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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Role of Implicit Theology

Written by: on May 19, 2017

Sitting on the clouds forty thousand feet above earth is always interesting.  You never know who you will be sitting next to and this is my case today.  I headed to California to handle a bit of business for the church.  Next to me is a polite woman reading a book.  I glance at the book’s title to discover it says, Church Politics.  As I reflect upon my reading for the week, I cannot help to ponder what she thinks about the church, what it means to be Christian.  I wonder if she would ever step into my church, and I obviously wonder if her church would be a place I would attend.  Being Christian means many things to many people, and it often has to do with implicit theology.

In Martyn Percy’s book, Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, the role of expressed doctrine and theology play within the context of the local church only provides part of the story of faith for the believer.  While explicit doctrine and theology are important in formation, there is an undercurrent of beliefs that are expressed in a variety of ways that also congeals in the believer’s mind as what it means to be a Christian.  These subterranean beliefs within the soul of the church is what Percy would define as implicit theology.  Percy states:

It is through the study of implicit theology that the theologian will find individuals and communities ‘working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12).  It will mean careful attention to the roots and ancestry of our polity – to common stories that bind a species together, even as it diversifies and flourishes in emerging and new contexts (Percy, 11).

Percy goes also points out that, “So, central to the understanding of implicit theology is the recognition that practices shape belief and religious beliefs also shape practice (Percy, 10).”  Percy will spend the rest of his monograph unpacking how these areas of implicit theology impact sacramental life, the church and the challenge of leading in this space.

REFLECTION

Percy strikes upon ideas that I have assumed but could never define.  Often, I have spoken about and heard other leaders speak on the DNA of the church.  Part of this DNA is formed in implicit theology.  For instance, if you pastor (or youth pastor) long enough in the same place, it is inevitable that your flock will look a lot like you.  This can be both positive and negative.  Language, dress, style is all formed from the implicit beliefs held by the leaders and this has a trickle-down effect. In other words, you (as a pastor and leader) begin to attract who you are.

This is a striking thought if not downright humbling.  Furthermore, it is a sacred trust.  While implicit theology is unavoidable, the leader must be aware and attune to the signals he or she is conveying.  If not managed properly and stewarded with Biblical guidance, it can lead to tragic disasters.

When it comes to implicit theology, my mind immediately drifts towards legalism.  How many churches are held in the shackles of slavery due to legalistic implicit beliefs? Sure, maybe the pastor did not preach legalism from the pulpit, but the way he leads his life certainly may convey the message.

As leaders, we profoundly shape people’s beliefs as to what it means to be Christian.  This is a great responsibility both from a congregational standpoint and a missional standpoint.  It is imperative for leaders to be not only aware of their explicit doctrine, but they must be aware of the implicit doctrine that emanates from their lives.

About the Author

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Jason Kennedy

I am a pastor of a thriving church in Grapevine, Texas. With two little girls (5,8), and a wife that is a medical doctor (family practice), life is non-stop.

11 responses to “The Role of Implicit Theology”

  1. I like your plane story and reflection. I think unchurched people view pastors and churches through implicit theological lenses. My hunch is that people watch us to see what we do. It is rare that a person investigates official theological statements. How do you keep your explicit and implicit theology on the same page?

    • AP,
      That is a great question. I try to be authentic. This helps me not to send mixed messages. However, I think it is incredibly difficult to not send wrong messages. We have to be conscious of the implicit theology.
      Jason

  2. mm Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Jason,
    You have made some great points on implicit theology. I enjoyed reading your blog, and the importance of understanding of implicit theology and how it impacts sacramental life, the church and the challenge of leading is a great task for leaders.

    However, what this means for certain doctrines. It means doctrines such as the Trinity are implicit, not explicit. What?! Yet we have better evidence for the Trinity than for some explicit doctrines (such as the doctrine of Hell). Why is that? For one, some would say the explicit statements may be hyperbolic, or metaphorical, or whatnot. However, the evidence for the Trinity is very strong. It’s just that there’s no one verse that explicitly says, “The Trinity exists as three persons in one being.” We have plenty of verses that implicitly mean this very thing, and most Bible-believers would attest that it is a very strong implication.

