What is the Mission of the Church?
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do. (Gal. 2:9,10)
How did the following statement almost find its way into a formal document from the Theological Working Group of the world’s largest conference on world evangelisation?
. . . we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to the modern Israeli state, in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.
Due to pressure from Jewish missions, the paragraph was removed from the final statement of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization which took place in Cape Town in 2010. According to the official report, the event brought together 4,200 evangelical leaders from 198 countries, and extended to hundreds of thousands more, participating in meetings around the world, and online. Its goal? To bring a fresh challenge to the global Church to bear witness to Jesus Christ and all his teaching - in every nation, in every sphere of society, and in the realm of ideas.’
But what do ‘the State of Israel’, ‘certain forms of dispensationalism’ and ‘Christian Zionism’ have to do with bearing witness to ‘Jesus Christ and all his teaching’? The answer is that for an increasing number of evangelicals, confronting injustice, alleviating suffering, relieving the poor and needy and, specifically, supporting the cause of the Palestinians against supposed Zionist oppression, are intrinsically part of the Church’s mission.
The Social Gospel
In the early twentieth century the ‘Social Gospel’ movement attempted to apply Christian ethics to the issues of social justice, excessive wealth, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labour, trade unions, poor schools and war. In a nutshell, advocates of the Social Gospel believed the kingdom of heaven could be initiated by human effort. Social Gospellers were undoubtedly addressing a weakness in the Church’s witness but they went too far and the Good News of individual salvation from sin faded into the background of their thinking to the point of being non-existent. Out of fear of the Social Gospel, some theological conservatives emphasised personal piety and evangelism so much that in 1968, Francis Schaeffer lamented: ‘What I find in evangelicalism is not only weakness of sensing the lostness of the lost, but a tremendous weakness of compassion for the needs of my kind in this life.’ (Death in the City, p.108). With the launching of Tear Fund the following year, evangelicals in the UK once again began to regain a compassion for the needs of others in this life.
A number of biblical scholars, including N. T. Wright and Christopher J. H. Wright are recovering the truth that the purpose of God in human history is to bring about what the Jewish people call tikkun olam, the healing of the cosmos, as articulated by the apostle Paul: ‘The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:21).
This recovery of a neglected biblical truth – the purpose of God to repair his creation – has, however, produced an unintended consequence. The theological pendulum has begun to swing towards a newer version of the Social Gospel which, although more biblically informed and theologically nuanced than the version prevalent a century ago, potentially threatens the future of traditional mission. It is about ‘the mission of God’.
Early in his magnificent biblical survey of God’s ‘mission’ The Mission of God, Chris Wright expresses his dissatisfaction with a definition of mission that stresses only the root meaning of the Latin verb mitto, ‘to send’. For Wright, ‘Our mission flows from and participates in the mission of God’ (p.23, emphasis added). The New Testament mission of the church, according to Wright, is holistic, by which he means that the Great Commission is about more than seeing people ‘saved’ in the traditional sense. For Wright and others, the gospel is about participation in God’s healing of the world and therefore involves issues such as injustice, poverty, politics, economics and ecology.
From the Bible, we know that God is concerned (to put it mildly) about social justice, the poor, the oppressed. We’ve all heard Christians speak about ‘building the kingdom of God’, ‘ushering in the kingdom’, ‘establishing the kingdom’ and ‘helping the kingdom grow’.
The authors of What is the Mission of the Church? while agreeing that the Church must be concerned about social injustice and that Christians should be at the forefront of alleviating evil in all its forms, are nevertheless troubled by the current redefinition of the mission of the Church which, in effect, says everything is mission. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert are two young American pastors who passionately believe the Church’s Great Commission is ‘to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering disciples into churches that they might worship and obey Jesus Christ now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.’
They are nevertheless respectful critics who, though recognising the contribution Wright and others have made in the fields of biblical scholarship and missiology are nevertheless concerned that those who claim everything is mission are making a grave mistake. The basic error, say the authors, is not in their understanding of ‘the mission of God’ but in identifying the Church’s mission as identical with God’s mission. There are certain things only God can do, say the authors. The mission of the church is to preach the gospel to every creature making disciples of all nations. Only by being faithful to its mission will God’s mission be accomplished.
The cardinal error in the ‘everything is mission’ school of thought is to imagine that the church can build the kingdom of God. Christians talk about doing ‘kingdom work’ as though helping drug addicts and prostitutes, bringing about urban renewal and calling for boycotts, sanctions and divestment against Israel and was building the kingdom of God. Often, this kind of ‘kingdom work’ involves cooperation not only with non-Christians but also with those who are anti-Christian. Those outside the kingdom, say the authors, cannot do kingdom work.
