Theological Education and Scripturally-based Discipleship: Critical Distinctions

Modern theological education, as generally understood and practiced today, is a wholly Western concept. Yet, over the past century and a half, it has become a global prescription. The reason for this is the successful expansionism of the Western missionary movement.

Wilbert Shenk explains:

An unexamined assumption of the modern mission movement was that theological education was essential to the well being of the churches being established across the world… The argument put forward here is that modern western theological education, exported throughout the world as a part of the modern mission movement, has proved to be a serious impediment to training church leaders in other cultures whose task it was to develop contextually appropriate churches. Everything about this theological educational program was geared toward inculcating western ideals and values.

Shenk, Wilbert R. 2013. “Theological Education in Historical and Global Perspective.” In Theology in Missionary Perspective: Lesslie Newbigin’s Legacy, edited by Paul Weston and Mark Laing, Manuscript. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.

Now, at the onset of the twenty-first century, the shape and character of Christianity is changing radically and significantly in the wake of the demise of Western colonialism and rise of World Christianity. Consequently, the stage is set for a radical reassessment of how theological education might be reformed in order to appropriately equip congregations and missionary movements of the Majority World.

The following tabulation, Comparison of Theological Education with Scripturally-based Discipleship, compares and contrasts significant differences between two paradigms or models of Christian training: theological education and scripturally-based discipleship.


Tabulated comparison: Theological Education, Scripturally-based Discipleship

Theological Education

Analysis has demonstrated that theological education has proven a significant hindrance to the establishment of holistic, contextually appropriate churches within the Majority World.

  • In philosophical terms: rooted in the modern, Western Enlightenment-based paradigm.
  • In intercultural terms: brought to fruition during the modern, colonial / imperial period of mission.
  • In educational terms: encapsulated in the academic model, in which students leave their contexts, in order to aggregate around a teacher, or set of teachers in an institutional academy, with both relocation and teaching being at the students’ cost.

Scripturally-Based Discipleship

  • In philosophical terms: rooted in a post-modern, contextual paradigm.
  • In intercultural terms: assumes that no culture is innately superior, that mutuality between people of different cultures is desirable and achievable, albeit complex and that discipleship can be an authentic leveller.
  • In educational terms: rooted in the apostolic model and the apprenticeship model. In the apostolic model a teacher or missionary leaves their culture and context, in order to take their teaching to the students in their own context, at the teacher’s cost. In the apprenticeship model leaders and learners are intentionally committed to a form of education by working alongside one another.

Maize Plant Discipleship

Maize Plant Discipleship is a scripturally-based learning resource formulated in response to the research discussed above and rooted in an apostolic model.

The resource is currently being prepared for publication as a series of short handbooks that can be economically reproduced in local contexts. It is being simultaneously published in e-books and web page formats.

If you are interested in utilising the resource, including translation, republication and use in small learning groups, please contact the author.


The discussion above is essentially an extract from my doctoral research, Facilitating A Renewal of Discipleship Praxis Amongst Burkinabé Leaders and Learners. My analysis was undertaken using the lens of contextual missiology. The following clarifications of terminology may be helpful, especially for anyone referring to the dissertation. If you’re not planning to do so, what follows is largely irrelevant.


In my dissertation, I stated that the terminology of theology and its various associations, such as theological education, need not imply the philosophical categories, language and underlying structures of thought and praxis typically associated with modern, Western theology.

Accordingly, rather than reject the concept of theological education, I wrestled with its historical and potential relationship with scriptural discipleship. I considered the etymology of education (from the Latin word educat), meaning to draw out insight from a leaner. This I related to the biblical concept of paraclesis — the drawing alongside of another, to guide them towards an enlarged understanding of God’s will and purpose — which is biblically associated with new-covenant discipleship.

From this wrestling process…

I derived a concept that I referred to as “theological-education-as-discipleship.” My intention was to use this term to contrast with, rather than reflect modern, Western theological education. Because of it’s widespread usage, I hoped it might be possible to redeem the concept of theological education — to redefine it in terms of the educating and equipping the whole church for its mission to the world. A reformed theological education of this kind would systemically incorporate, at its very core, the formation and sending forth of disciples who will make disciples…who will make disciples…and so on.

I have since changed my stance…

I now prefer to refer simply to scripturally-based discipleship, which provides an important contrast to the concept of theological education. For many, the two terms are sufficiently clear and different to create an appropriate tension. In Majority World contexts, in particular, where numerical growth is vast and culturally significant, I am convinced that the paradigm of scripturally-based discipleship is necessary and significantly-more appropriate than that of theological education, which remains essentially an anachronistic cultural import.

Withal, the term scripturally-based discipleship tends to evoke the romantic notion that it is imminently possible to follow the Way of Jesus in the manner of the earliest Messianic Community. This is both apt and opportunistic.

  • Apt, because at root this idea has arguably been integral to Christianity, throughout the course of its long history.
  • Opportunistic, because that long history and the considerable contextual differences between “then” and “now” cannot and must not be ignored.

Withal, Scripture remains at the heart of the Christian faith and discipleship remains the most appropriate and practical form of devotion. Moreover, the sympathies between then and now and between first-century Israel and many Majority World contexts are arguably far closer than was ever true of the post-Enlightenment West. My observations are offered with this caveat.

One thought on “Theological Education and Scripturally-based Discipleship: Critical Distinctions

  1. Thanks dear John

    V interesting comparisons. Our Cultural, religious and racist values perhaps too have too often been imposed through Christian mission and the colour of our skin? I like what you are doing with the Maize material John.

    Liked by 1 person

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