Theological Malpractice

Faith Matters

“You should not trust science. The Scriptures make this clear. When Paul was admonishing his young friend Timothy, he wrote, ‘O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called, which some professing have erred concerning the faith.’”

A friend had sent me a link to a large church’s website and encouraged me to listen to the previous week’s sermon. She was thinking about joining. I was only marginally interested and skimmed emails while the video played. But when I heard these lines, I froze. What? What was that? Rewind and replay. There it was.

I have a reasonable acquaintance with the New Testament and had never heard this before. I immediately paused the sermon, opened a Bible software app, and ran a comprehensive search of the Bible in four common translations. Not there. I then ran a Google search and found it in the King James translation of 1611. It was from 1 Timothy 6:20-21, and a quick glance at my Greek New Testament immediately showed me the error. I decided I was listening to a bit of theological malpractice.

The Aims of Theological Education

As dean of the faculty at Calvin Seminary I spend a lot of time thinking about how we shape pastors. Our entire faculty thinks about this. The church counts on us because we are sending newly minted pastors into leadership, and we prefer they avoid malpractice.

There is enormous pressure in the church today to build a curriculum that is contemporary and to produce young leaders who will draw a crowd. Traditionalists will disdain both of these ideas. But both also bear some truth. Each generation requires leaders who can understand the modern landscape and speak to it successfully. And certainly these leaders should be winsome, authentic, honest, and intriguing enough that we listen to them out of interest, not duty. Audiences know when all of these things are at work in a person—and they gravitate to the pastoral leader who has mastered them.

The Great Temptation

However, we live in an era where theological education is on a downswing. Major nondenominational churches are growing, led by men and women who are remarkably talented but have no use for a seminary degree. I have had the privilege of working alongside many of them. They are bright, self-educated, passionate, and always excellent communicators. As one lead pastor told me, the key question in hiring is: Can a person move the room? Has this become the first criterion for pastoral leadership?

When I attend these churches, quite honestly, I enjoy them. They are vibrant, contemporary affairs with dynamic music, fantastic screen work, worship leaders who really lead, and speakers who know how to speak. And promoting these good virtues is what is on an upswing. Large churches like this shop for the great leader/speaker, not the contemplative pastor/theologian. Today the question isn’t “Are you a solid theologian?” The question is “Do you have what it takes to generate growth and vibrancy?”

In their private moments—when they trust me—many of these leaders will share a secret: they all wish they had more academic study in their background.

So here is the catch: How do you build a seminary for the future that anchors students in the solid, time-tested academic preparation of the past? And how do you do this without diluting students’ passion? How do you create an environment where faculty are as energized as students are and where inspiration is a four-course meal served daily? How do you find the courage to throw out old curricula and refurbish what’s left into something new and responsible and vibrant? Will your denomination let you do this? Will the older generations let you do this? What about the senior professors?

Theological Malpractice

I know it is severe to use the words “theological malpractice” about a pastor. But I don’t know what else to call it. One of the largest churches in southern California is led by a person who didn’t go to college. I find his sermons astonishing. The pastor in this online sermon had no theological education either. My friend told me that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, so our pastors shouldn’t either. I’m still stewing over that one.

1 Timothy 6:20 is Paul’s warning to Timothy to avoid what will distract him from the true faith. The Revised Standard Version handles it well. Timothy should avoid the “contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge.” The Greek word here is gnosis (knowledge), which had an important and technical use in Paul’s day. In the 1600s, the Latin word scientia meant “knowledge” and came from scio (to know). This is the origin of our modern word “science.” That modern term, therefore, is not the same as Paul’s word gnosis, but it was the right word 400 years ago when the King James Version was created. Thus the King James Version inadvertently misleads us today.

Should a pastoral leader know this? Is this leader responsible for representing our Scriptures accurately—as accurately as we expect our attorneys, engineers, and doctors to know their respective subjects? This is the dilemma. This online pastor leads an enormous church of 12,000 people and enjoys a tremendous following, but he preaches ill-informed, popular sermons. I hope seminaries like Calvin throughout the continent will reclaim their role of providing essential training for leaders like this.

Gary M. Burge, Ph.D., is dean of the faculty and professor of the New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has served there since 2017 and attends Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich.


Discussion Questions

  1. What are some of the most memorable sermons you have heard, for good or ill?
  2. What do you think should be the aims of good theological education?
  3. If you have to choose between solid theological teaching and great inspirational speaking, which would you choose? Why?
  4. How do we equip ourselves to be more careful and discerning of the theology we watch or hear online? How do we get better at identifying “theological malpractice”?

About the Author

Gary M. Burge joined the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary in 2017 after teaching at Wheaton College for 25 years. He worships at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (3)


Thank you Dr. Burge for sharing your concern regarding theological malpractice from the pulpit and from our pastors.  Certainly most church going Christians want to hear an inspiring and Biblical sermon.  And sure, we trust our seminarian trained pastors to deliver such.  But as much as our denominational seminary seeks to provide such pastors, so does every other seminary and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of them.  In as much as there is little agreement among pastors, seminaries, denominations and church members, it is impossible to find agreement as to what is really Biblical.  As to contemporary issues among Christians, there is no end to the debate as to who holds the theologically sound position on numerous issues.  And as to what makes an inspiring and motivating sermon, let me count the differences.  As to the use of the King James translation of the Bible (your opening example), there are many denominations which prefer its use and find reason to doubt much of science based on its use.  As much as our seminary can give reasons to discard the King James translation, other seminaries can give reasons to uphold it.  When you add the Christian religion, with all its variety, to the myriad of other religions, also claiming God’s inspiration, you have a variety of malpractice that is beyond compare to any other field of professional endeavor.  All I can say is, good luck finding the ideal pastor and church.  Thanks, Dr. Burge, for your input.

“O Timotheus, bewaar wat u is toevertrouwd, houd u buiten het bereik van de onheilige, holle klanken en de tegenstellingen der ten onrechte zo genoemde kennis.” (Nieuwe vertaling 1952)

 “O Timothy, keep that which is entrusted to thee, keep thyself out of the reach of the profane, hollow sounds and contradictions of knowledge wrongly so called.”

 I had the privilege of receiving a Dutch Bible from my aunt who raised me up to on my 7th birthday and gave it to me as a parting gift when I was reunited with my birth family to immigrate to Canada two years later. Circumstances prevailed, and I was given the opportunity to return to Holland at age sixteen (for 5 years), worked in Amsterdam and studied at night school, a.o., the Dutch language (which at the time was at the Dutch grade three level). The Bible I received became a source to learn Dutch better.

 When ever I run into an article like this, I like to see how the text being discussed reads in Dutch. I then use Google translate to see how it compares. What you see above is the result. How does “malpractice” (wanpraktijken!) fit into this? A very tricky word!

"It is not good to have zeal without knowledge." - Proverbs 19:2

Preaching and pastoring are two different callings that require distinct skill sets. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where quick, feeling-oriented and "inoffensive/inclusive" answers are demanded over self-reflection and deep understanding. Triviality has replaced profoundness; abnormalities are accepted as normal, truth is variable, evil does not exist, and Doctrinal teaching is irrelevant.

Many people take their morality cues from Opray Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, CNN, CBC or the NYT, and they rarely open their Bibles or study the Belgic Confession. 

Anyone who persists in using the pulpit to teach a watered-down, feel-good message that is not rooted in Scripture or sound Doctrine is practising theological malpractice. 

Mr Burge, I do not envy the huge task in front of you. I hope you will find support for your efforts, and may God bless you.