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What is NOT the Mission of the Church? 8

What is NOT the Mission of the Church? 8 November 18, 2011

This post brings my review of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book to a close. I want to thank them for contributing such a well written and thought provoking argument. Although I can’t claim to have read widely on the subject of mission, I can concur with the sentiments of D. A. Carson in his blurb:

Among the many books that have recently appeared on mission, this is the best one if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible in more than proof-texting ways.

I’ve really enjoyed engaging their book critically and it has given me the opportunity to crystallize and express my own views on many issues. I’ve been creatively inspired to write more on the subject of the Gospel, the kingdom of God and the mission of the church. These are important and interesting topics that excite me at my core.

I summarize my reflection on the book in the form of three questions.

Story, Gospel, and Kingdom
What is the appropriate way to retell the Bible’s story? Related to this question are the questions of the meaning of the kingdom of God and the gospel. The Bible’s story, the kingdom and the gospel are the central interrelated questions that will determine one’s understanding of the mission of the church. Any attempt to address the church’s mission must address these fundamental issues. DeYoung and Gilbert understand this and in fact do put the question of the mission of the church in its proper place within the question of story, gospel and kingdom. My criticism has been on these issues. I believe their understanding is thoroughly biblical and in its favor has a rich tradition of support (particularly 20th century revivalism and evangelicalism). But DeYoung and Gilbert’s understanding and the tradition which it reflects is, I think, subbiblical.

 

Balancing in the Tension
If it is not OK for a church not to verbally bear witness to Messiah, is it OK for a church not to bear witness by good deeds of mercy and justice? In other words, is it legitimate for a church to do the former, but not the latter? So, if the argument is one of pragmatics at the end of the day, and with the economy what it is and church leaders making very difficult budget decisions, is it OK for a church to staff and fund only ministries of verbal proclamation and edification? Are we fulfilling the mission uniquely given to the church if we only preach and teach and gather regularly for corporate worship? I think not.

I think I understand the pragmatic side of church ministry. I have degrees in church ministry; I have years of local church ministry experience –  I serve as on a ministry staff presently; most of my closest friends are pastors and church planters. I am all too fully aware of the painful decisions that church leaders are being forced to make in these lean financial years. But I believe that the church is not fulfilling its mission if it does not live in the tension between verbal proclamation and tangible manifestation of the gospel of the kingdom of God. The priority must be both. Pragmatic decisions of allocating resources must live in the tension. The answer is not to prioritize one over the other since both are essential. The answer is by the direction of the Holy Spirit be always self-conscious of balance and consistently repenting of falling off the center to one or the other side.

 

Faith, Obedience and the Making of Disciples
In reflecting on the book as a whole, I’m left wondering: is there a relationship between DeYoung and Gilbert’s conception of the mission of the church and a certain conception, particularly a Lutheran one, of the relationship of faith and works? Does the concern that the mission of the church be defined primarily or centrally (or whatever other adverb one chooses) as verbal witness belie a deeper worry about maintaining a certain understanding of the relationship between obedience and faith?

What I mean is this: if one defines faith purely without reference to works and if works are understood as a demonstration of faith, but not the essence it, then it makes sense that the mission of the church shares a similar bifurcation. If faith is primarily about the head and the heart, then it follows that the mission of the church is focused on the head and heart. But if faith is conceived as inextricably linked to obedience, then the mission of the church contains no such bifurcation. The church’s mission is both verbal—proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and behavioral—living in obedience to the kingdom.

There seems to me to be an analogy, therefore, between the individual believer and the corporate body of Messiah. If one allows there to be individual faith, at least theoretically, but not works (this was the position of Ryrie in the Lordship Salvation debate back in the 1980’s), than one could allow the corporate body faith, but not works. I’m certainly not accusing DeYoung and Gilbert of easy-believism. And I’m sure they would reject any notion of cheap grace. They would have been much more likely in the company of MacArthur than Ryrie. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran though he was, noted in Discipleship, a theological framework that separates faith from obedience, however slightly, can have grave ramifications. And such a framework, as Bonhoeffer showed, extends beyond soteriology into ecclesiology, the two being themselves inseparable.

What I’m trying to say is DeYoung and Gilbert’s understanding of the mission of the church is built on their understanding of the relationship of faith and obedience, an understanding with which I differ. Recently, Ardel Caneday, of Northwestern University in Minneapolis, made this very important point, of which I could not agree with more, in an article on Romans 2: faith and works are organically indivisible”.

The framework that espouses the inseparability of faith and obedience in soteriology, will be a framework that also fosters an understanding of the mission of the church as both proclamation and procurement.

Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship is also a masterpiece on the relationship between following Jesus individually and the corporate, tangible, and faithful presence of the church in society. Making disciples IS the central corporate enterprise of the church, as DeYoung and Gilbert rightly argue, but discipleship, following Jesus, in the world is corporate. Although there will be differences in the application, the mission of the individual disciple is the mission of the collection of the Discipled. I think it illegitimate to distinguish between what individual followers of Jesus and the corporate body.

A prayer for the mission of the church:

God, who sent Jesus into the world to save and inaugurate the Kingdom and the New Creation, who has also empowered and sent the followers of Jesus to do likewise, may you clarify that mission for us in our time and may you bless and excite your church to perform faithfully the task you have stewarded to us with all the energy you give us by your Holy Spirit to the praise of your name.


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