Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Southgate Fellowship: Conceptualising Our Priorities

TSF engages with the thorny issue of how to define and delineate the mission of the church. Rightly, they emphasise the need for people to put their faith in Christ:
67a) We affirm that people have needs of all kinds, but that every person’s greatest need is for faith in Christ and repentance from sin to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
So proclamation of the gospel is paramount.

But mercy ministry is also important. Many have tried to conceptualize the relationship of mercy ministry with the ministry of proclamation.
TSF’s position is thus:
74a) We affirm that to separate mercy ministry and ministry of the Word is to be out of accord with Christ’s commission. 
74b) We deny that either form of ministry is an isolated or exclusive priority. 
74c) We affirm that in the church’s mission to the world, it is biblically informed wisdom which will recommend the order and leading priority of Word or deed for each occasion.
That encapsulates well my own view which has been argued best by Tim Chester in Good News to the Poor.

What place does the incarnation have in the theology of ministry to the poor?
TSF includes a good set of affirmations and denials on the incarnation of Christ (§§40-42). I think their prime concern here is that a maximal doctrine of incarnation has often been used to underpin various forms of liberation theology.
It seems to me, however, that the statement goes too far in this denial:
42c) We deny that the sui generis incarnation of the eternal Son of God offers a proper analogy for construing contextualisation as ‘incarnational’.
They argue, rightly of course, that it is logically impossible for those who already have flesh to be enfleshed and go on to argue that the “use of 'incarnational' to describe Jesus as a model effectively undermines the sui generis character of God becoming flesh in Christ.”
But that ain't necessarily so.
The incarnation of the eternal Son of God is indeed sui generis (of its own kind).

However, if we accept and preach that, which we must, then any comparison of his incarnation and that of the intercultural communicator is, by definition, understood analogically. So, when Paul instructs the Corinthian believers to “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) surely no one argues that Paul was hoping to give his life a sacrifice of atonement. Rather, he could follow Christ’s example by having “the same mindset as Christ” in his humility (Phil 2:5-11).
So, an incarnational approach to intercultural ministry is one of foregoing one’s rights, of clothing oneself with humility.
Far too much cross-cultural ministry goes on without any serious attempt to identify with the host community; more so today than ever before because of the ease of travel. I have a sneaking suspicion that people who argue against the incarnation of the Son of God having any bearing on contextualization do so because they do not want to spend the long time necessary to embody the gospel in that host community. I hope that is not the case, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is.
Perhaps, in God’s providence, the coronavirus pandemic will deter short-term, low-commitment, shallow ministry among underserved communities.
My prayer is that it doesn’t also deter long-term, high-commitment, in-depth ministry. Because it is chiefly through such gospel communicators, sharing their lives and not just their words, that people come to see the beauty of Jesus. I don’t really care if the word incarnational is used for this sort of ministry or not, so long as it happens.

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