A Shipwreck

Ministry unanchored to theology is susceptible to mission drift.

When I teach my students about how to discern the fruitfulness of a ministry’s theology, I tell them to look first at their methodology.

They may have a decent doctrinal statement on their website, but their methodology is the true barometer of their theological distinctives. Their methodology always betrays their theology; and almost always, the first doctrinal distinctive to suffer compromise is the doctrine of sin. This effectively contaminates all other essential doctrines.

To drive home the point to my students, I give an analogy: If I were to put before you six unbelievers— a Southern Baptist girl, a Catholic priest, a prostitute, a drug dealer, a Qur’anic Muslim, and a Hasidic Jew—which one do you think would be most inclined to repent and trust in Jesus? Usually people say the Southern Baptist girl or the prostitute. Now to be fair, those are not bad guesses if we are considering the unbeliever’s level of opportunity to hear the gospel or the unbeliever’s level of desperation to turn for help. But if we answer like that, we demonstrate that we do not fully understand the depravity of each person’s heart and their inherited sin nature.

Here is how I answer my own question to my students: There was a shipwreck, and on the ship there was a Southern Baptist girl, a Catholic priest, a prostitute, a drug dealer, a Muslim, and a Jew. They are all dead, face down in the water. Which one do you think would be most able to swim to the nearest shore or reach out and grab a life preserver? Or another way to ask it: Of those six people face down in the water, which one is most likely to take on the non-human nature of a fish and start breathing water and thriving in an underwater habitat?

Well, the obvious answer is that dead people cannot make themselves come alive and humans do not breathe water because by nature we only can breathe air. It would take a miracle for a dead person to live and a human being to take on the nature of anything non-human. We are all born dead in sins and trespasses. And the new birth of an unregenerate person is equally miraculous for someone who grows up in the church with much opportunity to believe the gospel or for someone hostile or ignorant to the gospel, and for all kinds of people in between. Regeneration is a miracle for all types of people without discrimination or partiality. Everyone is dead in sin, not partially dead, not almost dead. Dead. Deadness requires a miracle to bring forth life.

The problem with so many ministry methods that do not hold to the biblical doctrine of sin is that instead of using the defibrillator and CPR of the Spirit-empowered, Christ-centered Word to rescue a person drowned in sin, they simply try to attract, persuade, lure, and entice dead sinners to experience what is only promised to those who have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. They sit in their lifeboats and talk about how delightful their boats are; they try pouring warm water on the backs of the dead people in the water just to be nice and love on them; they sing songs about peace and love with popular-sounding melodies and emotive chord progressions; they quote movies; and they just keep trying new things, hoping dead people will like them and join them. But they are like clouds without water (cf. Jude 12) or rescue boats without trained rescuers and life preservers.

Unmoored mission drift

Mission drift essentially happens, not because the Bible is unacknowledged, but because the Bible becomes one authoritative voice among many others—opinions, success stories, demographics, experiences, statistics, emotion, etc. And oftentimes the reason given for why these authoritative voices should equally instruct alongside the Bible is, ‘All truth is God’s truth.’ The Bible may be referred to as authoritative, especially on the doctrinal statement of a ministry’s website, but it is, in fact, not heeded as though it were sufficient. And when it is used, favorite passages are extracted out of context or quoted at the expense of other theological truths, thus proof-texting the ministry’s preconceived narrative of the human condition and what corresponding deliverance must then entail. The Bible is indeed used, but it is used because it is viewed as useful and truthful, not because it is the supremely authoritative Word of God. In other words, whether it is said or not, there is an underlying perception that the Bible’s record of the way of Jesus works for peace-filled living and personal development. Therefore, it must be true. Pragmatism, pure and simple.

Typical kickback in mission circles to such above-mentioned remarks is that the world will know we are Christians by our love, and we are called to preach the gospel with our lives. Again, here are two common sentiments that betray a squishiness of theology and lack of precision with the biblical texts and a disregard for the whole counsel of God. Not to mention, there is an underlying repulsion for heady theology that kills passion and ignores the real-life suffering.

Yet, the holistic transformation that so many big-hearted Christians desire has historically developed after gospel-inculcation among a people. Missiologist, Craig Ott, helpfully observes:

There is no greater transforming power than the translation of the gospel message and entrusting that message to the work of the Holy Spirit in the local people. Even the best-intended missionary efforts at social development can smack of colonialism and culturally taint or even emasculate the gospel. But as, so to speak, the lion of the gospel is set loose among a people, then personal, ecclesial, and community change occurs in dramatic and unexpected ways.1

Moreover, Ott astutely argues:

Biblical theology of mission provides the North Star by which the ship of mission must navigate. Though storms may rage and currents may pull, the ship of mission can stay its intended course as long as it reorients itself on the fixed point. Trends and fads, political correctness, popular opinion (inside and outside the church), ethnocentrism and myopia, and a host of other forces would blow this ship off course. The scriptures as the revealed Word of God must remain the fixed point by which we navigate the ship of mission.2

The evangelical Anglican bishop, J.C. Ryle (1816–1900) compared the aversion to doctrine among young ministers and missionaries in his day to a spineless, powerless ‘jelly-fish Christianity’. He lamented:

A jelly-fish . . . is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little delicate, transparent umbrella. Yet the same jelly-fish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defence, or self-preservation. Alas! It is a vivid type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, ‘No dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.’ . . . They have no definite opinions. . . . They are so afraid of ‘extreme views’ that they have no views at all. We have thousands of ‘jellyfish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.3

About sending qualified missionaries, Ryle maintained:

