What is the Mission of the Church? – Jürgen Moltmann

A few years ago, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert published the book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. At that time I wrote an extensive review of the book on this blog. The general premise of the book was that the church’s mission is singularly to make disciples. Not all of Jesus’ commands, they contend, are part of the mission of the church. Not all that God is doing in the world is in the purview of the church’s mission. They restrict the mission of the church essentially to the so-called great commission(s) of the NT. I noted the significant problems with their view.

Recently, I read a passage from  Jürgen Moltmann’s book The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theologywhich not only reveals the weakness of DeYoung and Gilbert’s argument but also robustly articulates the mission of the church as both proclamation and procurement.

In many Christian churches, similar polarization have come into being between those who see the essence of the church in evangelization and the salvation of souls, and those who see it in social action for the salvation and liberation of real life. But in Christian terms evangelization and humanization are not alternatives. Nor are the ‘vertical dimension’ of faith and the ‘horizontal dimension’ of love for one’s neighbor and political change. Nor are “Jesuology’ and christology, the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. Both coincide in his death on the cross. Anyone who makes a distinction here, enforces alternatives and calls for a parting of the ways, in dividing the unity of God and man in the person, the imitation of and the future of Christ.

These alternatives are equally absurd from the point of view of practice. Evangelization would lead either to a crisis of relevance or to an inevitable involvement in the social and political problems of society. Beginning with preaching, one is then faced with questions of community organization, the education of children and the work for the sick and poor. The humanization of social circumstances leads either to a crisis of identity, or inevitably to evangelization or pastoral care. Beginning with the improvement of social conditions in the poverty-stricken areas and liberation from political oppression, one is then faced with the question how the wretched and oppressed can be removed from their inner apathy and given new self-confidence, that is, with the question of how to arouse faith and conquer the structure of servility in their minds. Of course one cannot do everything, but at least everyone must recognized the other charismata in the body of Christ and the necessity for other work by other people to relieve misery.

‘Change yourself,’ some say, ‘and then your circumstances will also change.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is suppose to have to do only with persons. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.
‘Change the circumstances,’ other say, ‘and men will change with them.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is suppose to be a matter only of circumstances and structures. Unfortunately, however, men will not oblige. Breakdowns in marriage, drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism continue undisturbed. Structures which make people unhappy can be broken down, but no guarantee is attached that men will be happy.

Thus both must be done at the same time. Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialists illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstance and nothing else. (22-23)

  • K. Dunn

    Joel do you think DeYoung and Gilbert would disagree with Moltmann? As far as I can tell they still think that laypeople in the church should fight institutionalized suffering in their vocations.

    I think the problem with Moltmanns analysis is that he seems to think that because preaching and justice must come at the same time, they must come from the same person. But the church is a body of many members – members given different tasks. So those called to the office of elder in the church are not tasked with fighting for social justice. While those who work in the public square as a part of their vocation are called to fight for social justice.

    • jwillitts

      I reject this separation completely. I think the separation of individual from corporate identity in the church is a huge problem with D & G’s construction of the church’s mission. I don’t think you can separate the mission of the church from the mission of the church members.

      • K. Dunn

        Thanks for responding. Don’t you think that’s part of what happens in Acts 6? The apostles assign duties to deacons that they do not share in. This is because they have a specific mission to pursue, not because serving tables is beneath them.

        Perhaps you can’t separate the mission of the “church” from its members. But you must separate the mission of its elders from its members right? How else can you justify the apostles separating their mission from other church members?

        I haven’t read D & G, but I’m sympathetic to the fact that the church’s elders have a distinct mission from the church’s body. Doesn’t such an understanding fuel Paul’s statements in Ephesians 4? Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers have a mission to equip saints – and the saints have the vocation of ministry. What’s the result D&G are looking for? If it is church elders focused on preaching/shepherding and and the saints working in love in the world, it seems to be biblical to me and fulfill Moltmanns desires. If D & G are saying the church should ignore suffering than we have all kinds of problems – but that’s not what they are saying is it?

        • jwillitts

          No, that’s not what D & G are saying. You are separating divisions of labor within the church. Of course you are right. There are different gifts and tasks that flow from them. But these diversity of gifts and the activity generated from them are together the work of the church. D & G are saying that the corporate body of believers have only one task and that is to evangelize and disciple, this interpreted as distinct and not including social justice concerns.

          • K. Dunn

            That’s helpful thanks

  • Timothy

    Is another weakness in DeYoung and Gilbert’s argument there understanding of church. They fully accept the role of disciples in social action but they distinguish this rather sharply from the role of the church. It seems that church here becomes institutionalised and even clericalised. But the church is the people of God and gathers for worship and disperses through the rest of the week. But surely it is no less the church dispersed as it was when gathered? The question is then what should the dispersed church be doing? What is its mission? To this even DeYoung and Gilbert seem agreed that social transformation has a part.

  • Tim 3142

    It strikes me that there is a meta narrative going on in Acts (with origins in Luke) relating to works of service. The 11 disciples have the instruction to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. But they are rather fixated on the temple and reluctant to budge being very busy with stuff. In fact by chapter 6 they are quite explicit: we must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. To our ears, conditioned by millenia of religious professionals, their reasoning seems quite normal. “It is not good for us to serve at tables since that takes us away from more important things”. Notwithstanding the fact that the Lord Jesus himself demonstrated the importance of serving at the  table when he washed their feet, Luke’s narrative takes on a gentle irony. It is precisely those who serve at the tables that the Spirit now chooses to take forward Christ’s instructions: Stephen is the witness in Jerusalem and Philip becomes the witness in Samaria. Indeed, Saul eventually picks up Stephen’s mantel to bring the good news to the ends of the earth because the apostles remain stuck in Jerusalem.

    I appreciate that this is a slightly unconventional reading, it’s not one I’ve encountered in any commentary,  but I offer it as a stimulus to your own thinking. For me, the historic church has generally been overly interested in church stuff rather than in the real God given task of being redeemed and living by faith.

  • Lynn Betts

    I like Moltmann’s point that when the causes of misery are institutionalized, then their solutions require institutional scope and power. Thanks for posting this excerpt; I’ve never read Moltmann, so I would never have found it! :-)


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