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Why Pastors Need to be Theologians

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Why Pastors Need to be Theologians


As a theological college, we believe that our calling is not to be an ivory tower that only relates to the academic guilds, but we understand that our role is crucial to the practice of ministry and ultimately to the health and well-being of the church at large. Unfortunately a dichotomy has occurred in the thinking of many people between being a pastor or minister of a congregation on the one hand and being a theologian on the other. For many, the term “theology” connotes doctrine, intellectualism, and irrelevant academic debates. What is more interesting and more relevant, many believe, is ministry, practical advice and strategies for addressing the range of issues that must be addressed in leading and pastoring a congregation.

What the Bible shows us is that addressing pastoral and leadership issues in a local fellowship cannot be undertaken successfully without a clear and mature understanding of theology. A good grasp of biblical and systematic theology is crucial to fruitful and effective ministry.

In a very helpful article tucked away towards the end of Pastors and Teachers, Sinclair Ferguson gives three examples from the New Testament as to how major issues in the early church were addressed by the apostle Paul through an application of important theological truths.

The issue of disunity in the congregation at Philippi was not dealt with by simply saying, “Stop falling out with each other and behave better. Be united!” Rather, Paul’s understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the gospel enables him to track and trace the source of the spiritual virus that is afflicting the Philippians. The root problem is pride and the remedy is to cultivate humility. That humility finds its origin in union with the Christ who, even though equal with God, humbled himself. Paul’s vaccine is the grace of God in the gospel, and by explaining and applying the theology of grace he addresses this destructive and deadly issue.

Another common dysfunction in the church is legalism, and the related disease of antinomianism. Legalism is the danger of Christian people thinking that their acceptance with God is dependent on their performance, or in reaction to the apparently burdensome demands of Christian discipleship, antinomianism is wanting to throw off the commandments of God completely. Often an individual, church or fellowship will swing back and forward between these two misunderstandings of the Christian life. 

When Paul addresses the issue in Roman 6 he takes his readers back to the significance of their baptism and the meaning of their union with Christ. It seems unlikely that many contemporary pastors in addressing the inconsistent lifestyle of a church member would introduce their conversation with “You have been baptized?” The permanent cure to the problems of legalism and antinomianism are to be found in the radical nature of what has happened to us through our union with Christ. So pastors must be thoroughly grounded in, and totally competent in explaining, this key aspect of Christian theology.

With regard to the problem of lack of assurance of salvation, the antidote is to be found in a rich theological appreciation of the doctrine of justification, and the freedom and joy which results from a full appreciation of the work of Christ on behalf of sinners.

Paul seems to spend a lot of his time in his letters addressing dysfunctional lifestyles and sinful attitudes which are present in local churches. Contemporary pastors will often find themselves doing exactly the same. But they need to model the apostle’s approach by regularly explaining and applying the foundational doctrines and concepts of the Bible. Effective pastoral care is totally reliant on the clear and precise application of Christian theology. So good pastors need to be good theologians.

We grow as pastors as we grow as theologians. We grow as theologians as we grow as exegetes, and we grow as exegetes as we grow as theologians. And all this in order that our preaching, our exposition of the Scriptures, may be truly pastoral and, in the biblical sense, theological.[1]

Union College is committed to offering courses in biblical theology and exegesis, as well as historical and systematic theology, so that it might enable pastors to be more effective and fruitful in their ministries. Come and study with us! Check out what is on offer at

[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Pastors and Teachers (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017), 695.

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

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Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Stafford Carson is a graduate of University of Ulster, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadel…

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