I am a seminary professor and an academic dean at a theological institution. I am passionate about training and equipping men and women for Great Commission work. However, I am well aware that the Bible does not require academic credentials as necessary for service in church leadership or missionary work. One must be careful not to require that men and women possess a certain academic degree to serve Christ’s church and his mission.
With that disclaimer, I now want to share three reasons why I do believe biblical training (formal or informal) is vital for those who desire to be missionaries. It’s not uncommon for me to speak with a high school or college student who is eager to get to the mission field as fast as they can! In one sense, I love the urgency and the passion. And yet, Proverbs tells us, “Even zeal is not good without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily sins (Proverbs 19:2).” Therefore, here are three reasons why I believe missionaries need biblical training.
1. The Precedent from the Bible and History
There is biblical and historical precedent for formal and informal training prior to missionary service. In all matters of theology and practice, the Bible is our supreme guide. In the New Testament, there is a clear pattern of biblical and theological training and preparation for the purpose of ministry. Now, to be clear, we do not find in the New Testament an formalized structure or organization to carry out theological training. In other words, seminaries as we know them today did not exist in the context of the early church. Of course, we also do not find clear examples of church buildings, legal incorporation, youth groups, Christian publishing, or Christian camps. Nevertheless, there is a clear pattern of theological instruction that takes place among disciples and leaders throughout the New Testament.
The disciples of Jesus, the apostle Paul, and Paul’s co-workers were all formally or informally trained and discipled in the context of ministry and mission. From an early age, Jesus seemingly spent considerable time in the temple during the feast of the Passover interpreting, dialoguing, and teaching the Scriptures (Luke 2:41–52). Paul, prior to his conversion, was formally trained as a Pharisee by Gamaliel and was well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. After his conversion, Paul retreated to Arabia for what some believe to be a focused season of training and preparation (Galatians 1:17).
As the church expanded and grew in subsequent centuries, we begin to see more formalized training emerge both inside and outside the context of the local church. The pluralistic and often antagonistic context in which the church found itself necessitated more formal training and preparation. The biblical and historical pattern seems to prioritize a season (or even seasons) of focused training and preparation prior to ministry and missionary work.
2. The Importance of the Church
Missionaries need biblical training because they are helping plant, establish, and strengthen the bride of Christ around the world. I cannot think of a weightier task than helping plant and strengthen local churches. By local churches, I am referring to a collection or group of people redeemed by God who covenant together to proclaim the gospel, practice the ordinances, and live on mission in the world. I believe that local churches are God’s design for rescuing and redeeming this lost world to himself. The local church is precious to the Lord and the instrument he uses in the world to change lives and transform communities. Therefore, I believe it is vital that those who are giving their lives to this work be biblically trained and theologically equipped to excel in it. The apostle James emphasizes that teachers, those teach the Bible and lead in the church, will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). If this is true of those who teach and lead in the church, then surely the same is true for those who lead out in planting and establishing the church in new contexts. They will be held accountable for the faithfulness of their work, and a season of biblical training would greatly help prepare them for a life of ministry.
3. The Greatest Commandment
Missionaries need biblical training because it helps them love God with their minds and it shapes them to be more like Jesus. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the greatest command, he responded by exhorting them to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37, emphasis added).” The apostle Paul exhorted the Christians in Rome to be transformed by the renewing of their mind (Romans 12:2). This is crucial for every Christian, not least those who give their lives to making the gospel known where it is not now known.
One of the ways in which we become more and more like Jesus is to think more and more like Jesus. We do that by reading and meditating on God’s Word, allowing our minds to be filled and saturated with it. An intentional season of formal or informal biblical training where one studies the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), wrestles with how to understand the Bible (hermeneutics), labors to read and understand biblical and systematic theology, and learns to think biblically about evangelism, missions, and church planting helps prepare one for a life of cross-cultural ministry.
Again, there is no place in the Bible that demands or requires academic credentials as necessary for work in the church or on the mission field. With that said, there are many compelling reasons why pursuing biblical training is wise for those who desire to serve Christ in this way. Concentrated time devoted to biblical and theological training helps provide the knowledge and skills necessary to be faithful and fruitful on the mission field. For the sake of the gospel, the bride of Christ, and the overarching mission of God, I encourage those who are able to pursue at least some form of biblical training as you carry out God’s calling on your life.