffective. Let the sociologists and psychologists chase the rabbit trails of a-theological counseling. Pastors must care for souls theologically.


From their inception New Testament churches have been subject to false teaching and false teachers. Jesus warned of this as did the Apostle Paul (Matthew 7:15-20; Acts 20:29-30; 1 Corinthians 11:13-16; Galatians 2:4-5; 4:17; 5:7-12; Ephesians 4;14; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:8, etc.). It is the responsibility of pastors to protect churches from the devastating impact of erroneous teaching. This requires both discernment and refutation, both of which are functions of theological thinking.

Paul specifically instructs Titus to make sure that pastors are equipped for this kind of work. Such a man must hold "fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict" (1:9). Every pastor must be a theologian because there are "many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers … whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain" (1:10-11).

The pastor who refuses to take up this work of biblical, systematic and polemical theology cannot adequately protect God's flock and, according to Titus 1:9-11, is not qualified for the office. This does not mean that every pastor will be equally gifted in theological understanding. But it does mean that every man who "desires the position of a bishop" (1 Timothy 3:1) will recognize that inherent in that office is the call to become a theologian.

How Can a Pastor Equip Himself Theologically

Pastor-theologians cannot be produced by academic institutions. Such institutions may assist a man along the path, but the work is far more demanding than can be performed in a classroom. Luther understood this well when he said, "Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living, nay, rather, dying and being damned make a theologian."[10] Theology is best learned in the crucible of life and ministry, which means that a pastor must regard himself as a life-long learner and student. To aid in this process, a pastor should regard the study of theology and the discipline of thinking theologically ongoing responsibilities of his calling.

Following are a few suggestions which can contribute to this.

  1. Become confessional in life and ministry. Study time-tested confessions of faith, such as the Second London Baptist, the New Hampshire, or the Abstract of Principles. There is a long tradition in Baptist life of pastors adopting or even writing their own personal confessions. Such an exercise will sensitize one to reading the Bible theologically (rather than merely narratively). Make a point to know the key biblical passages that teach justification; regeneration; sanctification; election; etc.

  2. Use catechisms. Baptists, along with other protestant evangelical groups, have a rich catechetical tradition. Teach the children in your home and congregation a good catechism. Teach your church a catechism. A good catechism provides a theological framework for one's thinking.[11]

  3. Familiarize yourself with good pastor-theologian models. Read Martyn Lloyd-Jones' biography and sermons. Do the same with Charles Spurgeon. On the contemporary scene, among those who are writing significantly, John MacArthur, John Piper, Brian Edwards, Joel Beeke, Sinclair Ferguson and the late James Boice are worth noting.

  4. Read theology. The recent reprinting of older works makes the Puritans and their heirs more accessible today than at any time in the previous century. Get on the mailing lists of trusted publishers of such works, like Banner of Truth and Soli Deo Gloria. Talk to fellow pastors and discover what books they are finding helpful. Read good theological journals and don't skip the book reviews!

  5. Read current events. WORLD Magazine and Ken Myers' Mars Hill Tapes are two excellent sources for staying current. Current Thoughts and Trends summarizes dozens of articles from hundreds of periodicals on a monthly basis. In addition to these Christian voices I have greatly benefited from reading almost anything sociologist Neil Postman writes.


Recovering the pastor-theologian model is not optional for a ministry which is committed to being biblical. God's Word requires pastors to see themselves in this light. Though this approach to ministry will require going against the stream of modern thinking, the benefits are far reaching.

Church members who are theologically instructed become better equipped to handle the Word of God responsibly. They are able to use Scripture in problem solving and counseling others. They also become better at listening to preaching and teaching. A theologically grounded congregation makes for better preaching. A pastor who trains his hearers to reason biblically will not be able to bluff his way through a sermon. Doctrinal preaching raises doctrinal literacy which in turn encourages careful study and prayer by the preacher.

A pastor-theologian can be useful in the lives of other pastors--especially those with less experience. I have avoided many wrong steps and unnecessary controversies in the church by listening to the experienced, theologically informed counsel of fellow pastors.

Finally, a pastor who sees theology as his life-long work will help lay the foundation for reformation and revival. If churches are going to be strengthened and renewed in our day, it will be accomplished on the foundation of God's truth and nothing else. Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth." (John 17:17). The Spirit uses nothing less in that great work. So if a pastor would see himself and his people become increasingly holy, he must restore truth to the pride of place in his ministry. He must continue to aspire to the work of a pastor-theologian. "Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine" (1 Timothy 4:13).


1 See Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 53-56 and Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: the Preservation of the Church, 1532-1546, trans. by James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993), 249-53. Luther's well-known prayer from his lectures on Genesis begins, "Lord God, thou has appointed me in the church as bishop and pastor…." (Brecht, 251).

2 David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 253.

3 Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 318.

4 Including Fuller, Asbury and Gordon-Conwell. See Lints, 318. This is not true of the six Southern Baptist seminaries which are governed by boards of trustees who are elected by messengers from local churches.

5 David Stancliffe, as cited in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950-2000 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 174-75.

6 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 64.

7 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 284-85.

8 Ibid., 285.

9 Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 17-18, 37-40.

10 Cited in George, Theology of the Reformers, 61.

11 For an excellent introduction to Baptist catechisms see Tom Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts, the Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1998). The Truth and Grace Memory Books (1 and 2) which I edited (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2000), utilize catechisms designed for children and young people.