How Theology Drives Missions

by Zane Pratt December 16, 2021

We live in a culture that pits practice against knowledge. In Christian circles, this often takes the form of separating theology from mission and stressing pragmatism (“what works”) over theological analysis. The cry is often heard: “Just tell me what to do!” Theology is regarded as dry, speculative, and divisive. Mission is about action, and action is good.

The Bible operates very differently from this way of thinking. There is a lot of theology in Scripture, and that theology flows directly into practice. The letters of the New Testament, for example, often contain deep theological teaching followed by the word “therefore” and an explanation of how believers should live in light of that theological truth. It would be safe to say that all practice in the Bible is theologically grounded. We are to live the way we live and do the things we do because of what is true. Some definitions are in order. What is “theology” and what is “mission”? In historic evangelical Christianity, theology is simply the whole teaching of Scripture on the subjects that are central in the Bible. Those subjects include, supremely, God Himself (theology = theos + logos, or the study of God), but they also include his Word, his Son, his Spirit, humanity, the problem of sin, how people are saved, his Church with its practices and mission, and the progress and destiny of history. Scripture is the final authority and controlling source of theology in evangelical Christianity.

However, we do not look at Scripture in a vacuum. We interpret it in a certain way, according to established rules for understanding various types of texts in their contexts. So, hermeneutics[1] is an essential component of our theological method. We also look at Scripture in light of the study, contemplation, and controversies of the people of God across both geography and history. There is nothing new under the sun, and issues that appear new to a modern Christian have probably been studied and argued in other places and other times. Our ancestors in the faith have wrestled with the text of Scripture for centuries. In the process, they have discovered both blind alleys to be avoided and agreements that have stood the test of time. Scripture has the final word; Church tradition does not. However, we would be fools to ignore the experience and insights of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have wrestled hard with these same issues but who happened to live in another place and time.

Theology is shaped by missiology in profound ways. Throughout history, theological controversies have grown out of missionary experience. That was certainly the case in the early church. The great confessions of the fourth and fifth centuries (such as the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Formula) were the fruit of missionary experience and missionary efforts at contextualization.[2]  The early church had to express the gospel in the cultural context of a Hellenistic world that conceived of reality in terms that were very different from the world-view of the Bible. That Hellenistic worldview pressed in on the church’s teaching in ways that threatened to compromise the integrity of the gospel. Church leaders wrestled with the text of Scripture in light of the challenges presented by their cultural context. The result was an understanding of the Person of Christ and the Trinity that has stood the scrutiny of time down to the present. The missionary experience of advancing the gospel into a new cultural context forced the development of theological expression. The fact that the same unbiblical errors they faced then have continued to plague the church in the centuries since simply shows the value of considering church history as we do theology in our day.

The example of the controversies of the early church leads us to another important feature of theology. Theological thinking will address certain issues, such as the nature and character of God or the person and work of Christ, in every cultural setting, for the compelling reason that those issues are central to Scripture. However, in some places or times, other issues will emerge that must be addressed from Scripture as well.

In the modern world, the issue of abortion falls in this category. The 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message said nothing about abortion or the sanctity of life in the womb for the simple reason that it was not an issue in the United States at that time. The consensus of American culture agreed with the teaching of Scripture that you should not kill babies in their mothers’ wombs. By the year 2000, that consensus had changed. The legalization of abortion in the United States in 1973 forced Southern Baptists, in company with other evangelical Christians, to think through their understanding of the Bible on this issue. As a result, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 contained a new statement marking conception as the beginning of human life. The addition did not represent a change in Southern Baptist theology; the changing cultural context simply made it necessary to speak to an issue that had not needed commentary in a previous context. In the same way, believers in non-Western cultures may need to address issues that Western Christians do not encounter.

What is missiology, and how does it relate to theology? Missiology is the study of the mission God has given His people to do. It answers two questions: “What is God’s mission?” and “How do God’s people accomplish it?” Behind both questions, however, there is a more foundational issue: how do we know how to answer these questions? Where do we go to find the answers? What authority (if any) governs how we answer them?

Just as the proper study of systematic theology begins with an examination of epistemology (how do we know what we know?) and theological method (what are the rules of the game for answering our questions?), missiology must also examine its sources, presuppositions, and methodology before proceeding to the task itself. It must show how it will find and assess answers to its questions before it can honestly proceed to finding and assessing them.

What we do is shaped by what we believe is true. This is the point at which theology intersects with missiology. Whether mission strategists realize it or not, the answers they give to our two foundational questions (“What is our mission?” and “How do we do it?”) accurately reflect what they believe is true and what they value as important. Theology shapes mission, and missiology reveals theology. Whatever someone may say they believe, what they do shows what they truly believe.

There is a real sense in which all the major heads of doctrine in a good systematic theology define our missiology. That begins with our doctrine of Scripture itself. Because we believe the Bible is the Word of God (“breathed out by God,” in the words of 2 Tm 3:16), it carries the authority of God Himself. It defines both the nature of our mission and the means by which we accomplish it because it is the Word of the King of the universe. Because we believe the Bible is inerrant, we can trust it. Because it is sufficient, we do not need other sources to tell us what to do. The Bible is our source for answering our missiological questions. We can learn from other sources, such as cultural studies and communication theory, but we need to examine and evaluate all of them strictly in light of Scripture. Because it is clear concerning everything we need to know, we do not need any outside authority to explain it to us or apply it for us. The Bible rules our understanding and practice of missions.

