Theological Education and the Spread of the Gospel: Antithetical?

Theological Education and the Spread of the Gospel: Antithetical? May 20, 2016
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This morning at General Conference, we saw a heated debate about providing much, much more money for theological education in Africa. The statement kept coming up about how fast the church is growing there.

The call for far more funding for advanced theological studies there suggests that many African clergy may not have anywhere near the amount of theological education that is considered normal or necessary for pastors in the US.

So, I tweeted: “Could it be that the African church is growing so rapidly because they don’t have theologically educated clergy?”

Naturally, I got pushback. One highly educated United Methodist whose blogs are an exercise in learned insistence on theological purity called me racist and colonist because of my statement.

I replied, “How many have you brought to Christ by your emphasis on theological purity?” Of course, I’ve gotten a snarky comment in return which I choose not to answer because I don’t want to get into a 140 character p******* contest with a known twitter bully.

I’ve spent my life studying the Bible and theology. The more I study, the less I know. The more I seek to find the “right” answers, the less I believe there are a set of “right” answers.

I long ago entered the “cloud of unknowing,” utterly grateful for grace, centering my life on the hope of redemption offered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

I also know that I was more passionate about “witnessing” and doing all I could to help facilitate multiple conversions for Christ when I “knew” far less.

I was able to do this when my theology was simple, unquestioned, and essentially handed to me in the form of a small booklet and a series of memorized talks along with my own story of entering the kingdom.

Does this make light of theological education? Well, I happen to love studying theology, but I don’t think very much is necessary when we go to the core of the evangelistic task, “one beggar telling another where to find bread.”

Except for me now, the “bread” has so many nuances and possible flavors and additions that it is even difficult to define “bread.”

I don’t think I’m alone in describing what happens when we go deeper and deeper into theology. How many libraries groan with overloaded shelves of multiple commentaries and arcane arguments over exactly how many angels do dance on the point of a pin?

Personally, I’m awed at what is happening with the Christian Gospel in Africa. There are shadows of what happened when Wesley sent out his circuit riders with their printed sermons meant to be read verbatim in the various chapels. Wesley didn’t expect his preachers to be particularly educated–he just expected them to keep moving and announce what he had already pre-digested for them.

People are hungry for the Good News. They want to know there is hope of emerging from the morass of human messiness and oppression and poverty and hunger and drunkenness and abuse of one another. They want to know that the love of God is theirs to know and experience. They want to know that there is hope of reconnection with themselves, with others, with the divine; that there is a place to be fully known and fully loved.

So, do I think that possibly the spread of the gospel in Africa might not be enhanced by extensive theological education? Well, I think that is their call, not mine. But I have yet to see any direct causative connection between lots of theological education and the growth of the institutional church.

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  • Philip

    I saw your initial twitter post and it reminded me of a conversation I had with a PCA Minister who had been offered an opportunity at a well known school of theology. I asked him why he didn’t take it and he said “The last thing I want to do is sit around and talk theology all day. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but it’s not what I do”. Some do prefer the trenches.

    • jekylldoc

      Could we substitute “the clinics” for “the trenches”? I mean, really. And we could probably do better than that, with some sort of analogy to the disciples sent to share bread and the Kingdom house to house.

      • Philip

        I am sorry, but the Politically Correct playbook is not in my library and I refuse to use it.

        • jekylldoc

          Okay, fair enough.

  • In recent years, with the rise of Calvinism and Systematic Theology in the SBC, there’s a big push on biblical knowledge and an emphasis on theological purity and it really hasn’t done them a lot of good. It’s as if for them, there are certain, specific right answers that all real, true Christians must know by heart and believe with all of their heart. It makes those of us more inclined to believe in Arminianism or who want to ponder the mystery of God automatically ‘wrong’ or ‘heretical’ in their eyes – projects to be re-educated so that our salvation will be ensured as we ‘turn’ from the error of our ways (of thinking for ourselves.)

  • jekylldoc

    I just loved this. I think your questions are right on. I, too, like learning about theology, but I, too, consider it a less-than-practical process. I have often suspected that my interest in theology has more to do with my anxiety to be correct than with my caring for fellow humans, or my relationship with God.

    But that raises another question, namely, why the church doesn’t face up to this learning and do a better job creating a simple, direct alternative to the traditional framework, maintaining the emotional power but locating it directly in the surrendered, self-emptying path that Jesus presented. In my view we have done a better job re-writing Christian Education material than re-writing the appeal to souls.

  • Donald Brown

    You hit the nail on the head. AMEN(2). As a life long Methodist I believe a fancy theological degree does little to impress the working Methodist. I think church growth happens when there is a minister in charge with a burning desire to win souls to Christ and not cluttered with technical arguments in theology.

  • Arlene Adamo

    Interesting that you were called a racist and colonist for posing a question that was just the opposite. Strict theology has traditionally been used by Europeans as a way of culturally, economically and politically dominating various peoples around the world.

  • Kathryn Braun Fenner

    I am an Episcolutheran, who gets so weary of the theological debates (so often used to justify positions that just don’t, to me, seem like what Jesus would have done) and adherence to all the liturgical niceties, while the poor and weak of the congregation go wanting, not to mention the poor and weak outside the congregation. I encountered the same old black groundskeeper on the university campus before sunrise this morning. He always has some simple blessing, like “let God’s light be in your life today”–and I walk away feeling so uplifted, rather than angry and frustrated

  • Jerry Lynch

    The theological debates and call for its purity put the names of men, not Christ, on the gospel: Wesley and Luther and Calvin–“Oh, my!” As should be obvious, purity is only of the heart not of the words. I, too, love studying theology and a broad spectrum of spirituality. And one morning as I sat at my desk by my bedroom window pondering and probing I became aware of the sun on my hand. This prompted me to look out the window, where I noticed two things: spring had already sprung and my neighbor was standing over his idle lawnmower looking perplexed. I chuckled, got up and had a wonderful and fulfilling day in the cool air and the warmth of helping.