In my work with Christian missions around the globe, I have encountered a phenomenon that I consider threatening to the future of missions.
Young men who have been converted to the message of Christian Reconstruction and who have heeded the call to evangelize their nation with the comprehensive, culture-changing gospel of the Kingdom of Christ, believe they need seminary education to be able to succeed on the mission field. In fact, to be honest, I struggled with the same belief in the early years of my mission work in Bulgaria. A Christian seminary-especially one attached to a supposedly "Reformed" denomination in the U.S.-a young missionary believes, is a necessary step for him in learning theology and its practical applications, so that he can effectively evangelize the people to whom he is sent.
Such belief is based on an erroneous view of the nature and purpose of foreign missions, as well as on a misunderstanding concerning the real nature and purpose of modern seminaries.
What Does a Foreign Mission Really Do?
In two earlier articles1 published in Faith for All of Life, I defended the thesis that foreign missions were never intended in the Bible to be an escapist undertaking of snatching individual souls and lining them up at the bus stop to heaven. Neither were they a "New Testament thing." Foreign missions originated in the Old Testament and were intended as a means to expand the culture, or rather, the civilization created by the law of God in Israel, to all the nations on the earth. That was Israel's very raison d'être: to serve as a teacher to the nations, as a city on a hill and light to the world. And the nations would see the laws of Israel and would praise their God and would desire their wisdom (Deut. 4:5-8).
Foreign missions, then, were a cultural conquest, as was the later development of Israel's Diaspora, the synagogue. But since culture is defined by its laws more than anything else, the essential nature and the main focus of foreign mission was to be ethical/judicial, that is, concerned with issues of practical righteousness and justice, both for the individual and for his institutions. God's own "foreign mission" to Israel in Egypt culminated in Mount Sinai where He made the covenant with them and gave them the law. From there on, Israel as a community was to be defined by the law, and Israel's purpose and meaning was to be defined by teaching the nations that same law.
But if this is so, then the main focus of foreign missions should be not abstract theology but what is often called "applied theology." And "applied" means really applied, that is, theology that is not just a discipline existing for itself, an ivory tower structure of pure intellectual interest in Biblical typology, or in obscure textual structures in the Bible, or in patterns of liturgy or ritual, or in peeking into the intricate details of the ontology of the Godhead. "Applied" means a theology that is concerned first and foremost with translating the knowledge of God into specific ethical and judicial instructions for the life of man, as well as for the life of his society.
This is the very meaning of the gospel, as preached by Jesus Christ: the knowledge of God translated into concrete ethical and judicial terms as the foundation for the life of man and of his society. God is holy, man is fallen. Translated into a concrete judicial reality, this means that man is heading to a place of eternal judgment. God is also merciful, and He is Sovereign; He has sent His Son to atone for the sins of man, and thus save the elect. Translated into concrete judicial reality this means that the elect are going to spend eternity with God. Those who are saved are called to obey God in Christ, and this means they are under obligation to return back to the ethical/judicial principles of the law of God, which is the very purpose of the New Testament teachings of both Christ and the apostles. Also, the creation fell with Adam, but was restored in Christ, which means that Christ's redeemed are to work to restore the creation around them back to God's purpose for it. The sanctification of the heart of man and the sanctification of his environment and culture are the same process, and it is a process of ethical/judicial restoration, that is, of returning man, the culture, and the creation back to ethical obedience to God.
This is exactly how the gospel is described in 1 Corinthians 15:1-28. We can't understand the true nature of the gospel unless we accept the truth of this passage, that the gospel starts with the fact of our sin and Christ's substitutionary sacrifice, but inevitably leads to all things being subjected to Him, that is, a world that is operating under the law of God. History is that judicial victory of Christ, of making all His enemies His footstool. Preaching or missions that are not led to this final goal of evangelism will always be incomplete and irrelevant. Evangelism can't be limited to the fact of Christ's death, or to the individual salvation of a few souls. Evangelism is about restoration of all things under God.
What Does a Seminary Really Do?
A Christian mission, therefore, is first and foremost an ethical/judicial undertaking, to change the hearts, behavior, practices, habits, customs, norms, laws of a nation so that the nation submits to God. Such a task doesn't need abstract theology; it needs a theology that informs the hearts, behavior, practices, habits, customs, norms, laws as to what practical godliness is-a theology that makes the connection between the character of God and the character of man, and teaches the redeemed man to build his culture in obedience to God.
So does a missionary really need our modern seminary education to be able to do his work?
The modern seminary is not only unfavorable to this task of evangelism, it is in reality practically opposed to it. It is in the very nature of the modern seminary to separate theology from life, and, consequently, faith from life. R. J. Rushdoony called the seminary a "neoplatonic institution," and pointed to the fact that teaching in the modern seminaries is modeled after Greek pagan thinking.2 It is based not on a covenantal view of reality where faith has direct applications to the real world of human action, but on the dualistic separation of theology and practice. There is a very clear separation between theological disciplines and practical disciplines, Rushdoony continues his analysis, and that separation between theoretical theology and applied disciplines is a testimony of the dualism of the modern seminary.
If a modern student would try to find any seminary courses that try to apply theology to life outside the limited religious experience a man has in the church Sunday morning, or outside the obscure intellectual pursuits of seminary professors and students, he would have a hard time finding such a thing. There are no seminary courses on Biblical economics, or Biblical civil government, or Biblical money theory, or Biblical principles for business, or science, or family, or anything else that men in the real world have to deal with. No seminary offers anything that would apply theology to life. No seminary offers courses in comprehensive worldview, starting from understanding the creeds, through their influence on our modern ideas, to practice. There are no economic nor legal commentaries on the Bible in the libraries of the modern seminaries, and consequently such commentaries or books are not part of the curriculum and are not an assigned reading.
