Donald Miller:

The first disciples were not teachers, they were fishermen, tax collectors and at least one was a Zealot. We don’t know the occupation of the others, but Jesus did not charge educators with the great commission, he chose laborers. And those laborers took the gospel and created Christian communities that worked, that did things and met in homes and were active. They made speeches, for sure, but so do businessmen and politicians and leaders in any number of other professions. Educators make speeches and do little else, except study for their next lecture. I wonder what the first disciples would think if they could see our system of schools, our million lectures, our billion sub lectures, our curriculums and our lesson plans. I think they’d be impressed, to be honest, but I also think they’d recognize a downside.

Church divisions are almost exclusively academic divisions. The reason I don’t understand my Lutheran neighbor is because a couple academics got into a fight hundreds of years ago. And the rest of the church followed them because, well, they were our leaders. So now we are divided under divisions caused by arguments a laboring leadership might never have noticed of cared about. Practitioners care about what works, what gets things done. They have to agree because there are projects on the line. Educators don’t have to agree at all. They can fight and debate and write papers against each other because, well, the product they are churning out is just thought, not action.

So why are we led by teachers? After all, the church and the school system are the only institutions in our culture led purely by academics. Well, the reason is the printing press. The government once controlled the church, but that ended when the printing press was invented and people could read the Bible for themselves. And the scholars were the only people who could read, so they got the job of church leadership by default. So church leadership went from fishermen, to government workers, to scholars. I wonder who’s next? I’ve got money on music executives, if only because they’re all looking for work.

There are smart, substantive  things to say about the problematic relationship between evangelicals and the academy.  But those go in the direction away from Miller.  An academic led evangelicalism is something of a chimera; if anything, the gulf  between the academy and the church is still as wide as ever.

I wasn’t planning on saying anything about Miller’s post.  But a former student asked, so here you have it.

First, Miller’s suggestion that Jesus chose laborers is a helpful reminder to the academically inclined that it’s the fruit of the Spirit that’s the metric of heaven, rather than the number of publications.  There is a tendency among younger, college-educated evangelicals to presume that the Kingdom of God comes attached to an advanced degree, but that’s simply not the case.   The wisest people I know have degrees, but it’s not clear what role their formal education played in their pursuit and acquisition of understanding.  I could go on, but you would do better to read Milliner for more.

Second, Miller apparently hasn’t heard of St. Paul, who chastens  everyone’s expectations for what Christianity should look like.  The fellow could raise people from the dead, but was also a world class academic.  And I don’t use “world class” lightly.  To chalk the brilliance of this book entirely up to divine inspiration is simply Docetic.  I’m convinced Paul could hang with the brightest of ’em–he was, among other things, an academic’s academic.

Third, blaming academics for church divisions makes me think Miller has never been inside a church. The most anti-intellectual of churches still manage to split, and it’s not because they’re listening to the Ph.D’s.  It’s because contrary to Miller, disagreement about “what gets things done” is just as likely as disagreement about the right beliefs, and when people disagree the possibility of genuine division occurs.  If we all managed to reach the land of happy harmony about how to solve poverty, it would have been gone a long time ago.

Fourth, I’d love to know when “the government…controlled the church.” Really.   I’m not being rhetorical here.  I really would like a footnote here to find out how Donald Miller knows this.  Because at the end of his piece he offers this lament:  “Aren’t you a little tired of scholars and psudo-scholars fighting about doctrine?” I’ll bite.  I am tired of fighting about doctrine.  So can we have a little quarrel about history instead?  Because dismissing academics for disagreeing while making dubious, unsubstantiated historical claims is the path to demagogouery.  If you’re going to suggest that disciplines oriented toward discovering and articulating the truth (rather than, you know, “getting things done”)  have led us astray, I think you’d better make double-sure you’ve got the facts right in doing so.

Fifth, if only academics could read when the printing press was invented, who was reading all those pamphlets it started churning out, pamphlets that fostered the Reformation? Maybe the medieval church banned books for peasants because, you know, the peasants can and would read them?   The printing press was a massive success because there was a massive market for reading.  That wouldn’t have been the case if no one could read.

People wonder why I say that the younger evangelicalism is just like the old, except with hipper garb and a different pragmatic focus.  Miller’s interested in stopping poverty, while the seeker-sensitive folks wanted to get people in the door to get saved.  But accompanying both is still that damnable tacit anti-intellectualism, an anti-intellectualism which justifies confusion and ignorance by cloaking it with the guise of harmony, peace, and poverty reduction.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. don’t hear what i’m saying as an agreement with the totality of miller’s message. i don’t think it’s academia that brings divisions (and lots of other nonsense) into the modern church.

    but there is present an unhealthy obsession with knowledge. i’m not suggesting knowledge is bad or even unimportant. i’m only saying that we know far too much about God to live the lives that many of us do. we’re far too intelligent concerning scripture to be as disobedient to it as we are.

    many of us (or most of us?) study the bible 2 and 3 times a week. we know what to believe and why to believe it. but we still can’t find it within ourselves to love our neighbors or desire God more than money.

    we have valued knowledge and learning over love and obedience, and the church just can’t function that way. this is the exact lie the serpent told adam and eve in the garden. they traded their obedient lives for a chance to know as much as God. and mankind has been making this trade ever since.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm


      If you’re going to go with the critique of knowledge, go there with Jamie Smith’s *Desiring the Kingdom.* It’s a good read.

