Me? A Theologian?

Cara Nicklas speaks at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s Global Gathering in Tulsa. Photo: Mark Moore. 

By Cara Nicklas –

Several years ago, I contemplated giving up the practice of law to go into ministry. It’s not that I didn’t like dealing with my clients. I just got frustrated with the judicial system and especially grew weary of dealing with other lawyers. Full-time ministry just seemed like a more noble cause than being cussed out by my opposing counsel. 

I spoke with my pastor about my idea. “We need Christian lawyers,” he told me. “I think you are doing what you need to be doing.” That wasn’t the response I expected. Within a couple of months after that conversation, God led me to my present law firm. During the first summer at the firm, the lawyers, along with several law students who clerked with our firm, met each week for a sort of book club. We read the book, Redeeming Law, by Michael Schutt. In his introduction, he writes: “we will explore the potential for law … to be a ministry of good works to those around us, a calling from God to love and serve our neighbors with the skills and opportunities he has given us.” Our book club explored how a career in law could be used to grow in Christ and work for him – how we could be in ministry to our clients and to the world. For the first time in my career, really, I began to think deeper about what it meant to integrate my faith with my calling as a practicing lawyer. That meant thinking deeper about my own theology. 

Many people think doing theology is solely the work of pastors and seminary professors – not laity. So, when we hear the word “theologian,” we think of Drs. Billy Abraham, Sandra Richter, or David Watson. The names of laity don’t come to mind. 

But as Christians, the question is not whether we should or should not be theologians. If a broad definition of a “theologian” is “one who seeks to know God,” then each of us as Christians must be theologians. The critical question is, “Will we be the best theologians we can be given our circumstances, or will we evade the responsibility, and say, ‘That’s someone else’s job?’”

In a world that is increasingly “unchurched,” where in some quarters of our culture people are dismissive of our faith, and in other quarters people are downright hostile to it, we no longer have the luxury – if we ever did – to completely farm-out the critical work of being good theologians. We do not have nearly enough theologians in our churches. And that shortfall diminishes our effectiveness as disciples and ambassadors for our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Many pastors think if they take a serious dive into theological matters in a sermon, they will lose the laity. In fact, some pastors are convinced laity are not even willing to wade into the theological waters with them. There’s some truth in their supposition. Laity are used to being entertained and amused, and therefore we kind of unwittingly expect our pastors to do the same. And in our consumer oriented culture, we’re not adverse to church shopping until we find the pastor who’s the most entertaining.

But clergy, here’s the hard truth: You do have to find ways to hold our attention in a YouTube, Facebook, Twitter world. More than ever we need you to work hard, very hard, to not only teach us the timeless truths of our faith, but to equip us for sharing them with others. Many of us laity don’t realize it or we’re afraid to admit it, but we are theologically malnourished. 

All of us, laity and clergy, have to do more than read and study the Bible; we also have to read and study Christian theology. Theological study better informs our reading of Scripture. Theological study will challenge us to think hard about the nature of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. 

We will need to ask ourselves difficult questions because our friends, our work colleagues, our family members, and that curious little eight-year old in the Sunday school class we volunteered to teach, will ask us hard questions. Some will ask because they’re trying to challenge our faith, but most will ask because they’re genuinely searching to know more about God and want to be in relationship with Him. It simply will not do to respond to them by saying, “Well the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” 

We should prepare ourselves to give thoughtful answers to the questions that are likely to come our way: What can we know about the Triune nature of God? Why do we believe it took Jesus’ death on the cross to liberate us from our slavery to sin and fear of death? How do we discern the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Why do good people suffer? Why do some prayers get answered and others don’t? 

To be sure, all the theological study in the world won’t provide us with definitive answers to all hard questions. We do ultimately live by faith. However, we need to demonstrate to people that we take their questions seriously, very seriously. We have to help them see that many Christians – from St. Augustine to our favorite Sunday school teachers – have wrestled with them. And while we might not have definitive answers to all their questions, we have very good partial answers that are drawn from the treasure house of rich resources that our faithful ancestors have handed down to us. And answers that give us an assurance that our faith is not built on sand, but upon a sure foundation that fills us with hope and trust that God is good, and is working his good will for us and for all creation.

Responding to sincere questions in helpful and effective ways is predicated on our having done some serious thinking about them ourselves. We cannot simply be “Bible quoters” who post or “like” an occasional Bible verse to make a point. Bible quoters are given to tossing off a verse, or sometimes even less than a verse, as an answer to a person’s genuine good theological question. And consequently, Bible quoters run the risk of doing more harm than good. For example, Bible quoters are given to quoting the Scripture out of context, and so in an awkward attempt to console someone they’ll say, “For everything there is a season,” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Their grieving friend is left to wonder, “Does God cause bad things to happen to me?” Or their work colleague is left thinking, “My twenty-one-year old son’s drug addiction is killing him, and it’s breaking my heart. What I’m confronted with right now feels like far more than I can handle.”

