We believe the Bible is authoritative, sufficient, and relevant for our core missionary task, providing both the message and method for our mission.
It is likely no surprise to read that Reaching & Teaching is committed to the Bible. Most evangelical organizations affirm Scripture as essential to their faith and practice. So what is distinctive about Reaching and Teaching’s affirmation of the Bible’s authority and sufficiency?
This article will first define the key terms of this distinctive and then explain how this commitment affects RTIM’s missiology and practice. While many may find themselves in total agreement, not all who would initially affirm this distinctive might see it applied in the same way. With that said, let’s begin by looking at what we mean by saying the Bible is authoritative, sufficient, and relevant for our core missionary task.
The authority of Scripture is broadly affirmed in evangelical circles. We believe the sixty-six canonical books are God’s Word. All of humanity living within God’s world is under God’s authority and thereby bound to believe and submit to what the Bible says. As Protestants, we believe Scripture is the highest authority in the church and the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Thus, we affirm the Reformation mark of Sola Scriptura and center it within our missiology.
We also believe the Bible is sufficient. This teaching is drawn from the Bible’s own testimony that it contains all that we need for life and godliness (2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Pet. 1:1–4). This also leads us to affirm a closed canon of Scripture. Until the eschaton, there is no further special revelation available apart from the Bible. The Bible doesn’t lack anything we need to know and obey God. It also means the Bible gives us everything we need to faithfully obey the Great Commission.
As an entailment of authority and sufficiency, we also believe the Scriptures are ever-relevant. This means the Bible is comprehensible to people in every culture, place, and time. Its message is always meaningful and applicable across geography and generations. There is no culture or people in need of a special, extra-biblical gospel in order for the Bible to be relevant to them.
Message & Method
While most evangelicals today would agree these definitions apply to the Bible’s message, we are convinced they also have bearing on our methodology. The Bible’s authority means that it doesn’t merely call us to be Christ’s disciples; it also gives us clear directions for how to make disciples. The Bible’s sufficiency bolsters our confidence that we have been given the patterns for disciple-making ministry so that we do not need the latest sociological theories or anthropological observations. And finally, the relevance of the Bible inclines us to minister as mouthpieces of its message rather than trying to invent new messages or ways of communication.
The Bible calls for and reports the apostolic pursuit of mature, biblically literate disciples and churches (Eph. 4:11–16; Col. 1:28–29; 1 Tim. 3:14–16), so this is the aim of our ministry. While we long to see the fruit of repentance in the lives of multitudes of people, we reject the expedient impulse to reduce or simplify the definition of disciple or church to anything less than the biblical description. Our strategies and methods in missions work imitate Paul’s commitment to the open proclamation and display of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2) that results in establishing healthy churches full of maturing believers (Heb. 6:1).
As an analogy, we could say the Bible provides us with both the ingredients and the recipe for missions work. The ingredients are the materials Scripture provides us in the biblical gospel, the whole canon of Scripture, the definition of a local church, and the explicit expectations for church leadership. The recipe instructs us in how to put those ingredients together in ministry as we verbally proclaim the gospel; disciple converts to know and apply the Scripture to their lives; teach sound doctrine; equip and deploy the saints for the work of ministry; raise up mature, competent, and qualified leaders; and plant healthy churches that can serve as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15).
This Distinctive in Practice
So how does this commitment actually work itself out in Reaching & Teaching’s methodology and practice? It does so in two key ways: (1) We aim to plant churches as textual communities, and (2) we train church leaders as exegetes.
Planting Churches as Textual Communities
Because we believe God’s Word is authoritative, sufficient, and relevant, we focus our missions efforts on teaching the Bible and training Bible readers. Such a commitment runs against the current of some contemporary methods where the task of teaching has been criticized.
There are at least three reasons the work of teaching has been jettisoned in some contemporary missions efforts. First, some missionaries argue that teaching is less effective than facilitating discovery. People should be free to ask questions of the text and allow the text to produce its own answers. Any imposition of an outside teacher short-circuits this communal discovery. However, without an authority who is both capable of teaching the word and who will give an answer for what he teaches, a group of young believers is susceptible to interpretive errors.
