We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller


I count myself a fan of Donald Miller. I am particularly evangelical about Blue Like Jazz. I think the church needs his voice: a Christian able to laugh at Christianity, who is non-ideological, and yet deeply committed to Jesus. But he lost me in a recent column which concluded:

“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?

Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.

In some ways, this is patently false. Most church leadership, as I have experienced it, is held by people who have shown themselves to be effective leaders. Often times, these folks are not the most scholarly, but (hopefully) the most effective.

This is also indicative of something I thought Miller would have rejected from his fundamentalist background: anti-intellectualism. Granted, his is a more friendly, postmodern form, but at least here he seems to have an anti-scholarly bent with which fundamentalists of the early 20th century would be sympathetic.

In another sense, he is correct: “professional” church people and new Christians, clergy and laity, both have roles to play in church leadership. In fact, one of the most important, and oft neglected roles of the scholar-pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”  (Eph. 4:12) These saints would include plumbers and lawyers and housewives and grandfathers.

Donald Miller may not care much for fights about doctrine, but there will be doctrine regardless of whether or not it is discussed or named as such. This is one of the fundamental lies of the “non-denominational” church movement: there’s no such thing as untraditioned (Miller might prefer un-storied) Christianity. It never has been “just the Bible and God’s people” and never will be. The fact that most Christians don’t know the megachurch they are attending is functionally baptist (most practice believer’s baptism and local church autonomy), and these churches can get away with the claim, is evidence not of too much scholarship but of too little.

All Christians are theologians. In the Christian East, there’s an old saying: “the one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is one who prays.” Not all Christians are professional scholars (thanks be to God), but we are called both to think through and practice the faith. To pit these against each other is a false dichotomy, for they are mutually reinforcing.

So study theology. There is a good case to be made that even atheists should study theology; how much more should God’s people! Dig into the doctrine. Don’t accept just whatever your pastor or parents or “Christian” bookstore claim. Dig deep. Think. Pray. Wrestle.

Every Christian is a theologian; the question is, are we good theologians?

A friendly P.S.:

My own UMC denomination was not formed by an “academic” over doctrine, but over practice. Wesley began an evangelical order within the Anglican Church to reach those that were not being reached, through methods that were being successful in other parts of the Body of Christ. Was he doctrinal? You bet. But this fed his missional drive to all the people that the Anglicans seemed content to leave in the dust. This story brought to you by…scholars. 🙂



The Miller article is not as new as I initially thought. My bad! But better late than never.

7 thoughts on “We’re All Theologians: A Response to Donald Miller”

  1. Drew,
    Perhaps you only meant this as a sideline, but the way that I have read Miller is that he deeply believes in faith as a Story, and that the way that Church enters into life and joins lives together is through story.

    I understand his argument to be more about the division between academics and the community church. I see his argument as more about setting aside the “scholarly bickering” so that the mission of the Church can be more fruitful. However, with your bent to academia, I can understand how this may not be as clear a line for you as it is for him.

    I don’t think Miller’s article delved as deeply into this issue as well as we want to push back on it. I wonder if he would say that our theology as Christians is formed more by our story than by our academia. Granted, most of the ways that we interpret our stories derive from how we are taught to read and understand the Scriptures.

    I look forward to when you enter into academia and still maintain your passion for the local church. That, Ladies and Gentlemen, will be something to see. Then it will be someone who has had extensive practice at telling the story, and teaching new students how to interpret and tell the story for themselves.

    1. Kathy,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and kind words. I do agree that Miller here is decidedly anti-academic, which is my chief concern. The only thing worse than bickering over every point of dogma, is assuming that we all mean the same thing when we say “the Christian story.” In the hands of someone like Miller, I am unconcerned with how he would narrate that story. But in much of popular Christianity – particularly the kinds that think they are simply good Bible-believing Jesus people – I would not have the same confidence.

      I don’t know that I’ll ever be a pure academic. My dream is to have a foot in both places, kind of like a very poorly imitated and scaled down version of N.T. Wright. He’s one of the few that seems deeply gifted both ways.


  2. Yes! Theology is complicated and needs to be well thought-out. That requires education, but his observation is that so many who confuse theology with philosophy treat doctrine as ideology and hand their search for factual truth over to the egoic mind, which has no place to put spiritual truth and cannot see how orthodoxy is one and the same as orthopraxy because theology is something one experiences -THEN thinks.

    1. I believe Miller hit the nail on the head in the quote you posted. Denominational divide has reached a climax and it is much more than just “bickering”. It only serves to glorify the works of satan before the world.

