I knew it was coming. The conversation was inevitably leading to one of my least favorite assertions. I thought to myself, “Please don’t say it, please don’t say it.” Too late—the familiar words spilled out of her, “I’m not into theology. I just love God and people.” I cringed. Another well-intentioned believer had fallen prey to the false dichotomy between thinking well about God and living for God.
Theology As A Bad Word
Believers choose to live in a certain amount of ignorance when they claim they aren’t into theology. In their defense, I know what they mean. They’re communicating disdain for the abuse of theology. Many have been recipients of ridicule from theology-mongers who insist on setting everyone straight and causing division. It only takes a few encounters with that guy for the idea of theology to be warped in one’s mind. It’s associated with abrasive people who would rather argue theological views than show Christ’s love. In many circles “theology” now carries with it a stigma analogous to a four-letter word. This creates an unfortunate gap between those who are into theology and those who love God and people.
Theology Has Been Misunderstood
This distinction is flawed. Contrary to popular opinion, theology is not defined by intellectual scholars reading books or arrogant seminarians picking fights. The term theology means “the study of God.” It comes from the Greek words for God (theos) and word or body of knowledge (logos). At its root, theology is the process of thinking about our lives in light of the faith we proclaim. It’s faith that seeks understanding. When we do theology we are attempting to understand who God is, who we are, and how we should live in view of God.
To study theology is to study God—to know him better and delight in him more accurately with the hope of glorifying him through our love and obedience. The Apostle Peter understood this connection between knowing God and glorifying him. He says that believers have been granted “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pt. 1:3 [emphasis mine]). He continues by exhorting Christians to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Pt. 1:5).
Therefore, believers who want to love God but not do theology may be sincere but are terribly misguided for at least two reasons:
First, all Christians are already doing theology. As image-bearers of God, humans are interpreters of meaning. Every day we receive data from the surrounding world and systematize it. If you are a believer, at some point you received information about God, the world, and your life and systematized it into a Christian worldview. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you live from this functional set of theological presuppositions.
Everything you do, every choice you make, flows (perhaps unconsciously) from these beliefs—when you process pain in light of a sovereign God, you are doing theology. When you pray with your children before bed, you are doing theology. When you tell your unbelieving neighbor about Jesus, you are doing theology. When you overcome fear and step onto a plane, you are doing theology. When you assess if a Christian should take anti-depressants, you are doing theology. In fact, when you say, “I just love God and people” you are doing so from several theological assumptions about God, man, salvation, and reconciliation.
Second, Christians’ love for God requires knowing God. We grow in our knowledge of God so we can love him, and then grow in our love for him so we can serve him. Just as a husband grows in his affection and devotion to his wife as he studies her over time, so the believer grows in his affection and devotion to God as he studies him over time. It’s the growing knowledge of a person that enables one to love him or her more appropriately.
I’ll never forget how excited my husband was during our first year of marriage when he threw me a surprise birthday party. It was sweet, but topped the charts as my worst birthday to date. He didn’t know I was an introvert disguised as an extrovert. And there is nothing worse for a true introvert then unexpectedly walking into a room full of people and calling it a party. However, over time he learned to love me well by mastering the intimate dinner together or planning an evening in on my birthday. Nothing makes me feel more celebrated than this. In the same way, knowing God and loving him cannot be divorced. The more you study God, the more you learn to love and serve him well. As you grow in the knowledge of God you will be able to celebrate and glorify him in ways he desires and finds pleasing.
Theology Is For ALL Christians
One of my passions is to see theology redeemed in the lives of ordinary disciples. I refuse to believe it’s reserved for brilliant scholars or theology-mongers. It’s for all Jesus-followers. It’s for you! How desperately the church needs good theologians filling its pews today. Can you imagine the transformation of local churches if every Christian became a robust theologian who loved God and people in a biblically informed manner? This may seem like a pie in the sky idea, but it doesn’t have to be. The change begins with you and your local faith family. Take a moment to consider the atmosphere within your home and local church. Does your family and faith family value theological reflection? Have you cultivated an environment that encourages thinking well about God? In what ways are your family and church being intentional about doing theology in the context of community?
You don’t have to be a scholar to begin implementing theological dialogue in these key areas. Take your family for example: If your wife is battling despair, ask how the gospel affects her fight of faith. If you get a bonus at work, ask your family if there is anything in the Bible that informs how you spend it together. If you’re at a stoplight and see a homeless man, talk to your kids about what it means biblically to love and serve someone different from them. Or consider your community group at church. If your group is asked to bring canned goods for a food drive, discuss why Christians should do justice from a biblical standpoint. If someone in your community is struggling with sin discuss what it means to live in the tension of being justified, but not yet glorified. If someone comes to group but not the corporate gathering, discuss why Christians should gather together for worship.
You see, there are hundreds of ways to intentionally practice discipleship through theological reflection in a manner leading to gospel transformation. My hope is that the idea of theology would be redeemed and all would come to see the value that doing theology has for every sphere of life. I echo the prayer of the Apostle Paul asking, “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17) so that you would come to know him more deeply and be motivated by this knowledge to love, serve, and obey him all of your days.
Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.