Don't apologize for being smart

August 5th, 2015

There are a variety of gifts, says Paul. We identify many that are essential for the church: leadership, generosity, prophecy, teaching, communication, hospitality and so on. I have never experienced any anti-generosity attitudes. Although people might be inhospitable, they don’t profess anti-hospitality or anti-kindness.

But I’ve seen plenty of anti-intellectualism.

Smart Christians are everywhere. Some of them are well-educated and have advanced degrees from institutions of higher learning. Many others have doctorates from the school of life. I’m blessed in that I get to pastor a lot of them. In planting a church “for sinners, saints, and skeptics,” we have indicated from the beginning that we do not believe in making folks check their brains at the door. We welcome questions and critical inquiry.

Anti-intellectualism has a long and ugly history in religious tradition. Although plenty of saints and theologians have demonstrated that faith and reason can be happy partners and support each other, history and our lived experience show that anti-intellectualism is stubbornly persistent in the church.

Many smart Christians I talk to have stories about their own Galileo or Scopes Monkey Trial experience, where a family member, teacher or pastor told them to stop asking critical questions about their faith. One of my childhood friends tells about asking his third-grade Sunday school teacher, “If Adam and Eve were the first human beings God created, where did the women come from who married Cain and Seth?” He was told that asking such questions would lead him to hell.

It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of anecdotes as the unfortunate behavior of a few fundamentalists, but in my conversations with people who have been hurt, turned off or burned by churches in the past, I’ve found that they are quite common across the political and theological spectrum. Insecure Christians are challenged by tough questions, and they will attack the faith, motivations, salvation and ethics of inquisitive Christians for simply speaking up. This kind of anti-intellectualism has driven more than a few people away from church for good.

It’s important to name anti-intellectualism for what it is: personal anxiety. It is psychological, not theological. Some adults have trouble admitting they don’t know something to children. Insecure leaders may have problems confessing their ignorance or confusion. Some of us are so competitive that we can’t stand not being the smartest person in the room or the center of attention. But when ignorance finds ways to justify itself with theology, it hurts everyone.

Another Christian I know told me about how her faith tradition taught her to be suspicious of her gut feelings and her reason. Both, she had been taught, are corrupted by sin. Only the Holy Bible, the Word of God, is pure enough to trust completely. Specifically, one particular narrow interpretation of that Word.


In my conversations with bright believers, I hear about a few scriptures that get deployed to justify anti-intellectualism. Paul says humility is a virtue, and that Christians ought not to think of themselves more highly than others (Romans 12:3). Jesus says that we should not seek to lord over other people, but to serve them (Matthew 20:25-28). The mind of humans makes plans, but the Lord directs the steps (Proverbs 16:9), and God chose what was foolish to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Intellectualism, which is valued by “the secular world,” can lead people to pride, which is often considered the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins.

Having internalized these things, many smart Christians apologize for being smart. They hide their light under a bushel basket and deny their gifts, afraid that if they publicly expose themselves as thinking people, they will be told they are showing off, or giving glory to themselves instead of God, or that they think they are better than other Christians. They carry this fear even though many of them are the most humble, servant-hearted people I know. They hold back in public conversation or in Bible study because they don’t want to come off as know-it-alls, they don’t want to dominate conversations and they don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings.

In my experience, these bright Christians are also the first to admit when they are wrong. They see their lives as a constant journey of exploration and learning new things. They are smart because they admit when they are wrong, they make mistakes, and they learn from them. They care enough to work on both their character and intellect.

In “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis wrote that humility is not about beautiful people imagining they are ugly and clever people trying to believe they are fools. Humility is learning to rejoice in all people’s gifts, in the gift of the world and of life itself. Intellectual Christians are in love with life and want to learn all they can about it — and to share that joy with others.

Sure, some smart people are jerks. I know some smart Christians who are socially unaware, and don’t recognize, for example, when they are burying a conversation under a blanket of biblical or theological trivia. It is possible to have a high IQ (intelligence) and a low EQ (emotional intelligence). And, of course, there is a difference between being smart and being wise. But I find that, in general, smart people in church speak up too little — not too much.

Indeed, when Jesus tells his followers not to be like salt that loses its flavor, the Greek word translated as “lose flavor,” can also mean to become dull or foolish. It’s where we get the word “moron.” Such salt is not even fit for the manure pile (Luke 14:35). In other words, salty believers, don’t lose your edge — don’t become fools!

I do not imagine Jesus would tell his followers not to argue against stupid ideas or policies. I do not think God is glorified when we hide our gifts, or when we silence others or allow them to be silenced for anti-intellectual reasons.

Jesus does give advice to Christians about when to shut up: “Don’t throw your pearls before swine, or they will turn and maul you” (Matthew 7:6). The idea, I think, is not to waste your time with folks who don’t appreciate what you have to offer. You can offer something of great value to some people and earn only their anger and contempt.

I think the Bible gives practical advice to Christian intellectuals: If you’ve been given the gift of knowledge or wisdom, don’t hide your light. But don’t waste your time where you are not appreciated, and don’t apologize for being smart. Instead, find a community where your gifts are appreciated, and you can use your gifts to benefit the kingdom.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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