Should we teach Greek and Hebrew to young pastors in the villages of Outer Mongolia? Should church leaders in the middle of the Amazon basin wrestle with issues of definite atonement, covenant theology, or church polity? Do villagers in the Serengeti need to understand the difference between person and essence, and be warned of the dangers of Arianism?
I suspect many who’d argue in principle that robust theological education is crucial to the ongoing health and faithfulness of a church belie that view by their actions. Instead, we often settle for a bare-bones version of the gospel and underequip fledgling churches.
Why We Don’t
Far too often, the weight and pressure of life drag us away from our principles into a functional position of pure pragmatics. That pressure only increases as you move into places without any established church or tradition.
When you’ve spent years pouring into a people group and all you have to show for it is a marginal number of conversions and a sputtering church that struggles to grasp evangelism amid a hostile culture, the idea of teaching more robust doctrine might feel laughable.
Not only is teaching this kind of stuff difficult in such an environment, there’s the niggling feeling it isn’t really relevant in this context. Sure, churches in the West might have time for sticky theological questions, but out in the rest of the world real life presses in too much.
When you’re living for survival, it seems you don’t have time to dig all the way down into theology.
Why We Should
I certainly understand those pressures. But my appeal is this: is it not the teaching of God’s Word that will help us stand up under those pressures? We cannot functionally separate the Scriptures into categories of “necessary” versus “luxury” any more than we can separate it into “inspired” versus “uninspired.”
Who could’ve possibly predicted 100 years ago how crucial the issue of human sexuality would become in our culture? And yet here we stand in an era where this has become a defining test of Christian faithfulness. And as biblical sexuality is undermined, so too is the message of the gospel.
At an even deeper level, we cannot divide the Bible into categories of necessity and luxury since it is a united whole. And because it’s united, there is a center in the gospel of Jesus Christ; nothing on the edge is peripheral. As Richard Lints points out in his magnificent work The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Eerdmans, 1993):
Should we not think of the gospel in terms of the whole counsel of God? If the gospel begins with the entire Trinity, should we not consider the person and work of the Father and the Son and the Spirit to be essential to the gospel?
It is a good thing when Christians can communicate the gospel in a couple of minutes. But that cannot be all they have to say about it. The individual doctrines of the Christian faith are inseparable. Years ago J. I. Packer put it well:
One of the theological failings of our age is our habit of isolating individual doctrines for treatment and reconstruction without weighing the full consequences of that reconstruction for the rest of the body of divinity. But Christian theology, both in Scripture and in our own minds, is an organism, a unity of interrelated parts, a circle in which everything links up with everything else; and if we are clearheaded we shall keep in view the long-range implications of each position when evaluating it. . . . Theology is a seamless robe, a circle within which everything links up with everything else through its common grounding in God.
When we’re satisfied with imparting less than “milk” (Heb. 5:13), we doom young churches to immaturity and a faith that will likely cease to be Christian within a generation or two.
Why We Must Be Careful
At this point, a missionary might have several warning bells going off. It might sound like I think the cultural baggage that can hide among our doctrines is insignificant in its potential effect. I don’t.
It is confusing and destructive when Western missionaries insist churches look Western, or assume they must struggle with the same issues we do. Culture does change things. A church’s cultural context will shape the challenges it faces.
But we must not buy into the postmodern narrative that says cultural differences create an enormous gulf only the most apparently crucial doctrines—like salvation through faith in Jesus—can span.
We are not omniscient. We do not know what doctrines will help the church in East Asia, Botswana, or Iran face the challenges that lie ahead, precisely because we don’t know what challenges lie ahead. But we do know the One who knows all those things.
He said all of his Word was God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, for equipping the saints for every good deed (2 Tim. 3:16).
He said that if we love him, we will obey his commands (John 14:5).
And he commanded us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all he commanded us (Matt. 28:18–20).
May we trust him to know better than us what the church will need to be faithful.