The Danger of Being a DIY Theologian

Do It Yourself (DIY) is all the rage in home renovation, decorating, landscaping, repair work, and just about anything else related to your home and yard. This is typically how it works: We have a project that needs doing. We know that it is beyond us, but we are going to try to tackle it anyway. So we read something on the internet, or watch a YouTube video (whether they are a good source or not is often irrelevant). We may talk to someone we know might be able to help us (again whether or not they are a good source of information is usually irrelevant). After all this ‘research’ we think we have an idea of what we should be doing, so off we go; with varying degrees of success.

Unfortunately tsign-1573405_960_720his is often how many people go about developing their theology. We read a bit on the web, watch a few YouTube videos, then maybe talk to someone who we think is smart and spiritual; all the while forming our ‘theology’. Our next step is to do the trendy thing – form a group of the equally theologically ignorant and banter about our ‘theology’, all the while thinking that we are actually accomplishing something good and valuable.

But should DIY be the way build our theology? Unequivocally and absolutely… NO! The bottom line is this: to learn theology properly – to have it be the humbling, worshipful, vibrant, life-changing, worldview altering, discipleship focused, church culture changing, secular world transforming, demonic stronghold breaking, theology that the Bible contains –  you need a teacher (preferably a pastor) who is a theologian who understands theology in exactly these terms. You need  someone who is deeply committed to the church and who knows theology just as deeply. Let me offer at least 5 reasons why DIY theology is very dangerous to both the person attempting it, to their families, and to the church at large. I will also offer some solutions, most of which will necessitate a change in the way church works, what they focus on and who they hire to be their pastors.

DIY is not the biblical way – The biblical way recognize the need for a teacher or teachers, for the church to be taught by those who have been taught. Jesus had disciples; the church is told to have elders with the ability to teach. Why? Because the church needs to teach and the people need to learn. DIY theologians have no place in the church. No teacher; no chance. The biblical pattern is for this teacher and this teaching to take place within the context of the church as the leadership teaches its people. Look at Timothy in 1 and 2 Timothy (as well as Titus). He was taught the gospel by his family, nurtured in his Christianity by his family. But then he was taught by Paul and the apostles and then he was told to find elders whom he can transfer what he was taught, who will then teach others in the church. The simple reality is this – we need to learn theology from someone who knows it. From someone who has learned it from others who are qualified to teach them. We can’t just ‘Take up and read’ and expect to understand. As Scripture reminds us over and over – we cannot learn unless we are taught, and to be taught we need a teacher who is qualified to teach us.

DIY theology perpetuates ignorance – Usually DIY theologians do not do it alone. Unfortunately they often get together in groups to pool their ignorance all the while thinking that “iron sharpens iron” but instead they are simply like two rocks banging together to create the occasional spark that is extinguished before it becomes anything. When we get together in a context where there is no teacher, no teaching is possible. As Jesus reminds us, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40 ESV) Gathering together with people of the same theological level, biases, ignorance, or whatever you want to call it, will not give you anything greater than what you already are. If I had a dollar for every DIY theologian who claims to know exactly what Calvinism or Reformed theology is, what Luther said, or how to solve the problem of evil, and then proceed to spout off stuff that is not anywhere close to any of them, I could buy a fleet of ocean going yachts; one for every month of the year. Two examples of which I am currently aware should suffice:

  1. I know of more than a few people who love John Piper, read his stuff, listen to his sermons and declare their love for him on social media… yet they despise Reformed theology (Calvinism) and attend a church that has publicly stated that Calvinism is unbiblical and abhorrent. Do they not realize that Piper is a staunch Calvinist and his Reformed theology permeates EVERYTHING he writes!?! In fact Piper makes no sense at all, unless you buy into his Reformed theological commitments. But they don’t see the problem.
  2. There are others who react with vitriol to Reformed theology (Calvinism), but love the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (WCF), all the while not realizing that the WCF is as thoroughly Reformed (Calvinist) as you can get! What a strange thing to love if you hate Calvinism so much.

It’s this kind of thing that happens far too often. The church does not need more ignorance, more people claiming to be theologians who are not, or more people who spout ignorance rather than truth; it has enough of these kinds of people already. What the Christian faith does need is intelligence, wisdom and theological literacy born from within the church, led by the elders of the church and done for the benefit of the church. To have this happen, the church needs to be committed to doing it, and a teacher is needed to raise the level of discussion, thinking and application through his preaching and teaching ministry. Without submitting yourself to a teacher of this ilk, you will be doomed to stay at the level you are, or, at best, you will experience incremental growth, or, worse, you will slide into false teaching. You need to find a teacher who is who is well-trained, and gifted and join his church. Listen to his preaching. Ask to be mentored by him. Sit under a man of God who knows theology and its application and you will benefit greatly and grow immensely in both thought and life. If your church doesn’t have one… leave immediately.

