Vacant: Theological education and the equal validity of secular and ministry vocations

its_about_timeThis post has been sitting in my draft box for a fair while now.  The time has come, however, to post it on the wall.

What prompted such drastic action?

I am working my way through Michael Jensen’s latest book called Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology (Book review to come.  You can buy the book here).  He made this striking comment:

Valuing gospel work over secular work was indeed a decision for the eternal rather than the ephemeral because the “the time is short” (1 Cor 7:29).  This authentically biblical theology has enormous power as a critique of a this-worldly, middle-class idolatry of careers in the hothouse environment of the university campus (Loc. 2618 Kindle).

anglcanThe interesting thing about this comment is that it is embedded in a section that describes the role that campus ministry has played in developing a university and post-universtiy culture that highly values not only ministry as a ‘career option’ but also fulltime theological education.

The original reason why I was going to write this blog post was because I was asked why theological education enrollments, particularly full-time enrollments, might be dropping?

In my mind I ran through a number of possible answers.  It’s expensive.  It takes ages to complete.  It’s really hard.  ‘Languages?  Seems a little excessive.’  The pay once you’re done is ordinary.  Once you’re done you get treated like rubbish in churches and para-church ministries.  I should stop.

While all of these are factors that must be impacting theological studies enrollments, I think however, that none of these are singularly responsible for any great decline.

This is where my original thoughts and Jensen’s come together.

I read this in The Christian Post here:

NEW YORK – Pastor Tim Keller challenged a crowd of New York City professionals Sunday to rethink how they view work and to debunk the notion that spiritual vocations matter more to God than secular work.

The article writer referred to the need to cease making the distinction between spiritual work and secular work because such labelling devalues work that does not fall into the typical spiritual vocations.  This is nothing new from Keller and others of his kind.  We’ve been hearing this kind of reasoning for years now.

How might Keller level the playing field.  Check out this quote:

It means getting together to think, think, how does the preeminence of God reign in my field.

kellerSo, Keller validates all work (within reason, of course) by locating it within the overarching notion that whatever we do we do to God’s glory.  As long as we are evaluating and carrying our the occupation according to how it might be viewed through a gospel lens, all is ok.  I could have Keller wrong on this, but this is the overwhelming sense that I get from him.

Here is the rub.

In trying to eliminate the spiritual work vs temporal work dichotomy, Keller renders all work on par with each other.  This is problematic and it is hurting the enrollment bottom line.

The so called ‘spiritual vocations’ do matter more to God.  It is for this reason that in James we read that teachers of the Bible will be doubly judged.  But why, in the same breath, are these same people worth double honour?  Why are scribes or tentmakers not singled out to receive this curse and blessing?  The cleaners are not going to be judged doubly based upon their cleaning effort, so in what sense is the teaching role so different that it deserves such special treatment?

In Ephesians 4 Paul in clear in drawing attention to the word gifts as vital for the church.  How are individuals in the church equipped to do good works and even build the church up to maturity in Christ? Answer:  by the gospel being faithfully taught.   Those that do this are the people who will be judged double and rewarded likewise for their work.

But why?  Why are these roles set apart for special consideration?

churchplantingI’m going to suggest it is because these roles are fundamentally bound to the spiritual vitality of the church.  These roles are inextricably bound to the church reaching maturity in Christ, and it is here that we connect back with Jensen.  He continues:

The note of eschatological urgency was not now offered at the expense of tending to the needs of society as it had been then [the end of the 19th century].  Opportunities to do good are still reckoned by the Anglicans of Sydney to be opportunities to do good, whatever the lateness of the eschatological hour.

What drives the notion that gospel work is more valued over secular work?  Eschatology.  That is, the final divine state of affairs.  If one’s doctrine of the local church is linked to the eschatological church then one wonders how we could relegate the ministry of the word to something on par with secular work.

This perspective, I think, does not demean or relegate secular work, but rather positively identifies which earthly Christian activities are divinely factored into God’s meta-narrative.  The inverse should not be assumed, that is, that cleaning, teaching, or surf-lifesaving do not fit into this ‘lofty’ category and therefore are of no value.