When we say that the Bible controls our missiology, we are making some assumptions about the way the Bible is interpreted (hermeneutics, as we mentioned earlier). It is possible to wrench verses out of context, or read things into verses that are not there, and prove anything. The text must be in control of our interpretation. This includes considering the grammar, the historical context of the passage, and the place of each passage in its paragraph, chapter, book, testament, and the grand narrative of Scripture. Sober, responsible hermeneutics are necessary for sound theology and good missiology.

The other heads of doctrine are equally significant for evangelical missiology. The doctrine of God affects every aspect of our understanding of missions. Because God is infinitely glorious, absolute in his Being, creator of everything, and transcendent over all he has made, the mission of his people is about him. The glory of God and the advance of his agenda in the world are the focus of the church’s mission. It is not about us, and it is not ultimately about the lost among the nations. Because God is who he is, he is the center of everything, and everything must be done under his direction and for his glory. God’s plan is to fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory as the waters cover the sea. Our mission, under his sovereign rule, must advance the knowledge and worship of God using the means he has prescribed so that both the end and the means glorify him.

In the same way, the biblical doctrine of humanity exerts a profound influence on our missiology. God made humanity, male and female, in his image. However, the first man and woman rebelled against God by disbelieving his Word and disobeying his command. The result was disastrous, and it set the stage for the mission he has given his people. From the time of Adam and Eve onward, every person in the world is guilty before God, corrupted in every part of their nature, spiritually dead, and unable to do anything to save themselves. Everything else that is wrong in the world proceeds from this fundamental issue. At the very least, this says two things about our mission. First, the greatest need of every man, woman, and child is a salvation that includes forgiveness of sins, spiritual resurrection, and inner transformation. Second, because people are spiritually dead, only supernatural means will accomplish anything. Persuasion is appropriate, but not enough. Coercion, deceit, or manipulation are out of the question. Only the power of God can save someone.

God’s solution to humanity’s dilemma is Jesus. Scriptural theology teaches us that God became a man in the Person of Jesus Christ, taking full humanity to himself while remaining fully God. He lived the life we should have lived, as our substitute and federal head, and then died the death we deserved to die, taking on himself the wrath due for our sin. He conquered sin, death, and Satan by rising again from the dead, never to die again. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, where he intercedes for his people. He will come again in glory at the end of the age. He is the only way that any sinner can be saved. Everyone who repents of their rebellion against God and puts their trust in him will be justified before God, made alive by the Holy Spirit, and guaranteed eternity with God in glory. There is salvation in no one else. Anyone who trusts in him will be saved, but no one is saved apart from receiving the gospel and believing in Jesus. He closed his ministry on earth by commanding his people repeatedly to take this Good News to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all peoples. The mission of the people of God is profoundly Christ-centered. What the Bible teaches about the person and work of Jesus is the very heart of Christian mission.

Everyone on earth is a sinful rebel. Everyone who is judged by God based on their own record will be justly condemned. Jesus is the only savior for sinners. No one can be saved apart from the Good News of Jesus. Anyone who repents of their sin and trusts in Jesus will be saved. The Holy Spirit works through the proclamation of the Good News to take dead sinners and make them alive in a miracle that can only be described as new birth. These are theological statements, and they form the bedrock of a biblical missiology. Because these things are true, the mission of the church is irreducibly evangelistic.

Furthermore, this mission is not designed to produce mere converts but to produce disciples.

Disciples are made in the context of healthy local churches. The biblical theology of the church is rich with instruction on the nature, structure, and functions of a healthy local assembly. These churches themselves need leaders grounded well in biblical doctrine so they can instruct God’s people and protect them from false teachers. The whole counsel of God on what He means by “church” is essential to a healthy missiology.

God has commanded his people to proclaim the biblical gospel and to make disciples who are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. He has commanded his people to plant churches that exhibit all the characteristics described by a robustly biblical ecclesiology. He has commanded his people to train leaders who are exemplary disciples themselves and who are adept at theological analysis and teaching among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation on earth. The mission of the church is, therefore, a theological statement: under the authority of Scripture, because of who God is, who we are, who Christ is, what He has done, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the nature and role of the church, and the destiny of history, we are to proclaim the Good News, disciple believers, form healthy churches, and train leaders among every people group on earth. Further, we are to do all of these in robustly theological ways.

In the face of contemporary pragmatism, it is critically important that our missiology is shaped by the full scope of our theology. Because the gospel is profoundly uncomfortable to fallen sinners, there is every temptation to water down the message or soften its rough edges. In the face of unbiblical religious systems that deny central doctrines of Christian theology, it is tempting to downplay things like the uniqueness and deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Church, done correctly, is hard, and it is especially hard in environments where Christians are persecuted. Some missionary agencies skip church altogether, and some missionaries redefine it in ways that compromise biblical standards to bypass the difficulties. Only a thoroughly theological approach to missionary practice will safeguard us from errors like these.

However, the relationship between theology and mission goes two ways. Just as good missiology must be rooted in theology, good theology must produce missions. Anyone who claims to have mastered evangelical theology but is not thereby driven into missionary practice does not understand their theology at all. If you understand who God is, the spiritual condition and destiny of the peoples of the world, the glories of the gospel, the nature of Christian discipleship, and the trajectory of history under the sovereign hand of God, you will be compelled to take part in God’s global mission. If you are not, you either do not understand your theology, or you do not actually know God.


[1] Hermeneutics is the technical term for the philosophy and methodology of interpreting texts.

[2] Contextualization is the attempt to make the Christian faith intelligible, and the Christian church at home, in a given cultural context, without compromising or distorting Biblical truth.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in Midwestern Magazine.