DIY theology is susceptible to false teaching… and you will often not know it – I once had a student who became a believer by stumbling into a church during an evening service. He became convicted of his sin and came to faith that night. He knew absolutely nothing about Christianity or theology and had never been to church. He was an extremely intelligent guy who wanted to know more, so he went straight to a Chapters, or some other bookstore, grabbed the only theology book they had in stock and began to devour it. He read it over and over and over again until he almost had it memorized. Sounds like a good thing to do right? Unfortunately the theologian he was reading was Charles Finney, a heretic of the early American church. When he arrived at Bible College he was so steeped in Finneys heresy it took all four years of teaching and mentoring to free him from it. Sadly, this kind of thing is the reality for many DIY theologians, though maybe not to this extreme. They don’t know how to decipher good theology from bad. In todays day we have a plethora of really good sources available to us and easy ways to find them, so we can mitigate this problem somewhat. But even if we start with good theology, as we process it in our developing minds and without guidance by someone who knows theology, it can turn ugly very fast. Over my 15 years of teaching and pastoring I have come to understand that people struggle to process theology at deep levels on their own no matter how well they might know their Bible. They struggle to understand doctrine that took centureis to hammer out, within contexts that are not our own. They cannot see the implications of the doctrine they hold, nor can they see how one theological belief connects to another. Bad theology and bad theologians are the result. The worst part of it is that, like my student, we never think of ourselves as a bad theologians who hold to bad theology. Our subjective assessments are always much kinder and more gracious than they should be, and so we think we are actually pretty good theologians. It is extremely dangerous to not have a sober and realistic assessment of where we are at in our thinking. A good teacher and mentor will give this to us and will force us to think correctly about where we are at in our thinking.

DIY theology is usually hobby horse theology – Good theology is both broad and deep taking into account all of the topics of systematics. Good theology is also contemporary in application but informed by historical theology. Most DIY theologians that I meet are overly focused on one particular present-day issue, are ignorant of its development, equally ignorant of its connection to other doctrines, and to make things worse, that misunderstood issue informs all of their thinking about everything else. For example, I often hear from people regarding how horrible Reformed theology / Calvinism is – they have particular things they hate about it and those things are usually superficial, misinformed, or flat out wrong. The reason? Most of these objectors have not read a word of Calvins’ Institutes, or any of his commentaries or his sermons; nor have they read any quality works of Reformed theology. They hate it, but they have no idea what it is. This example demonstrates the problem – most DIY theologians grasp onto one or two things they understand and like; then they oppose one or two things that are usually stereotyped, and then off they run into battle against them. They are one-trick ponies. Everything in the Bible ends up at a few key verses, or whatever their theological hobby horse is. They can’t see anything but the narrow beliefs they hold because their blinders will not allow them to see anything else. So how do you overcome this narrow, hobby horse theology? You need to release your hobby horse and embrace the full and deep theology that the church possesses, something that is exceptionally difficult to do on your own. You need exposure to church history and the theological development that has happened over 2000 years of church life. You need to become aware of how the church has come to believe what it believes, what the church has believed throughout its history, how it has treated certain heterodox beliefs, and how the church has dealt with opposing beliefs both inside and outside the church. Ignorance of these things makes you a danger to yourself and to anyone who is willing to listen to you. The solution to this problem is clear – controlled, guided exposure to true, historical theology. But in order to navigate the many centuries of theological teaching, you need a guide, a teacher who is able to direct you, advise you and correct you.

It perpetuates the failures of the church, rather than solves them – To be fair, the failure of the church is often the reason why the problem of DIY theology arises. This may seem overly critical, but I see this happening in churches of all sizes, in all denominations and of varying histories. I state these in a bit of a cold and critical way, but my experience tells me there is more truth to what I describe than exaggeration.

Let’s start with the pastor(s) of the church – In the best case scenario, the pastor might be a good theologian, but the wants (or his church wants him) to make the message ‘relevant’ or ‘applicable’ so they preach fluffy, pathetic, un-theological sermons filled with more stories and illustrations than actual biblical theology. Or, worst case scenario, the pastor himself is a theological lightweight and is incapable of preaching anything other than fluffy, weak, milk-like sermons. In both of these cases their is not the desire or ability to feed meat to the church, but only milk.

Let’s not let the elders / leaders of the church off the hook – It is, after all, they who hire the pastor (or at least recommend it), it is they who guide and encourage him on what should be preached and how he should preach, and it is they who are commanded in Scripture to teach, shepherd and oversee the church. But too often these men are, at worst uncaring of theology and don’t deem it to be important, or at best, theological lightweights as well. Too often our church leaders are hired because they are good businessmen, ‘mature’ believers (or they meet an unbiblical age requirement) who have their office not because of their ability to teach, shepherd and oversee the spiritual life of the church, but because they are ‘wise’ and can make sound business decisions for the church.

