Pastors in the Public Square

Is the call of God opposed to a Christian or a pastor being a public intellectual?

One man on my Facebook page says that calling a pastor a public intellectual is an insult to the call of God. God does not need educated people to speak through them.

This is the kind of anti-intellectualism I have been working against all my adult life. I believe this kind of mistreatment of God’s Word and common sense is not good for the faith and is at odds with both Christian history and good theology. If we want to make that kind of leap in logic, I’ll wait while you throw away every part of your Bible written by someone educated or literate in a world where very few were educated and literate. I have no idea what part of your Bible you would be able to keep.

But, moving on.

When this kind of thing is said, I want to say that someone understands neither God’s call nor the phrase, “public intellectual.” God’s call on an individual’s life never includes the mandate to cease all education, disparage personal growth, quit curiosity, or demeaning others who are educated. But all too often, that is what it means to many.

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

What does it mean to be a public intellectual?

Broadly speaking a public intellectual is someone with relevant expertise or insight on an issue or set of issues who speaks well in the public square. This person is often recognized by others as someone with proper authority on an issue, or as someone who speaks with a degree of insight that others may not have.

When the phrase is used, most of us probably think of people who talk a lot on cable news, or popular columnists for newspapers and magazines. Sometimes academics are able to make the leap from speaking to their peers to speaking to the public.

But, if my definition is even close to accurate, pastors automatically belong to that category. For most pastors, their “public” is not very large, but they are still recognized as people with pertinent education and authority to speak on a range of issues. So, to begin with, being a pastor means you are a certain kind of public intellectual. To separate the two is to make an assumption about the role of pastor that unnecessarily limits their range of authority to the private sphere.

And it is to the consequences of that assumption that I want to turn. I believe, that in about four steps, Christian anti-intellectualism has replaced the faith (sound, orthodox theology) with politics and politicians.

Faith is private, not public.

This belief is one of the consequences of the Enlightenment and its use of reason. Many, though not all, of the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment openly rejected the authority of the Church and the idea of God and replaced them with reason. Faith became something that belonged to the private life of a believer and not something that belonged in the public square. Over time, the theological leaders of the Christian faith were shuffled out of the public square and treated as if they had nothing to say about the larger shared concerns of public life. Religion was for your personal emotional and psychological well-being, and not for politics, education, law, and science.

Some Christians, strangely, agreed.

Part of the Christian reaction to this was the Fundamentalism of the early and mid-twentieth century. Much of it boiled down to, “If you don’t want us, then we don’t want you either.” Education was snubbed and the theologically anachronistic belief grew that people did not need education to be a leader among God’s people. All they needed was a call and some kind of burning in the belly.

In a turn of irony, the anti-intellectual wing of the Christian faith ended up agreeing with the Enlightenment. Faith was private, not public.

The Public Square doesn’t go away.

It turns out that our large mutual concerns simply do not go away, and they do not manage themselves on intellectual cruise control. People with influence and cultural power shape institutions that affect us all. People have ideas, and those ideas influence all of us. In addition, many of those individuals who shape our cultural institutions do not have a Christian worldview.

But now that a certain kind of Christian has absorbed the notion that their faith leaders are people who help them with their private lives, and do not have the ability or authority to speak to their public lives, they need somewhere to turn.

Pastors get replaced.

Thus, a lot of Christians turned to their politics. Politicians and pundits live and work in the public square, so there is a natural inclination to turn to them for insight and action, but they do not all share the Christian’s commitment to Scriptural standards. Now we have a quandary. Pastors and our faith handle our our private lives, and politicians and pundits handle our public lives. The two often conflict, so we are faced with choices. The large, shared issues are too big to ignore – education, immigration, international politics, tax policy, etc. – and life forces us to make a choice, so we chose politics.

This kind of reasoning may be why so many Christians want their pastors to sound like their favorite politicians instead of wanting politicians to sound more like their pastors.

Part of the burden of my life has been to encourage the role of pastors in broader public life. This does not necessarily mean they need to run for office (the assumption that they need to might just be another symptom of the disease I outlined above). Pastors have filled the role of public intellectual in the past as pastors, and I believe we can regain at lease some of that role again. Pastors can be good biblical shepherds, prioritizing orthodox theology, and speak to the large, shared concerns that affect all of us.

I’m not saying this is easy. In fact, it requires a lot of work. But our congregations, our communities, and our calling from God, require it.

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