Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn 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.

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Why Learn Another Language?

I recently listened to a TED Talk by linguist John McWhorter giving four reasons for learning a foreign language. This brief talk was very interesting and well-done. Particularly striking for me was his first reason: “if you want to imbibe a culture, you have to control, to some degree, the language the culture happens to be conducted in.” For those seeking to minister cross-culturally, this is a very important point.

McWhorter begins his discussion of the benefits of language learning by pushing back on the notion that learning language teaches one to think differently. He argues that language-benefitsworldview is not uniformly reflected through language. As an illustration, he notes 3 different English speakers who clearly have differing worldviews. I would only partially agree here as I think there is a closer relationship between worldview and language than McWhorter allows, especially in many languages other than English. Further, in my experience, learning another language does stretch the mind and open up new avenues of thinking.

McWhorter then moves to the main content of the talk: why learn language? For me, reason number one is reason enough. While language may not always perfectly reflect worldview, one cannot effectively operate within a culture without speaking that culture’s language. For missionaries, this is especially true: one cannot hope to communicate the message of the gospel in a culturally meaningful way without understanding the language of that culture. Put otherwise, good contextualization necessarily involves language learning.

Beyond the obvious (people in many parts of the world don’t speak English), there is a further reason for this. Concepts merely translated directly from English into equivalent words of another language often fail to accurately communicate one’s message. Simply translating words from one language to another does not result in culturally meaningful communication.

For example, Chinese people have been told by English-speaking Christians “你是一个罪人” – “you are a sinner.” Many Chinese balk at this notion because “罪人” in Chinese most commonly refers to “criminals” – murderers and the like. Very few Chinese would agree that they are this kind of person. Obviously this is a rather simple example, but it illustrates the point: without learning the language, one can very easily miscommunicate.

Learning language is essential for gospel communication and cultural understanding. It demonstrates love for those we serve.

Here’s McWhorter’s talk:

The Need for Speed and the Related Dangers

Hilarious! I’ve seen it a thousand times and it is still funny.

As funny as the video is, it sadly illustrates some missionary methodology. How so? In recent years, some methodologies have put a premium on two things: high numbers and speed. In other words, successful methodology is that which quickly produces high numbers of new believers and new churches. Implicitly, the numbers are taken to represent God’s blessing on a certain methodology.

Of course, there are numerous problems with this, both biblically and practically. Biblically, I don’t see Jesus or Paul focusing on speed or numbers. In fact, by that measurement, we would have to say that Jesus was not very “successful.” After three years, he had only twelve disciples, one of whom betrayed him, one denied him, and the ten others rarely understood what he was talking about. (I say this tongue-in-cheek). Practically, the emphasis on speed overlooks a basic fact of faith: it takes time.

The emphasis on speed can lead missionary practitioners to neglect some essential aspects of cross-cultural ministry. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on just one: worldview. When one’s methodology is focused on quickly producing high numbers, worldview is set aside in two related ways. First, the worldview of the people is ignored or inadequately considered. The result is that we can share something that is true, but is  misunderstood by people hearing our message.

For example, if one presents the gospel in terms of guilt (you sinned and you will go to hell) in China, he could likely present answers to the wrong questions. That is, while the statement is true, it is probably going to be misunderstood or considered irrelevant to the average Chinese person. The Chinese term for sinner (罪人) normally means “criminal” and most Chinese people do not consider themselves to be criminals. Thus, though the statement is true, it is easily misunderstood. Failure to consider worldview in the name of speed leads to misunderstandings of the gospel message.

Second, biblical worldview building is neglected. Central to discipleship is the building of a new worldview. I believe the best way to build a biblical worldview is through the biblical story (see my previous posts on the biblical story). However, much rapid discipleship focuses on a number of “how to’s” – how to share the gospel, how to pray, how to start a church – and neglects the more fundamental issue of helping a new believer build a new worldview. The result is new believers lack the worldview structure that allows them to live out their new faith.

Back to the video above – the runner in the video finished the race quicker by busting through the hurdles. In fact, he beat at least 2-3 other runners. However, he is disqualified and his efforts, while providing a good laugh, did not lead to “success.” I fear that the neglect of worldview issues in missionary methodology leads to similar results: we plow forward quickly, but the end result is not what we desire.

I am not saying that we need to slow down for the sake of slowness. Nor am I saying that God cannot move to quickly bring multitudes to faith. Instead, I am saying that we cannot bust through worldview hurdles to finish the task quicker. We must give careful consideration to both the worldview of our people and to helping new believers build a biblical worldview. In the end, depth cannot be sacrificed for breadth – both must be held in balance.