A Plumber, A Pastor, and the Ivory Tower

Imagine a new believer from a Muslim background. Let’s call him Ali. He lives with his family in a small apartment. His job as a plumber barely brings in enough money to make ends meet. He has a high school education and was never much of a reader until he was called to follow Jesus three years ago. Ever since then, he’s been trying to read the Bible daily.

One day, a well-educated Muslim friend talks to Ali about the unreliable nature of the Christian holy books, pointing to some perceived contradictions in the four gospels. Ali’s friend offers some creative corrections to counter some of the Christian “misinterpretations.”

Ali listens politely, but his spirit is troubled with the possibility that the Bible is corrupt. He brings his concerns to the pastor of his small house church. Addressing certain issues surrounding the veracity of Scripture requires a working knowledge of original biblical languages, textual criticism, and church history. Ali’s pastor possesses none of these and is ill-equipped to offer a thoughtful response to Ali’s friend’s arguments.

How an Oil Rig is Like an Ivory Tower

The phrase “ivory tower” is often a pejorative metaphor directed toward theologians in academia who may appear to have little to offer people like our friend, Ali the plumber. But that is a misunderstanding of the role of biblical and theological scholarship.

To get a sense of why theological training could benefit Ali and his pastor, let’s consider a metaphor: oil rigs. Oil platforms are a common sight in west Texas, but no one ever drives a car up to one and asks to “fill ’er up.” The job of the oil rig is to remove the crude oil from the ground, but then it must go through an intense refining process to become usable to drivers of all stripes, including plumbers.

Academic theologians … drill deep into difficult topics … to bring to the surface useful information that can inform and equip church leaders and pastors.

Academic theologians are like oil rigs. They drill deep into difficult topics like archaeology, biblical languages, and historical theology to bring to the surface useful information that can inform and equip church leaders and pastors. Then pastors deliver spiritual fuel to their congregations, helping people apply the Bible to life and manage faith issues in a complex and often hostile world.

Pastors process the “raw fuel” of deep, thoughtful material drilled by academic theologians so that they can present it in more accessible ways. Their teaching, then, helps their people to live out the faith. Christians, like Ali, need to be filled up by their pastors, who faithfully teach and exegete Scripture. But pastors who don’t have access to the raw fuel materials of academic theologians are at a disadvantage. So are their people.

Missionaries as Intermediaries

In Central Asia very few pastors have access to theological education and to the rich fuel brought to the surface by theologians and biblical scholars. But missionaries can resource local churches by serving as intermediaries between the academy and the pastors who are desperate to process faith issues in their local context.

Here are three ways missionaries can help provide theological fuel as they minister alongside and mentor local pastors and church leaders.

  1. Become a specialist on a theological issue relevant in your cultural context.
    Cross-cultural ministry requires missionaries to become generalists. We feel we have to be capable of handling computers, budgets, personnel issues, foreign languages, visas, and also theology—all with equal acumen. But sometimes we are called to go deep in one area. Find a theological issue that matters in your ministry context and start conversing with scholars in the ivory tower by reading, researching, corresponding, and talking with them. Are you serving in Africa where the prosperity gospel is running rampant?  Become an expert in the book of Job, a sure-fire antidote against such teachings. Are you serving in a Muslim context where the idea of a triune God is a major challenge? Become an expert in the “Son of God” discourse in John 5.
  2. Learn to ask why.
    My dad was an old-school engineer. Years after computers became an integral part of solving engineering equations, my dad would still check his calculations with a slide rule. When his younger colleagues were bemused by his approach, he told them: “You know how engineering works, but I know why.” Those who work in the ivory tower constantly ask why. They strengthen their knowledge of the Bible through the study of biblical languages. They grapple with the philosophical underpinnings of difficult topics like suffering and look at biblical issues from various intellectual traditions. If you hang out with scholars by familiarizing yourself with their writings, you will be better equipped to fuel those you mentor. You will be better equipped to answer challenging questions that start with “why.”
  3. Deep passion should meet deep thinking.
    Last week when a Central Asian pastor asked if I would mentor a young man of exceptional scholastic brilliance who sensed a call to full-time Christian service, he commented, “In some faith traditions religious leaders simply do what they have been told or say what they have been taught. The culture understands this and scoffs. But Christians should have the most educated people in ministry, people who think deeply about their faith. Then they can meet genuine needs of people who are confronted by the realities of Christ’s kingdom in this world.”

Christians like Ali need pastors who can answer the false accusation that the Bible is corrupt. Informed answers to difficult questions strengthen Ali’s faith and equip him to serve as an effective gospel witness. If Ali’s pastor meets a missionary who has a passion for God combined with a deep understanding of theology and the tools to do faithful biblical exegesis, he will find a wellspring of knowledge and experience from which to learn.

On behalf of all the plumbers and pastors, let’s spend some time in the ivory tower.

Andrew Bristol received his BA from Hardin-Simmons University and his MDiv and DMin from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been serving in Central Asia since 2003. He and his wife have four children and one grandchild.