Theological Credentials are for Laypeople Too

Why might a layperson with no aspirations for the pastorate pursue credited, academic theological training? 

It’s not uncommon for someone to ask me this question or some variation. If it comes up in conversation that I’m pursuing a graduate degree and my area of study is discussed, people don’t always know what to think. Oddly enough, this is true when I talk with both faithful church attenders and those with no church experience. 

Are you going to be a priest? A nun? A pastor? What can you do with that degree?  

I don’t always know how to answer my questioners concisely, but here are some reasons I am happy to find myself back in school as an adult. 

1. Personal Reasons

The most natural reason to study something is because it interests you. In my early teen years, I was first exposed to serious theological thinking, and from that point on, I was hooked. Pursuing theological studies in college was the obvious choice, and I really didn’t consider anything else. I realize now that indulging a personal interest can seem self-serving or impractical, but at the time, I never questioned this choice. The hours I spent in undergraduate theology and Bible classes and now in seminary have been stimulating and fulfilling in ways I had not anticipated. As my knowledge and delight in studies have grown, Christ has been faithful to preserve and form me through the professors and peers in my classes. 

Not only have I developed as a thinker, researcher, and writer, but my heart for the Church has also grown. I have become keenly aware of the need for biblical and theological literacy among laypeople and see that God has equipped me, as a fellow layperson, to love and serve them. The time and treasure I have committed to nurturing my interests and gifts is worthwhile because it is in keeping with the calling I have been given. Not a calling toward the pastorate or priesthood, but as Frederick Buechner says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.” It is by God’s grace that he gives some a deep gladness in theological and biblical studies.

2. To Serve the Academy 

There was a severe imbalance between men and women studying theology in the undergraduate evangelical institution I attended. I was among only a few females majoring in theology, making up roughly 10-15% of the population. Sadly, this did not surprise me. Looking around my church, I knew there weren’t many women interested in the different theories of the atonement, but I hoped I would find more women in academic circles. For now, this disparity exists in most seminaries too.

The all-male faculty in the Bible and theology departments at my college and now at Emmaus made every effort to welcome and encourage me. These professors have treated me fairly, listened to me, and respected me. Slowly, as I grew more confident, I saw that the vastly outnumbered women in my classes offered a necessary and helpful perspective to their male peers and that a more diverse classroom often yielded better results. Any field that lacks varying perspectives is at risk of becoming an echo chamber, and the evangelical academy is certainly not immune to this phenomenon. But professors don’t get to choose their students, more female students (and professors) can only come from the churches that raise them.

3. To Serve the Church

Ideas are central to Christianity, and the anti-intellectual tendencies of evangelicalism have done their damage. As the church in America continues to find itself, I am eager to see more Christians spend time in academic theological training as they are able, especially women. Martha does not deserve the vilification she has often received. Still, despite Jesus’ words that “Mary chose what is better” (Luke 10:42, NIV), the Church for centuries has produced many Marthas hustling around in church kitchens and not enough Marys grappling with the words of Christ.  

To my great gratification, the training I continue to receive has enabled me to relieve some of the burdens of the pastors stretched thin around me. In this way, the divide between the pulpit and the laity shrinks, at least a tiny bit. My voice as a layperson is heard in my church and falls on ears, not as another pastor to sit under, but as a sister in Christ who helps make the sacred accessible. The phrase “Church mothers” can refer not only to the ancient women who partnered in the desert with some of the earliest monks but also to the women who point us to Jesus and the riches of his Word on a weekly basis. I see God’s generosity to me in the fact that the teenagers I have had the privilege of teaching in Sunday school have an experience I never had: a woman in their life who modeled serious interest in the ideas of Christianity. Serious enough to seek training and credentials toward more involvement in the academy, and in service of the church. 

Jackie Kohl is the managing editor of Humble Orthodoxy and earned her BA from Moody Bible Institute in Theology with an emphasis on Systematics. She has taught secondary Bible, theology, and church history classes at a Christian school and in church contexts. She now works as a high school career counselor and is currently earning an MA in theological studies at Emmaus Theological Seminary. Jackie was born and raised in Chicagoland and has lived in the western suburbs of Cleveland since 2020. She and her husband Jim have been married since 2008 and have four kids.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema