Fear and Doing Theology

By Paul Koch


Over the years I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time among parish pastors. Though I may be strongly opinionated and even a bit desirous to act the part of a lone ranger from time to time, I have always given a special effort to be involved with my colleagues.

I go to all the pastor’s conferences, the district conventions, the monthly circuit meetings and even weekly gatherings to translate. I try to support pastors when they’re struggling and have served on various boards when asked. And through it all I’ve noticed a somewhat disturbing habit that has been established amongst the clergy with which I interact. It is influenced by an attitude or a paradigm for how they understand their vocation and it is influenced by fear.

Now I don’t mean the fear of God, the fear of standing in the stead and by the command of our Lord as He sets out to feed His sheep. That fear is there as well, as it should be, but there is another fear that colors much that happens in the office of the ministry. You hear it when a brother speaks about a given issue by prefacing his words with, “Don’t tell the district president, but…” or “You can call me a heretic, but…” or “They can defrock me if they want to, but…”


These opening lines speak of far more than just a comical dismissal of bureaucratic authority (something I am usually in favor of), or simply as filler to transition into a point being made. They highlight a beginning point for the whole discussion. That is, if a given person understands the use, application, and benefit of a particular point of doctrine in a way that might not be commonly held: they begin from a position of fear. Fear of reprisals, fear of ridicule, fear of judgment from tradition and commonality drive the endeavor. And if fear, not of God but of man, is part of the paradigm by which we do theology won’t our theology be stifled and hesitant at best?

Many years ago I read an excellent essay by Dr. Montgomery titled, “The Theologians Craft” in which he lays out the how and what of doing theology. It is interesting that there seems to be a total lack of fear in the discussion. It certainly is a fearless discussion when comparing theologizing with scientific empirical investigation. And there is room for fear, surely, there is fear of God. Also there is fear from reaching a point where you’ve said too much and simply cover your mouth in repentance like Job. But a discussion of fear with regard to the authorities and powers of this world was wholly absent.


To be sure, the task of doing theology is that of operating within certain models or paradigms that we use to try and understand what the hell is going on. I suppose fear comes when we have a divergent opinion or one that doesn’t fit the majority model. This would seem to be natural and expected. Perhaps though, a culture that is used to twitter gossip and high-speed accusations through social media has lifted this this fear to a level that cripples the conversation. The commonly held model (or confession?) now acts like an electric fence that punishes us if we stray too far.

Certainly pastors are not the only ones doing theology. But perhaps they are the only ones that operate with fear as they take on the task. After all, they have made certain vows to teach and preach within a confession of faith. But their unspoken plight might be of use for us all. If theology is to be done well, shouldn’t it begin without the fear of men? And if so, it is time to rethink how we use our models of doing theology.


Instead of seeing our models as electric fences that will punish us if we stray too far, a better image would be to see them as lighthouses or guides for the doing of theology: similar to what earlier theologians called a Commonplace. It’s a clear and good light set on a hill that continues to shine bright for us. Not only will this light lead us back to safety when we have wandered too far, but it can even aid our exploration of the darker and more dubious areas.

Such an understanding ought to encourage us to engage one another and our culture, not with fear of reprisals, but with genuine curiosity and eagerness to learn. Fear takes a back seat to freedom. Hell, we might even have fun while doing it.

But then again I’m just a Pollyannaish romantic with antinomian tendencies and a secret love affair with post-modernism, so you probably shouldn’t trust me. In fact, you just might want to report me…