Perhaps if we heed this order and stop validating all work as equal, we might see a culture develop in our churches that values theological education and also full-time ministry.  Although I would argue that this is not the intent of the divine order, this outcome would certainly go along way towards building up the body of Christ – the true intent of the divine order.

Please let me know your thoughts on this if you have any.  I’m keen to hear how people might take this:)

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17 comments on “Vacant: Theological education and the equal validity of secular and ministry vocations

  1. Shelley Rae says:

    Hi Dan
    I think your line about the inverse not being assumed is really helpful as I wonder if this conclusion is often what people are trying to argue against by considering all work equally valuable.

  2. Hi Dan
    Love your work bro, but here I am going to sound a note of caution. It would seem to me that the one thing even more dangerous than “this worldly middle class idolatry of career” is the same thing baptised (sprinkled or immersed) with a job title such as pastor or rector. The pay scale, benefits and job prospects for Anglicans in Sydney – for example – would indicate that the most sought after positions are North Shore, well heeled, elite suburbs (awaiting tsunami of negations – Ed), and many pastors/rectors would take delight in being able to have all THAT and the age to come too. And the real critique of this-worldly middle-class idolatry is not biblical theology by itself, but praxis that accurately reflects it.

    The fact that most people not gifted to work in full time ministry feel that their church ministers generally ignore the 70 per cent of their lives spent in the office/factory/home would indicate that we have come full circle back to the ruinous RC perspective of the Middle Ages.

    Just sayin’!

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree. Can something that is God ordained be turned into an idol? Well, of course, but this does not negate it or mean that we should throw it out. And I agree with the second bit too (pastors ignoring lives), but again, just because there is abuse does not necessarily require one to dump it all.

      I think you sum it up well int he last line of your fist paragraph. What is the theology here that praxis must reflect? That I suppose is what I’m prodding at. Whatever it is, the theology is stable, which we must cling to, but the praxis can be done in a myriad of ways. History has shown that some is abusive and others not and others in between.

      Did I read you right?

      • This was me Dan, btw. I was logged out:) Whoops.

      • if u really are Dan Patterson?!!! probably agree with u too! I think the problem is that so often I have heard it said – actually heard it – by ministry people that the main role of workers is to raise money for ministry. it leaves the average worker feeling as if they are a ministry drone. I know that Keller WOULD say what he does in New York, but if work is going to be part of the age to come we have to take it far more seriously than many reformed evangelicals do.

  3. Deb K says:

    Hey Dan,

    Interesting discussion, and lots that I can (and probably will) say!

    I think the danger is in communicating that EVERY Christian should do full-time theological study and pursue paid church- or parachurch-based work. I did get this message when I was going through AFES stuff, but I don’t know if maybe it was more targeted (ie. maybe people thought I was gifted for it, and so challenged me to consider it) and I simply heard it as a general challenge. Personally it left me ladened with guilt, as I had always dreamed of becoming a missionary anyway (I never wanted ‘a career’ – I really didn’t need to hear that challenge), yet as I got married and we prayed about and discussed what God might have us do and overseas service was ruled out for the forseeable future, I was in some ways left feeling like a second-rate Christian instead of simply being trained and challenged to get on with serving God in the life I already had. Afterall, you don’t suddenly become something overseas (e.g. an evangelist) that you weren’t already at home!

    This approach flies in the face of Paul’s “body with many members” stuff about the members having different gifts and roles to play, and none being indispensable. I firmly believe that it’s right and good for MOST Christians to go about their ‘ordinary’ lives – working, serving their families and their church, discipling others, and giving generously – without a church title and probably without formal or at least full-time theological study. Eph 4:11-13… seems to paint a picture of a minority dedicating themselves (as per their gifting.. or calling?) to the ministry of the Word, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service” – ie. the majority of believers serving Christ in living faithful lives of generosity and love, whether it’s as a slave, a master, a cleaner, a CEO, a mother, a disabled person requiring around the clock care, a student… whatever it may be.
    I guess we only have this issue because, in our society, most people are literate and reasonably highly educated, which opens up the possibility of formal full-time theol study (the way it is done in our context) in a way that it wouldn’t have been for the majority of NT Christians, right?

