Doctors of the Church

The church needs doctors, no not the kind you go and see if you’re unwell, the original kind.

It is worth remembering that the medical profession stole the title of ‘doctor’—which literally means ‘teacher’—from the Universities and Churches. But that’s not the point I want to address, I’ve recently argued that the church needs to continue to develop ‘doctors of the church’ and so must build the institutions that can support them.

I’d like to dive deeper into what I’m getting at.

In the Roman Catholic church, the term is conferred on a small (though growing) list of theologians from ages past who are noted as key teachers who should be listened to. In Calvin’s Geneva, though, doctor was one of the four ecclesial offices. Alongside the Elder, the Deacon, and the Pastor (what in modern Presbyterianism would be the ‘Teaching Elder’), there was the Doctor. Not the chap in the police box, but those who would teach others and train pastors.

We’ve lost any sense of this as a formal office in the church, which I think is a problem but not the biggest problem. There have been men fulfilling this office even if they weren’t called that. They mostly reside as professional theologians in the Universities and the Bible Colleges (which in America would be ‘Seminaries’).

So, what’s the problem? Not enough people getting PhDs? If I were to try and argue that it would seem ludicrous, the number of people pursuing doctoral level education has ballooned in recent decades as universities have themselves ballooned. I think it would be difficult to argue that this has helped the church (or society, but that’s another argument).

The Challenges

There are a number of crosswinds that are creating a difficult situation in the UK, that we need to be considering doing something about.

Secular British Universities are some of the best places to gain a doctoral-level theological education in the world. They have been very hospitable to evangelicals for a long time. We have every reason to think that this is changing.

Even if it wasn’t, I’m wary of us wholesale outsourcing our theological education to essentially liberal institutions, when theological education is supposed to belong to the church.

Not to fear, you might think, we have all these excellent Bible Colleges! There are some great ones, definitely, though they are finding it increasingly difficult to operate for structural reasons, some are closing, and the models of delivery are changing. Others are not the bastions of orthodoxy that they used to be. Most are denominationally affiliated, and most pastors I know belong to one of the looser networks that doesn’t have an affiliated institution.

Adding to that, most of the pastors I know aren’t formally trained anyway. I don’t think that’s a huge problem necessarily, because formal training isn’t always what we need. I believe that training is best done context, you don’t go to college to learn how to be a good elder. I would hold to a theory of development that doesn’t think ‘training’ is the centre of formation so it isn’t the centre of forming pastors or elders either (I’m using those terms interchangeably—I think they’re the same thing in most contexts). But the theological aspect of that development can rarely be provided within a specific church, and needs something like Union or Crosslands’ model, or perhaps the looser options that the various Newfrontiers spheres provide.

Those in-context church-based models need to be led by these elusive ‘doctors’ I’m talking about. The Church needs to take our own development seriously and invest in it.

Then, to extend that in two directions, employed church staff need continuing theological education and church members need opportunities to become more theologically astute. I’ve got some ideas on what to do here coming up in some future posts.

Continuing Education

Whatever the initial training someone did, in the trenches of pastoral ministry it is difficult to stay theologically sharp and keep a love for these disciplines. That’s OK, a pastor isn’t supposed to be across all the latest controversies, that’s what they need the doctors for, and a pastor isn’t supposed to be able to figure out everything in the Bible—again that’s what they need the doctors for.

Ideally though, church staff are going to need opportunities for what we would call ‘CPD’ in a secular profession. Some of that needs to be practical, some of it probably needs to be about ‘leadership’ and some of it needs to be theological. Someone has to run these things.

Church Members

The level of biblical and theological literacy in the average Christian in the UK is low. Friends who know both countries well tell me its noticeably lower than in the USA. We do better in some other stuff than our friends across the pond, but not in this area. The appetite for it is pretty low too, but that’s because appetite grows through eating. Eat gruel all your life and fine food makes you sick, but nobody should stay on gruel because they haven’t learned to appreciate good food yet.

Pastors can only go so far in addressing this, they don’t have the time, they most likely don’t have the skills, and crucially it’s not their primary job. They need to be about the ministry of word and sacrament.


This is where I think the ‘Doctors’ come in: not employed by a University where their concerns are entirely divorced from the church, but deliberately located to do the church good. We have some figures like this in the UK, but I don’t think anywhere near enough.

The church needs to put some measure of resource into developing these sorts of teachers. Training is expensive, particularly in terms of time, and the sort of development required is not the same as if you wanted to pastor a church. It’s not totally different either, ‘Doctors’ who have no knowledge of pastoral work are probably not that helpful.

There are challenges as to how this works, Jake Meador runs through some of the key options in this post, demonstrating that most have their challenges. The models that look like they are most likely to work are those where either the churches in a location choose to act like a diocese and support a self-employed Doctor, or where small training centres support these men.

For these to work, churches and individuals have to decide that they agree these are important things and put their resources behind them. Most importantly, a whole lot of people need to pray.

Where’s this in the Bible?

Some of you switched off when I started talking about a structure we don’t see in the Bible. I like the impulse, churches should be ‘led’ by elders and deacons, I agree.

Except I think that this is in the Bible. In Ephesians 4 we find what is sometimes called ‘the fivefold ministry.’ These four or five gifts are people who are given for the bringing of the church to maturity. I understand these to be, essentially, ‘offices’ that operate across multiple churches. In the apostolic networks they used to call them ‘apostolic bands’ that would travel between churches building them up slowly towards wisdom. The apostle, the prophet, the evangelist, the pastor, and the teacher (or the pastor-teacher, sometimes, though I lean towards the five). The first three are distinct and exist in many networks and denominations, for all there are many understandings of what the apostle does.

The last two are usually ignored in my experience though, because they sound similar to what the average elder does. I believe that what I’m describing as a ‘Doctor of the Church’ in Calvinist language, is what in a charismatic network we might call an ‘Ephesians 4 Teacher.’ Jonathan Black digs into some of the wider references to the ‘office’ in the New Testament here.

So, it’s in the Bible. You need Teachers, and you need to train them, which will include learning how to teach, some serious theological study (I’d guess doctoral level at least for some, but we could quibble this), and the resources to allow them time in their week to develop things.

If your church does this, amazing! If it doesn’t, consider encouraging your leaders to give some resources in this direction.

A Personal Note

There’s a level of self-interest in this thinking. This is what I aspire to with my life, and what I understand that I’m called to do. I’ve spent 15 years working in training and development—I developed and ran an award-winning leadership development programme for a brand you’ve heard of and taught pedagogy in universities—while serving as a pastor for the last ten. I’m currently intending to pursue further study from the Autumn, with the aim of getting to doctoral work if everything goes well.

It’s unclear exactly how I finance all of that, or how to create the structures that allow the kind of work I want to do long term.

If you would like to help me, or just talk further, do get in touch. If you can give financially, consider supporting the blog via its Patreon.

Most of all friends, please pray. Yes, for me, but mostly for the church in this green-pastured isle. We have hard times ahead; we need to get ready for them. And the Lord is stronger, he will build his church, and the gate of hell will not prevail against her assault. So, let’s get to it: there’s much to build.

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

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