In his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘mainstream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.
What does “Marcionite” mean?
Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.
The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.
How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?
While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.
This happens for at least three reasons:
1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.
The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.
2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.
I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.
3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.
Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.
How Can We Avoid This?
As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).
How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?
1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.
The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.
2. Teach biblical interpretation.
Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.
Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.
3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture
Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.