1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi[b] by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Matthew 23:1-12 ESV
I have been in congregational ministry for over 12 years. If I add in the time I have spent working a regular job while volunteering, teaching, and leading worship, it has been 19 years. I have had the many ups and downs related to ministry that many do…some people would argue that I have particularly been the victim of some pretty abusive situations and that I was the subject of many prayers as I traversed the turbulence. Those prayers were guarding me these years…I know it.
One thing that has been in the back of my mind for these 19 years is if I pursue an advanced degree beyond my Bachelor’s which I received in 1999. I have had days where I thought it would be good for me. And then days when I feel like doing so would just be to make my name and my standing as a minister more revered.
Many of my peers in ministry and those I went to school with have gone on to higher degree status. I do not hold contempt for them in doing so. Many have needed it to move into other ministry roles in the church. And I find no fault in them doing what was necessary to further their careers. There are others though that have become slaves to their scholarship. They want the status and respect that an M.Div., M.A., and Ph.D. gives them. They love the limelight of higher education and the invitation to speak at lectureships, the invitation to judge panels at scholar’s conferences, and the invitation to teach at our higher education schools.
I lament this. These same men and women have been very divisive in the church. They promote teaching things that go against orthodox Christian scholarship has already advocated. Some, it seems, thrive in choosing an unorthodox position merely to somehow prove a point that they have read more books than the orthodox and can debate unorthodox positions within Christendom. Some of these men and women lament that they are so educated and accomplished within their scholarship, churches won’t hire them because they would somehow disrupt the “good ol’ boy” network within the frame of these congregations.
It is this line of thinking that brings me back to the scripture I quoted above. Jesus warned the Pharisees that they were so intent on the status and view of the people that they would go over the top in their religious attire to gain the attention of their adherents.
“They made their phylacteries wide…”
The religious teachers and leaders wore leather belts and bandoleers with scrolls of scripture in them. The longer and wider these belts, meant they had more scriptures in them and must be wiser than the others.
“…and their fringes long…”
There were religious garment customs and symbols that meant the same thing. They had tassels that hung from their cloaks to indicate their status as a religious teacher. The longer and wider they made them, the more visible they would stand out when they stood in the public square. People would know how important they were.
I fear that many of our “modern-day Pharisees” are only pursuing higher education for this reason: to be seen and known within the larger church body.
It’s a pride issue. Not everyone who pursues higher education is seeking recognition. They merely want to have a career in their chosen field. But there are a select group of people who are pursuing higher degrees for shameful gain. When I have a doctorate waved in my face by another supposedly Christian teacher (which has happened recently), I have to wonder why that is the standard. I have to ask myself why that is so important to support their credibility. On top of all that I have to wonder if they see their unloving attitude and if the see that they have disqualified themselves for ministry.
Have we not learned that Jesus used the uneducated and the unlearned person to further the Kingdom of Heaven? A degree is beneficial for some. For others it is not. I read a lot. Every day I have a book in my hand to learn something new. I read more than many of those Masters and Doctoral programs require. I feel as though I am learning just as much, if not more than they are. I just don’t get to hold a piece of paper that says I do.
And I am okay with that. I am okay with my anonymity within the church. I am satisfied being obscure. I am content with my commonality. I serve Christ alone. I work for Him to help His people to live lives worthy of Him. That is enough for me. My treatise today is about why we do what we do in ministry and even in pursuing the art of learning.
Does that mean I will never pursue a higher degree? I never say never. I still could go on to obtain that autographed paper from an institution of higher learning. But I want to do it for the right reasons and at the right time. God’s timing is the most important to me. If it never happens, I am okay with it. If He provides the right opportunity and if it is for the right reasons, I will have to ponder it.
May we always be humble. May we remain faithful in Christ. May we seek the good for others.