      However, I am happy for your optimism about how much knowledge we have of God and Scripture. However, I’m not sure I share it. In my experience, most Christians (of any kind) are astonishingly ignorant of both the Bible and Christian theology, and rarely study the Bible in any meaningful sense of “study” at all.



      1. m.lee, you’re right that i may be overly optimistic. the religious tribe from which i’ve come may be an exception to the lack of meaningful bible study you speak of. it’s possible i’m projecting where i shouldn’t.

        [i’m not suggesting my own denomination’s got it all figured out. on the contrary, all this time spent learning from the word has left us arrogant and trusting in knowledge. i’m afraid we’ve searched the scriptures, believing salvation to be obtainable through right doctrine and belief.]

        i’ll try to get a copy of smith’s book. thanks for the suggestion.


          1. i read the review. looks like a book i might enjoy. and the review was super well-written. though all the big words make me a little bit tired…

        1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 8, 2011 at 12:54 pm

          Hah. Well, I apologize for the big words. It’s a nasty habit. But thanks for the compliment all the same.


  2. Your point 3 is probably the most important. The rest are all, umm, academic. In my small community, the divisions in the churches in the last 100 years or so have not been academic at all. The dividing lines are usually between traditional vs. progressive than this academic camp vs. that one. This could be anything from the issue of women in church office to what type of music should be used in church to, if you go back a century or so, what language should be used during the church service.

    I also find it odd that Miller seems to think that doctors and plumbers and carpenters aren’t already leading the church. This is the case in every church I’ve ever attended.

    I do appreciate Miller’s picture of Hubert Dreyfus, though.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:06 pm

      “The rest are all, umm, academic.”

      Heh. Guilty as charged, I suppose. Except more self consciously pseudo-academic than anything else. : )

      “I do appreciate Miller’s picture of Hubert Dreyfus, though.”

      Yes, that was a nice touch. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading his latest book–looks very interesting.


  3. “If anything, the gulf between the academy and the church is still as wide as ever.”

    Couldn’t agree more! I think that because of the free access to so much material, we have church members who no longer find it necessary to study for themselves. Need to find out what the Bible says about a topic? Just go to Mark Driscoll and I’m sure he’s taught on that topic. Don’t get me wrong, access to that stuff is not bad and can be very helpful, but we have forgotten how to learn on our own. This is why I think Piper’s book and conference on Think was so powerful. Evangelicals have forgotten the importance of gaining knowledge so that we can grow in our love and affection for God and His wonder. I don’t see how Miller can suggest that Evangelicals are becoming too knowledgeable. He doesn’t seem to have the right read on the community.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      Yup. Piper’s book seems to have reinvigorated this issue for a lot of the Reformed crowd. The jury’s still out, but if he has half the impact that Moreland’s *Love the Lord Your God with All Your Mind* had, it will make lasting changes.



  4. Something I’ve picked up on in observing a lot of debates about Christianity: It’s always an issue of defining terms.

    EX: Talk to a New Atheist about Christians and politics and they’ll talk about how terrified they are of fundamentalists taking over. Ask them for evidence and they’ll point to Palin, Bachmann, Santorum’s potential president run, etc. Talk to some evangelicals about Christians and politics and they’ll lament the lack of Christian presence in the political arena. I think there’s truth in both concerns.

    Ditto on this post: Talk to Miller about academics in the church and he thinks of how our worship spaces are often structured: like quirky lecture halls (and in the cases of megachurches, like university lecture halls). Look at who leads us: invariably someone with an advanced degree. Look at who drives a lot of our agenda – it’s those same leaders who have the advanced degree. Put another way, I think he’s onto something in the post. But turn around and talk to someone like you and you’re convinced the gap between the academy and church is as large as ever. I’d imagine you’ll point to the realities you’ve written about in the New Evangelical Scandal and probably a good number of unfortunate conference messages you’ve heard over the years. Again, I think you both have a point.

    What Miller is arguing for – and he makes this clear in a footnote at the bottom of the piece – is not a church without intellectuals. Rather, it’s for a church where the intellectuals and the laborers work side-by-side and the qualification for leadership is maturity in Christ, not number of degrees. Some churches do pretty well in this area, I think, while others (the PCA being a very notable example of this) struggle mightily. We have some shockingly immature, foolish men in leadership positions in our denomination – and why is that? Because they have a seminary degree so they must be qualified to pastor.

