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?

  • Andrew Dowling

    “But does this not sound a bit…well…paternalistic?”

    Hahaha . . .the Gospel Coalition being condescending and paternalistic? I can’t believe my ears. Say it isn’t so!

  • Susan_G1

    amen! and again, amen! The last thing this world needs is for more under the oppressive umbrella of TGC.

  • Nick Atmore

    Speaking from a South African context, it is not uncommon to find churches that have mixed Christianity with tribalism and ancestor worship, and in fact the most influencial American theological export has been the prosperity gospel, for example Benny Hynn has filled stadiums and collected vast amounts of money on trips down here. We need help with these issues as they are corroding the african church from within.

    • Fadziso Hannah Choto

      Also from S.A., so get what you’re saying. The church here absolutely needs a more clear revelation of the gospel, but we can’t patch up one ‘American export’ with another, ie what TGC has on offer. We also can’t assume that anything that isn’t the ‘prosperity gospel’ therefore must be good and true…

    • theblackcommenter

      hmm… I get what you’re saying but it sounds strikingly similar to what I imagine the earliest Jewish Christian leaders might have said about the churches in Asia Minor, or later what Roman Christians said about the church in Ireland. Is the combining of the christian gospel with pre-existing pagan understanding something permissible in the European past only, so that Christmas trees, Thors-day, and ‘national churches’ (i.e. the church of England) are somehow made right by the passage of time?

  • Glen McGraw

    I wholeheartedly agree. I can honestly say I have gained greater knowledge by reading books and articles from pastors and theologians in South America, Europe, and Africa than I could have gained reading the same American authors over and over. These authors see the Gospel through a different lens than I had been exposed to and have opened doors to a fuller Gospel. Add to this a reading of a womans’s or feminist theology and I have become more rounded for my efforts.

    While GCIO has their plans and motives, I would argue we can each make a difference by broadening our horizons and studying wider materials with an open mind.

  • Simon Hall

    I thought these people believed in the Bible? Are they saying that without the proper ‘education’ people won’t see things their way? Oh dear… Is it the canon or Calvin’s Institutes that are the Word of God? So confusing…

    However, the comments about the prosperity gospel and excessive cultural syncretism are well-made. Maybe those of us in the west should take the log out of our own eye first. I’m slowly learning that the best way to talk about sin is to talk about our own rather than someone else’s.

  • Rick

    I don’t disagree with your overall concern of just limited theological education, but the tone here, and in some of the comments (“oppressive”) hurts the cause of unity. The goal of TGC is not done out of bad motives. Keep that in mind.

    • kylearoberts

      Rick, thanks for your comment. I accept your caution about tone. My post may have come off a bit edgier than I intended. But–in response to your point about good motives–I think it is important to keep motives in mind. I mention in my post that these folks surely have “good intentions.” Yet, we must distinguish intentions from impact. Good intentions do not always–or often–temper negative impact. For theological education to be done well, and as a condition for “exporting” a theological perspective globally, I think there needs to be a big dose of epistemological humility involved as well as an in-depth recognition of the contextuality of all theology as a starting place (and an accompanying realization that the “Next Christendom,” to use Phillip Jenkins term, should moderate how we think of global theological discipleship/interactivity from the Euro-American setting.

  • Brad

    There is an equal danger in disregarding and disdaining the western church as well. We have a lot to learn from the international church – or more probably, to be reminded of – and that often gets ignored. But do we really have nothing to offer the church abroad? Poppycock. Sure, there are distortions and unhealthy doctrines as well, but consider this. The western church has about 2 millenia of unbroken reflection on the Bible and its meaning. Much of, for example, the Asian church has only a few decades. Along the road mistakes have been made, but lots of other things have been right and are part of the heritage of the western church. Should all of that be disregarded? Surely the church detached from the west gets a lot of things wonderfully right, but they also make a lot of silly mistakes that the western church hasn’t made for centuries. I say this as someone who has traveled and ministered in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Are we supposed to think that nothing of value has accrued in the west through all that time that would be of benefit to the developing church in other places that have no such heritage? That strikes me as silly – no, worse than that, but silly is the most charitable way to put it. The sneering tone of many of the comments shows exactly the kind of disdain and disregard I’m concerned about, though it’s much less prominent in the author’s essay.

    • Tony Simoncini

      Brad,

      The Gospel Coalition article states…

      “You and your congregation members are struggling to experience the life-changing power of the Gospel”.

      What part of this sounds like a group from the west who feel like they can help some pastors out deepen their theological framework to help them reach people for the kingdom?

      I’m sorry but this speaks to the enormous egotistical problem of a reformed movement that believe in a Holy Spirit-less trinity. I’m pretty sure it was Jesus who said the Holy Spirit would teach us all things in John 14… and in 1 John 2:27 speaking of the Holy Spirit in regards to this teaching the scripture says, “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

      Seems to me Jesus was satisfied the Holy Spirit would be able to do the job of “life transformation” without the wests 2 millennia of reflection on the bible and its meaning.

