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Missions 101

Are Ph.D.’s Necessary for Theological Education on the Mission Field?

Jan. 20, 2015By: Philemon YongAuthor Bio

While pursuing my doctoral studies, I was often asked this question by well- meaning people: “Why are you getting a Ph.D. if you are only going back to work in Africa?” This question assumes that effective ministry in Africa does not require a Ph.D. This is a false assumption. Here are four reasons I believe more people should pursue Ph.D.’s before engaging in theological education overseas.


1.  Guarding the truth of the gospel entrusted to us. Paul says to Timothy, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘Knowledge’” (1 Timothy 6:20). The deposit entrusted to Timothy is the gospel and he was to guard it against what is falsely called “knowledge” (false teaching). The gospel in most mission settings remains undefined and false teachings are rampant. We know that the gospel has its roots in the OT (cf. Gal 3:8). Jesus made the point that his life and ministry could only be understood from the OT context (Luke 24:25-27). In order to understand the gospel and guard it against false teaching, as well as preserve it for future generations, one needs to study the Scriptures well. The pursuit of a Ph.D. enables the church to continue to guard the gospel. While Masters degrees are sufficient for ministry, they do not necessarily prepare one for the kind of research and writing needed to guard the gospel and defend it against errors. A Ph.D. prepares for this task. We need people gifted in research and writing to help the church on the mission field to fully understand the gospel and pass it on to others, so that it will not lose its message, and so that people will neither add to nor subtract from it. While seminary education at the M.Div. level is good, we remain dependent on the work of those who have invested their lives in research and writing as a means of serving the church.

2.  Evangelical Christianity is lacking in higher education on the mission field. Judging by the publications available in a context like Africa, it is clear that evangelicals have a long ways to go in keeping up with the theological debate that has been ongoing since 1960. There are endless number of books on African theology, Afrocentric hermeneutics, liberation hermeneutics, feminist hermeneutics, black theology etc. Many of these volumes carry teachings that are contrary to Scripture. Yet, there is no ready response to the arguments made by these liberal scholars. We end up with publications on African theology and interpretation that are not helpful for the church. Why the absence of a response? The authors of such books are Ph.D. holders, trained in the West, who have returned to Africa to make their contributions. They are the face of African theology from a liberal perspective. How is the evangelical church going to respond to this situation? It will take African evangelicals who have pursued graduate studies and are able to research and write in response. At the very least, we need Ph.D.’s on the mission field to respond to the growing scholarly contribution of liberal Ph.D. holders. We cannot possibly expect pastors, many of whom are holders of a bachelors degree, having been trained by missionaries with masters degrees or less, to engage the highly trained liberal scholars on the continent. Can we?

3.  The church in America proves that Ph.D.’s are needed if there are to be strong churches on the mission field. What do I mean? If there were no Ph.D. holders in America, what would the state of the church be? God has graciously provided us with gifted men and women who have invested their lives in studies so that they are able to do research and write on matters of Scripture. Their work and their publications are used by pastors and lay people for preaching and teaching in the local church. Take all of these men and women out and the evangelical Christian literature will shrink. Those with Ph.D.’s are helping the church to continue to hold to the truth of their faith. Commentaries, articles, and devotional materials are written by many who have pursued higher education. Seminary graduates, pastors, and other Ph.D. holders depend on such works for ministry. If this is necessary for the church in America, how much more for the church on the mission field?

4.  Leadership development. There continues to be a cry for well-trained leaders for the churches on the mission field. This absence of leaders is embarrassing given the long history of missionary presence in those areas. Yet, one can understand why such scarcity of leaders exists. It takes well-trained leaders to provide leaders of such quality. The absence of Ph.D. holders on the mission field meant that less-qualified missionaries were left with the task of building the church and preparing future leaders for the churches. That is an impossible task. If leaders of high quality and education are to exist in any context, it will require others with higher education to prepare them. How can a missionary with a master’s degree possible prepare scholars for the church in his area of service? Such scholars are sorely needed.

I would hope that the question will no longer be, “Why are you pursuing a Ph.D. if you are only going back to Africa” but rather, “Why are you going to Africa without a Ph.D.?” The church on the mission field needs Ph.D. holders who will prepare future leaders of the world-wide church, who are able to guard the deposit entrusted to them.

Philemon Yong grew up in the Kom tribe, Cameroon. His parents were both Christians, and church was a regular part of their lives. Yet, at the same time, Philemon observed a strange mix where traditional religion was still also a part of life—even of many in the church! At age 13, with his family unable to send him to more schooling, Philemon left home to go to the city to find some jobs that would give him a better life.

When he was 23, through a friend Philemon was led to attend Cameroon Baptist Theological Seminary, Ndu. This began his training for ministry. Linda was a short-termer at CBTS that year, and they developed a very strong friendship. As a result, Philemon came to the USA, and he and Linda were married the following year. Bethel College accepted Philemon, and after completing his bachelor’s degree he continued on to earn a Masters of Divinity degree at Bethel Seminary (St. Paul). A year of short-term ministry back at CBTS fueled the desire to eventually return to Cameroon as a full-time teacher/theologian. This led Philemon to pursue Ph.D. work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

From 2003-2010, Philemon has been teaching many courses at CBTS, solidly equipping future church leaders to preach and practice that Christ alone is the source for power and guidance in their lives. He also has a desire to write materials that will be helpful to the church in Cameroon/Africa. His unique preparation—knowing the culture firsthand and having solid theological training—equip Philemon to do this in an excellent way.

Philemon has experienced firsthand the confusing mix of Christianity and spiritism in the African church. He realizes that many church leaders have little theological training. Those with some training are trying to use a Western approach to theology in the African context, where the questions and problems call for a more African approach. His experiences, combined with his extensive theological studies in the USA, have put in him a desire for theological education in Africa.

Philemon and his wife Linda live in Minnesota. They have three children, Benjamin, Samuel, and Anna.

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Tags:  theological education, missions
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