Alyssa Q. Johnson and Shawn D. Johnson
“My name is Alyssa, and I’m a PhD candidate completing a dissertation about representations of religious fanaticism in nineteenth-century British Gothic literature.”
When this is how you introduce yourself, you get used to a lot of responses. Typically, people mention books they think I’d like, make a joke about grammar, or tell me about their college English courses. But at churches, there has sometimes been a different response: that of distaste.
My father, Shawn, co-authoring this article, obtained his DMin and has worked for over three decades in small, rural churches of Christ. Most people would assume a person with a terminal ministry degree would be sought-after and praised, yet some congregations balk at the idea of a minister with formal higher education. On several occasions his applications for a ministry job have been automatically disqualified because of this education. The letters attached to his name didn’t indicate “educated” to the hiring congregations – the connotation was “too liberal.” Attending a workshop that leaned toward this anti-higher education side about fifteen years ago, a speaker made a non-controversial statement, then added a comment apparently designed to insult those with higher degrees. He said, in a deliberately ungrammatical way, “And we don’t need no PhD to know this.” Unfortunately, this phrase was picked up by several other speakers during the week. It’s possible the original speaker was attempting to directly reference the 1948 movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre with a slightly misquoted line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” but either way, the phrase caught on and became a battle cry aimed against people who were absolutely not enemies.
Education comes with a social risk. Shawn recalls hearing some church elders recommend their teens intentionally attend a state school instead of a Christian University. That same group recommends potential future preachers attend an unaccredited School of Preaching as well, warning them to avoid any seminary training at all costs. Why? Education carries a stigma among many groups where a degree can be an ostracizing force.
This breaks my (Alyssa’s) heart, as I believe faith-based higher education has the power to help students develop strong faiths that complement their careers. It’s certainly imperfect, and it too has its own inequities. But a lack of valuation for educational diversity can send teenagers (and those of other ages, too) looking elsewhere for gospel truths.
Some churches of Christ feature the phenomenon Olivier Roy terms “holy ignorance,” in which fundamentalists see a lack of knowledge not as a deficit but as a mark of pride. In these situations, religious practices without religious knowledge increase, and education grows to be seen as shameful and scary. This holy ignorance sets them apart in what they perceive as a good way. However, this ignorance becomes one of the many things that divides us.
At the same time, among many of my more formally educated peers I’ve seen a similar disgust aimed at the faith practices of those who haven’t been afforded the gift of higher education, whether they worship in the same congregation or a different one. I have witnessed a refusal to associate with those who become, effectively, ill-educated religious boogeyman figures, despite the fact that the perpetrators of “bad religion” often don’t necessarily know better. Those with less education are looked down on and sometimes abandoned entirely. Those who do stay in community sometimes express an unwillingness to help with ministries that are considered less intellectual. They might be willing to teach a class or lead a prayer but keep out of more hands-on or relational ministries. This attitude is also inappropriate, and a far cry from following a Christ known to remove his formal clothing and kneel before his disciples, washing their feet despite their belief that this service was beneath them, telling them also to “wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).
Educational divides build cliques in and between congregations. In large ones, even those that seem diverse, educational backgrounds can become invisible fences that drive people apart. In smaller ones, those who have had access to higher education are often viewed as untrustworthy, uppity, or as though they are the ones who separate from everyone else.
This fracture has always baffled me (Alyssa) and hurt me (Shawn). Over the past few years, educational diversity within the church has become both a personal and professional interest. We can offer no solutions in this brief article, nor can we speak to whether or not this is a widespread issue. But we hope to suggest that educational diversity is not something to be feared. Rather, with work and intentionality, it could be reframed instead as a church asset.
Unwillingness to engage with those who are different from you does not reflect the early church’s inclusive model, where there was meant to be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Ideally, we could worship in churches where there is neither “GED nor PhD”; however, separatist thinking splits us along ideological fault lines. Galatians 3:29 tries to resolve that divisive thinking by plainly stating, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” In other words, belonging to Christ, regardless of your nationality, social status, career, gender, and yes, educational background, makes you a child of God and a crucial part of the church.
