Missions Sunday: Hermeneutics for Healthy Churches, Part Two
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.
Grammar and Syntax of the Text
Here, the interpreter will examine both content and context. What does the author say? What key words does he or she use? How does this text relate to the passage before and after it?
Cultural and Historical Setting of the Text
Since God’s word was given at a specific time in history to a specific people in a specific place, the interpreter should learn as much as possible about the original cultural and historical setting.
Theological and Missiological Context of the Text
Every text of scripture has something to say about God and about God’s work in redeeming humanity. In his or her study of the text, the interpreter should consider what theological and/or missiological truths are communicated in this passage. Once an interpreter has studied the text itself and can summarize what the text says in a simple sentence, he or she should start thinking about how to apply that meaning to the contemporary context. To do so, he or she should do the following.
Study the Target Culture
For missionaries, this process starts the day they arrive on the field, and in a sense, continues for a lifetime. Sometimes, the process of interpretation starts because of a specific cultural practice and the desire to study biblical texts that shed light on that practice. In this case, the interpreter should conduct further study of the cultural norm, including what it means to the people, how it is practiced, and how it relates to the overall worldview. It may also be that the interpreter starts with a specific biblical text, necessitating the asking of the question, “What cultural norms does the truth of this passage address?”
Scrutinize One’s Own Cultural Perspective
When the interpreter (often the missionary) fails to think critically about his or her own worldview and cultural presuppositions, he or she places the burden on the hearers to become like him or her in order to understand the message. In our day of globalization, very few monocultural settings still exist. Even when it is not a missionary who is preparing to preach or teach, the interpreter should consider how his or her own worldview and cultural norms are affecting his or her reading of the text.
Know the Implications of the Biblical Text
Implications are those concepts not stated by the original author but which nonetheless fall within the pattern of meaning he or she established. Being a student of both the biblical culture and the contemporary culture, the interpreter should attempt to determine how the stated command or truth in the biblical text relates to the contemporary culture.
Observe Critical Contextualization
Critical contextualization is a process that Paul Hiebert developed for evaluating cultural practices in light of biblical truth (Hiebert 1987, 104). This process involves exegesis of the culture, exegesis of relevant biblical passages, development of a critical response, and implementation of the new practice. At times, missionaries start with cultural practices and then look to scripture, but traditional preaching and teaching often starts with a text and then moves to culture. In either case, many of Hiebert’s principles are helpful in providing discussion of the meanings behind cultural forms and developing new contextualized practices.
Communicate the Biblical Truth in a Relevant Way
The final part of the application process is the communication of biblical truth in a culturally appropriate way. Each culture has its own unique communication patterns and learning styles. The missionary, as part of his or her cultural analysis, should seek to identify these cultural norms so he or she can use them as he or she communicates the biblical message.
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.