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Theology Without Love Equals Nothing in Missions


Early on at Bible college, I met a passionate underclassman. At the time, I was struggling with some sin issues and opened up to him, expecting to receive compassion. Instead, I walked away from our conversation feeling attacked. The man’s theological knowledge had not led him to be compassionate to others. Passion, I discovered, does not always lead to compassion.

I have been just like him at times, wanting to fix others’ theology more than I want to see their hearts changed. The problem is, a right theological understanding in itself will not lead anyone into freedom from sin—only Jesus can do that. When I believe my knowledge is enough, I end up acting like a legalistic sheriff blowing holes in others with my theological six shooter. And there is nothing compassionate about that.

Bible colleges and seminaries teach us how to think about God. But could it be that our theology does not always lead us to love others? In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis says that the disconnect can be found in an underdevelopment of our hearts. The cerebral and visceral parts of humanity are held together by our hearts. Maturity can be found in the connection between what we think and what we do, as informed by the gospel. The Bible calls this connection wisdom.

Wisdom, then, is knowledge of the gospel put into practice. And according to the Bible, here’s what the knowledge of the gospel put into practice looks like: love.

Maturing Missionaries

As many aspiring missionaries move on from Bible college and seminary, having a well-defined theology can help on the way to spiritual maturity. However, it does not always make for wisdom.

In the New Testament we see that the Pharisees knew and believed much truth about God. Hell, and its demons, did too (James 2:19). But it did not lead them to love God, so their knowledge was useless to them. Paul writes, “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1). So, what is the disconnect between what we think and do? Why do we lack wisdom?

When I was a missionary, I often believed that the greatest thing I could do for my national ministry partners was to teach them. After all, I had the theological knowledge and training that they lacked. But my teaching was not always motivated by love. Thus I was able to pass on knowledge, but wisdom—not so much.

As missionaries, when we love God and others, we are being spiritually mature and wise. It is far more important for us to practice love than a strategy or a theological framework. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We teach others this love when we join God in his mission, and lovingly tell others the truth that will set them free (John 8:32). Jesus is that truth.

Maturing National Partners

Our national brothers and sisters will mature when we love them the way Jesus has already loved us. It may seem oversimplified, but I think we often complicate this.

I remember teaching my national ministry partners about leadership, but it was much harder for me to lead them by loving them, especially in light of our cultural differences. Now, I realize that I should have engaged them with my heart and not just my mind. Love is the key. It covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). It is the most compelling part of any gospel presentation, and is the first and primary commandment of the entire Bible.

If we move overseas primarily to inform our national ministry partner’s theology, we may well miss the formation of their hearts. Worse still, we might end up blowing holes in them with our theological guns. As one former missionary said, “theology alone is not a fast-pass to the Spirit’s sanctification”, or to a strategy’s fulfillment. Teaching them to obey Jesus as motivated by love—that’s the strategy.

Wisdom is found in the meshing of our heads and hands by way of our hearts. When what we know drives us to love God and others, we are acting in spiritually mature and wise ways. In this wisdom we can most effectively invest in national partners, in the same way that the Lord does for us. It is in this wisdom that we will lead them to know and love Jesus.

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