Theology Is Not a Leisure Activity

Some ideas never go away. They just circle around and attack from a new direction. One of those is the idea that theology is only for the specialists, the academics, those privileged few who have enough leisure time that they can sit around drinking coffee all day arguing about things that don’t really matter. Everyone else is too busy doing the real work of ministry to bother with such arcane issues. Focused on the pressing realities of everyday life, they don’t have time to hide behind a book.

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On this view, ministry is a little like surgery. There’s a person dying on the table, and you have to get to work quickly if you’re going to save a life. Are you really going to go out for coffee with your surgeon friends and discuss the philosophical intricacies of various models of medical practice while that person’s life bleeds out? Of course not. That’s what you do during your leisure time, if you ever get any. Right now, real work demands your attention.

According to Karl Barth, that’s a disastrous way of thinking. When Christians view ministry and theology like this, they make the mistake of thinking that any Christian can live “untheologically” as they focus on more urgent tasks. For Barth nothing is more urgent that the task of theology. Not because theology is more important than ministry, but because ministry needs theology to remain faithful. Every important task of the church requires theological reflection if we are to make sure that we are doing it well–i.e. centered on Christ and not on some other set of motivations, principles, or ideals.

On this view, ministry is still like surgery. People are dying all around, and we have to act swiftly and decisively to save lives. But, as Christians, how, why, and most importantly, for whom we act matters. And those are theological questions that require careful reflection.

Here is Barth in his own words:

“How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretext, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life….Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical  men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living ‘quite untheologically’ for the demands of the day (‘love’)….Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find to time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any mmore urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency.” (CD I/1, 76-77)




  1. Peeter says

    Agreed, practice without knowledge of the theory is as dangerous living by feelings Vs faith, experience Vs scripture etc.

    I find that things have changed from yesteryear when theology was part and parcel of the hymnology and psalms we sang from the 19th and pre centuries (Col 3:16) prescribed by Paul as a means of communicating the WOrd and teaching. 3:16 (ESV)”Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” By this means theology was absorbed without necessarily spending ‘recreation time’ studying it, alsthough in those days it was also toppped up with all age christian education and not just kids church stories. These days I find many churches singing choruses that are are more us centred (eg bless ME, I worship You, I want to feel your presence etc) rather than God centred (His glory, His works, His holiness, or His works) which allows us to come in a right perspective of who is Lord and who is running things according to His eternal purpose and not according to how we want to feel. As the song goes “What’s love got to do with it”, everything, but in relationship to God’s purposes and not according to our feelings.

  2. Joe Rutherford says

    Someone told me that in the city where I reside there are 430+ churches. Many of these local churches are members of a denomination and likely some are not. All these groups have their own theologians, who believe they are the wiser ones capable of honest and truthful leadership. Each group has peculiar interpretations of the scriptures. All these many divisions do not reflect the will of God for the Church. I live in the midst of this city and in the midst of this huge spiritual crisis within the Church. So it is the case in every town and city throughout the country and most of the world. There seems to be no shortage of theologians. So what is the problem? What is the solution?

    • Phil Faris says

      This really gets down to the core issue, “which” theology does God want us to put our time into? As you correctly point out, many or most churches are driven or guided by a particular theological perspective and this in turn “divides” Christians into factions. Most non-theologians (people who don’t know Karl Barth’s partucularly frustrating contribution to Christian thought) have little time for or interest in these artificialities. Little do they realize that their practice of Christianity has probably been shaped by such random forces. Similarly, most citizens have little time for or interest in the Great Books despite the role these books play in shaping modern civilization and political thought.

      There is a difference between picking a theology or philosophy and becoming a fanatic and simply being ABLE to discuss theology and philosophy with both self-awareness and a helpful frame of reference. I have found that those who can’t have an informed discussion about a topic are more likely to be rigidly bound by their prejudices than those who have a better grasp of things.

      In other words, I concur that theology breeds division; but the honest study of theology appears to be essential for overcoming those divisions.


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