On a dirt road somewhere in the Middle East, a missionary walks alone. As he walks, he wonders what work God might be leading him to do that day. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a man appears on the horizon. He approaches the man and notices he is intently reading some document.
Filled with boldness and sensing God’s leadership, the missionary draws near and asks the man what he is reading. The man replies that he is reading a curious document written by someone named Isaiah. Sensing a God-ordained gospel sharing opportunity, the missionary asks him if he understands what he is reading. The man’s reply is illuminating, “How can I unless someone guides me?”
Perceptive readers have already realized that this historically accurate event did not take place in a contemporary setting, but was recorded in Acts 8:26-40, when Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch. That said, don’t miss the missiological significance of the event—the eunuch had a portion of scripture in a language he could understand, and yet he still needed someone to help him understand it. This event helps us see the critical connection between missions and hermeneutics.
As one who is involved in theological education in a missions context, I am encouraged by many young missionaries who recognize that the task of missions is not complete when a few are converted, or when an initial church or even a group of churches are planted among a people group.
These young missionaries understand that a critical aspect of the task is the training and equipping of those believers—the “teaching them all things” aspect of the Great Commission. The goal of the Great Commission is not merely the existence of a church, but the existence of a healthy, vibrant, and growing church.
So then, what makes a healthy church? Missiologists who consider such a question are often plagued with tunnel vision. Rightly loving and laboring to see the advance of the church into new areas, they define church health solely in terms of the church’s ability to start new churches. Self-propagation, then, becomes the defining metric of church health. In reality, many other components should be included in a discussion of church health, and to be fair, most of those components are not easily quantifiable.
The reality is that, like the Ethiopian eunuch, every church needs guides who will lead the church to interpret scripture in a way that is faithful to the original author’s intent. This is the reason why Paul told Timothy his goal was “rightly handling the Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:14).
To that end, I am proposing five reasons why training in biblical interpretation should be an integral part of every missions strategy.
First, training in biblical interpretation benefits all believers, not just future leaders. Eight years ago, while working on my MDiv, I led a short-term team to work with college students in a large city in Asia. Thankfully, the missionary already had a post-conversion discipleship plan in place for us to use if any students came to faith during our trip.
Unfortunately, the lessons in this plan used the un-hermeneutically sound approach of proof-texting to make their point. These new converts were confused as to why we would read one sentence from a book called ‘John’ and then immediately be told to flip to a different page and read a completely separate sentence from a book called ‘Romans.’ Although they were literate, they didn’t understand why we were not reading sections of the Bible, but instead were only reading a few words before turning somewhere else.
In response, our team made a slight adjustment to this plan: instead of using twenty-six separate verses to teach about new life in Christ, we used only one text. I was amazed at what a change this small difference had on this discipleship process. This adjustment had zero impact on the content of the lesson, but it had a massive impact on what we modeled for these new believers.
The ability to understand the meaning of the original authors in a way that leads to life-changing practical application is a skill that every believer needs.
In addition to learning about their new life in Christ, they also learned about the importance of context and how one verse interacts with the verses around it. By the end of the first lesson, these new believers could answer the question, “What is the main point of this passage” with greater accuracy than many seasoned preachers!
Now, regardless of whether or not these new converts would become leaders in the years to come, our modeling of sound biblical interpretation equipped them with the tools to read and apply scripture in their own devotional life. Hermeneutics is not just some class that students take in seminary. The ability to understand the meaning of the original authors in a way that leads to life-changing practical application is a skill that every believer needs.
Second, training equips future pastors to faithfully lead their churches. Unlike most seminaries in the West, the majority of students in our seminary training program in Asia already have significant ministerial experience. What I hear most from these students, however, is that until they took our courses, they never really knew how to interpret scripture.
One student in his early thirties, who was already preaching and teaching on a regular basis at a large and influential house church, said to me, “Before, when I would preach, I would decide what I wanted to say and then I would try to find a verse or two that said the same thing.”
After learning some basic interpretation skills, however, he went on to say, “Now I understand how to make the main point of the text the main point of my sermon.” Such an admission should be encouraging to missionaries because it is easy to see what a difference this change can make in the life of newly-planted church.
Like Philip in Acts 8, this brother will be able to guide both believers in his church and unbelievers in his community for years to come through his application of the original author’s meaning to their ever-changing cultural context.
Third, training in biblical interpretation equips leaders for appropriate contextualization. Discussions of contextualization often focus on the initial communication of the gospel to the target group, but in reality, the process of contextualization goes far beyond this initial act of communication. After trusting in Christ, this group of people must work with the missionary to evaluate many of their cultural practices in light of biblical revelation. Paul Hiebert referred to this process as ‘critical contextualization.’
The critical contextualization process is not easy to work through, as believers need to be able to exegete both their own cultural background and that of the biblical text. Consider a single issue—ancestor worship among Chinese believers. These believers first need to examine the various aspects of ancestor worship: historical development of ancestor worship, its relationship to Daoism and Confucianism, its use in daily life, etc. They also need to identify biblical texts like Matthew 15:1-9 and Luke 14:25-35, which could shed light on ancestor worship. Finally, they must exegete those texts and apply the teachings in a way that leads to a new contextualized practice.
