Theological education hinders, slows down, even completely paralyzes the mission of the church. Or does it? Missionaries and missiologists have been debating the role of theological education in international missions for years now with some arguing that formal theological education is an integral aspect of missions that has been neglected with the shift to a people group focus and church planting movement methodology.
On the other side, some have argued that formal theological education is not only unnecessary but also harmful to the effort of planting churches and making disciples. I contend that both positions raise valid points, but both also sometimes misunderstand the purpose of theological education.
Theological education is not an end to itself. Instead, the more we learn about the Trinitarian God in Scripture and from other faithful followers of Christ from history, the more that knowledge should propel us into the mission field to share this glorious and good news with others.
The missionary task requires theological education (for missionaries and for nationals).
Theological education is not optional for any Christian. This does not mean that every Christian must attend a Bible College or seminary, but every Christian has an obligation to continually grow in their knowledge of God’s nature and character throughout their life. Most often, this should happen in the context of the local church where this knowledge is not only gained but also lived out. Education could also take place through more formal education methods. Many missionaries and missions-minded pastors have benefited from formal and informal theological education.
"The more we learn about the Trinitarian God in Scripture and from other faithful followers of Christ from history, the more that knowledge should propel us into the mission field to share this glorious and good news with others."
When pastors or missionaries who have benefited from theological education dismiss the importance of theological education, some may perceive this as disingenuous or even arrogant. In most cases, the motives of the missionaries do not reflect these perceptions. The missionaries are driven by fervent eagerness to see the gospel spread, disciples made, and churches planted as quickly as possible. They are driven by the knowledge and conviction that people who die having not confessed faith in Christ as Lord will be eternally separated from God in Hell.
However, at some point in their lives, they were taught this by others in the church and often received further instruction in some kind of formal theological education setting. The command to make disciples who obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19–20) is not a call to discover the bare minimum a disciple must obey but rather to call every disciple to continuously obey in new and deeper ways as they learn more about what Christ has commanded.
Theological education must not be divorced from missions.
Theological education is not neutral towards missions. It either amplifies or hinders missions. When theological education is seen as an end to itself, a person may know Scripture deeply, learn biblical languages, understand various interpretive tools, perhaps even preach Scripture well, all while remaining disobedient to the commands of Christ. Theological education becomes a significant barrier and hindrance to fulfilling the Great Commission when missions ceases to be the purpose of theological education. Instead of making multiplying disciples who are obedient to Jesus, we settle for making scholars. That is, we settle for discipling the mind alone while neglecting a person’s heart and hands.
When theological education is properly aligned towards fulfilling the Great Commission, however, the missionary impulse is amplified. Church members and seminary students alike consistently see how various theological topics call them to missions. Christology reminds us that Christ died for the sins of the whole world—for all peoples in all places. Soteriology directs us to the fact that Christ is the “only name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Pneumatology points to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and affirmation through signs and wonders in the mission of the early church and how the Holy Spirit continues to be present in the spread of the gospel today. Ecclesiology requires us to not only address the need for new churches but what churches should look like in different places. This list could go on much longer, and it must as we consider the role of theological education in missions.
When theological education and missions are done in partnership with one another, missions advances theological thought as the church spreads into new cultural contexts and theological education drives Christians to missional engagement.
Where is theological education needed?
The short answer is everywhere! This does not mean that traditional formal theological education is necessary in all settings, although some settings may call for such an approach. Theological education is especially needed in several key places where the church is either firmly established and more than ready to fulfill their role in Great Commission obedience or where the gospel is spreading rapidly and churches are multiplying beyond the current capacity for leadership. Nigeria and Nepal serve as examples of each case.
Nigeria has been a focus of missionary efforts since the early days of the modern missions movement. Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and is among the top ten most populous countries in the world. Furthermore, the country is anticipated to have the third-largest population in the world by 2050. The population consists of around 50% Christian adherents. Despite such a long history of missionary efforts and such a large segment of the population claiming Christianity, prosperity theology has flourished and Nigerian evangelicals have not had the opportunity to fully embrace the Great Commission task for a variety of reasons. Missions-focused theological education could help fuel a missionary movement from one of the most influential countries in the global south.
"When theological education and missions are done in partnership with one another, missions advances theological thought as the church spreads into new cultural contexts and theological education drives Christians to missional engagement."
Nepal is a relatively newer mission field having opened its borders to outsiders in the 1950s. However, the former Hindu kingdom has the potential to be one of the most important places in the next generation of Great Commission engagement. According to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, Nepal has the largest average annual growth rate of Christians between 1970–2020. Churches are being planted at such a rapid rate that qualified leaders must be trained in ways that both provide them and their churches with much-needed theological education and do not hinder the spread of the gospel throughout Nepal and beyond geographical and cultural boundaries.
Those engaged in providing theological education often feel the pull to meet certain traditional standards of the academy which can lead a person to focus exclusively on scholarship for its own sake. Missionaries who are eager to see the gospel proclaimed, disciples made, and churches planted among unreached people groups may, as a result, consider theological education as harmful to missionary efforts. It is possible to live in the tension between these two positions. The global church needs theological educators who are firmly committed to missionary efforts and missionaries who are firmly committed to training and equipping the next generation of missionaries and theological educators.
Matthew Hirt has a Ph.D. in International Missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served in both pastoral ministry and international missions. He is currently preparing to serve in a theological education capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa where he will train aspiring pastors and missionaries to be obedient to Christ in fulfilling the Great Commission. He is a contributing author and co-editor on the forthcoming book Generational Disciple Making: How Ordinary Followers of Jesus Are Transformed into Extraordinary Fishers of Men. Follow him on Twitter.