      He was not attacking the “scholar” nor was he discouraging the study of God’s word. He was rebuking the division that the foolish who consider themselves wise are causing. Your one sentence, “His basic premise: the church is led by scholars, and would be better off led by plumbers.” reveals the seed of self-righteousness and self-pride that often accompanies those who consider themselves to be scholars. You made a comparison that one is better or worse than the other…..Miller did not do that. You revealed the truth hidden behind curtain of your thinking by establishing an “us and them” within the church. You presumed to know what he was thinking when he wrote that paragraph you quoted, and only one in a defensive posture could possibly have twisted what he said in order to set up an offensive statement such as the one you made.

      You stated that, “It never has been ‘just the Bible and God’s people’ and never will be.” Is not the Bible the Word of God? My assumption is that you would answer yes to that question. Then what does your “academic” mind do with the verse: ” The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” ? It has always been “just the Bible and God’s people”…..and always will be.

      If one were to compare your words with those of Miller and were asked, “which of these reveals the heart and mind of Christ Jesus best?” ……it would be Miller. If one were asked who’s words best reveal the subtle methods and schemes of satan….it would be yours.

      I would encourage your readers to devote their efforts digging deep into the Word of God….not your denominational doctrine. Study the Scriptures diligently and pray always that the Holy Spirit would give you all understanding and wisdom. Seek leadership from those who actually bear the “fruit of the Spirit of God” and not from those bearing only scholarly credentials.

      Interestingly, it was not the “scholar” in Paul that inspired the words written in Eph. 4:12.

      1. Duane,

        In 1 Cor. 15 Paul wrote:

        “3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

        In other words, Paul had “received” the content of the faith that he passed on to his churches. There was something like an apostolic message, a gospel message, before it was ever written down. In that sense, there were traditions and teachings about Jesus, and practices of the church like baptism and communion and hymns, before they were ever written down. The gospels were not written until roughly 30-50 years after Jesus. Paul’s letters were before that, but still far after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. What do you think God’s people were doing before they had anything written down, much less a canon (4th century), much less printed, whole Bibles in the common tongue? They were worshipping and practicing the faith, “doing” theology before they ever had a New Testament to read. In other words, there was a Church before there was a Bible. You can say you smell the devil in my words all you want, but if you don’t understand how deeply Protestant your own views are, you are simply ignorant of church history and also the radical individualism that has exacerbated the divide among God’s people since the Enlightenment.

        As for Paul and scholarship, he studied under the greatest Jewish teachers of his day. Anyone that thinks Paul was intellectually simple has never read his writings (particularly Romans). Paul was a deep, complex thinker who was thoroughly trained in reading the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, he was a scholar. In a similar way, Jesus spent years closely training his apostles before he sent them out to lead his movement in the world. Of course, faith is still to be recieved like a child, and the cross has made foolish the wisdom of the world. But Jesus still tells us to be “as wise as serpents and as clever as doves.” We were given minds, along with hearts and souls and bodies, with which to glorify God.

        I agree that denominational divide is a problem, nay, a scandal to Christian witness. The answer to that, however, is not pretending doctrinal differences don’t exist, or retreating into un-self-concious sects, but engagement with each other. This work has born fruit in the 20th century, and can in the 21st century – but it requires meeting our differences head-on rather than pretending they do not exist if we just read the Bible a little more.

        Thanks for stopping by.

      2. I am not suggesting that the early Church had the written New Testament. Nor am I suggesting that they did not baptize, sing praises or break bread with each other. But I believe I can safely say that not one in the early Church held academia as something to pursue for the purpose of understanding what was being taught to them or as a means to better strengthen the Church or to better further the Kingdom of God on this earth.

        You ask me, ” What do you think God’s people were doing before they had anything written down…..”. Well…..”So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 people were added to them. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (singular), to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Acts 2:41-42. That teaching was the Gospel message and they often, like Jesus, used the writings of Law and the Prophets to help illuminate the truth of that message. To suggest that they did not use what was the written Word available at that time is unsubstantiated. Even the decision to replace Judas Iscariot was something Peter encouraged and convinced the others to do from a prophecy in the Psalms.

        But, to stay on track…..it is absolutely revealed that the very first instinct of the new Christian community was to meet and to meet constantly. All devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the Lord’s Supper, PRAYER, and fellowship. It was these things that made them united….and these people were The Church. I wonder if those self made “scholars” in the Church today had devoted themselves to genuine prayer even half as much as they did in pursuing intellect (which is merely temporal in the eternal perspective) would be equipped to actually do and be the very things Jesus said the Church would do and be in this world.

        I know the history of Paul. I am not unaware of his upbringing and how he was at the “top of his class” as a Pharisee. But….as Romans 1:21-22 describes “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.” The Pharisees were well versed in Scripture; they could quote chapter and verse to great effect. They did not need more information…..more intellect…..they needed to have the hostility of their hearts to the Son of God removed. In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, what the rich man’s brothers needed for their conversion was not more knowledge or intellect or a proof by a man rising from the dead. No, they had Moses and the prophets. What they needed was a spiritual awakening and illumination so they could believe what was already in the Bible.

