Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What is the Mission of the Church?

Review of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? MakingSense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

American pastors, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have joined forces to deliver an excellent book on the task of mission. The burden of the book is to seek to define the mission of the church more tightly than it often has been lately. The word ‘mission’ is ambiguous and that has recently become more so with the addition of words and phrases like ‘missional’ and ‘missio Dei’ to our vocabulary. When the local betting shop has a mission statement (I don’t know that it does but I’d be prepared to...no, forget it) then mission can mean anything at all. And these days it usually does. So this book is a welcome contribution to the discussion.

David Bosch’s hugely influential Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission reaches its climax with a chapter in which he discusses 13 ‘elements of an emerging ecumenical missionary paradigm’. In the end, mission is all these things (quest for justice, common witness, inculturation and liberation, as well as evangelism, contextualization and theology, for instance). He cannot tie his understanding of mission down any more than that. You may think I am childish to desire something tidier but I do think it is possible and that is what DeYoung and Gilbert do so well.

They do this by the careful exegesis of a number of key biblical passages, critiquing as they do so the position of Chris Wright in The Mission of God. Wright asserts that Genesis 12:1-3 should be taken as ‘the Great Commission’ with its two imperatives to ‘go’ and ‘be a blessing’. DeYoung and Gilbert call that into question by quoting Wright himself that “‘when two imperatives occur together the second may sometimes express either the expected result or the intended purpose of carrying out the first imperative’ (ibid.: 201)” (31). So the command to Abram is to ‘go’ so that he may be a blessing.

The authors argue against an incarnational reading of Israel’s role, i.e. that the role of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exod 19:5-6) is not to be a blessing to the nations: “The image of a royal priesthood in the Old Testament and in the New Testament suggests holiness and privilege, not incarnational presence” (35). Wright doesn’t actually use the language of incarnation but the notion is there so the point stands I think.
Luke 4:16-21, argue DeYoung and Gilbert, is not primarily about material poverty – this is demonstrated by an exegesis of Isaiah 61:1-2 and throughout Luke. Rather, they agree with Andreas K√∂stenberger and Peter O’Brien in their Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: ABiblical Theology of Mission, that “‘the poor to whom the good news is announced are ... “the dispossessed, the excluded” who were forced to depend upon God’” (39), a position that, interestingly, Bosch also argues (1991:104).

In a nutshell, DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing, against Wright (2010: 26), that the mission of God is not the mission of the church: “One of the biggest missteps in much of the newer mission literature is an assumption that whatever God is doing in the world, this too is our task” (41). The mission of the church, they argue, is summarized in the Great Commission passages (Matt 28:16-20; Mark 13:10; 14:9; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:8).

The authors survey the synoptic Great Commission passages and that of Acts and then tackle the most controversial Gospel text, that of John 20:21 and the significance of Jesus’ mission as a model for our own. They conclude, against Stott, that “the mission of Jesus is not service broadly conceived, but the proclamation of the gospel through teaching, the corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders, and the accomplishment of the gospel in death and resurrection” (57, emphasis in the original).

The authors conclude this lengthy and well argued chapter with their definition of the mission of the church: The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father (62, emphasis in the original).

After a helpful survey of the biblical narrative in four acts—creation, fall, redemption and consummation—the authors seek to handle hot issues in mission theology and practice by examining the meaning of key terms in missiological writing: the kingdom of God, social justice and shalom.

In discussing the significance of the kingdom of God they distinguish between two ways the word gospel is used in the Bible, a ‘zoom-lens’ way (they mean telephoto-lens), and a ‘wide-angle lens’ way. The former is the gospel of the cross; the latter is the gospel of the kingdom. They are one and the second necessarily includes the first.

On ‘social justice’ they distinguish between a ‘constrained’ view and an ‘unconstrained’ view of justice and opt for the former (181). In arguing for an acceptance of the concept of ‘moral proximity’, they accept that this is difficult with modern communications bring the world’s disaster areas into our living rooms (184-85). I am a bit uneasy by the authors’ uncritical acceptance of free-market capitalism: “No enlightened ruler or board or administration can possibly manage millions of people with as much knowledge as the market can” (191). I ask whether we should talk at all about the market ‘managing’ anything. The market, after all, is a network of institutions, a phenomenon of global culture that has been created by people. It is people who manage, make decisions, trade, cheat, defraud and resist all the above. No inanimate cultural phenomenon can do that. So the market is a human construction that allows the exchange of goods and services; it doesn’t manage anything.

DeYoung and Gilbert then tackle the great biblical word, shalom, looking at Jeremiah 29 and then at the cultural mandate. In the latter they draw heavily and profitably on Greg Beale’s work on the Garden of Eden as a temple (The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God). The cultural mandate cannot be the same today as it was for Adam because of the fall. Adam’s failed mandate is picked up not by us but by the second Adam, who succeeds where the first Adam failed. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the old earth and the new one. But shalom is not the mission of the church as that is the mission of the Lord Jesus to whom our mission bears witness.

For the most part I think this is a very well written book that tackles the subject in a biblically informed and carefully argued manner. The book is spoiled a bit, however, by an apparent naivety with regard to global economics and a seeming reluctance to suggest that followers of Christ should examine their lifestyle in the light of global realities. That is a minor weakness, though, and shouldn’t put people off from reading it and working out how it should affect the way we are involved in mission today. I will be using it as a set text in one of my modules. Kevin DeYoung has just followed it up with a blog post taking their argument further - http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2013/08/27/goal-missions-work-missionaries/?comments#comments.

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