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“Yeah, he’s totally different from you. You’re one of those pastors who just likes to teach and study theology.”

That’s how a close friend compared me to his new pastor. While I respectfully disagree with his assessment, I’ll confess I thought silently to myself, “And . . . that’s a problem because?” In all honesty, I was not offended. Rather, his comments brought the whole notion of “pastoral models” to mind.

Here’s what I mean.

In their book Christian Identity and Theological Education, Joseph Hough and John Cobb lay out four different pastoral models that have held sway at different times throughout church history.

First, there’s the “master” of biblical and theological knowledge; or, the “pastor as theologian.” For the most part, this was the dominant model from the early church up to the early nineteenth century.

Second, there’s the “revivalist.” This was the dominant model in the nineteenth century.

Third, there’s the “builder” of churches and congregations. This was the dominant model in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Fourth, there’s the “manager” of people and programs. This was the dominant model in the twentieth century.[1]

(In my opinion, we might add a fifth: the pastor as media mogul/podcaster/YouTuber/social media influencer. This is the current model on offer. But I digress!)

I realize this may be a self-serving post, but I wanted to share some (incomplete) thoughts on why the pastor-theologian model might be beneficial to the local church.

First, I think it’s consistent with the biblical model. The most frequent metaphor to describe pastoral ministry in Scripture is shepherding. Yes, God is the ultimate shepherd (Ps. 23). But God also appoints leaders through whom he shepherds his flock. He shepherded his people through Moses (Num. 27:17; Ps. 77:20), and when the nation’s leaders failed in their pastoral duties (Ezek. 34:1–10), he promised to bless them with shepherds after his own heart (Jer. 3:15; Ezek. 34:11–31).

Jesus is the Good Shepherd par excellence (Jn. 10:11). He is the “great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13:20), who purchased salvation for his bride—the church (Acts 20:28; Rev. 5:9). Prior to his ascension, Jesus provided Peter (and all pastors) with their marching orders: “Feed my lambs” (Jn. 21:15), “Tend my sheep” (v. 16), “Feed my sheep” (v. 17).

This emphasis on shepherding-as-feeding and teaching pervades the New Testament epistles. In Ephesians, for example, Paul states that God gifts the church with shepherd-teachers both to equip and edify the body (Eph. 4:11), in order to mature the people (v. 13) and maintain orthodoxy (v. 14). For this reason, pastors devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). Pastors preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2), shepherd the flock (1 Pet. 5:1), and nurture God’s sanctifying work in the lives of the saints (Gal. 4:19; Col. 1:24–2:5).

But here’s what I want you see: Pastor-theologians are committed to feeding the flock for theological reasons. This theology runs as follows: 1) God has revealed himself; 2) this revelation is disclosed in Scripture; and 3) God calls pastors to proclaim his Word in order to gather and sanctify his people.

Beyond the weekly sermon, pastor-theologians benefit the church in another, albeit similar way, which brings me to my second point.

Pastor-theologians bring much-needed biblical, theological, and historical depth to their churches. The late J. I. Packer (1926–2020) observed that North American Christianity is three-thousand miles wide and half an inch deep.[2] Assuming he’s right—and I think he is—pastor-theologians provide the antidote to this theological anemia by promoting theological fluency, formation, and fellowship.[3]

Pastor-theologians help disciples become more fluent readers of Scripture as they exalt Christ from every text in their preaching and teaching. This serves as a model for how Christians should read their Bibles.

Further, pastor-theologians promote theological fluency by articulating and explaining important theological terms and categories. These terms and categories help the average Christian trace the patterns of biblical reasoning reflected in the historic councils of the church (e.g., Nicaea and Chalcedon). Exposing Christians to the churchly grammar proceeding from these councils guards against theological error in our doctrine of God—a doctrine, incidentally, where evangelicals lack biblical, theological, and historical depth.[4]

The goal of promoting biblical and theological fluency is formation. God conforms his people into his Son’s image through his Word (Jn. 15:3; 17:17; 2 Cor. 3:18), not only by filling our minds with truth, but by forming and shaping our affections and actions.

All this leads to intelligent fellowship. By coming to know something of the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8) and the God whose ways are past finding out (Rom. 11:33), we learn to enjoy and earnestly praise the God who is “exalted above all blessing and praise” (Neh. 9:5).

Lastly, pastor-theologians are the moral and theological conscience of the church. Pastor-theologians guard the flock against doctrinal drift, which manifests itself in shallow worship songs, passing trends, and competing ideologies. The church needs this now more than ever. Progressive Christianity and a strident secularism are presently seeking to replace historic Christianity with a hollow form of humanitarianism.[5] Pastor-theologians need to hold the line in an age that prizes novelty and equates capitulation with progress.

Pastor-theologians both agree and take their stand with Basil the Great (330–379 AD):

“[I]t is those never content with accepted ways who despise the old as being stale, constantly welcoming innovation, like worldlings who are always chasing after the latest fashion. . . . If we repeat what we have learned from Scripture, every one of these [false teachers] will raise a loud and vehement outcry, stop their ears, pick up stones or any other weapon at hand, and charge against us. But we must care about truth, not our own safety.”[6]

By way of summary: Pastor-theologians articulate and defend the faith in order to aid the church’s worship and advance its mission. They preach the Word faithfully and take every opportunity to instruct their congregations in historic Christian orthodoxy. The goal is to form faithful disciples who glorify God by laying down their lives in service to Christ, his gospel, and the church.

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[1] Joseph Hough and John Cobb, Christian Identity and Theological Education (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1985).

[2] J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 10. Fred Sanders leveled this charge recently in his The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 18.

[3] I am indebted to Scott Swain for this language. See his The Trinity: An Introduction (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 17.

[4] Gavin Ortlund, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals: Why We Need Our Past to Have a Future (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 54–56; Craig A. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).

[5] See, e.g., Daniel J. Mahoney, The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (New York: Encounter, 2018).

[6] Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 7. 16, 21. 52, emphasis mine.