        So….I say again in the knowledge of the Truth….Interestingly, it was not the “scholar” in Paul that inspired the words written in Eph. 4:12.

        I pray all of us receive a spiritual awakening and illumination….so that we might all see and believe what is already plainly and beautifully simplistically written in the Bible. I pray we all devote ourselves to “reading the Bible a little more” and to honest prayer a whole lot more. Denominations are the cause for denominational divide and consequently division within the Body of Christ. It is far more than a problem or even a scandal. It is a powerful weapon of the very enemy of God….it is satan glorified and made manifest. I believe the problem is being met head on….and I believe Miller made manifest the heart of Christ Jesus, the Head of the Church. And I quote from your quote….“Let me ask you this: Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and pseudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?
        Is it worth it that you are divided against other denominations because scholars picked up their ball and stomped off the playground? If you are tired, then be the church. I’m not kidding; you don’t know everything, but you know enough. Be the church and be united. Let the academics go to an island and fight about the things that matter to them, and we will be united based on the things that matter to us.”

        Thanks for engaging in conversation with me……peace.

  3. Okay….so let us engage head on the controversy of denominationalism, Drew. I will remain in a posture of unity as a brother in Christ and will freely leave available my teachable spirit knowing iron can sharpen iron. To me there seems to be at least two major problems with denominationalism. First, nowhere in Scripture is there a mandate for denominationalism….. to the contrary the mandate is for union and connectivity. Thus, the second problem is that history tells us that denominationalism is the result of, or caused by, conflict and confrontation which leads to division and separation. Jesus told us that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This general principle can and should be applied to the church. We find an example of this in the Corinthian church which was struggling with issues of division and separation. There were those who thought that they should follow Paul and those who thought they should follow the teaching of Apollos, 1 Corinthians 1:12, “What I am saying is this: each of you says, “I’m with Paul,” or “I’m with Apollos,” or “I’m with Cephas,” or “I’m with Christ.” This alone should tell you what Paul thought of denominations or anything else that separates and divides the body. But let’s look further….. in verse 13, Paul asks very pointed questions, “Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” This makes clear how Paul feels, he (Paul) is not the Christ, he is not the one crucified and his message has never been one that divides the church or would lead someone to worship Paul instead of Christ. Obviously, according to Paul, there is only one church and one body of believers and anything that is different weakens and destroys the church (see verse 17). He makes this point stronger in 3:4 by saying that anyone who says they are of Paul or of Apollos is carnal.

    Some of the problems we are faced with today as we look at denominationalism and its more recent history:

    1. Denominations are based on disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture. An example would be the meaning and purpose of baptism. Is baptism a requirement for salvation or is it symbolic of the salvation process? There are denominations on both sides of this issue and have used the issue to separate and form denominations.

    2. Disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture are taken personally and become points of contention. This leads to arguments which can and have done much to destroy the witness of church.

    3. The church should be able to resolves its differences inside the body, but once again history tells us that this doesn’t happen. Today the media uses our differences against us to demonstrate that we are not unified in thought or purpose.

    4. Denominations are used by man out of self-interest. There are denominations today that are in a state of self-destruction as they are being led into apostasy by those who are promoting their personal agendas.

    5. The value of unity is found in the ability to pool our gifts and resources to promote the Kingdom to a lost world. This runs contrary to divisions caused by denominationalism.

    What is a believer to do? Should we ignore denominations, should we just not go to church and worship on our own at home? The answer to both questions is no. What we should be seeking is a body of believers where the Gospel of Christ is preached, where you as an individual can have a personal relationship with the Lord, where you can join in Biblical ministries that are spreading the Gospel and glorifying God. Church is important and all believers need to belong to a body that fits the above criteria. We need relationships that can only be found in the body of believers, we need the support that only the church can offer, and we need to serve God in community as well as individually. Pick a church on the basis of its relationship to Christ, how well it is serving the community. Pick a church where the pastor is preaching the Gospel without fear and is encouraged to do so. Christ and His church is all about your relationship to Him and to each other. As believers, there are certain basic doctrines that we must believe, but beyond that there is latitude on how we can serve and worship……it is this latitude that is the only good reason for denominations. This is diversity and not disunity. The first allows us to be individuals in Christ, the latter divides and destroys. By all means….if the denomination one finds themselves in is only serving to confuse, tire, and weaken their faith…..leave. And leave sooner rather than later. The desire to preserve denomination and denominational tradition is certainly not of God.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s