Having attended seminary, I am of the firm belief that the Bible is not magically able to be properly interpreted by everyone who reads it. This is in contrast with many evangelicals, who generally expect the Bible’s message to be self-evident to the average attentive reader open to the Holy Spirit. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently wrote about this, as well as various other problems with how evangelicals approach Scripture, in his book The Bible Made Impossible. For a while now, I have been with Smith in considering this an inappropriate approach to Scripture because it simply does not work in real life: People who don’t know better very often read Scripture quite poorly, despite their best efforts and intentions.
Some might consider it elitist to believe only certain better-equipped people can properly interpret the Bible, but consider this: There was a time when most people were illiterate, making the entire Bible completely inaccessible without some sort of mediator. Was it elitist for God to inspire Scripture to begin with? Then neither is it elitist to acknowledge that the Bible was written in unfamiliar languages and cultures a long time ago and that it is therefore not always easily understood. In fact, even with additional training there is a lack of consensus about certain passages, highlighting how complicated the Bible really is. This situation need not create a separate class of Christians who keep the Bible to themselves, but rather demands we do a better job connecting academics, clergy, and laity to one another so that everyone might have as many tools as possible to understand as much of the Bible as possible. And in the event that having been better equipped, there are still certain parts which are harder to understand, lay people should have access to people and books who can point them in the right direction. This highlights the importance of educated leaders, as well as for academics who take a strong interest in helping the church as a whole connect to their life’s work.
Too often today pastors are uneducated or focused solely on ministerial training rather than biblical studies and theology, and too often even the best educated pastors with an interest in theology do not know how to make this information accessible to their congregants. We need strong educational requirements and a culture which values learning among our pastors. We also need to train them in how to teach others about that which often stays shut up in the ivory tower. We should encourage basic theological literacy among lay people through the sorts of preaching, Sunday school curricula, adults’ and children’s books, etc. to which we expose people in our churches and other Christian settings. In my view, it would be wise to come to a general consensus on what sorts of topics every Christian deserves some basic instruction in and to make certain our teaching ensures anyone growing up in church or later joining a church has the opportunity to learn such material—in other words, we need more and better catechesis.
Another thing we need, however, is to recognize that the way evangelicals conduct many of their ministries is simply theologically irresponsible. In particular, I am talking about the very lax standards for ministry in parachurch contexts. I do not doubt that many of these individuals are called by God to serve and that God uses them in meaningful ways. But we need to do a better job distinguishing between those in deacon-type positions vs. those with significant teaching and mentoring responsibilities. Those who focus on practical service (ministries of compassion, social justice, fostering community and fellowship, the arts, etc.) need not possess a theological education, though some might find it helpful to have a background in theology, not to mention other sorts of training (to play certain instruments, to understand social issues, etc.). However, this is not the case for those who preach and otherwise guide others through Scripture as a regular basis as part of their ministerial profession.
A perfect example of this is campus ministry. Campus ministry organizations (whether interdenominational or denominational) need educational standards for their staff. Period. A typical campus minister may refer to their lessons as “speaking” or “teaching,” but there is no practical difference between the nature of their “talks” and a sermon the student might hear on Sunday morning. For those who consider it problematic for pastors to lack theological education, the same standard should apply to campus ministers. They play a very significant role in determining how young people form their theology, not only through preaching but also through “discipling” relationships. Without educational standards, there is an enormous variance of “quality” of teaching between campus ministry staff, which is rather unfortunate.
Campus ministries, as well as other parachurch organizations, often have enormous power to influence the direction of the church. We must consider it “worth it” to require—and then, of course, help fund—the education of those in such influential positions if we want to avoid perpetuating poor biblical interpretations, not to mention broader ignorance of theology and church history and the very large problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism.