The Importance of Theological Training in Fulfilling the Great Commission
By Davy Ellison
The 1st November marked the first anniversary of my serving as Director of Training for the Irish Baptist College. I expected my first year in post to be challenging, but certainly not as challenging as it has been given the global pandemic. Despite the global pandemic the need for theological training remains—indeed, I am convinced that theological training is vital in fulfilling the Great Commission. What follows is a lightly edited manuscript of the presentation I delivered along these lines at my interview for this position.
If you are reading this about mid-morning, I wonder are you aware that since waking up this morning you have taken approximately 3,600 breaths? I wonder are you aware that since waking up this morning your heart has completed almost 20,000 heartbeats? I wonder are you aware that since waking up this morning your body has had the equivalent of more than 1,000 litres of blood pumped around it?
Without us consciously thinking about it, our brain activates our bodies and keeps them functioning. There are hundreds of millions of activities taking place within our bodies all day long and we are often unaware they are happening. They simply take place.
This, unfortunately, is often true of theology. Every statement we make is a theological statement. Every action we take is based on a theological presupposition. Every decision we make is made on the basis of theological understanding. Every moment reveals something of our theology. We are always engaged in theology. There is never a moment in which we are not doing theology. Yet most of this happens unconsciously.
Unconscious theology proves problematic for the Christian, because theology should not be something that simply happens. It should not be like our breathing or heart beating; it should not happen without us being aware it is happening. Instead of unconscious theology, we must actively engage in theology; we must knowingly “do” theology in every moment.
The Great Commission
One example of the necessity for this active engagement is the Great Commission:
“16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have
commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matt. 28:16–20).
Our unconscious theology assumes that the Great Commission is simply sharing Jesus with people who have never heard of him. We presume that preaching the gospel and seeing conversion fulfils the Great Commission. It doesn’t.
Jesus gives his disciples one imperative in the Great Commission—“make disciples” (v. 19). That is the one command; that is the task to be fulfilled. It is not simply sharing the message of the gospel; it is not even just seeing conversions. The Great Commission is about aiding others to become what we ourselves are: disciples.
This activity of making disciples should be characterized by going (v. 19), by baptising (v. 19), and by teaching (v. 20). These are all active. There is a consciousness to all of these activities. By all means we go to where people are, and share the good news of great joy about Jesus Christ. However, we do not stop there. We must see converts baptised (and presumably join the church). We must see baptised converts growing in the faith, maturing in their discipleship, and serving both the Church and God.
Vital to all of this is theological education. It is vital for at least four reasons:
First, theological education is vitally important in fulfilling the Great Commission as it provides a biblical foundation that demarcates the content of our witness to the world. As disciples of Jesus go into the world to teach, what exactly is it that should be taught? What are the most salient points to communicate?
Theological education provides an avenue through which to answer these questions. It aids disciples in actively formulating a theology, developing a working knowledge and understanding of the Bible, and wrestling with applying these realities in everyday living.
In the western world individuals could conceivably do this for themselves, with the wealth of Christian resources available. However, theological education provides a guide whether that be a pastor, lecturer, Bible Class leader, or literature.
Second, theological education permits individuals to set aside time to assess some of the finest scholarship on issues and then present it to fellow disciples.
This is true for students, but equally so for teachers. Theological education creates an environment in which individuals are employed to research, study, and write on particular aspects of theology and Christian living. This is a privilege, especially for those working in confessional Bible Colleges. This privilege in turn gifts the Church with individuals who have devoted themselves to assessing the finest scholarship, digesting that scholarship, and then producing information by way of lectures, preaching, or writing that disciples disciples.
Therefore, not only is the content of the Great Commission identified, but it is delivered by those who comprehend it more fully.
Third, theological education is vitally important in fulfilling the Great Commission as it broadens horizons. In doing so it introduces disciples to information or points of views that they have not encountered before.
For example, I recently engaged in conversation with an individual who confessed that they thought the Reformation was all about King Billy and 1690! We may smirk, but how ignorant were we until we actively engaged in theology—whether historical, systematic, biblical, or pastoral. Theological education makes a broader volume of material available to the Church than a pastor can in Sunday sermons, or a Bible Class leader can in a 40-minute Bible study.
Theological education provides a space in which one can encounter the rich breadth of Christian instruction.
Developing Christian Leaders
Fourth, theological education is vitally important in fulfilling the Great Commission as it develops competent and gifted pastors, missionaries, and leaders to continue discipling disciples in the local church.
In this way, theological education is directly involved in making disciples as it produces (by God’s grace) people who in turn produce more disciples. The best way to establish healthy churches that make disciples is by equipping them with competent and gifted disciples who serve as pastors, missionaries, and leaders. Men and women who know all that Jesus commanded, strive to obey all that Jesus commanded, so that in turn they may be able teach all that Jesus commanded.
Theological education is vitally important in fulfilling the Great Commission because it provides a biblical foundation, presented by those who have the desire and time to devote themselves to comprehending this biblical foundation appropriately. In doing so, disciples have their knowledge expanded and some who engage in this theological education are capable of duplicating it in the local church by taking up leadership positions.
Commenting on the Great Commission, Grant Osborne writes: “Every single person who is won to Christ must be anchored to Christ and taught how to live for Christ in day-to-day decisions.” I believe theological education makes a vital contribution to aim of the Great Commission by waking us up from our unconscious theology to engage in a conscious theology.