Mission vs. Mandate

I picked this post up from a pastor who gave me permission to run it here. He distinguishes our mandates from our mission. Give it a good read and we can discuss it here.

For some readers of this blog, the issues that I’m about to raise aren’t on your radar, and may hardly stir any interest much less any controversy. If you’re one of them, feel free to take a nap while pretending to read this unusually long (even for me) post. Other people may be aware that the issues I’m raising are related to why the larger church of Christ, including the Reformed Church in America, is so divided. I expect that some of my good friends, people whose ministries I respect and appreciate, will disagree with me. I hope to learn from their responses (if any of them happen to read this).

The word “missional” is an adjective that’s used a lot these days. Any church that’s really “the church” is supposed to be missional. I like the word, and would agree that if a church isn’t missional… well, let’s just say it has a lot of explaining to do.

What do you think of the distinction between mission and mandate, and the big one: What would you assign to “mission” and “mandates”?

What does it mean to be missional? I sense that we usually use the word to refer to churches that are outward focused, engaging in ministry with and for people outside the church. The meaning is that general and that vague. I get the impression that what the mission is matters less than having a mission.

And that’s certainly a step in the right direction. I mean, the word “mission” does mean to be “sent.”

Of course, in order to be sent, someone has to do the sending. To be truly missional, biblically speaking, doesn’t mean to send ourselves. It means to be sent by God. As Christians, it seems appropriate that we do the specific things Christ sent us to do — not just the things we would like to do, or things that strike us as a good idea.

So what did Jesus send us to do? His parting words to his disciples were to go into all the world in order to bear witness to his resurrection and lordship (Acts 1:8), as well as to call people of all nations to become his disciples, get baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and learn how to live like kingdom people (Matthew 28:18-20).

That, as I see it, is the mission. As I read the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, that’s how the early church seemed to understand its mission as well. It’s because they carried out this mission, and Christians after them carried out this mission, that pretty much everyone reading this blog is a Christian today.

The fact that Epiphany follows so closely on the heels of Advent and Christmas supports this emphasis. Here are these [Epiphany Sunday texts about the] magi, Gentile magi, Gentile astrologer magi (oy vey!), traveling what seems to have been a considerable distance, at great risk and expense, to acknowledge and worship Jesus Christ as Lord.

End of story. Yes, that’s how the story is going to end, with every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

So what again is our mission? To do what Jesus said, which is to bear witness to the risen Christ, make full-fledged disciples of Christ, learning from Christ himself how to live in the kingdom of Christ, or the kingdom of God. Granted, there are a lot of things that need to happen for this mission to happen – things like Christlike living on the part of those delivering the message, authentic worship, strong, vital Christian communities, ministry to the poor, coming to the aid of the oppressed and, of course, verbally and creatively communicating the gospel. While each of these is important in themselves, in this brief time between the two comings of Jesus, their between-ages-designed purpose is to help accomplish the mission – which, in short, is to bring people under the lordship of Christ.

In a recent post someone suggested that the church has often become divided between those who focus on justification and those who focus on justice. But the primary focus of the New Testament is on neither. It’s on Jesus.

According to Paul, through our baptism, we’ve died, been buried, been resurrected and been raised to heaven where we are seated with Christ. So what on earth are we doing on earth? We’ve been sent to bear witness to the risen Christ who is our life and is the world’s only true hope.

Part of our mission is to tell (and show) the world where everything is headed – New Creation, new heaven and new earth, when “all things in heaven and on earth [will be brought] under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). But again, everything eventually points to Christ, which makes Christ the point.

That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s why he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” That’s why Paul and the rest of his compatriots were forever calling people to repent and be baptizedin the name of Jesus.

“It is Christ whom we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone complete in Christ. To this end I toil and struggle with all the energy he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29).

Okay, here comes the controversial part (at least for mainliners in my neck of the woods). I don’t believe that our mission is do justice. One of the reasons I believe many of our churches aren’t growing is because we’ve made justice our mission. (There are clearly other reasons as well, such as clinging to our old wineskins.) And because we’ve made justice our mission (I say “our” partly because this used to be how I understood the mission), we aren’t doing justice to the mission Christ sent us on. What’s more, our neglect to carry out the mission Christ sent us on means that we’re not even doing justice as well as we could.

As I see it, social justice isn’t our mission, but one of the ways we carry out our mission.

Another way to put it is that social justice is our mandate (which obviously suggests that it’s not only important but imperative), not our mission. I really don’t mean to be splitting hairs. I believe that what we call our “mission” will affect how we carry out and evaluate the many mandates that Christ has given us. For example, I believe that as Christians we are mandated to worship God, but I don’t see worshiping God as our mission. On the other hand, keeping focused on our mission will influence how we worship God.