How are missions to the heathen to be carried on unless the managing Committees are agreed about the men they ought to send out, and the doctrines those men are to preach? . . . Can we imagine such a Board getting over its difficulty by resolving to ask no questions of its missionaries, and to send out anybody and everybody who is an ‘earnest’ man? The very idea is monstruous. If there is any minister who must have distinct views of doctrine, it is the missionary.4

Ryle would also argue that doctrineless Christian missions are powerless and fruitless:

If you want to do good in these times, you must . . . take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . . The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and His precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live—to believe, repent, and be converted. . . . Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. . . . But, depend on it, if we want to ‘do good’ and shake the world, we must fight with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to ‘dogma.’ No dogma, no fruits! No positive Evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!5

Unfortunately, rigorous theological and biblical training is increasingly disparaged and treated as peripheral for real ministry to real people with real problems. Doctrine divides, Jesus unites; deeds, not creeds; practical application, not propositional truth . . . so goes the post-modern, anti-authoritarian mantra. One of the most oft-cited examples is that Jesus chose uneducated simpletons to be his disciples, not the highfalutin scribes and Pharisees. The argument maintains that the more you study the Bible and are competent to rightly divide the word of truth, the less spiritual you are and the less useful you can be in his kingdom.

Unfortunately, rigorous theological and biblical training is increasingly disparaged and treated as peripheral for real ministry to real people with real problems.

After all, the Holy Spirit teaches and leads us all into truth, and we are all equal in Christ. Are we not told to imitate Jesus’ loving and humble example (they mean ‘tolerance’ and ‘uncertainty’) in the Gospels, not Paul’s dogmatic argumentation in Romans? The words and acts of Jesus in the Gospels are more sacred than the rest of the sacred Scriptures.

It is not uncommon for missionaries to downplay theological education as if it were a crutch for those who are so left-brained that they do not know how to encounter God with their heart. The stigma is that brainy seminarians prefer theological training because they are theologically nit-picky and care little for reaching the lost and shepherding weary sheep. Of course, many of us could think of immature and prideful seminarians or young ministers who use the finer points of doctrine to ridicule others and boost their egos; unquestionably, they should be duly confronted head-on. However, one has to wonder whether such a proud person is really called of God to minister or whether he fits the qualifications for a Christian leader in such an immature stage of spiritual development.

Their points and critiques are well taken and sometimes well deserved, and it is true that the seminary experience does not promise to produce men and women passionate for taking the gospel to the world. It is true that many doctrinaire young ministers have received an education at seminary and then have caused havoc in ministries. However, there is no direct correlation between theological education and immaturity and cold-heartedness. Correlation does not equal causation. Seminaries do not produce that; however, they may provide opportunities for the sin in one’s heart to manifest itself, through cheating, lying, pride, arrogance, lust, false teaching, etc. But that is not the seminary’s job to root out.

Now ponder the argument that claims Jesus chose uneducated simpletons to carry on His revolution of love, over and against the highly educated teachers of the law. This is often a compelling observation, especially when someone is unfamiliar with the historical and religious context in which the Gospels were written. Eckhard Schnabel offers insight into the first-century Jewish culture that produced Jesus’ disciples:

The calling of the twelve disciples in Galilee must not be burdened with the view that Jesus called uneducated Galileans to the task of preaching and teaching. It is rather probable that Jesus’ disciples, including the fishermen Simon and Andrew, were educated. According to Jn 1:44, Peter, Andrew and Philip came from Bethsaida, an up-and-coming town that was granted the status of a polis in A.D. 30 and was located in the vicinity of the Greek city Caesarea Philippi. Rainer Riesner argues that people ‘who grew up in such close proximity to a Hellenistic city must have spoken more than a few scraps of Greek. Thus Jn 12:21 presupposes that Philip could speak Greek.’ Andrew, Philip and Simon had Greek names, which may not be coincidental. Riesner observes, ‘The Galilean fishermen in Jesus’ group of disciples belonged not to the rural lower class but to the vocational middle class. . . . A Jew who came from a pious background ‘had a solid, albeit one-sided, education. He could read and write and he could retain large quantities of material in his memory by applying simple mnemonic devices.’ . . . The view that Jesus had untutored disciples is a romantic and entirely unwarranted one. Note, for example, the calling of Matthew-Levi, a tax collector. . . . A tax collector belonged to the higher levels of society. His position presupposed not only that he was wealthy but also that he had . . . education.6

Why would a patient with a brain tumor expect a surgeon to be a credentialed doctor who is a well-trained expert in neurosurgery? Why not just get a massage therapist to give the patient a relaxing scalp massage? Why do we send into missions new converts who are not competent to teach the full counsel of God from both the Old Testament and New Testament? Why are our expectations of physicians of the soul devastatingly lower than our expectations of physicians of the body? If a surgeon misdiagnoses or commits malpractice, you may suffer prolonged sickness. However, if your soul physician misdiagnoses or commits malpractice, you may suffer eternal hellfire.

It seems obvious that someone who has volunteered with the Peace Corps is not going to be as qualified to help cancer patients as would be a physician from an elite medical school and a rigorous residency program. Why do we expect less of gospel ministers and missionaries?

1. Craig Ott, Stephen Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 146.

2. Ott, et al., Encountering Theology of Mission, xxi-xxii.

3. J.C. Ryle, Principles for Churchmen, 2nd ed. (London: William Hunt, 1884), 97–8.

4. Ryle, Principles for Churchmen, 82-3.

5. J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan Publishers, 2001), 355–6. Emphasis in original.

6. Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission vol.1 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 277-8.

This article is an excerpt from the authors recent book, The Missionary-Theologian.

E.D. Burns

E.D. Burns, Ph.D., is the international director of Frontier Dispatch. He has been a long-term missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently SE Asia. He serves on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary. As a linguist and ordained minister, Burns develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries to the least-reached.