Theological education – why bother?

The goal of theological education must always be transformed lives leading to transformed communities. Keith Ferdinando, looks at how this is working out in Africa.

Everybody is a theologian. We have notions about God, about the world, about human beings, about meaning and fulfilment, about death and what comes after, and so on; and they may come from all sorts of places – including magazines, soaps, advertisements and everything that shapes our cultures. The real question is not whether we are theologians or not, but whether we are good theologians or poor ones. To be more exact, do our beliefs – and so our lives – faithfully reflect the truth that has been spoken by the living God, or do they simply bear the imprint of the societies we live in, and of our own fallible human wisdom and pragmatism?

It is a vital matter, for issues of eternal life and death hang on the answers we give to crucial theological questions—like the one Jesus asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matthew 16:15) It is especially important for those charged with bringing good news to the nations and discipling the people of God. It is not always noticed that Paul, perhaps the greatest missionary after Jesus himself, was also the greatest theologian of the early church. Theological grasp and rigour are intimately related to the effectiveness of our lives and service for God, and we ignore this at our own cost and that of our churches. This is why theological education matters.

Foundations are only a start

It is well known that Christianity has been rapidly expanding in Africa for a good while. Even after adding a hefty pinch of salt to the statistics, it remains true that there are very large and growing numbers of African Christians and churches. But who is the Christ they have embraced? Across the continent – and often in the most difficult of places, like war-torn Sudan or Congo – there are outstanding examples of faithful churches and believers – men and women who live in obedience to God and give themselves sacrificially for his sake and that of their neighbours. It is simplistic and patronising to define the African church without qualification as being ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’. But there are real problems too. In evangelistic campaigns in Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi and just about everywhere else, crowds hear that true faith will bring them the good things of life – health, prosperity, academic success – just name it and claim it. This is a fraudulent message – a cruelly misleading parody of the gospel. Then, for too many believers, being discipled means little more than hearing a weekly condemnation of a few cardinal sins, such as adultery, alcohol and anger, but learning little of the infinite riches of Christ. And so in many churches the foundation of faith and repentance is laid week after week, but the walls never seem to go up (Hebrews 6:1-3).

Theological education exists to equip the church to participate in God’s mission in this world—it is about following Jesus, learning from him.

So one of the greatest challenges facing African churches is that of communicating the gospel in its fullness, responding to the travesties and lies on offer, and building up believers who will have an impact on their societies as salt and light. It is a theological challenge, and the state of so much of the continent shows how critical it is. Corruption, Aids, ethnic violence, and political instability all demonstrate Africa’s desperate need to have Christians who truly know God and deeply love him, and who can live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in every section of society. Theological education exists to equip the church to participate in God’s mission in this world—it is about following Jesus, learning from him, growing to be like him, and so becoming fishers of men wherever he sends (Matthew 4:19).

It takes many forms. At the most basic level, it should be happening in every church all the time as believers are carefully and systematically taught God’s word and its application in their lives. To train church leaders who are able to do this, there are institutions at university, secondary and primary levels; there are residential and distance learning programmes; there are evening schools, internet programmes, weekly decentralised classes, and periodic seminars for the continuing training of Bible school graduates. Across the areas in which Aim works there are many innovative approaches to theological education. In Tanzania the Institute of Bible and Ministry provides creative continuing training for pastors after they have finished full-time studies. Sofala Bible Institute in Beira, Mozambique, recently organised a seminar for former students on sorcery, and published the fruits of the reflection. The theological seminary in Bunia, one of the more established schools, has just opened departments of mission and Bible translation, and this April organised a major conference to stir missionary awareness among the churches of north-eastern Congo. And such examples could be multiplied.

More than mere knowledge

But with all of this there are multiple challenges. These include finding enough money to keep things going, getting and keeping good staff (and easing out the others!), and carefully tuning the programme so that it responds to the particular needs of the context, while remaining solidly anchored in God’s unchanging word. At a consultation this March in Johannesburg theological educators from across southern Africa discussed numerous issues of this sort, one of the most critical being that of ensuring that all we do in our various programmes might bring about progressive character change in the lives of our students. If they are to be true ministers of the gospel their lives as well as their words must communicate Christ, and there is the constant danger in theological institutions at every level that knowledge will simply puff up, and so make students of less use at the end of the process than they were at the beginning (1 Corinthians 8:1). We must be concerned with more than a simply academic theological knowledge.

Here in Rwanda the theological college Aim works with is relatively new and faces plenty of challenges, not least of which is the construction of good buildings to replace the inadequate rented accommodation we use at present. But being new also gives the opportunity to think through what we should be doing, and to formulate a vision of what theological education ought to be about. Most fundamentally we aim to be evangelical – building our teaching and all our practice on God’s word, and teaching our students to grapple with the Bible themselves. We also want to see the transformation of students according to the image of Christ. If our teaching – and indeed every aspect of the life of the school – does not lead to change in the lives of those who study, then they are wasting their time and we need to be asking ourselves some very hard questions. Then, the whole programme must lead to mission, the discipling of the nations – in Rwanda and beyond. The goal is not certificates, nor enabling our graduates to climb the ladder of church promotion, but to disciple those who come to us so that they in turn are equipped as disciple-makers. With that in mind, we need also to help our students address from a Christian perspective the particular issues that the church is facing. In the Rwandan context this means – among other things – wrestling with questions of ethnic division and reconciliation, understanding what God says about riches and poverty, responding to the Aids epidemic, and facing the challenge of a population roughly half of which is below 16 years of age. And, finally, the whole programme needs to be integrated so that knowledge, spiritual growth and Christian ministry are not regarded as three separate compartments, but are indivisibly related in a harmonious unity. Truth must produce character change, practical ministry must be shaped by truth, spiritual growth must feed into service, and so on.

The church is nourished through God’s own words: believers live by every word that comes from his mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3) – and churches eventually perish when they neglect what he has spoken. Many African churches are malnourished and ill-equipped both to be what they should be and to do what they should do. It is the vital role of theological educators to disciple the disciplers – to train those whose task it is to feed the people of God and equip them for mission.

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