Another mandate Christ gave us is for Christians to learn how to love one another. It’s a mandate, but not our mission. Our mission gives this mandate a particular urgency that I sense most churches lack, because they’re neglecting or forgetting the mission.

Likewise, living just lives among ourselves and planting seeds of justice in the world is a clear biblical mandate from beginning to end. (One could say that justice is basically helping  people love one another.) But it’s not our mission.

As I see it, all of the above come under the sphere of the Great Mandate, or Great Commandment — which is to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves.

But love isn’t our mission, it’s our mandate. I believe that forming a healthy, strong body of Christ is absolutely essential for our mission; but it’s not the mission either. I plan on spending a lot of time talking about “the body”and experimenting with ways to be the body over the next year at Bellevue Reformed Church. For example, a Thursday night group called “Seekers” will start to meet together weekly on January 19 in order to explore and practice what it means to be the body of Christ.

But creating a healthy body itself is not the mission, it’s a mandate. When this “body work” is done with the mission in mind, it becomes an integral part of the mission. In fact, the mission can’t be carried out without this particular mandate being fulfilled and obeyed. The same can be said for working for social justice. Without obeying the Great Commandment, we’re putting ourselves out of position to fulfill our mission, which is the Great Commission. By themselves, neither creating vital Christian communities nor working for social justice are the mission. They are two of the essential ways we carry out our mission.

The mission of the church isn’t the Great Commandment, it’s the Great Commission. I know that sounds narrow, simplistic and old-fashioned. Of course, both are important, but in this time-between-the-times, we always carry out the Great Commandment with the Great Commission in mind. That’s what it means to be missional. Yes, we worship, we love one another, and we work for justice because each of these is important in themselves. But the primary reason we do them now, before Jesus comes back, is to point one another and the world to Jesus and his kingdom. And not just to point, but to invite people to come to Jesus.

The mandates are forever, but the mission is for now.

That doesn’t mean we just try to get people to say “the prayer.” We also get them baptized, and we teach them what Jesus taught, and join them in carrying out Jesus’ mandates and mission. If we stop with getting pre-believers to say “the prayer,” we haven’t completed our mission at all. In fact, it’s been aborted. The same is true for getting people baptized. Until people are revolving their lives around Jesus Christ as Lord — which includes worshiping with other believers, becoming actively involved in the body of Christ, and caring for the poor of body and spirit — the mission isn’t complete.

Likewise, if we make some inroads against the injustice in our world and never talk about Christ or invite people to follow him, we haven’t completed our mission. Sometimes social justice folks say that our call is to be faithful, not successful. But as followers of Jesus, we have yet to be faithful if we haven’t at least given people a chance to respond to Christ himself. Until then, our social justice work is incomplete. Social justice is important in itself, but within the kingdom in this time between the times, social justice is not (just) an end in itself. The same is true for all the mandates (whether they have to do with morality, family, healing, being the body or salting society).

Without our obeying the mandates of Christ, our mission will lack substance and appeal. But if we neglect the ultimate objective of the mission altogether, then our obedience to the mandates of Christ will have missed the point, the ultimate point of why we’re doing all this now, before Jesus comes back.

Yesterday’s gospel reading highlights both the mandate and the mission. First the mandate: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.” Then the mission:“In his name the nations will put their hope.” In his name. The hope of the nations is not in justice itself, but in the “name” of the one who alone can bring about lasting justice. The good news we proclaim to the poor is the good news of both Jesus and his kingdom.

As far as justice itself is concerned, the metaphors that Jesus uses suggest modest aims – our being the salt of the earth and the light of the world (a city on a hill). We don’t think for a moment that we will turn this world or even a single neighborhood into a completely just society. It’s all we can do to be a just society ourselves within our little Christ communities. But we also salt the environments where we live, work, play, learn, vote and volunteer with our little granules of mercy and seeds of justice; yes, because of our mandate, but also and ultimately because of our mission.

The mandates are forever, but the mission is for now.


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  • Superb. A really helpful via media in the debate between Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert and those who responded to them last year. Thanks, Scot.

  • Paul W

    This post pretty much corresponds to what I’ve understood to be the historic Reformed and Presbyterian understanding of the purpose of the church. Namely that ministerial efforts, the Scriptures, and the sacraments are to be used in an ecclesial setting for the purposes of gathering God’s people together so that they may be matured in the faith and embody God’s intentions for the world.

  • I agree. Superb.

  • I think it’s really important to separate mission and mandate – it has been somewhat counter-productive to argue for justice as part of evangelistic mission (“integral mission” etc.) as it’s a position easily countered.

    Clearly justice is a mandate, and injustice is one of the central issues in human sinfulness. Not so sure that the mission is as clear as the article describes though – why do the NT epistles focus so much on how the Christian communities are to live and love one another etc. if the mission is so clearly outward focused?

