The Gospel Coalition and the Persistent Problem of Theological Colonialism

Vinoth Ramachandra draws our attention to a striking example of the persistent problem of theological colonialism. The Gospel Coalition’s International Outreach has announced astrategic effort to export their theological perspective globally, so that pastors in theologically famished (yes, that’s the term they use) areas of the globe can utilize the resources of the educated West, Reformed theological world to strengthen their congregations. Here’s the actual description of the project from the Gospel Coalition website:

Imagine being a pastor of a local church in Asia, Africa, or South America. You are trying to shepherd a small congregation, but have little access to formal education. Your understanding of the basic truths of the Bible is greatly lacking. You own only a few books of questionable value. Internet access is not reliable. And yet, every week, you are responsible for feeding and leading your local church. You and your congregation members are struggling to experience the life-changing power of the Gospel.

I understand that these folks actually mean well. But does this not sound a bit…well…paternalistic? Ethnocentric, even? “You and your congregation members are struggling to experience the life-changing power of the Gospel,” so let us help you do that by giving you our theological interpretation of the Bible (which interpretation represents a rather narrow slice of Christian history). I would imagine that any number of pastors in Asia, Africa, or South America might testify that their congregations are in fact experiencing the life-changing power of the Gospel–perhaps in ways that might even make many congregations in America jealous.

Furthermore, they are doing their own theologizing, too. One thing I became aware of when I started teaching theology is the wonderfully rich and growing–but overlooked by many American evangelicals–theological reflection being done all across the globe. These are theologies that are not just “foreign missionary” driven, but indigenous, local theologizing from within the culture itself in response to God’s work in their midst and in response to their own wrestling with God’s revelation in their context. 

I suppose the Gospel Coalition might not agree with this, but all theology is contextual theology–even, the white, male, Reformed kind. Perhaps the very best thing we can do to try to help facilitate the “life-changing power of the Gospel” is to encourage Christians to theologize for themselves and yes, to offer tools for so doing when appropriate. But insofar as we neglect to understand the contextuality of our own theologies, we will be tempted to assume our perspective is universal, normative, and devoid of blind spots–and devolve into ethnocentric, colonialist behavior toward others.

Given my own experience in white evangelical academic institutions (college and seminaries) and the homogeneity of our theological literature, my suggestion, then, is that there is less of a need for an exporting of white, male, Reformed theology globally (to these theologically impoverished pastors!) than there is a need for the importing of non-Western theological perspectives, so as to deepen, challenge, and enrich our American evangelical theological understanding. What if the finances and other investments proposed for this initiative could be instead used for helping indigenous pastors publish a Kenyan Christology, a Haitian eschatological, a Dalit Indian anthropology–and then importing those theologies into Western churches and seminaries?

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