The Forgotten Essentials of Doing Theology: Service

theology“God judges our theology faithful or false by our attitudes and responses to those in need.” – Kelly Kapic

That quote will seem unsettling to many of us. To some theologians it will seem more than just unsettling, though. It will also seem blatantly false. After all, theology is an academic discipline. It is work done in the mind and in text books, what does it have to do with serving others? There is real correlation, however, between theology and service. If your theologizing is devoid of service to others it is not genuine theology.

We have already argued that there must be a connection between theology and life application. Theology is not merely an academic discipline. If it doesn’t affect the way you live then it isn’t really theology. But more specifically it is important that we see the relationship between theology and service.

There are, of course, plenty of great theologians who will attest to the importance of serving others, loving our neighbor, etc. but who might contend that this is not the same as “doing theology.” The two are important parts of a Christian’s life, but they don’t necessarily belong together. Dr. Kapic anticipates this response and writing as if from that perspective says:

Well, yes, concern for the poor and justice matters, but that is something practical that comes only after we have done our theology; it is more a rational discipline, not meant to deal with such pragmatic concerns. (88)

But this distinction cannot be maintained in the face of Scripture. Ethics are part of theology, and life application is an essential to doing theology. Likewise the Bible calls for the specifics of service as part of theological work.

Take for example Jeremiah 22:16. We understand theology as the “study of God.” In this passage the prophet declares that service to the poor is “the knowledge of God.” The Lord commends King Josiah saying “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the LORD.” What does it mean to “know” the Lord? According to God himself it is to “judge the cause of the poor and needy.” That’s theology tangibly done as service.

Likewise, the apostle James declares that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Many churches get the concept of “pure religion” as being kept “unstained from the world,” but they fail to do theology because they think that means stay away from messy situations. But here James intends to communicate the opposite. Dr. Kapic adds:

What I always find startling about this statement is that the text puts caring for those in need with the call to be “unstained from the world.” For, in truth, we in the church sometimes seek to be “unstained” by distancing ourselves from those most troubled in society, those in most need. They can become absent not only from our churches but also from our thinking, and this does affect our theology.(84)

True theology only happens as we seek to reach into the mess and help those in needs. That is precisely, of course, what Jesus has done for us (2 Cor. 8:9).

We must do theology with our hands in the dirt, and our eyes towards those in suffering. Theology that sits up in its lofty ivory tower “unstained by the world” is not true theology. Again Dr. Kapic spells out why:

Since it speaks about God, faithful theology must reflect God’s compassion and care for us and for our neighbors. If we are to pursue theology faithfully, we must contemplate the value God places on those who are most vulnerable and in need. We must be, in a word, anthroposensitive. Knowing and loving God leads us to love those he loves and to think and write theology accordingly. (82)

The study of God must reflect who God truly is and what he truly loves if it is to be faithful theology.

It may seem like a strange, even disturbing, idea to many of us, but that is only because we have created a false dichotomy between how we live and how we study. Theology without service is not theology, it is merely an academic exercise that does not reflect the true heart of God. True theology includes services!

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