    Not trying to psychoanalyze, but perhaps the reason I’m more sympathetic to Miller is that I’m in the PCA (where we have those struggles that Miller is addressing) and you’re coming from a Baptist tradition, which is often more anti-intellectual, which makes Miller’s argument sound completely insane to you based on your experience? I dunno, just a thought…


    1. Jake: Do you think that the problem in the PCA is too much focus on academics, or a guild mentality that focuses around the MDiv as the all-important credential? Such that many pastors (especially young ones) have a hard time respecting uncredentialed Ruling Elders as peers?

      I’m still newish to the PCA, and questions about its strengths/weaknesses and future direction are important to me. Feel free to take any responses to the back-channel. [k(dot)dub(dot)01(at)gmail(dot)com]


      1. Kevin,

        I’m not a PCA person, but when it comes to a wondering about a guild mentality, the MDiv, Ruler Elders, ordination, etc, I’ll say that at least one problem I have with the PCA is their stance on the ordination of women in both pastoral and diaconate roles. Like I said, I’m not part of the PCA, but I’ve been exploring their stance rather closely.


    2. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm


      “What Miller is arguing for – and he makes this clear in a footnote at the bottom of the piece – is not a church without intellectuals. Rather, it’s for a church where the intellectuals and the laborers work side-by-side and the qualification for leadership is maturity in Christ, not number of degrees.”

      Well, given that I said almost exactly this in my post, I think we agree. However, I am not persuaded that Miller is arguing for something like this. He seems to be singling out academics as especially bad for the church, and as especially important within the church. Neither of those are true, historically or now. If he’s not creating a false dichotomy here, why add a footnote suggesting he’s not creating a false dichotomy? He has to distort the net impact of academics in order for the critique to have any weight at all.

      But look, my point is that if you’re going to critique the academics in the church, do it on their terms. I think there are critiques to be made (as I said). But making those critiques in ways that totally ignore their insights and contributions is just not responsible.

      Again, I think there can be critiques that are made responsibly about evangelical worship, etc. I’ve been there with Jamie Smith, singing that song and wearing that t-shirt. But Miller’s up to something different.


  5. Apostles, prophets and teachers…

    I think schoalrship fits in with the gift of teaching…and its a necessary gift/office within the church. In one of Paul’s letters (sorry the exact reference is escaping me now) the office of pastor and teacher seem to be merged.

    Knowledge and living go had in hand. How do you know what to do and how if you haven’t learned? I agree that there can be abuses and imbalance, but it goes both ways.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      Yes, yes, yes. Whatever the dichotomy is between knowledge and love, it’s ultimately a false one. When our loves are made perfect, our knowledge will be as well–and vice versa.


  6. Here’s another problem of cutting a sharp distinction between academics and practical leaders. Many, if not most, of the great theologians of history were also pastors. Or even mainly pastors. Writing heavy books was Augustine’s night-shift job, for example. His days were dedicated to the nuts and bolts of ancient urban ministry. His sermons and popular poetry took a very different form than the high rhetoric of Confessions or of his treatises. (Yes, he actually wrote anti-Donatist ditties for the ordinary Christians of his city. And mentioned them in treatises and letters, even defending his willingness to vary from formal Latin norms in writing them.)

    And Luther went after Tetzel (and as a side effect launched the Reformation) because he was confusing the commoners who attended Luther’s church. Sure, Luther’s response was the highly academic act of declaring a formal public debate. (Even more academic than you’d think. Formal debates over a declared set of theses was a cornerstone of the university curriculum back then.) But it was the act of a shepherd wielding his staff to defend his flock. And Luther wrote his catechisms–confessional documents–as an outgrowth of answering his barber’s questions about Christian doctrine.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      Yes. Yes. Yes. I wish I had said this. Thanks, Kevin.


  7. Great thoughts, Matt. Regarding the last point, it looks like we’re eerily thinking along the same lines again. From my post today (

    “To ignore thinking, as many cushier, more seeker-friendly elements of evangelicalism have aimed to do, is just as treacherous as subverting it, which the Bells and the Millers of the world seem more subtly set on accomplishing. Each approach inevitably leads to a lackluster, lukewarm love that ends in empty chants of kumbaya rather than an active intellectual pursuit of Truth (i.e. God).”

    Gonna have to toss in a reference to this piece. Thanks for stealing the thunder on my supposed “insight.” :)


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm

      Hah! The more the merrier, I say! Glad to know we’re on the same page on this stuff. And well done on that post, too. Far more thorough than anything I’ve done!


