“They don’t need us to give them a bunch of theology or doctrine. That’ll slow us down! We just need to focus on reaching people for Christ!”
Statements like these are common in missions parlance. With nearly 7000 unreached people groups in the world today, the work of missions is exceedingly urgent. Why slow down the work of missions by spending time on theological training, hermeneutics, and ecclesiology? Why not shorten and condense our disciple-making processes through a faster, more strategic model? Or better yet, why not simply let the Holy Spirit show new converts and churches how to live?
It’s great to desire to see the gospel advance rapidly, and many mission workers live with a sense of urgency that is often lacking in churches today. Sadly, however, this well-meaning urgency in missions has given rise to pragmatic approaches that downplay the importance of sound doctrine and theological training. The need for speed reduces the work of evangelism and discipleship to a “bare minimum” so that masses are baptized, numerous churches are planted, and leaders are quickly appointed with little-to-no training.
The problem is that such “bare minimum” approaches are neither biblical nor fruitful in the long-term. Scripture places a heavy emphasis on the centrality of sound doctrine in the life of the church. The apostles labored intensively to strengthen the earliest Christian congregations in sound doctrine and to raise up leaders who were theologically capable of defending the faith. The biblical mandate for sound doctrine and theologically robust leadership stems from two primary concerns.
The Mandate to Make Disciples
First, in the Great Commission, Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples” of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything He commands (Matthew 28:18–20). In our missionary endeavors, we have been commissioned not simply to make converts but to make disciples who obey Jesus’ commands. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s commands include loving God with all one’s mind (Matthew 22:37), observing the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26–29), practicing church discipline (Matthew 18:18–20), and living out the entire Sermon on the Mount, which includes being able to discern between true and false teaching (Matthew 7:15–20).
The Great Commission’s call to obedience must not be confused with church-planting approaches that place a premium on new disciples being commanded to obey a series of directives from the church-planter. Instead, the fulfillment of Jesus’s commission takes time and requires the hard work of theological training to forge a Christian worldview and identity for new disciples. Such labor is precisely what we see in the rest of the New Testament.
Jesus himself invested three years in teaching his disciples prior to the cross, and then after his resurrection, he spent a significant amount of time teaching them about the kingdom of God and showing them how all the Scriptures point to him (Luke 24:44–47; Acts 1:3). The apostle Paul, the greatest missionary church-planter in history, did not adopt a “bare minimum” approach in the planting of new churches. Even as the gospel advanced to Gentiles, Paul ensured that new converts from paganism were well-grounded in the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Paul was deeply concerned for the theological solidity of churches as evinced by the extent of doctrinal instruction in epistles like Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Paul knew that the knowledge of the gospel of God, in all its biblical-theological depth and fullness, produces a people obedient in “word and in deed” (Romans 15:18). He proclaimed Christ and toiled to present “every man mature in Christ,” admonishing and teaching with all wisdom (Colossians 1:28). Paul also sought to raise up elders who were theologically adept and confessionally grounded, men who were of godly character, able to instruct others (2 Timothy 2:2; 1 Timoth 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). In our labors in missions and church-planting, should we do any less? Some might argue that leaving new believers with a Bible and the Holy Spirit is sufficient for their growth. But this argument overlooks the fact that God uses means to equip His people, and His means include evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11–14).
The Call to Guard Christ’s Sheep
A second and increasingly urgent reason that theological training and sound doctrine ought not to be neglected in missions is the need to guard Christ’s sheep against false teaching. The emergence and propagation of heresies in the early church was of great concern to the apostles. The New Testament is replete with warnings against false teachers–wolves in sheep’s clothing, men of ungodly character–who teach what people’s itching ears want to hear (Mattew 7:15–20; Acts 20:28–31; Romans 16:17–18; 1 Timothy 1:6–7; 6:3–10; 2 Timothy 2:15–19; 4:1–4; Titus 1:10–16; Hebrews 13:9; 2 Peter 2:1–22; 1 John 2:18–23; 2 John 7–11). Indeed, the early church was threatened as much by heresies within its ranks as by persecution from the outside.
And it is no different in our day. The advent of satellite TV and broadband Internet over the last few decades has allowed for unhindered gospel proclamation all over the globe. On the other hand, the internet has been the conduit for the propagation of false teaching and heresies to the uttermost parts of the earth. Even churches in remote and far-flung villages are not immune to the cancer of the prosperity gospel and other demonic doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1).
The demand for speed and urgency in missions—the emphasis on “rapid church-planting movements”—has sadly given rise to weak and vulnerable churches that are quickly devoured by rapacious wolves. This is why, both in the New Testament and today, a fundamental component of a pastor’s role is to protect the sheep (Acts 20:28–29). Church leaders must be equipped to teach sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). At the very least, this implies the ability to understand, articulate, and defend a confession of faith.
The sheep need shepherds who are able to identify and ward off wolves.
Missions is urgent, but so is the need to protect Christ’s sheep, those whom He has purchased with His own blood. We are commissioned to make disciples. Sound doctrine and trained leaders are needed as much in Sub-Saharan Africa as in suburban America, in the jungles of Peru as much as in the megacities of India and China. Let us labor hard–with urgency–proclaiming the “whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27), and let us train leaders who will do likewise.