Pride and the Pastor-Theologian

The call of the New Testament is for church leaders to be pastor-theologians (1 Tim 1:3; 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:9; 2:1; 4:2). But to heed the call to be a pastor-theologian does not mean that faithful shepherds are seeking the approval of a larger guild of scholars. The pursuit of what Iain Murray calls, “intellectual respectability” is a futile venture that inevitably leads to theological compromise.1

Pride, therefore, cannot be allowed to take root in the life of an aspiring pastor-theologian. The danger of emphasizing the biblical call for a shepherd to steep himself in God-centered theology is that knowledge, if not joined with humility and love, has the tendency to puff up (1 Cor 8:1). This propensity is not the fault of the knowledge itself: genuine knowledge of God is the greatest of all gifts (Jer 9:23-24). The fault lies with our sinful hearts that are prone to take any good gift—gifts that are given for the express purpose of bringing glory to God—and twist it to exalt ourselves.

But Scripture warns us repeatedly that the pursuit of personal glory and the praise of man disables us from rightly understanding and interpreting Scripture. In other words, if you’re pining after the approval of other theologians and a guild of world-renowned scholars, you will likely find yourself in a doctrinal ditch, bringing ruin to yourselves and to your hearers, just like the religious leaders in Jesus’ time.2

The Pharisees and scribes possessed every resource they needed to fulfill their role as Israel’s pastor-theologians. They had the written Word of God, they had the time and a generally peaceful setting with which to study its contents, and they had the opportunity to teach that Word to the people in their nation. When the Messiah stood in their presence, however, they did not recognize him or grasp that this Man was presently fulfilling the very Scripture they had given their lives to studying. “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus told them, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).

What was the problem? Jesus follows his observation about their study habits with a jarring statement: “I do not receive glory from people” (John 5:41). While at first glance this statement seems out of place, it actually answers the question of why they had refused to come to Jesus: the religious leaders sought glory from people. They loved the praise and accolades of men. Elsewhere, Jesus characterized the scribes and Pharisees as people dominated by the need for man’s approval: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matt 23:5-7; cf. Matt 6:1-12).

Jesus, conversely, was characterized by declining personal glory for the sake of pursuing his Father’s fame. For this reason, Jesus was unattractive to the religious leaders and would be quickly replaced by another Messiah if that Savior exalted himself and coddled the Pharisees’ desire for personal glory. “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (John 5:43). The root problem for these religious leaders was that their pursuit of man’s approval clouded their eyes and kept them from rightly understanding Scripture. In other words, pride made faith in Jesus impossible: “How can you believe,” Jesus asks rhetorically, “when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44)? The answer, of course, is that they were unable to believe in Christ so long as they treasured the praise of men.

While Jesus’ comments were directed at the Pharisees’ unconverted condition, the principle holds true for Christian pastors as well: our faith in Jesus and thus our ability to rightly interpret and apply Scripture will be obstructed by any pampering of our pride. God only leads the humble in what is right (Ps 25:9) and only looks upon the one who trembles at his Word (Isa 61:1-2). Our desire for prominence among a cadre of international scholars—or simply among the pastor-theologians in nearby churches—must be crucified again and again if we hope to grow spiritually, feed Christ’s flock, and persevere in the ministry. Jonathan Edwards aptly warns us: “Pride is the main handle by which [Satan] has hold of Christian persons and the chief source of all the mischief that he introduces to clog and hinder a work of God. Spiritual pride is the main spring or at least the main support of all other errors. Until this disease is cured, medicines are applied in vain to heal all other diseases.”3

Dealing with our sinful bent for personal glory is not a discipline we begin in the latter stages of our work: it is the beginning, middle, and end of pastoral ministry. Without Spirit-wrought humility leading to a love for Christ and a love for his sheep, our theological efforts will come to nothing (James 4:6).

But it should be obvious by now that none of this discussion on the problem of intellectual respectability implies that the pastor-theologian will be excused for intellectual sloppiness. Poorly reasoned doctrinal positions, superficial engagement with opposing theological opinions, hurried exegesis, and unsubstantiated arguments cannot be waived simply because one is a pastor. The very idea that the pastoral office justifies mental carelessness and theological ineptitude is itself a sign of the times. Nevertheless, this labor will come to nothing if the pastor is not seeking first the glory of God and crucifying his own bent for man’s praise.

1. Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change from 1950-2000 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 173-214.  

2. See Jonathan Edwards “The Importance and Advantage of a Thorough Knowledge of Divine Truth,” in Works, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 162-63. Edwards exhorts us: “Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice. If applause be your end, you will not be so likely to be led to the knowledge of the truth, but may justly, as often is the case of those who are proud of their knowledge, be led into error to your own perdition. This being your end, if you should obtain much rational knowledge, it would not be likely to be of any benefit to you, but would puff you up with pride. 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffeth up.”

3. Jonathan Edwards, “Undiscerned Spiritual Pride,” in Works, 1:399; emphasis added.