    When I think about this issue, I’m always reminded of my Dad, who has worked as a full-time geophysicist for most of the last 43 years, with a short stint working for TEAR and varying degrees of ‘lay’ leadership roles in churches. When he was formally engaged in teaching the Bible, he felt he was a mediocre preacher and not cut-out for the vocation of a full-time paid pastor, and Mum did not feel able to carry the burden of pastor’s-wife in a struggling church. So, instead, he has busied himself with serving his family, his church (prayer, eldership, welcoming, pastoral care, leading small groups), the outsiders (running a soup kitchen, having boarders at home), and earning lots of money and giving most of it away for kingdom work (sometimes in the form of very cheap housing to full-time pastors etc).

    While I understand what you are saying, Dan, about the extra responsibility of pastors and teachers, I would hesitate to say that equals ‘greater importance’. That just doesn’t feel biblical to me. (But I am not a trained Bible scholar – happy to be proven wrong if you can find that sort of wording used somewhere?)

    It’s also worth remembering that it’s people like my dad who foot the bill for those who dedicate themselves to teaching the Word and equipping the saints. And because not every Christian ‘earner’ earns a high income, then for every paid pastor you probably need at least 20 people/families living ‘ordinary’ lives to support them.

    As Steve pointed out, I also think the danger of ‘idols’ is present in any vocation, church-based or otherwise, so I don’t believe the fact that career CAN be an idol is a reason, per se, to challenge people not to have a secular one! In fact Tim pointed out recently (in response to my guest blog post on Steve’s blog) how work/career tends to be singled out a lot in our middle-class context as easily becoming an idol, but people rarely challenge us to consider whether we are making our family into an idol. You don’t (well, I don’t) hear people challenging Christians to not get married and have children, in order to dedicate their lives to full-time ‘gospel work’ (vis a vis Paul in 1 Cor), the way you would hear them challenging us to give up a secular career. And for those of us who do have families, are we hearing enough teaching on how we should be opening them up to the outsider, and perhaps sacrificing some extra-curricular activities and opportunities for our kids to flourish to their full potential, or scaling down the complexity of the all-consuming family diet, in order to give more of our time and energy to serving the poor and needy and building up God’s church? And yet I absolutely believe that family can be just as much an idol as career, or leisure, or wealth…

    Well… better leave it at that :)


    • Hi Deb,

      Like I said to Stevo above, the idol thing for me is a non-issue. Just because we turn something into an idol, has no bearing upon God’s intention for it or not. We will pervert even the most noble things, like giving as Jesus pointed out in his sermon on the mount.

      Your other main point is the inverse of the issue that I am trying to get at, which I think is not dealt with in this discussion, but perhaps sneakily implied.

      Let me throw an example at you that I think you believe in that might help me explain it a little better. You believe in the headship of the male in marriage, right? (Pull me up if you don’t) How do we negotiate terms in this scenario so that both are valued as they should be but without confusing their respective roles? That is the end result that I am talking about. Just because the male is ‘functionally prior’ (for want of a better phrase) does not make him ‘more important’ – your words, I did not use them btw☺

      If we move to the realm of church ministry, one has to navigate the passages that I’ve quoted, in particular Ephesians 4 and James.

      I think you deal with Eph 4 well, but stop short of drawing the conclusion. The exercising of word giftings are ‘prior’ to the rest of the church building itself up.

      So my question that I’m posing is this. If the word giftings are prior to the church coming to maturity in the faith, and if they are rewarded doubly (or cursed) for their work, how should this work be differentiated from other work?

      My point is that there is real difference between the two categories. It is my theory that the blurring of these two categories is chasing away those that could or should be encouraged to engage in the training for the word ministries.