      I’m not saying that we all can’t learn something from just about anyone when it comes to the things of our God… but to say that people are struggling to experience the life changing power of the gospel because you don’t have the right training or the right books in your library is just… poppycock if you ask me : )

      Peace

      • Brad

        Wait – which is it? First of all there are also lots of verses that talk about studying to show ourselves approved, learning to give a defense, testing prophecies and teachings, demolishing bad arguments, adding knowledge to our faith, devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, and on and on. One can hardly say the Bible is anti-intellectual or that it has a “just trust the Spirit” attitude overall. Was Arius just being led by the Spirit? Was there really no benefit to the reflection that led to the ecumenical creeds?

        But then there seems to be an inconsistency in what you are saying. Fine, TGC may be out to lunch and probably is. I’m not interested in defending them. But I’m concerned about an attitude that is dismissive of the progress that God in his sovereignty has guided the west through, and which ought to be offered as a heritage to ALL Christians, not just western ones. But here’s the inconsistency: if you’re right, and everything we need to learn just comes directly from the Spirit, then it should also be true that we have nothing to learn from the church in the developing world. It can’t be the case that the HS is all we need for understanding AND that we have so much to learn from the international church AND that they have little or nothing to learn from us.

        By the way, I didn’t mean to reply specifically to your post, that was just an accident. I’m not too savvy that way. ;)

        • Tony Simoncini

          Brad,

          No worries, I like the discussion!

          I don’t think anyone is saying that good training isn’t appropriate or worth the time and energy in all parts of the world and in different cultures. However, there is something to be said about the West coming into a culture and telling them all that they have learned, when often its learned in a western context that won’t fit in Africa, India, etc.

          For me the tone of the article is way off base. Indicating that they have not experienced the life transforming gospel because they don’t have what we have isn’t appropriate nor will it be received well in most parts of the world. Its this statement that I made reference to the Holy Spirit being our teacher. And, No I don’t think we need all that the west has figured out to experience the life transforming Gospel of Jesus. His kingdom reigns even in places that don’t have all the information the west has… some would even argue that our western post-enlightenment mindset often serves to get in the way of God’s kingdom rather than further it.

          Now, we can go back and forth all day long, but one thing the GC and others can do is go to a place like Africa and work with or assist in what is already happening and maybe that includes helping educate and train pastors in theology among other things. However, I chose to go to a seminary that taught me how to think and do theology, not what to think and regurgitate their theology. I believe this is the ultimate heart of the post by Dr. Roberts. Do we really need more people from the west going to far off places telling them what to think… or should the teaching focus on training them how to think and thus do great and proper theology?

          Peace

        • Kyle Roberts

          Brad, if your concern is really with affirming the value of the “Western theological tradition” in general, and it’s not with the Gospel Coalition’s particular project of addressing “theological famine” (the subject of my post) then I’m not sure why you’re arguing here. I’m not talking about “the Western tradition” as a whole or asserting there is no place for dialogue between Western and non-Western perspectives (the pervasiveness of the western influence makes that seemingly inevitable, in any case). I’m simply saying that what I know of the GC–and what I read in the paragraph I quoted–suggests that more awareness is needed of the contextually of all theology (and the epistemological humility that goes with that) and more acknowledgment of the implications of the “Next Christendom” on Western theological mission. Your suggestion that the GC is “probably out to lunch” is odd, given that the GC’s initiative (and no other) is the subject of my post–which post you are vigorously arguing against (though I’m used to your opposition by now).

        • FHC1990

          Hi Brad

          I’ve been following your discussion with Tony, and this is quite late so I’m not sure whether you’ll see it but I’ll write it anyways. You wrote “But I’m concerned about an attitude that is dismissive of the progress that God in his sovereignty has guided the west through, and which ought to be offered as a heritage to ALL Christians, not just western ones.” As a young, black, African (born, raised, never left) woman, I feel a little jumpy at that phrase re: ‘God in His sovereignty’ guiding the West. As I’m sure you know from your experience in various countries, the West didn’t always bring the pure gospel by itself. Many times they also brought systems of discrimination based on race, systems which in some countries have only recently been dismantled. And these systems were justified using the gospel, sadly, and were based on the idea of the West having something ‘better’ and the assumption that God had sent them there to teach the ignorant natives. Unfortunately the underlying result of this has been a situation where no gospel is taken seriously unless endorsed by a white, western teacher. I am sure this was not God’s intention, but a result of man’s sinfulness. That said, millenia of Christendom mean nothing without a true display of God’s love. As it is, the Western Church brings with it years of baggage in its dealings with third world countries, and with that in mind I think it would be important for the West (specifically TGC) to stop and reassess their project to end ‘theological famine.’ That said, I can personally testify that the one American teacher I listen to hardly quotes any book outside the Bible, yet his teaching has encouraged in me a love of the scripture and his ministry here is completely transforming lives with little more than Bibles and free resources based exclusively on scripture.


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