This post is a response to Donald Miller’s recent blog post, ‘Should the Church Be Led By Teachers and Scholars?’

Jesus was both a carpenter and a rabbi (the Jewish term for ‘teacher’). The son of a Jewish carpenter, Jesus worked with his hands as a laborer (pursuing the family craft) and studied Jewish scripture (pursuing understanding of Israel’s God and way of life). As a boy of twelve, Jesus was found among the teachers in the Temple courts, listening to them and asking questions, and everyone who heard him was amazed at his answers and understanding (Luke 2:41-45). As an adult, Jesus taught in the Temple courts (Mark 11:35) and preached many sermons. Some of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen and tax collectors, laborers who (as practicing Jews) likely gathered at their local synagogue to hear rabbis expound the scriptures. And if they were obedient Jews, they would have followed the exhortation in Deuteronomy 6 to continually have the laws of God on their minds and lips, teaching the commandments diligently to their children. The Apostle Paul (whose letters to the early Christian churches make up a good bit of the New Testament) filled many roles: tent-maker, zealot, evangelist and expositor of Jewish scripture.

In a recent post, Donald Miller claims that the church in America is led by scholars and teachers and that scholars have made the church into a school-like structure. Miller proposes that the early church, unlike the American church today, was made up of laborers rather than scholars and that our church system today has been distorted by the scholar-model. I believe the brief picture of Jesus and his disciples that I have sketched above (as laborers who valued texts, matters of doctrine and were either teachers or listened to teachers) is a more accurate picture of the early church than what Miller suggests. I would like to address a few of Miller’s claims about the church and scholarship, both what he gets right and what he gets wrong.

What Miller Gets Right

Miller identifies some of the big problems in higher education today. It’s no secret that Americans have become consumers of education and that many college graduates pursue graduate school simply because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives. (Here is an excellent post by Samuel Matlack on the point of education in America.) There is much to critique in the way education is structured today, particularly in how frequently students are taught what to think rather than how to think well.

Anyone who has been to college knows that just because a prof has high academic credentials, this doesn’t mean that s/he is necessarily a good teacher. Some of my professors have been excellent teachers who read widely and knew how to assimilate this knowledge into their thinking and doing. Other professors were simply awful thinkers and communicators despite all their reading (and publishing!) and academic credentials. They knew how to work the school system and publish in obscure journals, but not how to relate to people or how to function in other arenas.  (Such profs, I would argue, are not really well-educated for all their schooling.)

Another problem with the education system is that its structure often leads people to believe that if they don’t have official academic credentials (a PhD, a resume of published works) that they are not qualified to teach or do anything because they are not ‘experts’. Thus, I understand Miller’s plea in the final paragraph to so-called ‘laborers’ of the church to be involved in church leadership and action. No one should be sitting on the bench just because they don’t have academic credentials.

At the same time, there’s something to the idea of credentials. Why should we expect a person (in any field) to lead if they’ve not been taught how to lead or don’t know anything about their subject area (be it academic or otherwise)? Of course, there’s a difference between seeming credentials and actual credentials – what’s most important is not the appearance of being qualified, but that one is actually qualified.

If I am undergoing heart surgery, I’m not going to tell the doctor that her credentials don’t matter. I want to know that she’s been to med school, that she’s studied and knows her stuff. The credentials are important insofar as they actually reflect her ability. In other areas (ones not so life-threatening!), official credentials may not matter, but ability certainly does. The proof is in the pudding. I don’t really care whether or not my local baker went to baking school or if she taught herself or learned to bake from her aunt Martha – but I do care about whether or not her goods are tasty. We expect people to be good at their craft or we don’t want their product.

Many of us thrived in college, but many of us didn’t. Many had teachers who did divorce school from the rest of life. It soured our school experience and made us believe that book smarts and other smarts have no relation to each other. Such teachers also made us believe that we were stupid and so we didn’t open our mouths for fear of being shot-down. However, saying that there is corruption in the academic system (or even just corrupt teachers) is very different from saying that the divisions in the church are primarily academic (which is what Miller says in the beginning of his third paragraph).