      So this is not a comment on how one should understand secular work, although I think there is a natural corollary.


      • I Dan – think u make some valid points here, but perhaps unfortunate in quoting a Sydney Anglican. it was PJ who said that there would be time enough to write novels in the age to come and to get on with gospel work. That is the tip of an iceberg that sinks any notion of human creativity and flourishing. perhaps if the average sermon were, well, average as opposed to below it, less novels would be needed!

      • Deb K says:

        Ah, fair call – you didn’t use the words ‘more important’. But I picked up that vibe I think from these phrases:

        “The so called ‘spiritual vocations’ do matter more to God.”

        “What drives the notion that gospel work is more valued over secular work?…one wonders how we could relegate the ministry of the word to something on par with secular work.”

        “Perhaps if we heed this order and stop validating all work as equal, we might see a culture develop in our churches that values theological education and also full-time ministry. ”

        I’m going to pick on that last one because it ties in well with your marriage example. I do indeed believe in male headship in marriage. But the point is, the husband and wife ARE “equal”: the roles are different, but both are called to imitate Christ – one in exercising servant-hearted authority, one in cheerful submission. Both are ‘equally’ submitting to God, and I think it would be dangerous to suggest that the faithfulness of a husband ‘matters more’ to God than that of a wife (or a single person for that matter). Surely the sanctification of each believer is of equal import in His eyes… what do you think?

        I like the way you’ve clarified your thoughts about roles with the term ‘functionally prior’ – I think that’s definitely more helpful than words like ‘on a par’ or ‘matter more’ etc. But it’s shaky ground isn’t it!

        I, as a wife, am not to wait for my husband to exercise perfect Christlike headship before I choose to submit to him. And as an individual saved by Jesus alone, my sanctification is not dependent on my husband’s godly leadership. BUT, of course in God’s order there *is* a real sense in which my husband has a special responsibility before God for the spiritual health of our family, and we both function best (and I am much more likely to practise godly submission!) when he is taking the intitiative and proactively carrying out his role as ‘head’, “functionally prior” to my submission.

        So, if I understand you right, you are arguing that although the faithfulness of every individual Christian in whatever work they do is (equally?) important to God, there is a sense in which the faithfulness of their pastors/teachers in teaching and equipping them is more crucial to the health of the Body. More ability to make or break the church, so to speak. ??

        To go back to the work thing, in mind my this is the key issue: EVERY CHRISTIAN is, or should be, doing ‘full-time ministry’! For the follower of Jesus, all of life should be ministry, or at least ‘service’ (I know the greek for ‘ministry’ is used, with descriptors, for things other than Word-teaching, like ‘the ministry of waiting on tables’ in Acts 6:2 – if John Stott’s commentary is correct – but I’m not sure if it is ever used to refer to ‘secular’ or domestic work? If not, then service is perhaps a better term).

        Two important implications:
        1) we shouldn’t venerate pastors and preachers (and missionaries), and put them on pedestals as a separate class of Christian, OR seek to become one because of the ‘badge of honour’ that goes with it. Extra responsibility, yes. Extra honour from the Lord if they are faithful, yes. But not extra status in the wordly sense.
        2) none of us is let off the hook! no Christian is excused from serving the Lord in every facet of life. “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” Col 3:23.

        In fact that verse reminds me of a good example from my own experience. After yr 12, I worked as an admin assistant for a small company whose directors were both Christians. After I’d been working there for some months, one of the directors took me out for coffee to discuss my work, and along with some praise and affirmation he offered a gentle rebuke that he had observed a pattern of time-wasting and unproductiveness. It’s true, I am lazy! In school I got by for too long on brains alone, and never learned to be studious and disciplined, a flaw that still plagues me. He pointed out this verse as a way of encouraging me to see my work there as an expression of my service of the Lord Jesus. I was lucky to have a Christian boss who could teach me in this way! But surely we should also be hearing this kind of thing in our churches. But, like Steve said, if pastors are not ‘tent-makers’, it’s very easy for them to forget what it’s like to be an ordinary employee, and thus to neglect to properly teach and equip their flock to diligently serve Jesus in that 70% or whatever of their waking hours!

