It’s amazing to me how many theologians, particularly those within a general evangelical orbit, have ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome: the twin tendency to idealize and fetishize local church life and to denigrate their own role.
The recent financial crisis has given us a great term for this tendency: cognitive regulatory capture. All of the behaviors that Halden points out among theologians are, at best, equally prevelant among church members and especially leaders — I don’t recall any incidents of systematically covered up child molestation among theologians, for instance — and whatever faults they exhibit to a greater degree are probably due to their academic setting rather than personal failings. There are plenty of church members in good standing who faithfully donate the proceeds of underpaying their workers or gouging their customers, for instance, and I don’t think any academic theologians fall into that category.
And to act like theologians are unique in their lack of attention to the poor is appalling, in the face of the massive indifference displayed by the vast majority of church members. For every theologian who fails to visit the soup kitchen often enough, I’ll give you a pastor on a campaign to build a gym where his congregation’s children can play for like three hours a week.
Theologians should be exemplary in two areas. First, they should be exemplary in the degree to which they reflect intellectually on the gospel. I’d say that we’re on pretty firm footing here, on average — there are a lot of intelligent, reflective Christians out there, but few of them are going to reach the level of someone who earns a PhD, teaches, and publishes in the field. It’s elitist to say so, I know, but academic theologians really do consistitute an intellectual elite.
Second, they should be exemplary in their criticism of the church’s preaching and discipline. On this front, the attitude displayed in Halden’s post is amazingly counterproductive. Theologians don’t need to submit their judgment to the people in the pews or to the church authorities. They can’t force either group to do what they want, obviously — the lack of concrete power is the trade-off for taking up a reflective and critical role in the church — but they can and must deliver their criticisms as forcefully and persuasively as possible. Preemptively telling people they should totally dismiss theologians is arguably a rhetorical misstep in this context.
Overall, I think it’s crucial to avoid a kind of “Donatism for theologians” that would amount to little more than an ad hominem argument — by and large, theologians are perfectly capable of carrying out their theological duties while committing adultery or skipping church. (In fact, they may well have real theological reasons for avoiding church services as they currently stand! Is that simply impossible? One sometimes suspects that, for the “strong ecclesiology” crowd, it is.) Perhaps we can think of situations where immoral behavior would reach such a pitch as to undermine the theologian’s standing in both the academy and the community, meaning he or she could no longer effectively carry out that role — but those are extreme and rare cases. In the majority of cases, we should judge theologians simply as theologians, that is, according to the standards inherent to their particular role.