The following is an adaptation of a message that I gave at a chapel service in 2006 in Bartlesville, Oklahoma to the staff of The Voice of the Martyrs (United States). It is a message that I think remains pertinent to each of VOMC’s sister missions and, indeed, to any organization that ministers to the persecuted church worldwide.
In 2 Timothy 2:8-16 we read,
“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself. Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness."
In the midst of his suffering and persecution, Paul is concerned that God's people who were also suffering persecution elsewhere would understand that God's Word was not bound, even though he was. He was concerned that they would receive teaching that would equip them to stand firm, to endure and to remain faithful. These things, Timothy was to remind them about. There were many things that God's people could talk about, but Paul was concerned that they talk about the things that were found in God's Word and that Timothy handle this Word with skill. The need for sound doctrine, theology (may we say) was critical to Paul's understanding of how to serve the Persecuted Church. We should remember that most of his letters were written while he was in prison to those who were suffering for their faith. Theology, doctrine; this was what Paul saw as a priority. In the face of persecution, God's people needed to be reminded of God's Words, the Bread of Life.
Richard Wurmbrand was right when he chastised colleges and seminaries for not teaching what he would call "sufferology." But as missions, we didn’t pick this up much until recent years when we and the US mission became involved in a program with Oklahoma Wesleyan University in a prototype program.
I think we need to continue to expand this, not just in schools and colleges here in the West, but also amoung the persecuted themselves and even in our own missions. I believe that it is time that we begin to think and act theologically and in this way, fulfill even more effectively Richard Wurmbrand's vision but even more importantly, the admonition and example of the Apostle Paul.
In recent years an environment has been created at the Canadian mission that has encouraged us to think creatively and to study and then to seek to model our ministry accordingly, all the while seeking to stay faithful to the vision of Richard Wurmbrand and the purposes that govern both of our mission. As we look ahead to the next few years, I am committed to making sure that we retain this distinction of seeking to let our theology impact our practice in significant ways.
As many of you know, in 2005, we published my book, In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship. I am grateful for the reception that it has received. Presently, it has been translated into Chinese, Ukrainian, Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, Spanish, Russian and Farsi and is being translated into Turkish, Tigrinya, and German. I praise the Lord for that but I better than anyone know how much more work needs to be done on this subject.
Being labelled a theologian is not a title something that many are prepared to have given to them or which they take upon themselves. But when one writes a theology, as I have, then it stands to reason that one is, therefore, a theologian.
Actually, being called a theologian really doesn’t bother me. I have always loved the study of God's Word and theology and so I feel honoured to bear that name.
It saddens me, however, that it seems that theology and theologians have become a favourite whipping post for two different groups.
First of all, there are those who cry out for spiritual renewal. It is not uncommon for them to cry out that the key to genuine spiritual renewal is to free ourselves from Pharisaical preoccupation with theology. Interesting how theologians, in the minds of some, have become synonymous with the New Testament Pharisees, despite the fact that the Pharisees were a lay renewal movement within Judaism and not an intellectual elite at all. When and why, I wonder, did intellectual skill become incompatible with spiritual fervour in the minds of so many?
Increasingly in western societies, uncertainty has been confused with humility and conviction with arrogance. To be dogmatic is thought to be closed-minded, despite the scriptural admonitions to be certain of what one believes in and to proclaim and teach the truth without fear.
I witnessed this during a plenary session in early 2005 during a congress of church leaders in the Bahamas that I was privileged to attend as a representative for the World Evangelical Alliance. At the time, I was the chairman of the Religious Liberty Commission for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and VOMC had recently become a member of the WEA. I was asked if I would represent the WEA at this gathering of church leaders from across the Caribbean. Besides, February is a great time to escape from winter in Toronto!
It was quite a gathering. I was struck by the quality of the leadership. Yet, despite the fact that many of the plenary and workshop speakers were obviously well-educated key leaders in the Caribbean and worldwide, I sat through an evening session where the key note speaker, a popular evangelist, repeatedly mocked and criticized "theologians" throughout his speech, to the loud cheers of the audience. This bombastic fellow strutted about the stage feeling obviously superior to those "theologians" whom he accused of having a deadening effect on the spiritual devotion of the Caribbean church. Repeatedly he proposed that God was likely to wipe out all of the theologies of the theologians with a single word. "Are you ready for that?" he cried out.
To which I answered "NO" because I am convinced that this fellow is sadly mistaken. What he is seemingly unappreciative of, is the great debt that he and the rest of the Church owe those who have a specific call and skill in theology. Had it not been for theologians, the defence of the faith throughout church history in the face of heresy and schism would have been impossible. In the early church, the role of the apologist was to defend Christians from the accusations and persecution of their society.
