By Mat Gilbert
Editor’s Note: Today (August 10, 2015) is the first day of classes for Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. With that in mind, Mat Gilbert provides us with some helpful reflections on theological education and local church ministry.
One of the things I loved about being an online theology student is the opportunity it provided me to serve in my home church. I was an online student at Boyce College from 2012-2015. By God’s grace, I graduated this past May with a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies. For several reasons, my wife and I were unable to move to Louisville, so my entire degree was earned online. The greatest blessing this provided was the duality of receiving a substantial and significant theological education and the opportunity to actively serve my local church in children’s ministry.
Boyce College provides a theological education according to the philosophy of education of its namesake, James P. Boyce. He believed theological education was “a matter of the first importance to the churches of Christ.” Because of this, he desired ministry that was “convictional, rigorous, and accessible.” Even as an online student, my experience has shown me that this is exactly what Boyce College provides.
However, even though I know the serious theological education I received fueled my service in kids ministry, there are those who believe studying theology cannot coincide with tangible and practical ministry in the local church—a truth particularly true in the South. Many people create a false dichotomy when it comes to serious theological education and gospel ministry. They say that if one studies theology too deeply or thinks too much about biblical truths, it will cause one to stay locked away in an ivory tower of intellectualism while the people suffer spiritually and physically in the gutter below. I have heard people say, “I don’t see the point in theological education when there is so much ministry to be done.” What do Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, and other theologians have to do with kids ministry, for example? Those who condescend serious theological education simply cannot see how practical ministry can benefit from keeping one’s head in the clouds.
This separation of theological education and practical ministry is not new. German theologian, pastor, and conspirator in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was educated at one of the most prominent seminaries of his day; Berlin University. Though he disagreed with many of his liberal and critical professors, he honored their commitment to serious theological study. Bonhoeffer was a deeply serious theology student who was not content to speak without thinking or allow issues to simply fall to the wayside unsolved. Bonhoeffer was also a loving and faithful pastor. Nearly as soon as he was handed his diploma, he was on a train to Barcelona to pastor. His deep love for theology fueled a deep love for God and people (or vice versa). This love expressed itself in practical pastoral ministry.
However, when Bonhoeffer decided to travel to America in 1930, he saw something quite different in one theological seminary and in many churches. Serious theological education had been abandoned in favor of social involvement. While studying at Union Theological Seminary for recreational purposes (not for a degree), and while attending various American churches, Bonhoeffer observed the unhealthy disconnect between theology and ministry. There is no theology here…They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students…are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level (quoted in Erica Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet,Spy, 101).
However, despite the lack of theology present at Union and in many of the churches, there was still much ministry going on.
At the instigation of this group, the student body of Union Theological seminary has, over the winter, continually provided food and lodging for thirty unemployed–among them three Germans–and has advised them as well as possible. This has led to considerable personal sacrifice of time and money. It must not, however, be left unmentioned that the theological education of this group is virtually nil, and the self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question is unwarranted and naive (Ibid., 105).
While serious theological study was lost, ministry to the poor was not. So, it would seem that these liberal theologians in the first half of the twentieth century, and those today who see serious theological education as unnecessary for ministry to exist and even thrive, are right. Do I really need to spend hours upon hours studying, watching lectures, reading books written by guys who have long since died in order to minister to kids each Wednesday night? The answer lies in what is lost when theology is forgotten.
When theology is forgotten, the gospel is lost. The gospel of Christ has been passed down to us, essentially because Christian men and women throughout history have seriously studied theology, both formally and informally. This is not to say that if you do not attend seminary or receive some form of formal theological training that you will lose the gospel. However, this is to say that you will lose sight of the gospel if you refuse to think often about its implications. This is why Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand (1 Cor. 15:1, emphasis added). Theology sharpens our understanding of the gospel and all of its implications. This means that theology should always overflow into practical ministry that is gospel-centered.
Clearly, this leads me to conclude two things about the relationship between theology and ministry:
(1) Theology that does not naturally overflow into practical ministry is useless, groundless, and Christless.
(2) Ministry that does not flow from gospel-centered, God-centered, and Bible-centered theology is in vain.
When theology is ignored in favor of ministry, this false dichotomy shows it has no place for the cross. Bonhoeffer wrote of American churches in 1930:
Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity…There’s no sense to expect the fruit where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se? In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life (Ibid., 106).
What a shame. A theological seminary and local churches both speaking much about spirituality and social issues, yet neither proclaiming the cross. Where serious theological education is ignored, the gospel is lost in the muck of “ministry” concerns. Notice how Bonhoeffer characterized these churches:
All these things of course, take place with varying degrees of tactfulness, taste, and seriousness; some churches are basically “charitable” churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is (Ibid., 107).
I am eternally thankful for the existence of Boyce College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Because of these institutions, the world is being filled with pastors and leaders who are preaching Christ and nothing else! The men and women at Boyce and Southern are ardently raising up men and women to go forth into the world to faithfully serve local churches with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am confident that my time at Boyce has driven me to desire a significant and impactful ministry that never forgets what the real point is.
So, as I continue my theological education and find myself growing weary in writing papers, taking tests, and memorizing Hebrew vocabulary, instead of calling it quits to “practically minister” due to the poisonous false dichotomy created by some, I will pour one more cup of coffee and journey into great theological depths in order to never lose sight of the gospel and for the purpose of ministering to God’s people in grace and truth. Because I deeply love Jesus, I study theology and minister to boys and girls. My love for the one fuels my love for the other. And may this precious duality between serious theological study and practical ministry never be severed, so the gospel may go forth.
Mat Gilbert is Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt in East Bernstadt, KY, where he lives with his wife Erica.