Posted by: Daniel McCurdy | July 2, 2013

Discipleship or Indoctrination

As many of you know one of our goals as a family is to go as missionaries to somewhere (prefer Africa, but I don’t like to make definitive statements). In thinking about going to Africa a responsible person also has to think of the history of the culture you are entering. For example, if you were to go to most countries in West Africa you would find that they had been colonized, and then dropped like a hot potato in the 60’s or 70’s. You would find that the pattern of colonization started out with missionaries who were not only missionaries for the gospel, but western culture. The two had become rather conflated, and as a side point often still are. From here the missionaries would open schools which ended up training in a western strain of Christianity, and for slightly educated help for the developing European elite. To be fair the missionaries did not necessarily go to be forerunners for their governments, but from an African perspective it is all the same. An interesting novel written by a Nigerian, Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart ( I read this book in high school, and again recently. Basically it is a story of what it looked like to go from pre-colonial to colonial Nigeria. I highly recommend it.

For a lot of time in missions, changing the culture of the native was thought just as important as changing the belief system. Perhaps, this was framed in terms of helping the native, but it seems that acting European was equated with being Christian. Today, missionary work takes a different form, or at least a number of the missionaries I have encountered. Cultures are much more respected, and people are beginning to understand that Jesus was not European or American, and that he would stick out in our culture. However, I have also observed that there is still an insidious form of colonization found in modern missionary work, and that is in theology. Most of this observation comes from growing up in the Presbyterian Church in America.

What I have noticed at times is people thinking in terms of being missionaries for the reformed faith, or being very excited about planting Presbyterian churches. This has concerned me because you are no longer just bringing the Good news of Jesus, but telling them what they have to do with it. Your goal from the outset is not just to disciple them to live in the ways of Jesus, but to accept the theology of your particular denomination as well. To me this is problematic because in terms of knowledge in the field of theology you are in the seat of power. To be clear the power is that if you bring someone to Christ, you have a person that quite possibly does not know the Bible or options in theology very well.

Having power gives you responsibility in how you use that power. What I am saying also applies to parenting, and what happens when you bring a new Christian into a church. Are you willing to let them work to their own conclusions about theology, even if they end up disagreeing with you, or is your goal to indoctrinate them? In this case I would say it is indoctrination to take someone who may not know there are other options and posit your view of doctrine as the right view. This is a different form of colonization, it takes away autonomy. You have used your power in a way that does not give full information about the options available.

I think the underlying assumption that drives this is the thought that going deeper into theology means deeper faith. I posit that understanding various aspects of theology and growing in faith are two separate (thought connected in some ways) processes. Growing in faith can be done without having a set view of the atonement, or any other number of doctrines. If it were true that better theology equals better faith, then the faith of children should be weak, but it is my observation that their faith is the strongest of all. Their faith is not in words or ideas, but simply in Jesus.

Of course, my intention here is not to say that theology is unimportant. If you spend much time with you you’ll find that I spend a lot of time thinking about various theological points, but I have given up on the idea that getting it all right will really strengthen my faith in God.

So connect this back to missions, parenting, and bringing someone new to church; What is your goal? My goal is to show them Jesus, and to teach them to live in the ways that Jesus taught us to live. This is the Gospel that the apostles taught, and it is the Gospel of Jesus that I intend to teach. In the realm of theology it is my goal to give options as to what people could think on various topics, but not to tell them what to believe. I think for their beliefs to be firm, they have to wrestle with the topics for themselves, and in conversation with others. If they end up in a different camp than me, that is okay because we are still following Jesus together. In fact, in a setting like post-colonial Africa it is even more essential to give room for developing their own sense of theology.

I am assuming at least a couple people are reading. What are your thoughts?



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  2. Are you sure it’s indoctrination when the reformed faith goes out in missions? I mean, we’re always gospel-centered, and we put the gospel first, but when they ask questions (and I mean the tougher questions) how else are we going to answer? With some other doctrine that we’ve never grown up with? Doctrine is very important. Doctrine helps us to understand what we believe and why we believe it. Without it…what do we have? Also, you’re saying all of this, but what about your children? For the time being, they’re under the reformed church, whether they like it or not; isn’t this a little bit…contradictory of what you’ve just said in this post?

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