Elders as Lay Theologians in the Contemporary Church

Abstract: Theology is often regarded as a task best left to professionals, but there are both biblical and historical precedents of lay theologians playing an active role in local churches. Lay elders may have some formal theological education or be mostly self-taught; churches nurture those gifts by discerning, expanding, and honing the skills needed to equip lay leaders for the task of shepherding the Body of Christ. Educational opportunities and resources for dedicated amateur theologians abound today and churches are an ideal context for taking advantage of this development.

Keywords: elders, theology, governance, training, education


The lay theologian has a historic pedigree, especially in the Evangelical and Anabaptist tradition, and should be the norm in church eldership. Never before have there been so many opportunities for theological education or better access to resources than in the internet age. Churches can and should develop theological training ministries to equip lay leaders while providing scaffolding frameworks that not only build up amateur scholars but also rein in the pitfalls of autodidacticism. Traditionally, many free church movements have eschewed formal study for their pastors and elders, especially in their early years, not only out of necessity—often having been excluded from established theological schools—but also by choice. It is a common perspective of many reform-minded churches that seminaries and theological colleges eventually begin to, at best, grow distant from the concerns of their front line parishes and, at worst, drift theologically and then perpetuate that drift amongst their students. A confident and theologically well-equipped board of lay people can act as a bulwark against such tendencies while still benefiting from those who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of the Scriptures.

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