I remember a high school science project where we were given a box of toothpicks and a bag of marshmallows with which to construct a bridge that had to be able to hold a certain weight. It is a great exercise because it accurately separates those students who understand how a bridge needs to function from those who only know what a bridge does.
Many people may fail such a test, but we all recognize that an engineer or architect should not only know what a bridge looks like but have an intimate understanding of the inner workings of a bridge.
Where does it need support and how do you leverage the resources and materials at hand to provide maximum strength? This simple science project seeks to explain why missionaries need theological precision on their missions.
I want to set before you three reasons for theological depth and clarity in missions. This is important not only to missionaries but also to churches as they consider how to equip and send missionaries.
This is Your Job
Theological depth and clarity in missions is the very task Jesus gave to the church. Therefore, deep theological understanding is not an optional add-on for the mature but rather the job of every church and every believer.
In his Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus gives his disciples the job of teaching all nations to observe all that he commanded (v. 20). We see this borne out in the ministry of the apostles as well.
When Paul summarizes his ministry among the Ephesian church in Acts 20:27, he says that he has declared to them the “whole counsel of God.” Paul’s work as the evangelist-church-planter par excellence was not just a bare gospel presentation but rather a deep exposition of all that God had revealed in Scripture.
This ministry was the foundation for that fledgling church and the education and preparation for the new elders there. When Paul summarizes his message to a church he has not visited, he writes the book of Romans!
Jesus gives the task of evangelism to the apostles and the church. It is to facilitate deep, rich, robust teaching from the Scriptures. Church history is littered with heretics who taught what the Bible said on most things but faltered on others.
The Problems Are Complex
Another reason missionaries need theological precision is that the problems they faced are exceedingly complex. Discipleship and growth for the Christian is always messier than we would like to think.
However, when the whole congregation is coming from a background devoid of biblical teaching, there are particularly messy and intricate problems that come up.
Amid complex issues, the missionary needs to be able to think clearly and deeply about what is important. They must be able to deal with issues of greatest importance first without ignoring smaller issues. This need is perhaps most immediately seen when considering issues of contextualization (speaking gospel truth in a different context).
What do you do when a believing woman’s unbelieving husband legally takes a second wife with her permission? How do you advise new believers concerning food offered to idols and other questions surrounding pagan festivals?
Is it saving faith for someone to experience healing after praying in Jesus’ name and renouncing all other gods if they have no understanding of sin or the cross?
If you approach questions like these with only your wisdom and opinions you are imperiling yourself as well as other saints for whom Christ died. Scripture gives us guidance for all of these (and more) situations.
The need for theological precision is vital. Each of these is based on something that has happened in our ministry.
The Stakes Are High
Finally, it is important to have theological depth and clarity in missions because lives are at stake. The goal of the missionary is to proclaim the good news of Jesus where it is not known.
They are to make disciples, and plant churches where there is no gospel witness. And because there has been no prior gospel witness, there is an even greater need for theological precision.
Any mistakes in theology may be copied and exaggerated in these new believers and new churches. The theological judgments made by the missionary can affect the church and culture that interacts with the church for generations.
Therefore, great care is needed in discipline, teaching, and caring for the flock of God. This does not mean you need a Ph.D. to be a missionary. Many of Jesus’ apostles were common fishermen. When the apostles spoke, people gathered to listen in wonder.
Anyone who would aspire to the work of missions and church planting should be firmly and deeply rooted in God’s Word and have a robust understanding of theology, the gospel, and the church.
Paul gives instructions for the frontier mission leaders in Crete in Titus 1:9. Along with character qualifications (see also 1 Timothy 3:1–7), they must be able to instruct in sound doctrine and be equipped to refute those who contradict. May we aspire to great gospel depth so that the nations may hear the gospel clearly and praise our great God!