And then there are some Bible quoters who recite Scripture as a way of absolving themselves and others of any responsibility to act with Christian maturity and integrity. They’re the ones quick to remind us we are to “love our neighbors,” and to “judge not, lest we be judged.” They toss these verses off as if Jesus intended the church to be a community without good order and proper boundaries for how we love one another, and how we hold one another accountable for our actions.

Bible quoters can turn Scripture into simplistic clichés. They use it in a way that fails to speak a true word of grace and comfort, or as a license to do as we please. Life is far more complicated than that, and life in the church, in the community of faith, is far richer and deeper than tossing off Bible verses as self-help clichés. 

In a post-modern world where “the truth” is malleable, where some people are cynical, where information (good and bad) is found by a few clicks on a keyboard, and where people are lost and genuinely seeking, we need to be better theologians. When we think theologically about whether truth is relative, it impacts whether we view the Bible as just another inspirational book among other books on the shelf or a collection of writings that reveals who God is and what he wants for us as his children. If you know truth is found in the Bible, it impacts your daily walk with God and your witness in the world. 

It is hard work, and yet also rewarding and faith building work, to think theologically. For the sake of the church and the church’s work in the world, we must do it. And yet many of us, particularly we laity who are often on the front lines every day, can feel conflicted between the clear biblical mandate to share the Gospel and the cultural pressure not to offend, to keep our faith private, and out of the public square. We can perpetuate much of the misguided theology we hear in today’s culture and in our own churches either through silence or by espousing a gospel message we think might be more attractive to the next generation. 

We Christians must be a light in the world. We must proclaim the truth. We cannot keep the Gospel private. Discerning the truth is hard. Being a Christian theologian is inherently an endless and humbling task. We will never know all there is to know about God. But the wonderful, marvelous, and awesome thing is that God invites us to know about him. He has graciously revealed himself to us in Scripture as our Father, in the Word made flesh, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. 

Many people – from our bishops, to church officials, and to leaders of various advocacy groups – are coming to the painful realization that there will be some kind of separation of The United Methodist Church next year. In the near future, we who are called Traditionalists will no longer be able to tell ourselves other people are keeping us from being a healthy, vibrant branch of the church catholic. It will all be on us. We live in a time when there is heightened skeptism, cultural influence, and distrust and criticism of the church. We must become fully equipped to be ambassadors of Christ in these changing times and that necessarily requires us to think deeper theologically.

My husband and I raised our sons in a small community on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. Our friends in the community often refer to it as Mayberry – the fictional location of of the old Andy Griffith TV show. My younger son, Evan, especially had an incredible group of core friends who were believers with parents whose values lined up with ours. Throughout his upbringing, Evan and his friends held each other accountable. His friends and their parents living in Mayberry helped Evan grow and become confident as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Then Evan went to college. He no longer lived in Mayberry. As a biology major, Evan had friends who did not share his beliefs. He began to engage in lots of conversations about Christianity which required that he start thinking much deeper about why he believed what he believed. He would discuss with me the points being made by his new friends and he would ask how he might best respond. He might call and ask, “What do I say to those who suggest the Old Testament laws no longer apply?” or “How do I respond to someone who says it isn’t necessary to go to church to be a good Christian?” That required that I think deeply about how to respond to the particular questions raised by his friends. These were thoughtful, highly intelligent people who had been raised in the church but had come to reject it. Trite answers to their questions would not suffice. 

That is the world we live in. Are we prepared for the Next Methodism where we will encounter more and more young people who question the need to attend church? Who question the teachings they heard growing up in the church? Are we as a church allowing and even encouraging our children and youth to ask challenging questions before they go off to college where they will surely begin to question their faith? It will take each and every one of us to prepare ourselves to respond to such questions. 

A good theologian is one who seeks to know God more intimately. We don’t become theologians to merely win debates with atheists; we want to be good theologians so we can lead people to Christ. 

When you and I practice theology together, we consider the wonder, the mystery, and the love of the One who Created us, who Redeemed us, and who empowers us to be his joyful and obedient disciples – proclaiming the Good News to a lost and hurting world. 

Cara Nicklas is a United Methodist layperson, a General Conference delegate, and an attorney. This article is adapted from her address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Tulsa in November.   

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