So given this context, it is no wonder that so many people find it so difficult to find deep, meaningful theology in their church. It is sad to say that the church is often a terrible place for those who desire depth in their faith to look for it. Yet this doesn’t mean that as Christians we are excused from seeking it. Simply because your church doesn’t provide what you need for developing a deep theological life, doesn’t mean that all churches are like that. (I know of one church in Steinbach that isn’t like this.) The scope of this blog is not to tackle theological illiteracy within the church, but if you go to a church that does not provide the means for you to deepen your faith, let me offer two basic ways in which you need to deal with this massive problem:

  1. You must hold your leadership accountable for the lack of theological depth in your church – Scripture demands that the pastor and elders be able to teach and shepherd their congregation, if they can’t they need to be called back to their task by their church. Let’s start, once again, with the pastor. He must be, at the very least, a good theologian who is able to teach his elders how to teach the people, and he must be able to preach well enough so that the congregation can grow in “the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV) Churches need to stop hiring ‘nice’ pastors who are ‘good with people’ and who make them feel all fuzzy inside, and start hiring pastors who can teach and preach the whole counsel of God. It is, after all, their primary calling (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5). It is not mutually exclusive for a pastor to be good with people AND a good theologian, but he should be hired to be the latter. Let the deacons, elders and the rest of the congregation take their ministry to each other seriously so that the pastor can be freed to develop his theology even further and to teach the people even better. On a practical level, I believe that a pastor who is in charge of the teaching ministries of their church needs to have a bare minimum of a 3 year Master of Divinity degree. If they don’t even have a 4 year Bible College degree with an internship, their application should not even be considered. Let’s move on to the elders / leaders of the church. The biblical way for us to develop our theology is to learn it from the leaders of the church. But if the leaders don’t care about theology and don’t consider it to be important, or they are as ignorant of theology as the rest of the congregation, to whom will the people turn? We live in an age when bad theology is rampant and it overtakes and devours the church easily and quickly. To protect it, the leaders must defend it as Paul instructs Timothy, by teaching sound doctrine and the preaching the word of God at all times. (cf. Acts 20:28-32 ESV). If your leaders are not committed to their biblical mandate then you, as God’s child, must lovingly, graciously and patiently, call them back to their God appointed task. But what if nothing happens?
  2. If nothing changes and the leadership continues to devalue theology and a commitment to biblical teaching and preaching, you should leave your church and find one that is faithful to Scripture. Life is too short to put up bad teaching, or the lack of good teaching. To constantly live in an environment that does not allow you to develop your theology together with fellow believers, and forces you to go looking for it on your own, endangers your soul and the souls of your family. Don’t stay in a church with little theological teaching or bad teaching just because you grew up there, or your family is there. That is an excuse that does not hold up in light of the eternal battle we are fighting. Men, I’m talking to you! Take your family to a church where you and they will be nurtured in the whole counsel of God , where deep theological truths are taught, so that you and your family will develop a rich and vibrant understanding of God and his works. Remember the words of Jesus himself – “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 ESV) Don’t go to a church that doesn’t make you a disciple of Christ simply because of family or friends or familiarity. Be his disciple above all things and in obedience to Christ find a true church.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “The Danger of Being a DIY Theologian

  1. Lado

    1. Would you expand please on your educational requirements for the pastor? What exactly do you mean by 4 years of a Bible College and 3 years of seminary?
    2. What would be your vision for a Bible School/Seminary professor? What requirements should he meet?

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    1. Thanks for the questions. Let me deal with the second question first. A professor is an entirely different thing due to accreditation issues. But I would say this from personal experience. I was teaching College at 30 years old with 4 years of College and a 3 year M.Div. with a thesis. I wish I would have had at least 5 years of full-time pastoral ministry as well. I am a much better teacher after pastoring for 10+ years than what I was then. I would not have hired me back then, but I’m glad Waldie Neufeld did. As to your first question, here is what I mean. In College you take a plethora of courses that are not really needed or applicable in ministry (depending on your degree and the College you attend), nor do you take them at the level that you need in order to teach and lead people. As the preaching and teaching pastor, you need more meat in your theological diet. A three year M.Div. degree is designed to give future pastors exactly that, as well as some courses in practical theology. The preaching and teaching pastor is the first among equals on the elder board and he is the primary shepherd of his flock. He needs to make sure that he is equipped to fulfill this calling.

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      1. Lado

        Thank you for the reply! Would you say that teaching at a Bible college/seminary can by any means be separated from pastoring a church? In other words, can one be a good teacher without having experience of functioning as a pastor? Thank you!

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      2. God’s plan for saving the world from sin is the church, not colleges or seminaries. You can be a good teacher without having pastoral experience, but a teacher should never be separated from the church; after all a good teacher is preparing his students for church life. How can a teacher do that without some church experience himself? (Answer – he can’t) I’m inspired by Mark Dever who has had a myriad of teaching offers from Seminaries across the globe, but he repeatedly turns them down in order to stay in the church and pastor. He does so for exactly the reasons I just outlined. This is a bit beyond the scope of your questions, but I deal with a lot of students who want to go on to be professors – that was in fact my goal at one time. I caution them in three ways. First, the jobs are really tough to find, so don’t bank on finding one. Second, pursue higher learning as an end in itself for the glory of God. Last, check your motivation. If you want to teach to avoid church ministry, that is bad; if you want to teach because you think teaching is easier than ministry (it is by the way), that is bad; if you want to teach instead of pastoring because you don’t think you are gifted to be a pastor; that is just plain bogus. My advice to all is the same – pursue God in higher education for his sake and his sake alone. Let him take care of where that will be.

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