In the New Testament, say DeYoung and Gilbert, the ‘kingdom of God’ refers to God’s reign specifically over his redeemed people and Jesus never simply preached, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’. He always preached, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom. The only way the kingdom of God – the redemptive rule of God – is extended is when another sinner renounces sin and self-righteousness and bows his knee to King Jesus.
Old Testament models
Much progress has been made in the last thirty years or so in the area of Biblical Theology in order to demonstrate the unity of both Testaments and the relevance of the Old Testament to the church. For example, the ‘cultural mandate’ in Genesis 2 to ‘subdue the earth’ is being applied as a basic principle for Christian activity in the world.
The exodus, the Torah’s emphasis on justice, and the Jubilee year, when slaves were released and property was restored to the disenfranchised, have become useful motifs for theologians who are concerned tikkun olam and bringing in the kingdom.
However, say the authors, although God will bring in a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, ‘we are never told that the gospel is, “God will remake the world”.’ Universal shalom will come, they say, but personal redemption comes first.
In the seventies and eighties, the exodus was the major biblical model for Liberation Theology and continues to provide a motif for Sabeel, the Palestinian ‘Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre’ headed up by Naim Ateek, the author of Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation.
The exodus from Egypt is also a dominant theme in Biblical theology and in the pages of the Herald we have reviewed favourably Tom Holland’s Contours of Pauline Theology which focuses on the Passover as Paul’s major motif for redemption. DeYoung and Gilbert argue that the exodus, although typologically significant, cannot be used as a model for the Church’s mission: ‘When the New Testament talks of the exodus as a type of salvation, what it focuses on is the picture it provides of spiritual salvation, not its political and economic aspects.’
Quoting Eckhard Schnabel, DeYoung and Gilbert emphasise, ‘The missionary work of the first Christians cannot be explained with prototypes in the Old Testament or with models of early Jewish mission. Missions, in the sense of God’s people being sent out to other peoples with a task to accomplish, is as new as the New Testament.’
Poverty, in the thinking of Christians such as Jim Wallace and Ron Sider, is a matter of injustice, and Israel’s Jubilee year has become a model for the alleviation of worldwide poverty. However, say DeYoung and Gilbert, this is a shallow understanding of the issue of poverty and justice. Poverty, they point out, does not inherently indicate injustice. Under the Old Covenant, the kings of Israel were responsible for administering justice consisted of three things: judging the poor fairly; not cheating the poor; not killing the weak to obtain their property. Moreover, the poor in the Bible are usually the ‘pious poor’.
The problem today is that if something can be deemed a ‘social justice’ issue, it frightens away opposition because who, in their right mind favours social injustice? However, ‘justice is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world.’
What will it profit. . .
What is the mission of the Church? is, in my opinion, one of the most important books on mission to be published in recent years. It is a vigorous, well researched, biblically grounded defence of the good, old-fashioned position that mission is about preaching the gospel. And it is very readable.
Christians should be concerned about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, racism, slavery and people trafficking, education, rising crime rates and conflict between nations. But, then, the church has always been at the forefront of the struggle against social inequality. Nevertheless, that is not mission; it is a consequence of mission. When good deeds are confused with mission and the Church becomes primarily concerned with the physical and material rather than the spiritual, mission suffers. After all, what will if profit the poor and oppressed if they gain the world and lose their souls?
Coming closer to home, there are evangelical Christians who are prepared to join forces with liberal theologians, radical Muslims, conspiracy theorists, Marxists and neo-Nazis to promote boycotts of Israeli products, and to call for sanctions against the only democracy in the Middle East and divestment from Israeli companies operating in the West Bank (some of whom are assisting Palestinian farmers). One British churchman spends several weeks out of every year travelling the world – often to Islamic countries – for the purpose of denouncing not only Israel but also his fellow Christians who are positive in their attitude to the Jewish state. And he believes that by doing this he is bearing ‘witness’ for Christ.
Christian Witness to Israel has no official position on Israel. Nevertheless, the Society’s attitude to the Jewish state is positive and supportive. But we are a mission and, as such, we believe it will profit the Jewish people nothing if they gain the whole land and lose their souls. So when we speak up on behalf of Israel we do so in the interests of truth. But advocacy is not our mission, nor is it the mission on the Church. We exist to share the message of Messiah with a people of promise.
I am enthusiastic about this book. If I had the money, I would buy a copy of What is the mission of the Church? for every minister, church elder, evangelist, youth leader, Sunday School teacher and missiologist, in the world. Buy it and read it. You will gain not only an understanding of mission itself but also why nothing else than evangelism can ever be a substitute for it.
What is the mission of the Church? Making sense of Social Justice, Shalom and the Great Commission. 256 pages, Crossway Books is available from the CWI Bookroom for £8.99 + post and packing.