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
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?
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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