Theological Education and Scripturally-Based Discipleship

Theological Education and Scripturally-Based Discipleship

This article presents and explores two significantly different models or paradigms of education: Theological Education and Scripturally-based Discipleship. The two concepts are briefly compared in terms of philosophical, intercultural and educational approaches. Further comparisons are then detailed in tabulated form.

Theological Education

  • Philosophically: rooted in modern, Western Enlightenment-based paradigm.
  • Interculturally: brought to fruition during the modern, colonial period of mission.
  • Educationally: encapsulated in academic model.

In the academic model: students leave their contexts, in order to aggregate around a teacher, or set of teachers, in an institutional academy. Both relocation and teaching are primarily at the students’ cost, as the teacher is paid professional.

Both literature and contextual data analysis has demonstrated that this form of education has proven a significant hindrance to establishing holistic, contextually appropriate churches within the Global South.

Scripturally-Based Discipleship

  • Philosophically: rooted in post-modern, contextual paradigm.
  • Interculturally: assumes that no culture is superior to another.
  • Educationally: rooted in apostolic and apprenticeship models.

In the apostolic / apprenticeship model: a teacher or missionary leaves their culture and context, in order to take their teaching to the students. Thus the teaching takes place in the students’ own context, and primarily at the teacher’s cost.

In the apprenticeship model leaders and learners are intentionally committed to a form of learning-by-working-together.

The table below provides a complete side-by-side comparison of a whole series of distinctions between typical models of modern, western theological education and scripturally-based discipleship.

Maize Plant Discipleship

Maize Plant Discipleship is a scripturally-based learning resource formulated in response to the research cited herein. The resource is rooted in an apostolic model: The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

  • Maize Plant Discipleship is being published as a series of 16 modules, available to in a variety of formats, including e-learning, digital downloads and printed handbooks that can be economically reproduced in local contexts.
  • The resource is potentially suitable for use formal and informal settings including small learning groups, lay training, missionary training, Bible schools and so on.

If you are interested in utilising the resource, including translation, republication and use in small learning groups, please contact the author.



The term Scripturally-based discipleship inevitably evokes the romantic notion that it is possible to follow the Way of Jesus in the manner of the earliest Messianic Community. This is both unfortunate and opportunistic.

At its root, this idea has arguably been integral to Christianity, across the course of its history. In practice, two-thousand years of history and the considerable contextual differences between then and now cannot and must not be ignored.

Nevertheless, Scripture remains at the heart of the Christian faith and discipleship remains the most appropriate and practical form of devotion. Furthermore, the relationship between then and now and between first-century Israel and many Majority World contexts is arguably a far closer one than was ever true of post-Enlightenment West. My observations are offered with this caveat.


This comparison is essentially an extract from my doctoral research, Facilitating A Renewal of Discipleship Praxis Amongst Burkinabé Leaders and Learners.

My analysis was undertaken using the “lens” of contextual missiology. In my dissertation, I stated that the terminology of theology and its various associations, such as theological education, need not imply the philosophical categories, language and underlying structures of thought and praxis typically associated with modern, Western theology.

Accordingly, rather than reject the concept of theological education, I wrestled with its historical and potential relationship with scriptural discipleship. I considered the etymology of education (from the Latin word educat), meaning to draw out insight from a leaner. This I related to the biblical concept of paraclesis—the drawing alongside of another, to guide them towards an enlarged understanding of God’s will and purpose—which is biblically associated with new-covenant discipleship.

From this wrestling process, I derived and defined a concept I referred to as Theological Education As Discipleship. My intention was to use this term to contrast with, rather than reflect modern, Western theological education. Because of it’s widespread usage, I hoped it might be possible to redeem the concept of theological education—to redefine it in terms of the educating and equipping the whole church for its mission to the world. A reformed theological education of this kind would systemically incorporate, at its very core, the formation and sending forth of disciples who will make disciples…who will make disciples…and so on.

I have since changed my stance, choosing now to use the simpler term scripturally-based discipleship, which provides a much clearer contrast to theological education (as in this paper). For most people, the two terms are sufficiently clear and different to one another to create an appropriate tension between them.

In the Majority World contexts, in particular, where numerical growth is vast and culturally significant, I am convinced that the paradigm of scripturally-based discipleship is necessary and significantly-more appropriate than that of theological education, which remains essentially an anachronistic cultural import.