Recovering the primacy of the church: what about theological education?

I’ve been discussing issues pertaining to world missions of late. Specifically, my latest two posts considered the relationship between the church and mission agencies. They focused on questions such as ‘who has the authority to commission and recall missionaries?’, ‘is there a role for mission agencies?’ and ‘how can agencies facilitate missions in a way that serves the church?’ You can read those articles here and here. An earlier post concentrated on our particular church’s mission budget and informs those posts. You can read that here.

During these discussions, I touched on a similar issue concerning theological institutions. If the church is God’s primary means of making disciples who make disciples, this raises a series of questions for anything that might be termed ‘parachurch’. Whilst that term may be considered loaded by some, I am simply using it as a catch-all to describe any group that seeks to play a role in the Great Commission that is not, and has no intention of being considered, a church. Inevitably, there will be good and bad examples of parachurch organisations. There are those that try to emulate the work of the church and behave like churches without seeking to be churches. There are others that seek to supplement the work of churches. There are those that are church-led and those that operate entirely independently from any church or group of churches.

Here, I wanted to consider the question of theological education in respect to the primacy of the church. How should we view the ‘sending’ of church members to college and, likewise, how should we view their teaching in colleges that, by and large, operate independently from the church? Should teaching in theological seminary be delivered by serving pastors and elders who are commissioned by the church and released to serve as adjunct professors or should it be a full-time external role carried out by those ‘sent’ into theological education in the same way as we would commission missionaries? Is theological education merely another job in the academy – akin to teaching chemistry at a secular institution – or do we have independent theological colleges because we believe it to be an extension of the work of the church, for the church and by the church?

Biblically, the church have been given the task of making disciples. This means that the responsibility of mission to the lost and the training of the saved are given to the church. As I argued in relation to mission agencies, the church ought not to ‘farm out’ its responsibility for world mission to parachurch organisations. Instead, they should be actively involved in the sending, supporting and pastoral care of missionaries. That does not mean, of course, that agencies have no role to play. But their is one of facilitating the sending of missionaries and those involved in the work of facilitation themselves ought to, at the very least, be answerable to the churches they serve if not be commissioned as full-time home working missionaries engaged in facilitating the sending other missionaries into the field.

In exactly the same way, the Lord has given the church the responsibility to make and train disciples of Jesus Christ. It, therefore, seems like a shirking of that responsibility to simply farm it out to third-parties with whom there is no formal association or recognition. Just as missionaries are sent abroad at the behest of commissioning churches in a formal partnership whereby the church and worker are together seeking to engage in world mission, shouldn’t those serving in theological education similarly be sent by churches in formal partnership together seeking to raise up the next generation of church leaders, evangelists and missionaries?

It strikes me the easiest way to do this is to consider theological colleges as akin to mission agencies and their workers as those sent or commissioned by the church for their roles. This would mean those in theological education would be those recognised and supported by the churches sending students to that college. Alternatively, theological colleges could endeavour to create relationships with partner churches and then use their members – as deemed appropriate by the college and church – to serve as lecturers and teachers on an adjunct basis. On either model, a clear link is established and maintained between the church and the academy.

There may be other ways to establish clear links but the point is to recognise that the academy is the servant of the church and those serving in theological education are facilitating the work of the local church where it lacks skills and competencies. Where there is no such link between the church and the academy, we are left with several questions:

  • If theological colleges are not answerable in any way to the church, how are they any different to the secular theological departments of most mainline universities that can offer an academic exercise in theology?
  • If the answer is that they are seeking to uphold certain theological views and raise up the next generation of church leaders and workers – and can thus be differentiated from secular theology departments – leaving aside the strength or otherwise of that argument, how can this be done without reference to or involvement from the churches themselves?
  • If theological colleges are seeking to raise up the next generation of church leaders and workers, in what way is the church fulfilling its responsibility to do that by farming it out to a third-party which has no obligations to it?
  • If there is no sending relationship by the churches, who has oversight of those serving in teaching roles? Who determines their ability to serve? On what Biblical grounds could they ever be disqualified? If there are such grounds, how can discipline Biblically take place apart from church involvement?
  • If churches alone have the right of recall for mission workers, on what ground do theological colleges retain that right? If moral issues would not render a lecturer disqualified from the role, how can churches have confidence in their training of future pastors? If they would disqualify, how can this legitimately not be a matter of church discipline? Is it Biblically credible to cede such disciplinary matters to an academic institution?
  • If there is no link between the church and the college, in what way is theological education in such colleges serving the church any more than any other educational institution?

If there is a broad agreement that there should be a meaningful link between the church and mission agencies (however that link is worked out in practice), should there not be such a link between the church and the academy? If the Lord has given the task of teaching and training disciples to the church, then it is surely incumbent on the church to formally commission those who will train up the next generation of church leaders and workers.