Theology at the Bar

By Paul Koch

Does location matter when it comes to theology? That is, when people are arguing passionately with regard to certain points of doctrine, does it matter where that argument takes place? Does the setting play a part in a discussion about confessional subscription or theories of ecclesiology or confirmation practices?

I think it does.

In fact, I think that theology of all the discussions and arguments we can and do have in our lives is the most susceptible to the setting in which it takes place. Theology is, at its core, a meeting between the Word of God and men and where men are will no doubt impact the nature of that meeting. This is, I think, the reason why the proper distinction of Law and Gospel is not only crucial but also so difficult, for part of that distinction is to recognize and understand exactly where the person receiving the Word is located. Luther puts it this way in his commentary on Galatians,

Anyone who can judge rightly between the law and the Gospel should thank God and know that he is a true theologian. In times of temptation, I confess that I myself do not know how to do this as I ought. The way to discern the one from the other is to place the Gospel in heaven and the law on the earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and the righteousness of the law earthly, and to put as much difference between the righteousness of the Gospel and of the law as God has made between heaven and earth, between light and darkness, between day and night. If it is a question of faith or conscience, let us utterly exclude the law and leave it on the earth; but if we are dealing with works, let us light the lantern of works and of the righteousness of the law. The sun and light of the Gospel and grace should shine in the day, and the lantern of the law in the night.”  (LW 26:115-116)

Church Reformer Martin Luther

Theology is not an abstract thing; it is the tangible application of the living Word of God to an individual and where they are located will impact how that Word is spoken. The temptation is to treat theology as something that can be done in a sterile doctor’s office on a white board in isolation from anyone else. We are encouraged to view theology as a philosophical system that is equally as poignant in a classroom as it is in a hospital room or a bedroom without any consideration of the differences in location. And when we begin to do just this is when we begin to screw the whole thing up.

For when theology stops considering where it is being done is when we begin to insert all sorts of levels and divisions within our theology to make sure we have a product that is eminently portable and resilient. Those articulating the theology in the sterile office know that there is a long way to go if they are to impact the bedroom of the terrified homosexual. Therefore, we have the advice of the academic experts and the management of the church bureaucrat and the passion of the point person (be it pastor or layperson) that is to aid in the meeting of the Word and man. The problem with this system, as I see it, is that everything begins in a place that is removed from the actual individual who will receive the Word. This system moves in only one direction, and so the point man is on the line for someone who doesn’t actually have any skin in the game.

If instead we take seriously that where theology is done actually matters, then I think we get a much better picture of what it is we are doing. It is okay that theology done in the classroom is different than that done in the hospital room, but different does not mean better. More times than I can count in my career, I’ve found myself at the bedside of a dying child of God with family members gathered around and what I had thought I would say simply is no longer the right thing to say.  Sometimes words about life and salvation in Christ dissolve into an embrace that allows the grieving heart to lament to our God.

A better image for the doing of theology, better at least than a hierarchy of classroom, bureaucracy, and point man, is a bar room. Think of the little neighborhood bar. When you enter it, you’ll get a look from the regular patrons wondering what in the world you are doing there. But when you take a seat on a well-worn barstool and lean over the somewhat sticky bar and order your first round, you’ll find that you are a welcomed member of that group. You really have no higher or lower standing than anyone else there, regardless of your education or previous training. In fact, if you are a newcomer, you will most likely be viewed with a certain amount of apprehension and ridicule.


Yet eventually everyone at the bar contributes to the conversation. Think of Norm, Cliff, Frasier, and the rest of the gang at Cheers. Just because Cliff was a blowhard didn’t mean he didn’t get to have an impact on the discussion. All of you sitting at the bar sit side by side; each one can make his or her own case for how they see things and what the best course of action is or what is more important in our weighing of options. The hierarchy disappears, and the expertise of the phycologist is weighed by the wit of the accountant.

While many describe bars as the retreat into a bottle, the reality for many bars is that you don’t retreat at all, but enter into the lives of other people. This is how theology is to be done: in the messy lives of others where the Word meets man.