Christians should not create or police educational boundaries drawn to keep education out or used as gatekeeping mechanisms to marginalize the uneducated. Sticking to one’s own camp and one’s own camp alone stunts the growth of empathy and compassion while blatantly ignoring the unifying message of the New Testament. The idea of “thinking for oneself” is used by both groups to justify why the other is terrible and un-Christian. The thing is, as Alan Jacobs points out in How to Think, thinking is a communal process. We literally cannot think for ourselves. We think with and alongside groups. Therefore, it is crucial that our churches have communities that are diverse, including in educational background. 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 seems to make it obvious that the church works best when we have the “full body” represented. Paul’s language uses the analogy of body parts to craft not an anatomy tutorial but rather a lesson on how all members of the church bring something unique and valuable as the “many parts, but one body” (v. 20). This holds true for educational diversity as well.
Obviously, we think educational diversity should be reframed as a potential asset. However, the question is: How do we, as a church, unite groups that have minds that have been taught to think in fundamentally different ways?
The answer is: We don’t know. It probably helps if churches center spaces for worship and service, and it probably helps if leadership is educationally diverse. It probably helps if no one looks down on each other, too.
But the New Testament does offer us a good example in two of its main figures. Peter and Paul come from these respective camps.
Peter, a fisherman.
Paul, a seemingly highly educated Roman citizen who had prominently sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
As Christians, we can learn from their example. Did they get along? Not always! Paul is certainly not afraid to chastise Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 concerning his understanding and treatment of Gentile Christians, a lesson Peter had (theoretically) already learned with Cornelius back in Acts 10. And yet, Peter responds not in defensiveness but in the understanding that both men were called to play significant roles in the early church. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter mentions the wisdom God blessed Paul with, admitting that “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (v.16). Context and authorship issues aside, what is clear here is a respect and care for the work done by another member of the body of Christ. Peter even defends Paul, sayingthose who distort what Paul says do so “to their own destruction” (v. 16). He refers to him as “our dear brother” (v. 15). This attitude is a far cry from the shaming, disrespectful rhetoric we have seen aimed across the modern educational divide in churches.
Both these characters play important roles and acknowledge the importance of the other. The Pauline epistles and Saul’s own conversion (Acts 9) are central and important to the early church. Paul was called not only to spread the gospel across the world, but also to write large portions of what would become the New Testament. And how can we know the story of Jesus without the disciple Peter? Jesus called Peter as a disciple and friend to tell the story of the Savior in his words and with his life. Even when Peter thought he was no longer eligible to serve the Lord, Jesus shows him in John 21:15-22 that his role will be sizable. And so a former fisherman is called to be a primary spokesperson on the Day of Pentecost and in that first church in Jerusalem. Their unity wasn’t always perfect, but they were both essential, valuable parts of the early church.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul beautifully describes Jesus’ inclusion of those blessed to see him in one way or another after his resurrection. This includes Peter. This includes Paul. In fact, it would have included more than five hundred men and women. Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles,” but this does not mean his role isn’t important (v. 9). He humbly acknowledges he is merely one part of a body that has a focus beyond any one individual: the message of Christ and that it gets preached. All of these early church leaders were given an important role, as we all are now, even though we may have starkly different backgrounds.
Formally educated or not, modern followers of Christ also bear God-given gifts and have important opportunities to serve by using those gifts. Praise the Lord for those with PhDs. Praise the Lord for those who have different gifts, and especially the greatest gift: love. 1 Corinthians 13 perfectly concludes Paul’s earlier discussion of the welcome variety of gifts in the church, culminating in the idea that a patient love for one another can help us overcome what divides us.
We might not always get along in the church with people who interpret the Bible differently. But remember, that Christian you disagree with is also a child of God. May we all work towards expressing more patience, kindness, and self-control towards others with different – yet equally important – gifts.
Alan Jacobs. How to Think. Penguin, 2017.
Olivier Roy. Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways. Oxford UP, 2010.