How to Grow in Your Formal Theology as a Layperson

By: Stefanie Boyles, Co-Host of the Daily Grace Podcast

Everyone’s a theologian. Yes, even you.

The first time I heard that truth was from the late R.C. Sproul. He wrote a book on systematic theology with that very title. He was saying that every one of us has thoughts about God, and we have thoughts about the Bible. And whenever we ponder the things of God and His Word and seek to grow in our understanding, we engage in theology. Theology simply means “the study of God,” and here’s the kicker: studying theology is not confined to the classroom.

It took me a while to understand this. I’m married to someone who has a ministry degree. He is an ordained pastor and an Active Duty Chaplain in the U.S. Army. It’s easy for me to consider his qualifications and given him the title of “theologian.” I’m the one with two bachelor’s degrees in the sciences. I’m the stay-at-home mom who home educates her children. I don’t feel qualified to consider myself a theologian! Maybe you feel this way, too.

But here’s the thing: if we profess to be followers of Christ, we profess to know and believe God. We have a formal theology. And when I put it that way, I get it. I do profess to know and believe God. I truly enjoy talking about the Bible and its implications for our lives. In fact, I do this every week on the Daily Grace podcast. I also do it nearly every day with my children around the kitchen table! So yes, I may not have an official degree from a seminary, but I am a theologian. I am a layperson (someone not in vocational ministry), and I have a formal theology.

And this is important because how we live day in and day out attests to what we believe is true. It’s our practical theology. Often, our formal theology (what we profess to believe) and our practical theology (how we actually live) don’t jive. There’s often an incongruency there. If you’re like me, this can frustrate you. But friend, don’t let your frustration weaken your passion and pursuit of strengthening your formal theology. Trust that God, the One who gives us new life in Christ, is also the One who enables growth (sanctification).

God does not ask us to pull up our bootstraps and try harder. Sanctification is “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC, Question 35). It is a work of God’s grace in our lives! But this does not mean we are passive in the process. No, when we truly understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are compelled to pursue holiness. We put in every effort while being wholly dependent on God.

Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Friends, we can begin to grow in our theology as laypeople with our minds. It’s tempting to jump to behavior modification. Following a step-by-step method seems easier than engaging our minds and allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us. Sanctification (true transformation into Christlikeness) is slow, and we don’t like it. But let us yield to the way God designed for growth to happen. Our formal theology can and should shape our practical theology.

You may be wondering how this can look like in the life of a layperson. Maybe your life looks a lot like mine: tending to the needs of my children; doing menial (but important) home management tasks; nurturing connection with family, friends, and neighbors; etc. You may not be in a season of enrolling in formal schooling (seminary) to grow in your understanding of God. Honestly, you may never be! But this is no reason to neglect your formal theology. There are things you can do right where you are. 

1.         Read the Bible. There is no substitute for God’s Word. It is the primary way God speaks to us. It is alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). The Holy Spirit uses the Word to renew our minds and sanctify us (John 17:17). It is no empty word; in fact, we can trust that the Word will do exactly what God purposes for it to do in our lives, every single time (Isaiah 55:11). It is given to us by God for our reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). God uses it to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17, Ephesians 2:10). The question is: are we reading it? It doesn’t have to be complicated; pick a reading plan! You can select a plan that fits your season of life; check out Seasons in the Word if you need help choosing one! 

2.         Study the Bible. Studying Scripture is a separate discipline. This is where you dig into God’s Word for depth. It can look different from person to person, but the heart is to slow down so that you can carefully read with the goal of comprehensive, accurate interpretation and then personal life application. Maybe this looks like doing a Bible study at your local church or with a group of your friends. Maybe it looks like working through a study on the book of the Bible (there are many at The Daily Grace Co.) on your own during nap time. Maybe it looks like spending 30 extra minutes whenever you get to a new book of the Bible in your reading plan to consider the historical and cultural context of the book and doing a simple word study (Blue Letter Bible is a great, user-friendly resource). Maybe it looks like spending a little extra time at the end of the book of the Bible to consult commentaries to answer lingering questions that you have (check out Precept Austin for a collection of commentaries organized by books of the Bible). Don’t think you can’t study the Bible because you can’t be in a group. While there are benefits of studying Scripture with other believers, each believer’s primary legwork should be done individually.

3.         Be a Member of a Local Church. Each of us will individually give an account before the Lord. However, this doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us to figure it out on our own. He has created us to live in covenant community. You may never go to seminary, but the pastor of your church has. The main job of a pastor is to faithfully proclaim the Word of God. He is there to help you (and other members of your church) to rightly handle the Word (2 Timothy 2:15). He is to shepherd the flock. The elders of your church are there to help and protect you as you progress in your journey of sanctification. Receive the help and guidance of your local church in strengthening your formal theology!

4.         Focus on Your Habits. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly forming habits (passively or actively). In a sense, our lives are a compilation of our habits. So stop and think about it: what are your everyday habits? Do your habits attest to your values? Often, we only think about our bad habits, but what if we spent more energy cultivating good habits? What if we worked on the habit of paying attention to what matters for eternity; the habit of giving thanks (rather than complaining); the habit of trusting in God (rather than doubting His goodness); the habit of remembering His faithfulness (rather than worrying if He’ll show up and provide)? These are good habits that will help you align your formal and practical theology! And life-giving habits are the key to fortifying your formal theology. Think how your spiritual life would be strengthened if you had the habit of reading and studying the Word and communing with the Lord in prayer every day? Consider your habits and reorder them so they’ll grow your theology.

5.         Consider Taking Seminary Classes for Free. You may have the time or means to attend seminary, but many seminaries offer free classes! Here is a library of free classes offered by a variety of seminaries. Ligonier also offers many interactive video courses that you can take at your own pace.

6.         Wisely choose secondary resources. In this day and age, the number of secondary (or extra-biblical) resources at our fingertips is vast. Honestly, it can be overwhelming. We need to exercise wisdom and discernment in our choosing. If you’re unsure, ask your pastor or a trusted mentor in your church! But just remember: secondary resources are helpful, but they become harmful when they become our primary resource for theological growth. They should never replace the Word of God. Aside from the resources already mentioned, here are some helpful resources to check out: Theology Thursday sessions on Instagram (from The Daily Grace Co. and Amy Gannett); Theology Basics Course led by Phylicia Masonheimer; podcasts (Daily Grace, Journeywomen, Knowing Faith, and more); and ministries such as Desiring God.  

No matter what season of life you’re in, you’re in a season to grow in your knowledge and love for God. This is what you are here for: to know God and make Him known. You are to glorify God in all you do; it doesn’t matter what specific responsibilities fill your days. Finally, remember: you have a formal theology. You are a theologian! The question is: are you a good one?

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