Second, teaching is sometimes critiqued as inherently imperialistic since the initial missionary instructor is not a cultural insider. Such critics assume a missionary who communicates the faith once for all delivered to the saints is necessarily bringing too much cultural baggage with him. He may give “Western” answers to questions the community is not asking. Church history, however, is full of brothers and sisters from a wide variety of cultures and contexts who have wrestled with common questions that the Scriptures prompt us to ask.
Third, since a teacher is someone recognized as having some level of mastery over a subject, a foreign teacher might cause national believers with less mastery to shrink back from ministering the Word to one another. They may feel unprepared for such a calling. While perhaps this is true initially, it is the task of the missionary to raise up leaders from within the local context, calling them to develop exegetical and hermeneutical skills and then encouraging them to utilize those skills on behalf of their brothers and sisters.
In response to these concerns, we simply would appeal to the repeated injunctions in Scripture for teaching the Word and sound doctrine (Matt. 28:19; Col. 3:16; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:7–9; Jude 3). Additionally, the consistent example of the apostles was to engage in teaching the church and its leaders (Acts 6:2, 10:42-43, 13:5, 15:35, 18:5, 28:30-31; 2 Tim. 2:2). We fully affirm the role of missionaries as teachers of the Bible, sound doctrine, and theology. We reject the idea that the orthodoxy affirmed throughout church history is irrelevant or unhelpful to new believers in new settings. Rather, we gladly stand on the shoulders of those within the church who have clarified important doctrines by wrestling faithfully with the Scriptures and warning believers about missteps in interpretation.
Training Leaders as Exegetes
A second entailment of this distinctive is our commitment to raising up local leaders who are able to rightly handle the Scriptures in order to lead their people. This will require teaching that goes beyond merely offering content and conclusions. Instead, we aim to equip nationals with the tools of exegesis and to train them in how to use those tools.
We do not believe it is sufficient merely to teach Bible stories or theology—though teaching biblical narratives and instructing in theology are necessary components of equipping leaders to handle Scripture. Even in societies with a preference for oral transmission, we believe that teaching literacy and the production of written copies of Scripture is part of our missionary task. We also aim to equip church leaders—elders especially—for the task of reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture for themselves. This is the best way to avoid the twin ditches of under-contextualization and over-contextualization since it trains leaders in a faithful process of biblical interpretation that leads to proper contextual application.
If elders, leaders, and laity are trained to hear the authoritative Word of God on its own terms and to understand its message, this puts them in a position to apply it with the clearest insight into what it communicates within their setting. By becoming exegetes for themselves, they are also not dependent on an outsider for their theology and practice.
Such an approach will correct the myopia created by missionary methods that disproportionately take into account cultural categories already embedded in a given society. For instance, some argue that a culture more attuned to and governed by ideas of honor and shame should understand the gospel primarily through these categories. As a result, they develop methods of evangelism which present the gospel primarily or even exclusively within those cultural categories.
While there are undoubtedly aspects of the gospel that speak to shame and honor, an approach that does not adequately include the biblical teaching on guilt and righteousness is imbalanced and incomplete. If, instead, church leaders are equipped to read, interpret, and apply all of Scripture to their contexts, then they will not merely restrict themselves to those teachings that are native to their context. They will be more inclined to let the Scriptures speak for themselves rather than hearing only the truths to which they are naturally most attuned.
The core missionary task does not vary from one culture or context to another. If the Bible is authoritative, sufficient, and relevant everywhere, then it is authoritative, sufficient, and relevant to the missionary task anywhere. If you have not picked up on it by this point, let me make explicit the fact that we also believe the regulative principle applies to missions work. The regulative principle means that everything we do must be tethered to some warrant provided in the Scriptures. We are not seeking innovation in our missions strategies.
Grounded in the universal authority of Jesus Christ and in response to his sovereign commission to his church, our missions work must be “regulated” by God’s Word. Our mission must be held captive, both in its message and its method, to the Bible. This may limit some of what we do, but it unleashes the power of God on our ministries. We believe God’s Word—empowered by God’s Spirit, and proclaimed by God’s people—is sufficient to accomplish God’s mission in the world.
No matter where they are found, churches and their leaders should be defined by the high bar of Scripture’s call to teach the Word, guard sound doctrine, and equip the saints for the work of being and making disciples. Our convictions on the role of the Word will not allow us to settle for anything less than teaching the whole counsel of God and training disciples and leaders how to read, understand, and apply it within their context.
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