One of the most popular criticisms made against Reformed Christians and pastors is that they put way too much emphasis on learning, reading and teaching and way too little emphasis on “real ministry”. Now “real ministry” is defined in a number of ways by these critics, but the allegation routinely leveled against us from many quarters of Christendom is “there is no problem too big for us to recommend a book for.”
Is there any merit to this charge, and if so, how should we answer it?
My first response is that I really wish it were true. I am afraid that the stereotype of the well-read studious Reformed Christian is nothing more than a gross caricature. There are a few men and women I know who might fit that description, but I fear that the reality is that only a fraction of people in the Reformed world really care about or make the time to pursue any kind of study outside of Sunday morning worship. It is obvious that for the most part, people are not reading, they are not making time for any extra pursuit of Biblical or theological knowledge and they are satisfied to drift along not growing or maturing in any significant way.
Compare our present situation to the previous generation of Reformed Christians. A couple of decades ago Reformed publishing houses were printing, and people were reading, thick heavy hardback volumes of theology, but that is simply no longer the case. Today we are doing good if we have skimmed a handful of books on the family and on developing a “Christian Worldview” and having done so, consider ourselves well-read. (For more on this check out James Jordan’s outstanding article, “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind”)
If you do not believe me, try getting some guys together to study of any book of substance. A few will show up for the beer and nachos. Fewer than that will actually read the book cover-to-cover. Your last meeting will be less than a third well-attended as your first. Men, in particular, are way more interested in football and golf and their hobbies and toys, and growing in their knowledge of those things than growing in their knowledge of their Creator and His Word. Now, of course, growing in my love of football does not make me a better father or husband. It does not make me better able to navigate the difficult questions of how to live in this world, and how to present the Lord Jesus to people. But who cares about a little spiritual immaturity as long as I am winning my fantasy league?
That is my first response to the criticism against bookish Reformed people – I wish it held more water and that it were true.
My second response to this allegation that we do not know how to minister, only to teach, is that teaching is a ministry. I dare say, teaching is one of the most vital ministries to the world that the Church has to offer.
In fact, it is teaching, together with the right use of the Sacraments, that fulfills the Great Commission. Jesus commands His people to make disciples, baptize, and teach those disciples all the things that He has commanded us. There is no dichotomy between “ministry” and “teaching” in the Great Commission.
Teaching is a ministry, a vital ministry, a ministry to the world directly commanded by Jesus Himself. What we believe and how we think shapes how we behave. To teach a man to think a certain way is to teach him to live a certain way.
If we are going to minister to those damaged by sin, having messed up their lives beyond all visible repair, we are going to have to have a firm grip on the message of Scriptures. We will not be effective in helping them understand what God requires if we have only tangential knowledge of what He has said ourselves. In fact, in our ignorance we stand a good chance of making things worse.
When we encourage men to spend time in study it is not like we are simultaneously taking them away from other ministries. I do not know anybody who has been encouraged to cut down on their time at the soup kitchen so they could come attend a class or read a book. The choice for us in largely not – do this ministry or that study. The choice is more likely to be between binge-watching Netflix or reading a book. So when I encourage people to read and pursue a fuller understanding of God and His Word, I am not asking them to to put aside ministry to make time to read. The decision to be made is often between play and work. That can still be a decision that is tough to make, because we do need to play. But the encouragement to study is not an invitation to cut down on your time at the homeless shelter. With good management, there is time for both.
My third response is this. God has chosen, in his infinite Wisdom, to reveal Himself to us by his Word. From the beginning God not only spoke the cosmos into being, but continued to speak to His creation, drawing men into covenant with Himself, giving them His law in words, writing them down, repeating them, giving words to His prophets to repeat to His people. God sent His Son who was the Word, who came speaking words of life. The apostles made sure his words were recorded, and preserved, even did some writing themselves. For the Lord gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:6)
How then are we to know this God? How are we to get this wisdom and knowledge and understanding, which is from this God who has revealed Himself through Words? How do we get those words but by hearing them, and reading them, and meditating on them, and sharing them, and working through them with others? Anyone who scoffs at spending time in learning does so to their own great harm.
Finally, readers are leaders. This is the way the world works. Men who apply themselves to learning are going to be those who become best able to think and speak clearly, which are the traits of a leader. That does not mean that God cannot do great things with men who have not studied much. It is pretty clear that he can and he does. But how much more potential do learned men have? How much greater influence does God give to them? How many more abilities and faculties do they have in ministering to people in need?
When Moses deemed it necessary to establish an authority structure, a chain of command among the children of Israel, remember what he asked for. “Choose wise, understanding and knowledgeable men from among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13) Men who want to be dummies need not apply.
If you are happy to allow others to do your thinking for you, if you are content to just float along with the tide, then take whatever money that you would spend on books and spend it on an XBOX or that big satellite system with the complete NFL schedule, and just hang it up. You’ll get along okay, I guess. You might be easily tricked by bad thinking from time to time. It might be easy to persuade you to make a dumb decision every once in a while. If you don’t mind succumbing to emotionalism every now and then and having a reactionary response whenever something comes up that you do not understand, that is fine. If that is the cost you are willing to pay, then by all means, stop reading, Stop studying. But you’ll never be a leader among men.
What is the difference between someone who can’t read and someone who won’t read? You may feel sorry for the man who can’t, but other than that, they are entirely equal.
Certainly there is no room for us to refer to our learning in a condescending way with others. We don’t flaunt it or become puffed up. We recognize that God has opened our ear, He has sovereignly opened our minds and given us a thirst for knowledge of Him. We cannot dispute that for a moment.
We do, however, want to maintain that if He has opened our ears, and given us the ability to grow in our knowledge and understanding of Him that we must take advantage of it and seize that opportunity to the glory of God.