I’ll never forget the day I saw my normally mild-mannered senior minister at white heat. A group in the local area started coming to us and other congregations trying to lure people into joining their particular brand of legalistic Christianity. They had a doctrine of baptism which felt ‘off’ though we couldn’t quite say why, and other strange teachings besides. My senior minister was on to this straight away. He gathered us together and pointed out the errors of their theology, and their consequences. He directed us instead to the positive teaching of Scripture. His passion in relating to this group, while polite, was evident. I saw the result of both good and poor theological teaching. And I was grateful for the theological training that enabled my senior minister to be discerning and clear in this situation.
My mind returns to this when I think about my new role consulting with the Gafcon Theological Education Network (TEN). TEN is one of nine networks formed since Gafcon came into existence in 2008. In a real sense, the success and failure of theological education is close to the heart of why Gafcon happened in the first place. While the presenting issues were matters of human sexuality and their application in Christian ministry, behind these issues was a general loss of confidence in the Bible as the word of God, and the subsequent lack of clarity about the message of the gospel and its implications. This didn’t happen overnight, but was a function of poor teaching in the colleges and universities training successive generations of congregational ministers and church leaders.
TEN is a network linked by a common goal to ensure that every bishop in the Anglican communion has access to excellent theological education. This serves the further aim of multiplying the number of well-grounded disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ able to fulfil the great commission (Matt 28:18-20).
These goals reflect the important connection between sound theological education and the growth of the church in numbers and maturity. We know that this is true at the micro congregational level, and Gafcon acknowledges how true this is at the ‘training the trainers’ level: theological and Bible colleges.
It is important to get theological training right. This isn’t always an easy task. Also, theological training can feel a long way removed from our everyday church experience. Talk about truth and error can all sound a bit nit-picky and perhaps even judgemental. But the New Testament scriptures are clear. The passion of Paul (Gal 3:1), John (1 Jn 4:1), and Peter (1 Pet 2) is clear when they both affirm the truth, and they are faced with false teaching. They know the significance of sound teaching.
The Gafcon theological network vision seeks to address the issues of both the quantity and quality of sound teaching in theological education.
In terms of quantity the problems are acute. We know of the explosion of Christianity in the majority world and the encouraging numbers of believers. The Gafcon movement encompasses most of the world’s Anglican believers. There are 18 million Anglicans in Nigeria alone. The need for workers is acute; churches are planted, and people are coming to Christ in large numbers. These are often in economically and socially disadvantaged countries, as well as in areas under pressure from religious tension. Pastors at the ground level often have little formal education, let alone their supervisors and those who train trainers.
One expert in the field cites the example of a single diocese in an African country where there are 500 churches in existence. These are spread over a large geographical area with poor infrastructure. In this Diocese there is one person with a higher degree in theology (the Bishop), five with a Bachelor’s degree, 35 with a Diploma, and 750 church workers who are largely untrained and leading congregations. This situation is repeated throughout many countries and points to the pressing need for all levels of theological education to be provided.
There are numerous groups doing an excellent job funding individuals and programmes, including Anglican Aid and the Overseas Council, in order to address the quantity of problems. Materials from the Moore College Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC) are invaluable in providing resources to those who need them. All of this and more is part of a massive jigsaw puzzle responding to the ocean of need.
The Gafcon Theological Education Network is also concerned to see quality theological education being practised. It is easy to take quality for granted, but the Scripture-based, church-focused education delivered in a rich community context in some of our own circles is not everyone’s experience.
In a recent conversation with a majority world Bishop, these realities were starkly stated. He said the Gafcon network could help in three ways. First, he said they needed the right kind of teachers: teachers who knew and trusted the Bible as the word of God; teachers who could help train local gospel workers. Second, they needed help with thinking about curriculum. They needed curriculum at theological colleges that reflected the understanding that theological education serves the church and the mission of God, and not arid academic or faddish social concerns. Thirdly, he said they needed resources in the form of support for impoverished students and better facilities to foster the sort of communal theological education that encourages a knowledge of God working through his people in all their rich diversity (and unity in the Spirit) to achieve his purposes for them.
This conversation is repeated many times. Sadly, so is the accompanying conversation about the mistrust of colleges and programs that have liberalised their theological stance and adopted overly critical approaches. The remnant of such movements away from gospel convictions leaves graduates ill equipped to lead people to, and on in, faith in Christ.
The Gafcon theological education network is developing ways to achieve its mission. It is gathering like-minded colleges. Sometimes simply knowing that you are not alone makes a world of difference. We pray for one another, and we support a common commitment to quality theological education. In time we will share resources and expertise. There will be conferences, consultations, and collaboration on projects. There may even be opportunities to encourage new colleges. Who knows? The Lord does! And we look forward to what he will do with the network. Will you pray, not simply for the network but for the important issue the existence of this network represents. Pray for the missional importance of theological education.