Instead, during the whole course of education, seminaries drown their students in a sea of irrelevance. Depending on the seminary, the courses emphasize textual and etymological criticism, or liturgical details, or philosophical hair-splitting. The students learn about the Bible only as much as to be able to produce endless talks or papers on obscure topics in a highly academic language. At the end, a student knows how to satisfy his professors' obsession with elitist academic philosophizing; but he hasn't learned a thing about how to change the culture of a pagan nation, or how to voice a prophetic warning about a coming judgment for ungodly practices in that nation.
In fact, some modern seminaries even go as far as to limit the gospel to a few intellectual propositions, and devise a theology that separates the gospel from practical living and practical obedience. At the end, obeying God is not part of the gospel, and the seminary graduates are only trained to preach and teach that limited, truncated gospel, divorced from the Great Commission.
Can the Seminary Generate Church Leaders?
As elitist as the culture in the seminaries is, it is far from being even close to producing true Christian leadership. Elite is not the same as leadership, and leaders are not produced through training in neoplatonic irrelevance. A leader only arises when there is a covenantal worldview, that is, a worldview that allows for no dualism between the intellectual foundation and the practical applications of an ideology. Seminary training by professors who make a living by living in a secluded habitat of abstract theological meditation is just as incapable of producing true leaders who change cultures and teach nations as is government school education by union-protected bureaucrat-teachers incapable of producing a generation of risk-taking entrepreneurs.
It is not a surprise then that the rise of the seminary, and especially the rise of seminary education as the foundational test and qualification for ministry, whether pastoral or missional, has coincided with the decline in the effectiveness of missions. A missionary who views the world in dualistic terms, who views theology separated from practical ideology, faith separated from real life, and church activities separated from "worldly" activities, would inevitably limit his mission endeavors to building a small ecclesiastical replica of his seminary, or of the world that his seminary is promoting in its curriculum.
He won't be willing to change the culture or challenge the world. In fact, he won't have the theological tools or knowledge to do either. To do so, he would have to be a social reformer, and being a social reformer is the ultimate anathema for the modern seminary mentality. Issues of practical personal ethics may be included in the scope of his preaching and teaching to his listeners, but never issues of justice and equity. Even that personal ethics that is present in his preaching and teaching would be rather reduced to a mystical and individualistic level, and issues of political, economic, legal, or other ethics would be excluded, as being "not the gospel." When many years ago I asked a Presbyterian missionary in Eastern Europe whether he teaches his listeners on issues like taxes, the proper role of civil government, or investments and retirement, he replied that these issues were "general equity," not "the gospel." His mission is still struggling to produce any interest in its message, many years and many millions of dollars later.
And indeed, such a mission would find itself only concerned with things peripheral to the culture; and as a result, will logically be relegated to the periphery of the culture, to continue its irrelevant existence there, or die out.
A young missionary, then, has nothing to gain of seminary education. The money spent, plus the time spent in studying irrelevant disciplines and writing irrelevant papers on obscure topics, is not worth it. Nothing that a seminary can offer can help a missionary in his task to conquer the world for Christ. If anything, it will teach him and train him to find fulfillment in doing nothing and accomplishing nothing of value, except for the intellectual pleasure of a small elitist cabal. Far from helping him in his task, a modern seminary will only waste his time, and possibly lead to the death of his mission.
How to Train a Missionary
The question then remains: Where would a missionary get his theological education?
Here I would offer my definition of a leader, that has served me well in my work: A leader is one who is a book ahead of everyone else. A young missionary must first and foremost, in order to prepare for the ministry, build his own library with high-quality books that help him understand the application of the gospel to every area of life. This will mean, of course, all the books of all Christian Reconstruction authors, for Christian Reconstruction has been the only movement specifically devoted to building a comprehensive Biblical worldview, applied to practice in both man's life and in the life of his culture.
Then he must read them. When a crisis hits, men always look for answers. Cultural conflicts are always won by the men who have better answers to society's problems. A missionary must be prepared to give an answer to everything he is asked about. A well-read missionary who has the Biblical answers will inevitably focus the attention of the culture on himself, and will have an open door for evangelism. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 was a promise. It still is.
Then he must teach his listeners those Biblical principles and their application to their everyday life. Nothing speaks "come and join us" so powerfully as a covenant community that has the best laws and abides by them. A seminary will teach him neither the laws nor their practical case application to his culture. Such a job is the job of a pioneer; and one graduates from a seminary by learning to tread the old traditional paths, not by breaking new ones.
And then, he must never forget the goal of the gospel: make the culture submit to Christ. The gospel doesn't end with a person's conversion, it ends with all being subjected to Christ. Preach it to your listeners every time you have the chance.
And at the end, he must present the optimism of the gospel: that future belongs to us Christians (1 Cor. 3:22).
If a missionary does these things, his mission will be successful beyond his wildest expectations-or at least, way more successful than anything produced by seminary graduates around the world today. God doesn't bless neoplatonic dualistic irrelevance. But He certainly does bless faithful covenantal preaching and practical justice and righteousness.
1. "The True Origin of Foreign Missions," FFAOL, May/June 2010; "Don't Plant Churches, Build Covenant Communities," FFAOL, July/August 2011.
2. R. J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, (Valledito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994), 97-101, 113-115.