In the church, we often face a clash of paradigms for understanding whose opinion to trust (usually regarding the question of how to make our churches grow or at least stop shrinking, since that’s the desperate question most churches are obsessed with). On the one hand, there are experts, who have worldly credentials such as Ph.D.’s and C.V.’s and work for think-tanks or institutes that we think merit our respect and attention. On the other hand there are prophets, people whom God has presumably given a word to share with us, but they are usually entirely ordinary people with no worldly training or credentials upon which to stake their credibility.
I see this as being another Jesus vs. Plato clash at least in the sense that we can understand someone’s qualifications in two different ways: expertise and giftedness. In Plato’s Republic, he writes about a special category of people called the philosopher-kings, people of outstanding academic aptitude whom he recommends setting aside from society to be trained as rulers in an environment pervaded exclusively by rationality. The critical aspect of the training of the philosopher-kings was to keep them from intermingling with the riffraff and common people who would corrupt them with their subservience to the passions and appetites (recall the tripartide division of the Platonic soul — reason, passions, appetites). To some degree, Western academia continues to follow the basic model set forth in the Republic of setting aside experts for special training to rule over the masses. That is what we refer to as expertise. An expert is someone who has established his/her credentials in a particular field through the quantity of training received as well as the markers of credibility appropriate to the field (number of articles published, advanced degrees awarded, etc).
It’s an entirely different paradigm to view knowledge in terms of giftedness. Giftedness presumes the sovereignty of a divine Creator who has plotted out a role for each of us in the human community and implanted us with particular aptitudes accordingly. Giftedness is not something you acquire by protecting your reason against the encroachments of passion and appetites. Giftedness is something you discover by exploring your passions (though not necessarily “passion” in the same meaning that Plato had). One of the presumptions I have about the people I’m in ministry with following the paradigm of the body of Christ laid out in 1 Corinthians 12 is that everyone in my congregation has a gift. God has created each of us with certain instincts and proclivities in order to create a certain chemistry between us when we come together as a body. I believe my task as a pastor is to watch and listen closely to my parishioners to help them discover their gifts and also to hear how God is speaking through their giftedness.
I’m not sure if this is a fair bone to pick, but one of the things I think I’m noticing is that mainline Christians tend to have no problem trusting in worldly expertise for the solutions to their problems. For me as an evangelical, “worldly” is inherently a pejorative adjective so going to workshops hosted by the guy with the Ph.D. in church growth from the institute of Ivy League expertise is always going to make me gag. Perhaps I should be less ideological about my disdain for expertise, but a world run by experts is a world that Galilean fishermen and Judean tax collectors and Samaritan prostitutes would have no place in other than to be anonymous followers. Doesn’t God prefer for His leaders to be ordinary people with extraordinary gifts rather than experts? Isn’t that part of the “foolishness” that He uses to “shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27)? What do you think? I prefer giftedness to expertise, but am I framing this dichotomy in a fair way?