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Show Me Your Credentials!

Over the years there have been plenty of times when people challenged the things I’ve taught. Sometimes it’s due to a genuine difference in understanding of the Scriptures. Those discussions can be both fun and rewarding. I often learn from others who have a slightly different take on things than I do.

Less fun to deal with are the challenges from someone with an idealogical agenda. For example, a church leader once accused me of being legalistic because I dared to say on the basis of Hebrews 8, verse 5, that if God was adamant that Moses follow the pattern for the tabernacle he was shown on the mountain, we should be even more concerned about following the organization of the of the early church. I believe the Spirit had the Apostles set things up the way they did for a reason. The other leader, however, already had his mind made up to do something else. Since he couldn’t refute my argument, he lit into my character.

Then, there are those who don’t agree with what I’ve taught for moral reasons. I remember once being floored by the hostility of an Elder in the church. He was reacting to my statement that Christians should not allow their believing children to date unbelievers. To me that is rather self-evident. Setting aside Scriptures which talk about the inability of people walking together down the same path unless they agree and not being unequally yoked and so on, it should be obvious that seeking a life-partner from among those who aren’t aligned with you spiritually falls under the category of a “Really Bad Idea.” Mere observation provides examples of all kinds of heartache from pursuing such relationships. More often than not, instead of the unbeliever coming to faith, the Christian young person leaves the faith. But, I was some kind of narrow-minded, bigoted misanthrope for daring to suggest that we should encourage our believing children to pursue relationships only with those in God’s household.

It’s painful to watch the outcome when people who should know better deliberately choose to ignore or defy scriptural principles. However, I’ve also felt another type of pain. It also comes from rejection, not so much rejection of the Word but rejection of the one who proclaims the Word. I could understand it if the rejection was because of a teacher’s lifestyle or hypocrisy. We absolutely should be skeptical of someone whose walk doesn’t match the talk. As Jesus pointed out, we’ll recognize who is who by the fruit (or outcome) of his life (Matthew 7:15-23). But the kind of rejection I’m talking about has nothing to do with a person’s character. It has nothing to do with him proclaiming, “That Which Is Not So.” It doesn’t even have anything to do with a person’s knowledge or ability to teach. He is judged unworthy of being listened to because he lacks credentials. As one person said in reference to me, “Why should I listen to him? He doesn’t have a degree.”

I have to admit that one cut deep. When you have put your normal life on hold to speak and teach in a foreign country; when you have freely given of yourself and put yourself at risk to do so, it hurts when someone discounts and discredits you for the superficial reason of not having the right sheepskin. It especially hurts when you’ve provided teaching and biblical insights which are far beyond what the critic could have ever come up with on his own. It’s one thing to “consider the source.” But does that justify rejecting teaching out of hand, without examining it? Jesus’ instruction about not casting our pearls before swine comes to mind (Matthew 7:6).

What’s the big deal about credentials, anyway? Why should someone validate a teacher by piece of paper, issued by an institution he’s never heard of and signed by someone totally unknown to him? Doesn’t it make more sense to evaluate the character of the teacher? Shouldn’t we do as the Bereans did when they evaluated what they heard from the Apostle Paul? They judged what Paul said by the standard of Scripture (Acts 17:11). If any of the Apostles had credentials it was Paul. He writes that he studied under Gamaliel – who was one of the most famous and illustrious Rabbis of the day (Acts 22:3). He writes in another place that he advanced in his studies of Judaism beyond his contemporaries (Galatians 1:14). But that’s not what the Bereans looked at. Instead, they focused on the content of Paul’s teaching. And Paul, himself, wrote off his formal credentials as nothing more than rubbish (Galatians 3:7-8).

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not against formal education. There can be great benefit from a structured course of study. There is value in being held accountable to master a body of information. I’m not even necessarily opposed to degrees and similar credentials. What I am opposed to is credentialism – confusing the credential for competency. A degree or certificate, by itself, does not fit one for service in the Kingdom of God. It is an even greater mistake to make a degree or certificate a condition of service. In fact, the credential can even be an impediment to service when it feeds the ego. For example, I know church leaders who make sure to introduce themselves by their academic titles and become upset if people don’t use the titles when speaking to them. Perhaps it is petty or perverse of me, but I generally “forget” to use their titles when speaking with such exalted (in their own minds) personages. To my way of thinking if a person has to go around reminding everyone of his accomplishments, those accomplishments probably don’t amount to much anyway. Real leaders don’t derive their authority from, or have to take refuge in, their titles. The truly competent don’t have to boast of their abilities. What they are is self-evident from what they do and the character of their lives. They don’t need artificial props. Respect is earned, not derived.

Again, please don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place for evidence of mastery or competency. For example, I would hesitate to entrust the design of a bridge to someone who never studied engineering. I would want to see some sort of certification that he knows his business. Even then, the formal engineering degree does not guarantee competency. I would rather trust the grizzled but unlettered man who has actually built a dozen such structures than an untried youngster with his newly-minted diploma. The man who has the experience knows more about real-world engineering than the neophyte ever picked up in university.

Similarly, I don’t want an uncertified “doctor” diagnosing what ails my gizzard. No, I want somebody who has has passed his residency and has been cleared by the medical board. But we all, know that a nurse with decades of experience under her belt often knows more about how to treat certain conditions than the doctors do, in spite of the fact that she’s not licensed to practice.

If we recognize that real-world experience often means more than formal credentials in material professions, why are we reluctant to recognize it in regard to the church and spiritual things? If a certificate, degree or sheepskin does not automatically convey competence in spiritual matters, what does? The answer is in the incident where the religious authorities in Jerusalem confronted Peter and John for preaching in the name of Jesus. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13 NIV)

It is time spent with Jesus, not time spent in the classroom (as beneficial as time in the classroom may be) that makes us competent. A person can be loaded down with academic honors, but if he hasn’t spent time with Jesus, he will never be competent in spiritual things. All too often we’ve gotten the proverbial “cart before the horse.” Time with Jesus is what’s important. Once a person has that, the academic certifications and credentials are merely icing on the cake. When we focus on formal credentials instead of a person’s relationship to Christ, we’re asking for trouble.

“You’re just rationalizing your own lack of formal education and credentials!” someone might argue. Actually, no. I’ve deliberately avoided obtaining a degree. Not long ago a President of a Bible College offered me a Doctorate. He pointed out that the books I’ve written on biblical themes are each equivalent to a Master’s thesis. (Obviously the books are in a different format than a thesis. In the President’s view that is a plus. He said he would much rather see the information in a form that people can access and use than to have it moulder away on a shelf in a University’s archives.) Though rather tempted by the offer, I didn’t take the President up on it. Why? Because being able to add “Dr.” to my name would merely be a sop to my vanity. It would do nothing to make me more competent.

But there is another reason I didn’t take the man up. I wanted to set a good example. You see, I teach and mentor church leaders from a different country and culture. I want them to develop a heart of service rather than to pursue a piece of paper. I want them to concentrate on what’s really important – their relationship with Christ. I want them to develop true competency instead of expecting a piece of paper to give them legitimacy. I want them to develop the habit of life-long learning rather than resting on the laurel of a “sheepskin.” I won’t ask them to do something which I am unwilling to do myself.

If you’re looking for credentials, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed in me. But in spite of the fact that I don’t have a degree hanging on my wall, I hope that people will be able to recognize that I’ve spent time with Jesus. What more is needed?

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