The truth is, such dichotomies occur in other arenas depending on how holistically (or non-holistically) people view their lives. For example, people can reverse the dichotomy to say that those who are ‘book smart’ can’t be good laborers, which just isn’t true. My time working as a barista at Dunkin’ Donuts only confirmed for me that my ‘book’ education changed the way I thought and interacted with customers and co-workers and made me a better worker for it. It helped me with the conversations on religion that I had frequently with my fellow baristas who were mostly Hindus. It helped me interact with customers and serve them well.

What Miller Gets Wrong

Miller has an idealized (and over-simplified) understanding of the early church, imagining that the early church had fewer divisions than the church today. If all you reads is Acts 2:42-47, it is easy to get a picture of a jolly community of saints who eat together, pray together and share everything in common. But if look at the broader picture provided from the whole of the New Testament, it’s clear that factions and controversies abound. Galatians, for example, is specifically written by Paul to contradict the teachings of ‘false brethren’ who had crept into the church. It’s one of Paul’s most emotional letters, as he fears that the truth of the gospel has been threatened by these teachers. In the same letter, Paul recalls a time when he opposed Peter to his face in front of others in the community on the issues addressed in Galatians. Similar issues are evidenced in Acts 15. These are just a few examples. If the early churches were functioning as they ought, why would Paul write so many letters to correct them on matters of behavior and doctrine?

The claim that church divisions are almost exclusively academic divisions is just silly.  Are we to believe that education is the source of conflict?  If this were true, the solution would be simple: stop studying so hard and just get along.  It is certainly true that many people get caught up on matters of doctrine (both small and large) and often treat each other unlovingly and cause division.  However, this is not the result of education (or even an educational system).  I’ve seen these arguments happen just as frequently between Joe the plummer and Jane the baker as I’ve seen Boris the Qumran scholar arguing with Jill the Septuagintal expert.  Everyone has an opinion and many don’t take kindly to differences of opinion.  People are divisive, not just scholars or educators.

It’s true that people today can make a living by becoming professional scholars (and many do) and thereby avoid other jobs which involve physical labor. Thus, professional Bible scholars will (obviously) have more time to devote to study than someone who works as a barista, a chemist or a farmer. Yet why should we imagine that this means that Bible scholars can’t brew coffee or that farmers can’t read books? Instead of continuing to draw a dichotomy between the academic and the laborer, why can’t we just acknowledge that these two ‘roles’ (which are human constructs) both exist in the real world and overlap with one another?

At the moment, I’m a professional Bible student and thus have more time to devote to studying. My husband is working at a little cafe, which means he doesn’t have much time to study. Chances are, if we continued like this for the rest of our lives, I would be a superior Bible scholar and he would be a superior cappucino-maker. Am I better than Josh? No. Is Josh better than me? No. We’re qualified in different areas and we should use this to our advantage, not to argue about whose arena or work is better. Instead, we should acknowledge that we work in different places and do different things, but this doesn’t mean that our fields bear no relationship to each another. Maybe, over time, learning from one another, I’ll become a better coffee-maker and Josh will learn to be a better exegete of scripture.

Should the church be led by teachers and scholars? The answer depends on what aspect of the church we’re talking about. I suggest that the Bible should be taught by a good biblical exegete and teacher who can guide members of the congregation to good resources and encourage good questions and dialogue. I suggest that the homeless ministry be lead by someone whose strength is organization and people skills. For the children’s ministries, I recommend people who enjoy children and have learned how to work with them. For the music, I recommend someone who can not only play music, but knows how to lead people in song.

What do you enjoy? What are you good at? Is it baking? Sewing? Exercising hospitality? Reading? Discussing? Writing? Telling stories? Gardening? Carpentry? Computer-building? Playing the piano? Designing circuit boards?

Those who can, do; those who can, teach – because doing and teaching aren’t so unrelated as people like to think.