Last week, I shared some observations gained from a busy summer of teaching internationally. I received a number of replies, both supportive and questioning, that merit some further clarifications. Let me say categorically—I unequivocally support church planting! But I also believe in theological education. Both have their place in world evangelism. My goal last week was not to argue against church planting, but to argue for theological education. I have personal reasons for doing so. In addition to my own teaching at a seminary, my son is raising support to return to Africa to be involved in theological education. I also urge my students to consider this ministry path. I think theological education abroad is an urgent need.
Some pastors will choose not to support this kind of ministry, either because they prefer to support church planters or because they believe that supporting anything other than church planting is to miss the biblical mandate. My goal last week was a simple one—to challenge the view that theological education is separate from church planting and thus not part of the biblical mandate. This view is both a misunderstanding of what church planting entails and what theological education is meant to do.
Theological education is an integral part of the church planter’s mission. If we take the New Testament holistically, we must remember that Paul told Timothy that he was to look for trustworthy men to whom he could pass on the truths that he had learned from the Apostle (2 Timothy 2:2). These men were pass on what they had learned from Timothy to other like-minded men who “will teach others also.” An ideal way to accomplish this task is through a formal program of theological training.
I am not arguing that there is not still a great need for church planters. The need is greater now than ever before. The 10/40 window is filled with unreached people groups who desperately need frontline church planters. However, theological education should receive the same consideration for local church missions funds because the West will simply never be able to supply enough boots-on-the-ground church planters to penetrate every village and hamlet in the world. Theological education will facilitate church planting through a multiplication effort, rather than simply adding more church planters. Think of theological education as an application of the old adage, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him a meal. Teach and man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.” Sending individual fisherman will never harvest the abundance of fish. We need to train more fishermen! More fish will be caught if we train more local fishermen who know the waters, the habits, and the habitats of the fish. Theological education is not an end in itself, but it is a necessary component to raising up a generation of biblically qualified pastors and teachers in a given culture.
I am also not arguing for the necessity of a Western model of seminary education in every place. I recognize the need for indigenous efforts in education. But what does this look like? How do we offer ministerial training within a local culture that is both true to the Bible and crafted to work in the culture of the learners? This topic has been the subject of much discussion by mission practitioners and it would be impossible to cover the topic adequately here. I would suggest this—we need to train a generation of national educators who can teach biblical ministry within their respective cultures. What this means and how this will be accomplished may vary from field to field. As a stopgap, Westerners carrying their knowledge abroad and offering classes on the mission fields of the world may provide some immediate training until a generation of African, Indian, and Chinese professors can be raised up. I even challenged the national students in my classes this summer with the possibility that they could do a better job than I could in communicating to their respective cultures. I hope God will raise up such men!
Is our Western model of education the best approach to training Christian leaders in other nations? I have struggled with this as I have traveled abroad. Do my African brethren really need a discussion of Tertullian or Charles Haddon Spurgeon? They would say yes, and they eagerly pursue this knowledge. Moreover, teaching church history gives me an opportunity to teach theology. All men everywhere need to study theology. Also, keep in mind that there are several levels of education at home and abroad. Some brethren would be best taught at an institute level. Others are capable of receiving deeper teaching at a collegiate level, and still others will grasp rich truths at a seminary level. If we are to raise up indigenous teachers, we need some who know Greek and Hebrew, systematic theology, historical theology, and apologetics. These are not Western categories. Remember that the first systematic theologian, Origen, was African. Tertullian was an apologist and he was African. Moreover, Scriptural truth is propositional and transcultural. In the absence of something better, I am committed to do what I can to train good national men who desire to serve God better.
Some cultures do not have sufficient numbers of potential candidates to merit a training program. In these locales, church planting will necessarily take priority. In many countries, there are many good men who want theological education. Some are countries closed to Western church planters but may be open to educators. So again I would urge, as men commit themselves to world missions, some need to give serious thought to become missionary educators—not to replace church planting, but to assist both church planters and national believers in building local churches that will reach their cultures for Christ. Western churches need to support these kinds of efforts. Sola Deo Gloria!
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
O My Soul, What Means This Sadness?
John Fawcett (1740–1817)
O my soul, what means this sadness?
Wherefore art thou thus cast down?
Let thy griefs be turn’d to gladness,
Bid thy restless fears be gone;
Look to Jesus
And rejoice in his dear name.
What tho’ Satan’s strong temptations
Vex and grieve thee day by day?
And thy sinful inclinations
Often fill thee with dismay?
Thou shalt conquer,
Thro’ the Lamb’s redeeming blood.
Tho’ ten thousand ills beset thee,
From without and from within,
Jesus saith he’ll ne’er forget thee,
But will save from hell and sin:
He is faithful
To perform his gracious word.
Tho’ distresses now attend thee,
And thou tread’st the thorny road,
His right hand shall still defend thee;
Soon he’ll bring thee home to God!
Therefore praise him—
Praise the great Redeemer’s name.
O that I could now adore him
Like the heavenly host above,
Who for ever bow before him
And unceasing, sing his love!
When shall I your chorus join?