Missions Sunday: Hermeneutics for Healthy Churches, Part One
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 M.Div., 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.
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.
Hermeneutics for Healthy Churches, Part Two, next Sunday on The Exchange.
Hiebert, Paul G. 1987. “Critical Contextualization.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11:104.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 1. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved.