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The State of African Theology Address: Decentralising Theological Education

In its most basic form, theological education translates to the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” as the writer of the book of Ephesians indicates in chapter 4. This equipping was never meant to be reserved for certain individuals but rather the expectation is for all saints to be involved in the work of ministry. Now how we define the various aspects of the “work of ministry” is a topic for another day. Even Christ commissions his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to “teach all nations” all that He has taught them. This role of teaching was meant to be accessible, free and mobile in order for it to advance the purposes of God’s kingdom. Professionalising this function reflects more how the church has given into being influenced by the models of this age rather than the kingdom.

Traditional African educational and learning processes have historically been centred on community and family circles. This is not a strange concept either to the biblical narrative as Paul’s church planting strategy was predominately that which is called ‘house churches’. People learn more within circles of people they value the most. Theological formation is no exception because true discipleship happens mostly in relationship.

The great Xhosa Prophet Ntsikana, who is revered for his pioneering incarnational model to missions ran his church services around family kraals. Though missionaries came and built isolated church related facilities which were removed from the centrality of the home and that required people to dismantle their association between family and religion, Ntsikana maintained the ancestral legacy of the family kraal a sacred space for religious activity.

The Western concept of theological education has thus maintained the pattern of the university which is removed from the centrality of the church as a sacred space for discipleship. Though there is some value to a dedicated group of people who engage at the intellectual level of theologising, the true heart of the Gospel is and will always remain formation by and through the local church.

The Huffington Post just recently published an article by Dr. Philip Clayton called Rebooting Theological Education which looks at the current crisis of theological institutions and the need for a new approach. It raises such issues as financial affordability, the generational shifts taking place as well as the new approaches to doing church. All these have a direct impact on the format and relevance of traditional ways of approaching theological education. As the fundamental understanding of the role of the church in the 21st century broadens and as the world around us changes, we are compelled to bring training more to the ground rather than higher to the halls of elitist institutions particularly in Africa.

By returning theological education to the local church, we not only open access to the equipping of all believers for the work of ministry, but we are also enabling including those who would otherwise not afford to financially go to theological seminaries. We would also further reduce the high volume of ministers who are seemingly preaching non-truth because of what we perceive as lack of theological training.

Christ commissioned his disciples to teach the nations what he had taught them. This mandate still rings true today and cannot be achieved through an elitist approach to theological education.  The Church can no longer afford to outsource its mandate to multiply discipleship and raising leaders because theology needs to be done in context and in relationship.

By Luthando Tofu

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