  • “So what again is our mission? To do what Jesus said, which is to bear witness to the risen Christ, make full-fledged disciples of Christ, learning from Christ himself how to live in the kingdom of Christ, or the kingdom of God.”

    “I believe that as Christians we are mandated to worship God, but I don’t see worshiping God as our mission.”

    I don’t get this dichotomy. Why would we not consider worship to be an act of bearing witness?

  • Paul

    I don’t really disagree with the post…but something strikes me as odd about the different terms.

    I wonder if viewing the gospel as part of Israel/humanity’s story would help to eliminate the need for this distinction? Or maybe it depends what type of gospel you are preaching that leads to the need to make this distinction? It seems to me that the distinction between the two is meant to correct a problem of people focusing on justice & love but not preaching Jesus. However I don’t see the church living this way if they understand the fullness of the gospel

  • T

    Very well done.

    Brad, worship is bearing witness, but let’s get specific. If you’re speaking of “worship” that we normally do as a church community, with singing, teaching, etc., then it is bearing witness very explicitly, but to whom? Generally to ourselves, which is good, but hardly going to fulfill our mission. If you’re speaking of “worship” as our daily working justly “unto the Lord” rather than men, this is more visible by the world, but often only implicitly rather than explicitly declaring Christ. Of course, mission and mandate are not perfectly separable, but I don’t think the author is saying that. I think his thrust is both sound and helpful. I might say it differently, but he’s saying some things that need saying.

  • Wesman

    Actually, I think this is splitting hairs, and it creates an unhelpful web of semantics–one that you’re actually caught in going to such great lengths to distinguish between “making full-fledged disciples of Christ, learning from Christ himself how to live in the kingdom of Christ” (mission) and all those things that Christ calls us to be and do as a people (mandate).

    There’s such an overlap between your concept of mission and mandate that any attempt to make sure people know that “doing justice” is a mandate and not the mission of “helping others learn to follow Christ,” which somehow includes doing justice, leaves folks scratching their heads. Why the fuss?

  • Chris

    It seems to me that the ‘great commission’ was fulfilled by 70 AD. All the nations (read that in light of the table of nations – see below) were reached by the end of 70 AD like Jesus said they would. So, the post may be built on a false assumption. The assumption that Christians in Ohio are called to make disciples of all the nations. In other words, is that really our mission today?

    Read “Paul and the Nations: The Old Testament and Jewish Background of Paul’s Mission to the Nations With Special Reference to the Destination of Galatians” Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament, 84) by James Scott for an excellent survey of how the Jews viewed the world geographically in the 1st century and how the disciples would have heard Jesus’ command to make disciples of all the nations.

  • Matt Edwards

    I think most missional folks would prefer to talk about the Misseo Dei rather than the mission of the church. They would prefer to talk about what God is doing in the world and how we can be a part of it.

    So, God’s mission is the inbreaking of His kingdom. Yes, we are mandated to announce the inbreaking of that kingdom. But we’ve also been mandated to be a part of it.

    I think the article illustrates the main contention of the missional movement–we focus too much on what the church should be doing and not enough on what God is doing. Traditionally, the church has been the end game–once you’re participating in the church you are golden. But for missional folks, the kingdom is the end game. Once you are in the church, you are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

  • T

    One way I think about this is in the terms of Jesus’ rebuke to the Jewish leaders of his day. He said to them: “You have had the keys to the kingdom, but you don’t go in yourselves, and you prevent others from entering as well!” I see my job, our job, as doing the opposite of that. We have the keys of the kingdom (Jesus is the Door, the Way, etc.), and we need to be sure that we are entering that kingdom ourselves, functioning within it, and helping others do the same.

  • AHH

    While I don’t disagree with the author’s main thrust, what do people think of his treating the Great Commission as the be-all and end-all of Christian mission?
    I find it troubling to say that all our thinking about our mission as God’s people should be driven by that one verse, with all the other things Jesus taught and commanded not getting a say in defining what mission means. Or at least that is how it comes across to me.

  • T


    I hear you, but I’m not just seeing him build this idea of “mission” from the one verse, but also, at least, from all the “follow me” invitations in the gospels and the activities and preaching of the Church in Acts. Further, even the GC is more holistic than it may appear: “teaching them to do everything I’ve commanded you.” So doing “mission” is not evangelism alone, but forming people into mature embodiments of Christ, and continuing in that ourselves. I see his thrust as seeking to make sure we both declare and embody Christ, in word and deed, but maybe I’m misreading him.

  • DT

    Making disciples is the mission BUT we make disciples by means of our mandates. Paul tells us that God brings the increase, so we focus on carrying out our mandates while letting God perform the mission. This doesn’t mean we aren’t mindful of it, but it isn’t our responsibility. It is God’s responsibility to work through the church and the Spirit to draw all men to Him.

  • It’s no good having an outward focus if you don’t have an inward focus. It can’t be either-or, but must be both-and. I like it!