If the Harold Camping rapture bust taught us anything, it is that there are a lot of “Christian leaders” out there saying some very crazy things. I actually shudder to read my own writings or listen to my old sermons from the the months before I started formal study of theology. A lot of what I said was, to be honest, just plain wrong. I had heard an idea or read a book and thought something sounded good, or made sense to my own worldview, and I just repeated it. Worse yet, I would read the Bible and then preach about some insight I thought I had, with no real knowledge or insight into what the Bible was actually trying to communicate. I don’t think I should have been allowed to preach and teach before I was educated.
In my native Southern California, there seems to be a sizable number of Christians who dismiss the need for a “professional” clergy, especially in the role of teacher. But this is odd, isn’t it? You would never go to a doctor for treatment who was “self-taught” or proclaimed that they had read a bunch of medical books on their own. Would you? Likewise, even a public high school teacher cannot teach until they have an advanced degree in their field. Lawyers must pass an exam to prove competency in the law before they can legally practice. So why do we believe that an untrained, undereducated Bible teacher can do better? Of course most Christians believe that the Holy Spirit “illuminates” the meaning of Scripture for the reader, and this is something that can never be taught, but that is not an excuse to dedicate yourself to study, as you would in any other field. God gifts some people’s hands to be talented surgeons, but medical school does not then become optional. Are not matters of eternity more vital than matters of the flesh? In many churches that are lax in their interest in the preacher’s training, they have rigorous standards for those who run the “business end” of the church. MBA’s are expected for those who handle the administration, but many of those same churches will argue that formal education is not needed for the person who teaches God’s Word every week.
I recently heard a sermon from a preacher. I do not know him personally; I do not know what his spiritual life is like. I do know that his explanation of the biblical text was flat out wrong. He did not know the historical background of the text (which in this case gave great insight to the reason for the writing). He repeated an old conjecture about the author of the text which is well-known and universally understood by scholars to be a complete fabrication. He then spent the majority of his time painting a picture of something that did not happen, embellishing details and out-rightly making things up to elicit an emotional response. I thought about all the people who would hear the message, and not only would they not hear the message of the text as Christians for 2000 years have understood it, but actually believe things that are not true. What would happen if one of them finds out it was all made up? Will they lose faith in the Bible? Will they believe that God is just as made up? It is thoughts such as these that I never take the pulpit lightly. As a preacher called by God, I am never more terrified of Him than when I am at the pulpit. I know that each word I speak will be judged, not by the crowd, but by God. Church was once a place where people came to hear the very words of God spoken into their lives, but so many jokes, personal anecdotes, and bad interpretations of the Bible have made people skeptical that there is any value in preaching. The bar has been lowered so much that if the preacher makes the crowd laugh, the crowd thinks he or she did well. They believe this because they have never experienced any better. Forgive me if I seek out my laughs from the professionals, comedians and actors. If I am in church I want to hear God!
I know there are many great teachers who cannot attend training, but for the vast majority of American preachers, they have chosen not to. Theological education does not make someone a great preacher. What it does is give a person time to think through ideas, learn from people far smarter than they, and gain from the insights that the Church has accumulated over the last 2000 years. Unless a person believes that God is speaking directly to them with words to say (then there is no need of a Bible at all), a theological education is invaluable, and I just cannot bring myself to listen to the endless controversies and vain speculation more common with the uneducated mind. John Wesley, one of the greatest Christian leaders and thinkers of the last 500 years complained that most preachers of his day were “dullards,” less knowledgeable and skillful in their trade than the local carpenter was in his. He persuaded many young people to become trained in the ministerial arts and science and created a class of professional ministers that greatly affected Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic. Hopefully the 21st century church will follow his path and not the path of complacency and ruin.