The role of the theologian was to defend the faith from the dangers of false teaching and to provide a biblical basis from which to build a foundation for what was appropriate Christian practice and what was not.
It was recognized and appreciated that not all believers were equally skilled in this task. But throughout history, God has raised up those who are able to proclaim and defend the fundamentals of the faith that His people were prepared to give their lives for. This task was particularly necessary during and following times of persecution when teaching of doctrine was difficult and false teaching tended to arise and unbiblical practice would begin to take root. It still is the case today. The role of the theologian is imperative.
But for some time a Gnostic division seems to have taken hold in certain segments of evangelical Christianity (particularly amoung those calling out for renewed vibrancy of faith) between spirit and body, spiritual and intellectual. I am sympathetic to the call for such vibrancy. But I disagree that it must, of necessity, be at the expense of intellectual excellence. Can we not have both? Can we not have Christians with full hearts and full heads?
What we need today, in my opinion, are not fewer theologians but more of them. What we do not need are those who feel compelled to make theological innovations, for it is not the role of the theologian to innovate but to make clear what the church has historically taught under the ultimate authority of Scripture.
Contemporary Methodist theologian Thomas Oden once dreamt that he accidentally stumbled on his own tombstone in a New England cemetery. Its epitaph read: "He made no new contribution to theology." Oden woke up feeling deeply reassured, because he had been impacted to follow the mandate of the early church father Irenaeus: to not invent new doctrine, despite his training to be innovative.
I received this same training. It reflects the spirit of our age and culture; a spirit that seeks the new, the innovative, the unique and despises the old, familiar and traditional.
We need to learn again the value to hearing the voice of the Church throughout the ages, which is why I have been thankful for VOMC's continued emphasis on church history. But we need to be sure that we are not only past-oriented in belief, but also that we do not forget how the examples of the apostles (and Paul in particular) are to be models for us to follow in practice, in how we carry out ministry. How we minister is every bit as important as what we believe.
That brings me to the second group who have tended to despise theologians; ministry practitioners who believe that theologians are too “other-worldly” to have their feet solidly on the ground and able to give direction for not only what we ought to believe but how we ought to carry out our ministry. This is a tragic mistake, with the result that, once again, a Gnostic worldview takes hold; a situation where what we believe personally can be biblical based, but how we tend to operate our ministries is quite separate from biblical principles. We fail to see how we must not only be biblically orthodox in belief but also in practice.
For example, I firmly believe that we as ministries should be looking very carefully at how Paul and the early church ministered to their persecuted brothers and sisters. We might be in for a few surprises. As I study this, I find that I am having some of my preconceptions challenged as to what might be appropriate and what might not. We must especially resist the tendency to allow the pragmatics of what will be popular with our donors have the determining vote as to how we will serve the persecuted. What is true must be more important than what works or what “sells” if we are truly committed to being biblically based in all aspects of our ministry.
I believe that our missions need more theologians who have their hearts and heads firmly in the Word of God and whose feet and hands are actively seeking to serve the persecuted church.
We need theologians who can proclaim the truth of God in such a way that men and women in America and Canada fall in love with Him all over again and dedicate themselves to fulfilling His purposes for the world.
We need theologians who can help our persecuted brothers and sisters know how to respond to persecution in a biblical fashion; to know what the Bible says about persecution in its entirety. Again, my I remind you that much of the Bible was written by persecuted people to persecuted people. It is written to give us a revelation of how we are to live and minister in a hostile world as we seek to carry out God’s will of restoring creation to fellowship with its Creator. My book itself, started as a response to church leaders in Colombia begging me to teach them what the Bible taught about persecution. I found that, despite all of my training and education, I really didn’t know.
Unfortunately, the Western domination in much of the world in theological and biblical studies and published literature has only magnified and propagated the North American misunderstanding or neglect of the scriptural link between persecution and discipleship. This has become increasingly clear to me as I meet with church leaders in societies in South America, Africa, and Asia, where persecution is the norm. Like their western counterparts, they often evidence a tragic lack of understanding of the scriptural teachings on the subject. When they looked to me to supply such answers, I found that I did not have them earlier in my ministry. We have no excuse for not knowing now and we are obliged to put these biblical tools in the hands of our brothers and sisters and to model what it means to be a sacrificial, cross-carrying follower of Jesus Christ.
May I urge you, as a mission, to make this a higher priority; to seek to hire and train staff who not only know how to raise funds and manage projects but who are trained to think theologically and who can help us all to more effectively serve our persecuted family around the world in a way that the gospel will go out even more effectively as we see the Day of the Lord's return hastening.