The previous example starts with the cultural practice and looks to scripture for teaching that relates to such a practice, but the opposite is also true. In many cases, believers (esp. preachers and teachers) start with a specific text of scripture and must consider how the teaching of that text relates to a specific cultural practice.
For example, a preacher might start with 1 Peter 1:13-21, which commands believers to live a life of holiness and fear, while setting their hope on the return of Christ. The pastor’s goal is to guide the church to better understand what a holy lifestyle looks like in their specific cultural context.
Good contextualization, then, goes beyond the communication of the gospel. In fact, communicating the gospel is only the first step in the contextualization process. In some cases, the contextualization process starts with a specific cultural practice, but in others in starts with a specific biblical text.
In both cases, however, if contextualization is to be done well, it is essential that believers in those churches, and especially the leaders of those churches, be trained to rightly divide the word.
Fourth, training prepares missionaries for future service. While planting healthy churches among the target group is certainly the short-term goal of the missionary, the long-term goal is seeing those newly-planted churches send out their own missionaries to other people groups. Just like the missionary who brought the gospel to his or her people group, this newly-sent missionary will need to communicate the gospel, teach new believers, and lead the church he or she plants through the critical contextualization process. These are all tasks that require strong biblical interpretational skills.
Two years ago, I taught a New Testament exegesis course to a group of church leaders. Unbeknownst to me, one of the leaders in the group was preparing to spend six months sharing the gospel among a people group that is less than 0.5% Evangelical.
Seven months later, I returned to the same city to teach another course, and I had a chance to reconnect with that brother. He shared with me some of the challenges he faced and then told me that what best equipped him to communicate the gospel cross-culturally were the courses he’d taken on how to interpret scripture.
Training in biblical interpretation results in missionaries who are more effective at communicating and contextualizing the gospel message.
Fifth, training in biblical interpretation enables the planting of healthy churches. No one wants his or her work to be done in vain. The Apostle Paul certainly didn’t. As a result of persecution, he was only able to stay in Thessalonica for a few weeks. In time, these new believers also faced persecution and Paul feared that some would turn away from the faith. He wrote in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 that such a result would mean “our labor would be in vain.” If the churches Paul planted turned away from the faith or didn’t stay faithful the gospel, his time and efforts were wasted.
Some missionaries emphasize the notion that Paul planted a church and then moved on as quickly as possible. In reality, Paul was frequently forced to leave quickly when persecution arose. The two exceptions were Corinth and Ephesus, where Paul stayed for eighteen months and three years, respectively. Paul not only cared about the existence of a church in these locations, he also cared deeply about the health of those churches. To put it another way, Paul not only cared about the birth of a church, he also cared about its longevity.
In considering Paul’s example, we recognize that the question missionaries should be asking is not, “How can we plant churches quickly?” The question we should be asking is, “How can we plant churches that are healthy?” Certainly, one mark of a healthy church is that it is able to interpret scripture and apply it to the local context. Training in biblical hermeneutics does not aim to answer every possible theological question; instead, it equips believers to find answers for themselves through their own faithful study of scripture.
The foundation of healthy theology is healthy interpretation of scripture. Christians in any culture look to scripture to develop their theological convictions. How they handle scripture affects how they work out their positions on key theological issues. It also impacts how they utilize scripture in addressing critical issues of their context. If these new believers adopt healthy methods of interpretation, then healthy theology will follow.
Imagine for a moment if the Spirit never led Philip into the desert to cross paths with the eunuch. How different would this story have been if Philip had never led the eunuch to the correct interpretation of the passage?
The unfortunate truth is that believers in many parts of the world have had little training in biblical interpretation. Not only has no one “guided” them with good interpretational skills, but as a result, now they are unable to guide others effectively. Missionaries would do well to heed the words of Peter, who wrote that scripture both imparts new life (1 Pet. 1:23) and engenders ongoing growth in Christ (1 Pet. 2:2).
If missionaries want their work to last, if they want to plant healthy churches, if they want local believers to know how to read scripture and apply it to their lives, then they must train them to rightly divide the word.
A Model for Sound Biblical Interpretation
Numerous resources exist that explain the process for biblical interpretation. Most of those resources, however, remain inaccessible to missionaries, because they do not address the complexities of interpreting the Bible in intercultural contexts. In any culture, an interpreter of the Bible should always start with a specific text. In studying that text, he or she should first seek to determine the original author’s meaning and then apply that meaning to the contemporary context. When determining the original author’s meaning, he or she should study the following.
Cultural and Historical Setting of the Text
Theological and Missiological Context of the Text
Study the Target Culture
Scrutinize One’s Own Cultural Perspective
Know the Implications of the Biblical Text
Observe Critical Contextualization
Communicate the Biblical Truth in a Relevant Way
Hiebert, Paul G. 1987. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11:104.
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Will Brooks, Ph.D., teaches at a seminary in Asia. He has more than ten years of experience in pastoral, church planting, and theological training ministries.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.
Questions for Reflection
1. How should Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:14 (“rightly handling the Word of truth”) relate to a missionary’s overall church-planting strategy?
3. What discipleship methods are we using to train and equip indigenous interpreters?
4. Do you agree with the statement that healthy interpretation leads to healthy theology? If so, how should that affect our missionary methods?