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Scot McKnight speaks at Oklahoma Christian University
Scot McKnight at Oklahoma Christian University | Photo by Alison Helms

What it really means to pastor

It’s a title rarely used in Churches of Christ. For theologian Scot McKnight, it works better as a verb.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Scot McKnight teaches in a Baptist seminary and worships with an Anglican church. 

But his latest book “began in Churches of Christ,” he said. 

Erik Tryggestad and Scot McKnight

Erik Tryggestad and Scot McKnight

The renowned theologian, author and Julius R. Mantey Chair of New Testament at Northern Seminary near Chicago spoke to The Christian Chronicle during a two-day visit to Oklahoma Christian University. 

In the preface to “Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church,” he mentions two meetings with ministers from Churches of Christ. Pat Bills, lead minister for the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, invited McKnight to speak on Paul and pastoral theology — using the truths of Scripture to nurture church members and bring them closer to Christ. The material he prepared for those meetings was formative in the book’s development, McKnight said. 

Related: Scot McKnight: ‘Our narrative has been captured’

“God did not reveal to us a systematic theology,” he said, referring to a topical approach that funnels the teachings of the Bible into particular sets of rules or categorical systems. Instead, God “allowed different people to express his message in different ways, in different contexts.”

“When we systematize, we silence somebody — and usually more than one somebody,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Well, I’m going to take Jesus’ or ‘I’m going to take Paul.’” With many church leaders, “when you listen to them long enough, you can tell that they’re always processing the theology of the Bible through one person, one theological set of categories that they like.”

In general, Churches of Christ have resisted systematizing, he said. Ministers in the fellowship tend to take the view that “if this is the way Matthew says it, that’s the way I’m going to preach it.”

Let’s talk about the word “pastor.” You don’t hear it much in Churches of Christ. We believe the word better describes elders than it does preachers. But we’re more likely to call elders “shepherds.” Your thoughts? 

I use the word “pastor” in part because I think Paul’s theology has been abstracted and has made him a theologian rather than a missionary pastor. 

I use the word for those who pastor people, so it applies to preaching ministers — who, in my opinion, should be preaching pastoral theology. And it applies to elders and deacons and other people in churches who are doing pastoral ministry.

I know that some people in the Churches of Christ get really nervous about this term.

So I look at it as a functional term, a broader term. I know that some people in the Churches of Christ get really nervous about this term. 

I’m not nervous about the term. I’m concerned that pastors in many churches today don’t even pastor at all. They’re leaders. They’re entrepreneurs. They’re visionaries. They preach. They teach. They write books. They’re on radio. But they don’t know the people in their church. And that’s forfeiting the very task that they’re called to do. 

What do you like about Churches of Christ?

My experience with Churches of Christ has been mostly positive, and what I have valued most is the emphasis on preaching, the commitment to the Bible in a way that challenges theological formulations. 

John deSteiguer, president of Oklahoma Christian University, speaks to theologian and author Scot McKnight in the university's Baugh Auditorium.

John deSteiguer, president of Oklahoma Christian University, speaks to theologian and author Scot McKnight in the university’s Baugh Auditorium.

I’ve always felt I’ve been given a hearing. If I have something to say on the basis of what the Bible says, the Churches of Christ are willing to listen, and I like that a lot.

And I’ve appreciated a cappella singing. I wouldn’t defend it the way that Churches of Christ do. I like it. I think it’s a wonderful, embodied expression of the body of Christ, singing to the glory of God together. 

You say that churches need to have a culture of ‘Christoformity’ What does that word mean?  

It means to become Christlike by allowing Christ to live his life through us. 

When we flesh out who Jesus is — his life, his teaching, his actions, his death, his burial, his resurrection — all those things then get filtered into Christoformity.

Christoformity is the vision of God, Romans 8:29. (For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.) 

That’s the plan of God for all the people of God for all eternity. We will be in the image of his Son. 

When we flesh out who Jesus is — his life, his teaching, his actions, his death, his burial, his resurrection — all those things then get filtered into Christoformity. 

Reading through your book, it seems to me that the kind of nurturing you endorse would work best in small churches. Is that accurate?

The average church in the United States, I think, is 72 (people), so I’m concerned when we use the megachurch model as what a true church is. I’m against that. 

I don’t think nurturing Christoformity is designed for the small church. Christoformity can be in all-size churches, but it takes special organizational skills and theological depth to be able to penetrate some of the structures and policies that start happening in megachurches. 

Megachurches are going to really struggle with Christoformity. They get too big. You’d have to have a really good theologian running a megachurch to keep Christoformity at the center. 

You have talked about the “spectator problem” in large churches and a tendency to focus too much on an individual preacher. Do you see this in Churches of Christ?

My experience with Churches of Christ is that they’re not quite as personality-driven as is, say, an independent megachurch. 

Here’s a standard observation: When a significant pastor leaves, 20 percent of the congregation goes. I don’t know what it is in Churches of Christ, but I suspect it’s not that high.

And that’s where I think we make a big mistake, when we allow a personality to dominate a pulpit (which is the most public thing most churches do), and we let a personality dominate all the decisions and policies made. That’s when we’re going to run into problems with transitions. If you share the pulpit, and if you decentralize that central, charismatic figure from making decisions all over the place, you have a much better chance of a (smooth) transition.

Ideally, in Churches of Christ, the leadership is the elders and not the preaching minister. In those cases, if those elders are actively involved pastoring the congregation and are known to the congregation, then you have a much better chance of this not happening. There won’t be a personality problem.

WHEN IT COMES TO FAITH AND POLITICS, “our narrative has been captured,” says Scot McKnight. See more from our interview, including McKnight’s thoughts on social media and the “hideous sickness of contemporary journalism” at christianchronicle.org. Find McKnight’s blog, “Jesus Creed,” at patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/.

Filed under: Christoformity Churches of Christ Dialogue pastor Scot McKnight

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