“The thing I never understood about Christianity is the Trinity,” a staff sergeant said to me as we drove through the sand across Kuwait in 2008.
We had just started working together and this was our first one-on-one conversation. I remember being surprised and feeling taken off-guard, but I managed to give an explanation that seemed acceptable to both of us at the time. Questions like his about the Trinity are common from unbelievers who are willing to discuss Christianity, and believers can often struggle with providing reasonable, biblical answers.
When I became a missionary, I realized even more the importance of being able to explain deep theological truths to those around me, this time in a cross-cultural context. While not every missionary needs to earn a master’s degree in biblical studies, not every missionary will plant a new church or teach in a Bible college, and not every missionary needs to read Greek and Hebrew, all missionaries need to be able to understand, practice, and teach biblical truths.
When I was a young soldier and seminary student in the Kuwaiti desert, I wasn’t fully prepared to explain the significance and centrality of the Trinity to a coworker. But I was determined to not be caught off-guard again. The following principles have proven helpful for teaching foundational theological concepts to people who have not yet had an opportunity to understand them.
1. Practice biblical truths with your behavior, not just with words.
Our actions frequently have a much more powerful instructive effect than our words. What great rebuke we would suffer if Jesus said about us what he said concerning the Pharisees, “Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3 HCSB)? We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in that position. Furthermore, hypocritical teaching is much less effective than teaching with integrity.
People are much more likely to copy our behavior than to follow our verbal instructions. This is why Paul was so adamant that we are to emulate Christ-like behavior. We must practice the instructions found in I Corinthians 10:31-11:1:
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory. Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please all people in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, so that they may be saved. Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.
Paul wasn’t satisfied with a ministry that taught, “do what I say, not what I do.”
We can practice our theology through most actions in life, including our daily conversations and prayers. How often have you heard a prayer in church but weren’t sure if the leader was addressing the Father, the Son, or the Spirit? Our speech needs to reflect the truth of the Trinity and other biblical principles. Another way to demonstrate our theology is by taking time for intentional fellowship with those we want to teach. Remember, we can often learn what a teacher really believes by sharing a meal with him. Theological teaching doesn’t stop at the classroom door.
2. Keep it simple, not simplistic.
When Paul taught a deep truth to the Ephesians he said, “Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their thoughts” (Ephesians 4:17-18). He went on to explain what he meant by that in a simple way: “All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice.And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
We need to be prepared to give examples of biblical truths just as Paul did. We can also appropriately use comparison and contrast as Jesus did, for example, in his parables about the wise man and the foolish man; the older brother and the younger brother; or the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Furthermore, we need to be able to show the progression of concepts or multiple aspects of an idea. Jesus didn’t teach only one kingdom parable; he used several different parables to describe the character of his kingdom.
While teaching in Scripture was explained simply, it wasn’t simplistic. As we saw in the example of Paul teaching about no longer walking as Gentiles walk, he didn’t merely say, “Don’t do bad things; don’t think bad thoughts.” Simplistic means that you are reducing or diluting the meaning to the extent that it loses its real meaning or essence. The best way to practice accurate simplicity is to answer theological questions from five-year-olds. If you can’t explain the Trinity to an elementary Sunday school class, then don’t try it with seminary students. And ensure you are prepared. Few things are more uncomfortable to watch than someone trying to respond to a question they ought to know but were unprepared to answer.
3. Avoid dependence on jargon and Christianese.
For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh . . . For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. (Romans 7:17, 22-23)
Paul uses the metaphor of “flesh” to talk about his own sinful desires, and he fully explains that metaphor in Romans 7:13-25. But if we constantly refer to phrases like “the flesh” without explaining to others—especially unbelievers or new Christians—what we mean by that term, it can be quite confusing or ineffective. Likewise, we don’t want to use other common Christian expressions and allusions without explanation, for example, “washed in the blood,” “hedge of protection,” “cruciform,” or “born again.”
4. Don’t teach to impress others; teach to help others understand how to transform their lives to become more like Christ.
When I came to you, brothers, announcing the testimony of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (I Corinthians 2:1-5)
If you plan to teach in order to show how smart, well-read, or holy you are, then you must realign your motives. I have, quite unfortunately, seen missionaries fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m really going to dazzle these locals with my Bible knowledge.” Christ’s sheep don’t need to be dazzled by your knowledge of the Bible; what we need is for someone to live and teach Biblical truth with both confidence and humility—like Christ. That is how disciples learn to be more like Christ.
5. Learn about the culture of your listeners in order to make meaningful connection points.
For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. (Acts 17:28-29)
It becomes both embarrassing and disheartening to see a short-term (or even long-term) missionary who hasn’t taken the time to learn anything about the local culture. In this case, not only is it difficult to make appropriate illustrations that would be helpful in explaining biblical truths, but a missionary can risk creating severe confusion or misunderstandings by using inappropriate illustrations.
In Acts 17, Paul shows that he was familiar with Athenian culture and was able to make a connection to biblical truth by starting with a commonly known aspect of their culture. One of the best extra-biblical examples of making a meaningful connection to the local culture is found in the book Peace Child by Don Richardson, briefly mentioned by Don’s son, Steve, in an episode of the Missions Podcast.
We should never allow local culture to alter the principles in God’s Word, but we can use culture as a bridge of understanding to bring people towards the truth.
6. Hold on to the truth and don’t give up.
In any ministry, there will be a temptation to cut corners and shade the truth for our convenience. Don’t fall into the temptation of thinking that we are smarter than Scripture. As Paul reminded Timothy, “Hold on to the pattern of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who lives in us, that good thing entrusted to you (II Timothy 1:13-14).
By faithfully guarding, teaching, and practicing sound theology, we will be able to guide others toward a deeper relationship with Christ.