Theological education is a necessary component of a church planting strategy. The relevant question in regards to training really pertains to how much is actually needed. Jesus spent three years teaching his followers to lead his church. Is that the standard? In addition to other responsibilities, how much should missionary church planters prioritize equipping those who will lead new church plants?
The Wisdom of God Commands It
Christians are meant to know, obey, and rejoice in the gospel. Christ desires for new churches to be strengthened and flourish. The pattern is displayed in Acts and in Paul’s epistles. Paul urges the necessity of theological education. In the long list of qualifications he sent to Timothy about who should oversee the church, Paul’s one skill requirement is that an elder/pastor must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2).
The qualification to teach speaks to both ability of the teacher and knowledge of the content being taught (1 Tim. 4:16). An elder must know what the church needs to be taught and then replicate that body of knowledge in the lives of other future church leaders. The end goal is the spread of the kingdom, the building up of the church, and the church’s protection from theological error.
The Danger of False Teaching Demands It
Churches with leaders who are unable to correct false doctrine and deal with those who teach it face great danger. False teaching is rampant in today’s world due to the amount of information available to the global church via the Internet and other media that shapes their theology. Only through sound, well-rounded theological education will future church leaders be able to gain the knowledge necessary to wisely discern truth from error.
Additionally, every pastor must give an account to the Lord who set him apart to shepherd his flock (Heb. 13:17). In light of such an awesome reality, any missionary who leaves immature Christians behind to lead a newly planted church is guilty of ministry malpractice. A church planter simply cannot, in good conscience, leave a church with poorly equipped leaders.
While some theological training on the mission field may seem elementary compared to established curriculums in the West, it remains a necessity.
While some theological training on the mission field may seem elementary compared to established curriculums in the West, it remains a necessity. The aim, in every context, is to identify and address the spiritual needs of the new believers and churches there. Some concerns in Western theological education may not be as pressing in other places around the world.
For example, trainers will need to discuss spirits and demons in animistic societies more than in the developed world. Among some peoples, training will require storying rather than a lecture-driven approach focused primarily on transmitting propositional truths. Regardless of the method, the goal is to relay eternal truths of Scripture in order to reshape the worldview of new Christian leaders.
Theological education requires a tremendous amount of hard work on the part of the missionary. The missionary teacher trains, walks alongside, follows up, evaluates, mentors, and encourages the students. Many of the apostle Paul’s colleagues were involved in similar tasks in order to establish new leaders among the churches planted in the first century.
The Testimony of Fruitful Work Commends It
Church leaders who are trained theologically receive the skills and information needed to help them understand and teach the Scriptures to the people of God who are being established in unreached people groups, in hard places, and in megacities. Simply leaving a church leader with the Bible and believing that the missionary has no further role in pastoral training is not only irresponsible but disobedient to the Great Commission.
Christ taught us to make disciples, teaching them to observe everything he commanded. The reason God gives the church gifted elders who are able to teach is for the specific purpose of building up the body of believers to carry out the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11–14).
Still, Theological Education Has Its Critics
A few common criticisms are:
- It’s unnecessary. In cases when theological education is done poorly, it is criticized as being unnecessary. Good training is time-consuming. So, some complain that it slows down movements of the gospel. But when done well, theological education bolsters and sustains movements.
- It fosters elitism. Any form of education has the potential to feed pride, but the solution isn’t to do away with education. To avoid creating “theological snobs,” teaching and training must be humbly conducted with love as the goal.
- The methods are not reproducible. In such cases, missionaries must labor to craft training modules that can be reproduced and address the issues that are most important from Scripture and in the local culture.
Time and effort in theological education are like the sowing of an open, uncultivated field. The hope is that a harvest of joy in knowing and making known the beauty and greatness of our awesome God will be the result. Training equips pastors to instruct their congregation faithfully in the ways of God, to study and understand the Bible for themselves and to display the glory of God in their personal lives and ministries. Theological education is, therefore, not optional, but necessary to a healthy church planting strategy.
Anthony Witten is a long-time worker overseas. In the past fifteen years, he and his wife have served on church planting teams and made disciples through a campus ministry. Currently, Anthony is teaching and training gospel workers at a local seminary in Asia and serving as a catalyst for theological education in the region.