    On another hand a person believes, as we say, implicitly everything that God has said, so far and as soon as he knows it. … To believe whatever God has revealed without knowing what those things are, is called implicit faith. To believe things that God has revealed, knowing what those things are, is called explicit faith.
    This is subject I would like to spend more time in studying after getting my doctorial.
    Thanks! Great work Rose Maria

    • Rose,
      Thanks. I agree with you about such things as the Trinity (though not specifically mentioned in text) there is quite of bit of evidence for a trinitarian belief. I also think that a church’s DNA is created by implicit theology, and we have to be aware. I agree about studying this a great deal more next year. Jason

  3. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Jason:
    Great job! It seems that you may not be totally embracing “implicit theology” or you have a concern of where it can lead. Do you see any common threads of “implicit theology” in the Spirit-led church?

    Phil

    • Phil,
      Thanks. I think I embrace implicit theology from the standpoint that I think you have to be aware of it. It shapes more of the church than explicit theology in my view.
      From a charismatic church, I think we rely a great deal on implicit theology a great deal. We say a great deal without saying anything at times in Charismatic churches. Do you think the same?
      Jason

  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Jason,
    Great insight on the impact Christian pastors and other Christian leaders have on the laity, Christians in general and the unchurched. This realization must keep you mighty humble knowing this great responsibility before God. I appreciate your analysis of the positive and negative aspects of implicit theology. Would it be safe to say that a pastor of your stature and theological and Spiritual orientation does not see a tension or dichotomy between the explicit and implicit in everyday ministry operations and experiences?

  5. Pablo Morales says:

    Jason,
    Understanding that our Christian experience is shaped in many ways by implicit theology, makes me look at my own Christian heritage with more humility. In a sense I have to realize that the Body of Christ across the ages is much bigger and diverse in its practices than what I have experienced in my life. Interestingly, as you pointed out, the way I have experienced legalism in the past is highly linked to a tight denominational identity. In your own experience as a pastor in a large denomination, do you make a distinction between Christianity and your denominational version of Christianity, or is communicated as one and the same? What is the attitude toward other denominations that you communicate from the pulpit? Just wondering.
    Pablo

  6. Aaron Cole says:

    Jason,

    Great blog, I really enjoyed how you connected the book to your personal journey as a leader and pastor. I agree that there is a sacred trust from pastor to the church and that there are many things that are implicitly passed on from pastor to the congregation. What things do you think you are implicitly passing on to the people you Shepard?

    Aaron

  7. Jason,

    The really crazy thing about what is implicit and what is implied is translation. There are things that I know that I heard in church growing up that were implied that they were from the Bible but they were not. Clothing, hair, makeup are just a few that come to mind but these simple things have become theology in some churches. How to move beyond what was implied is sometimes the greatest struggle for new pastors trying to shape an old culture to look new. Thanks for you insight and your thoughts. How do I really appear or look to those I lead. Godly would be my first point but if it is simple attitude and attire I believe I might have missed the point.

    Kevin

  8. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Jason,
    You stated that “it is a sacred trust” when leading people effectively because they will follow. I’ve often joked around that I attract the misfits in ministry but I’m sometimes unsure if that’s a positive for me or a poor reflection of the ministry. One of the things I’ve learned is that you can never go wrong leading from the Bible. I think we’ve created so many processes in the church that we create people that look like the processes and not Christ. Nothing is wrong with leading people who might eventually look like you but if we are remaining true to Scriptures, there should be a resemblance of Christ. I know my church’s vision inside out so while some people might mirror my leadership, it reflects the DNA of our ministry. We need to learn how to lead in harmony so we never have to focus on what people will become in the future. If we lead them right, we already know the outcome.

    Garfield

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