  8. […] it, which the Bells and the Millers of the world seem more subtly set on accomplishing (Update: Matt Anderson chimed in with eerily similar thoughts this morning). Each approach inevitably leads to a lackluster, lukewarm love that ends in empty chants of […]


  9. Thank you.


  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Matthew. When I read Miller yesterday I couldn’t help but think about Romans 12:2. If we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, wrestling deeply with God’s truth is part of what we should be doing. Gifted teachers are the Spirit’s work in forming us into the likeness of Christ. The Holy Spirit has a history of working this way and the Church has recognized this (Great Doctors of the Church). I continue to be frustrated by the myopia of segments of Protestant evangelicals who have more in common with John Dewey and William James than St. John Chrysostom and St. Athanasius.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm

      Kevin, we’re not all pragmatists. Promise! : )


  11. In general I have a long standing bias that makes it hard for me to take Donald Miller seriously. When Blue Like Jazz came out one youth minister I knew thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. A staff member at said youth minister’s church, a 20-something young lady said that Miller needed to grow up.

    I realize that’s the kind of dismissive stuff that emergent types would expect out of someone like me – an ordained guy with an MDiv.

    So I know I am blinded by my education but does anyone see the irony of a guy who makes his living as a writer and speaker criticizing the church for being directed by those who teach and publish?

    And, note to Kevin and Jake – I’m a PCA pastor and on the one hand I love it that we have such stringent educational requirements. On the other hand I can see how that hinders us. The comment about young educated men failing to defer to older ruling elders is spot on. I came out of seminary pretty full of myself and it has only been as I have gotten later into my forties that I’ve come to grips with just how foolish I have been. Indeed, I can talk circles around lots of people because I have had the privilege of reading books and studying a lot, but in recent years I have come to grips with just how much of a spiritual dwarf I am compared to many of the older, less-educated men in our churches.


    1. David, I agree with you concerning older men. Definitely something missing in the life of the church as well. It is a case of both/and, not either/or. We can value wisdom from both learned and unlearned in our discipleship.


    2. Matthew Lee Anderson April 7, 2011 at 5:28 pm


      Well put, all of it. Thanks.



    3. This is crystal clear. Thanks for tnkaig the time!


  12. sorry if this is double-comment:
    the government controlled the church” is a reference to the way things were before modern ideas about separation of church and state emerged, no? We could talk about the temporal power of old popes, the ecclesiastical power of old kings, or we could simply talk about the origin of words like “diocese”: “With the adoption of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion in the 4th century, the clergy assumed official positions of authority alongside the civil governors. A formal church hierarchy was set up, parallel to the civil administration, whose areas of responsibility often coincided.” (wikipedia..yeah, yeah, I know, but still. I don’t think we need a footnote to show that is generally agreed upon historiography).


  13. I think we’ve addressed the important role of teachers in church and in the Bible well here, but I’m still scratching my head over the implication by Miller that the church is led by “academics” at all. As a graduate student, I spend near every day reading and interacting with academics, and the church most certainly not led by people doing academics (not even the Christian version). Pastors spend plenty of time getting their hands “dirty” in the labor of shepherding their church, and when they need intellectual insight, I see a lot of turning (for better or worse) to well-known pastors (Piper, Keller, Driscoll, etc) or writers, of which Miller himself is an example (and maybe in the near future, Matthew Lee Anderson as well!).

    To put it another way, who has more influence on the modern, western church: Donald Miller or an professional Christian academic or scholar? I think it’s probably the former.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson April 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm

      “To put it another way, who has more influence on the modern, western church: Donald Miller or an professional Christian academic or scholar? I think it’s probably the former.”

      Yes, this is exactly right. I like the turn to pastors for leadership, because I think that scholars/academics have a slightly different role within the church. But writers like me and Miller have a *very* ambiguous role within church leadership. It’s something that I think through a lot these days.


  14. I’m really glad to see I’m not the only one who was concerned with his blog post. Here’s my take on it:


  15. Donald Williamson April 14, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Donald Williamson, Christian Reasoner Ministries

    Good points Matt! Most colleges are heavily academic in our day. However, there are some excellent professors teaching. They are not necessarily academics in a bad sense, though they might be seen as bona fide “intellectuals” rather than phonies!
    “Academics’ tend more to be ‘sophists,’ teachers teaching primarily for money, something Christian teachers must avoid, of course. This doesn’t mean they can’t accept a paycheck. But it does mean they must not cease their teaching simply because their paycheck disappears! The Apostle Paul might well have been an academic before his conversion to Christ. But his Damascus Road experience, where the scales fell from his eyes, allowed him to see all of life through the eyes of a believer! Much more can be said on this, but I would not characterize Paul as an ‘academic’ after his conversion. He was certainly a bona fide Christian ‘intellectual,’ however.
    Thanks for your observations.


  16. […] and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive […]


  17. […] and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive […]


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