        I’m not arguing that we get rid of our categories, only that perhaps we make them more specific. I know it gets a bit cumbersome when we try to stop using shorthand like ‘work’ and ‘ministry’, but I do feel the effort is worthwhile.

        Sorry for another long-winded comment; another one of my weaknesses! Steve should be getting used to it now.

      • Regarding my analogy of submission in marriage, this cannot be pushed far because the Bible doesn’t use it as such. I used it to try to illustrate a possible way of illustrating how one might view the relationship between the so-called two kinds of work. It breaks down exactly where you push it for good reason, which is my main point. The husband is not going to be rewarded or cursed depending on how well he does as a husband. The teachers will be.

        The body will mutually build itself after the teachers have appropriately fulfilled their responsibilities. And at the end of the day the teachers are rewarded or cursed depending on their performance, and everyone else gets their allotted portion. So, there is definite un-equal-ness in this relationship, which stands in contrast to the relationship of the submitting marriage.

        But again, that this role might be abused does not negate the fact of the matter. Of course they shouldn’t be venerated and all people should act as Christians in the purest sense at all times regardless of their circumstances. I take these as givens in this discussion.

        The work thing for me is the main issue for me too, but for different reasons. It is not good enough to just blindly engage with service, full-time service to God in life, when perhaps you should be specifically engaging with the teaching gifts that God has given you. This is my point.

        My fear is that by negating the clear distinction between the word gifts (whatever form that takes – part-time, full-time, tent making) and other service (work or ministry) we are robbing the church of the very thing that God has put in place for achieving unity in the faith and maturity in Christ.

        You can have the last say here. I’m going to have to leave this discussion now for some much needed time getting into some reading on Aquinas in the thought of Luther:)


      • Deb K says:

        Thanks Dan.

        It seems like a solution all round would be to simply focus on ‘gifts’ (and matching them to existing needs), rather than pitting secular work against spiritual work. Though the question then is whose responsibility is it to recognise one’s gifts and channel them to good use.

        I’m not sure if it’s (my) Tim’s idea or if he got it from Keller or someone else, but I like the idea of ‘training the called’ rather than ‘calling the trained’. So more of a hand-picking dynamic, like it seems there was in the early church, than an individual deciding they want to go to theol college then floundering around trying to find a ‘ministry job’ when they finish. I don’t suppose it has to be completely either/or, and the situation will likely be different for those who want to train to be missionaries in less-reached contexts (something I think the western evangelical church definitely SHOULD be producing more of!), who may or may not end up working in church leadership as such. Whether or not the latter should HAVE to go through theol college is another question entirely!

        Thanks again for engaging with my thoughts on this :) Have fun with your mates Aquinas and Luther.

        Over and out.

  4. was says:

    whose the picture of the guy wearing a tie?

  5. Tim Karajas says:

    Hi Dan,

    I’m guessing this blog would not be the natural place to promote my special club called ‘DTVFM’ (Ditch The Vision For Ministry) ;) (He said lightheartedly!)

    It’s been an interesting summer for me with this coming on my radar (is this a new book??) after all the debate over the 3 books by Dickson, Keller and Bird.

    As one who, like my lovely wife, agonised over the question of whether or not to go into a full time church vocation…and who now doesn’t think about it at all, I wonder whether our debate over these issues, important as it is, is not proportionate to the importance of the issues.

    My theory is that there would have been heaps of people who enrolled at theol. colleges because of the ministries or redeemer and the like, which is ironic.

    My story is that I have been a more effective disciple of Jesus in focussing my thought energies on more immediate concerns. Issues of mercy and justice spring to mind. Also, I remain confused about what male headship should look like in a marriage – but I am presented with the option of either reading more books or doing more laundry!

    That’s not a criticism of your excellent blog and others like it.

    Afterthought: maybe theol. college enrolments are down because of global financial crises.

    Cheers Dan,

    Tim Karajas

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