Like hundreds of other cities across America, my modest little Midwestern town was full of concerned citizens this weekend who had taken to the streets to protest police brutality and issue a unified call for racial equality. The diversity on display was truly inspiring. Little elderly black women. Impressively-bearded white dudes. Fresh-faced teenagers. Tattooed girls with purple hair. Young men speaking languages I don’t understand. But what caught my eye more than anything else were the surprising number of people wearing some form of clerical attire—you know, like collars and scarves and fancy-looking things like that.
Having spent my life in predominantly conservative evangelical circles, I’ve been conditioned to see clerical garb and immediately think suspicious thoughts about the theology of the person wearing it. I mean it’s only losers like the spineless Episcopalians, wishy-washy Methodists, or (worst of all!) idolatrous Catholics who would ever feel the need to robe themselves in such flamboyant nonsense. And if there’s one thing Episcopalians, Methodists, and Catholics all have in common, it’s bad theology. (And maybe electric cars. They probably have that in common, too.)
But despite their allegedly heretical inclinations, isn’t it ironic that the clergy in their collars and robes are among the most dependably present in times such as this? When justice needs to be sought or solidarity with the suffering needs to be shown, they’re the ones from the larger Christian community who never seem to be far away. While Baptist preachers are busy leading the faithful in another Bible study on the different Greek words for love, it’s the priests (and bishops and rectors and reverends) who are on the streets living it out. With all of their supposedly bad theology. With all of their wonky doctrines. With all of their rainbow-colored vestments.
Which forces me to ask: What’s the point of good theology anyway? Is it ever supposed to lead anywhere? Or is the prize at the end of the treasure hunt nothing more than the ability to wax eloquent at a seminarian’s dinner party about the similarities and differences between all the Old Testament covenants (in chronological order, complete with Scripture references)? If that’s all there is to it, then “good” theology is actually more like dead-end theology.
And that’s precisely what many of us in the evangelical world have bought into. We’ve been led to believe that what’s most important in the Christian life is doctrinal fidelity to whatever narrow definition of orthodoxy our leaders have handed down to us. This is why we can judge everyone from Mother Teresa (nice lady, but screwy doctrine of justification) to Martin Luther King Jr. (good speech that one time, but he was too cozy with some of those liberal European theologians). That’s why we can refuse church membership to Jesus-loving people to believe differently than us about (fill in the blank). That’s why we can freak out about our pastor quoting an open theist in a sermon but shrug our shoulders about unarmed black civilians being shot by police officers. (Not that I’d know anything about this specific controversy from personal experience…) We can do all these things and more, because in the end what really matters is getting it right.
But after marching next to the very clergy members I’ve been taught to be wary of, I have to admit: I’m tired of “getting it right.” Especially when the only apparent reason for getting it right is the self-satisfaction of having got it right. If good theology doesn’t propel us into the world to be agents of justice, mercy, and renewal, then what’s it good for? It doesn’t align us with God’s mission. And it doesn’t get us a single step closer to the life God invites us to live.
You may recall the memorable story Jesus once told about a King who made a decisive final separation between those who spent their lives meeting the needs of the world with mercy and love, and those who didn’t. Apparently this King thought it was massively important to live justly. Almost as if “getting it right” meant following in the way of Jesus himself.
But what you most certainly will not recall is the story Jesus told about that same King administering a great 200-question eschatological exam covering all matters of theology and doctrine, the responses to which would determine one’s eternal destiny. And the reason you don’t recall it is because Jesus never told it. As Brian Zahnd says, “The judgment seat of Christ is not a theology quiz, but an evaluation of love.” And yet here many of us are, studying for a quiz that will never be handed out while neglecting the one thing God has called us to do.
Our world is crying out for healing. And we have to do more than go around handing out systematic theology textbooks. We need a theology that makes a difference. A theology that stands with the suffering and challenges the oppressors.
I don’t care what you believe about biblical inerrancy or the five points of Calvinism or who can marry whom. If your theology gets you out the door loving God and neighbor, then maybe—just maybe—it’s good. If it doesn’t, well then maybe—just maybe—it’s time to rethink things.