What is the Mission of the Church?, A Review

What is the Mission of the Church?, A Review November 18, 2011

The post is the full review of  What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.

1. INTRODUCTION – INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert published a new book on the mission of the church What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. I want to be generous in this discussion and I certainly think these guys have the best of intentions. However, this book is extremely frustrating to me and I’m only on page 67.

While DeYoung and Gilbert set out to provide what they think is a more biblical vision of the church’s mission, they have in the end presented a reductionistic definition of mission that cannot be sustained by the New Testament passages to which they appeal. The end result in my view is a sub-biblical understanding of the church’s mission.

This book will no doubt be influential in some circles and I think their argument needs to be critiqued. Of course there are  many things with which I agree, not least on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the nonnegotiable place of proclamation in the church’s mission. I have no intention to go page-by-page and point out my disagreements. And likely what I think means very little to them or those who will read the book. However, I want to flag here a few points in the first two chapters that particularly concern me.

(1)  DeYoung and Gilbert want to stress that the church’s mission is singularly to make disciples (62). For them, this means that the mission of the church is not justice, mercy and faithfulness in the world. While these are good things that the individual disciples exhibit in response to the Gospel, these things are not to be confused with the church’s mission. This argument is faulty not least because it doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of its own assertion. What does it mean to be a disciple? What is it that the church is to teach disciples? If the mission of the church is discipleship – and on this I couldn’t agree more! – then the activity of discipling means the very things they wish to preclude from the mission. If the mission is to make disciples than the mission is to bring justice, mercy and faithfulness into tangible existence. Furthermore, they completely overlook the fact that the teaching of Jesus noted in the so-called Great Commission includes for Matthew the whole Torah (Matt 5:17-19). The existence that the Twelve minus one were to create among the nations is a Torah-oriented society.

If these things were not enough, what about the commission of Matt 10? DeYoung and Gilbert falsely claim that Jesus never went to a town with the stated purpose of healing or casting out demons. Is this really true? At the global level, Matt 4—9 shows us of what Jesus mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” consisted: proclamation and procurement of the kingdom. Jesus both spoke and acted. This was his mission. To confirm this dual-prong mission one need look no further than the mission of the Twelve in Matt 10. There Jesus sends the Twelve to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God. I’m sorry, but to reduce the miracles of Jesus to simply “corroboration” is wrong. It is true that John’s Jesus does “signs” and not miracles. The synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke) present Jesus’ miracles as foretastes of kingdom existence. Of course they confirm or corroborate the message of the soon-coming kingdom, but they more so inaugurate it. I could say so much more. OK, one more . . . there is an implicit assumption in their thinking that divides the individual disciple from the corporate church. What might be good thing for the individual disciple to do (justice, mercy and faithfulness), is precisely not the priority for the church. This dichotomy is wholly unbiblical in my view.

(2) Their handling of John’s commission in John 20:21 is reductionistic and nearsighted. Jesus tells the disciples: “As the father sent me, even so I am sending you”. Readers of John who are fully acquainted with the whole of the Gospel, realize what an extraordinary commission this in fact is. Jesus is saying that the church is to be for the world what he was. As Jesus was the glory of God in the flesh (1:14), so now the church in his absence as it is filled by his Spirit, is to be to the world. John has the grandest expression of ecclesiology in the New Testament. Jesus is no mere model for our mission, we carry on His mission. Furthermore, when read appropriately, passages like John 6:41-59 and John 13, we see that in fact the mission of the church is a cruciformed mission. One thinks of Paul saying in Col. 1:24 that he is filling up in his flesh the sufferings of Christ that are still lacking. It’s not that Paul or John are saying that Jesus death was inadequate to achieve full atonement and reconciliation with God. Rather, it is that the church lays down its life in service to the world as Jesus did. I could not disagree with DeYoung and Gilbert more when they attempt to disconnect service from the church’s mission. I just can’t believe they are making this argument! What does John 13 mean?

(3) For the life of me, I can’t see why this book needed to be written. Why would we ever want to narrow the mission of the church? God is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20). They are of course right that the proclamation of the Gospel is central, even the core of the mission, and a church that ceases to do this is no longer the church of Jesus. But their approach to reading the Great Commission texts so reductionistically is bad Bible interpretation in my view.

In my judgment, they do not provide a more biblically robust understanding of the church’s mission. I have only read two chapters of the book. There are still chapters on the Story of the Bible (3), the Gospel (4), and the Kingdom (5), Social Justice (6-7), Shalom (8) and Good works (9). But I can see where this is heading and I think there are real issues here.

 

2. STORY OF THE BIBLE

In my introduction I came out of the corner swinging admittedly. At least one friend encouraged me to take a more irenic tone so that these issues can in fact be discussed. Otherwise, as he wisely said, the two sides will be simply “playing to” our respective crowds. And I affirm the hope that one commenter on the first post expressed that a “conversation” will be generated. I would welcome it. I think these issues are of utmost importance. The kingdom, the gospel, the mission of Jesus and the church are things I’ve been thinking about for a while now. They are themes about which I’m passionate and, in fact, it is these which have driven my academic pursuit. So let’s have a conversation.

In Part 2 of the book DeYoung and Gilbert set out to elaborate on “categories” related to their understanding of the church’s mission. They begin with the story of the Bible

The chapter on the story of the Bible is important and I can’t agree more with their impulse to see the importance of the Bible’s story as the frame of reference for our understanding of the Gospel and the church’s mission. On this point, Scot McKnight’s recent book on the Gospel would be in agreement. But every retelling of the Bible’s story, including the ones contained in the Bible itself (e.g. Matthew’s genealogy, Stephen’s in Acts 7) is an interpretation. So the question, that I want ask is:

What is DeYoung and Gilbert’s interpretative spin on the Bible’s story? They assert that the Bible’s story can be boiled down to this one point: “How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?”

Again there is much to commend in this chapter, on many points we’d be in agreement. But I see a flaw at the core of their argument that makes their conclusion about the mission of the church subbiblical.

I think the most important question to be asked is whether any biblically sanctioned retellings of the story of the Bible, particularly the story of Israel, make the same point DeYoung and Gilbert do? Does Matthew in his genealogy, Peter and Paul in their sermons in Acts, Stephen in his defense of his trust in Messiah, or Paul in Romans 9—11 make that point in their retelling? It’s not that I don’t think the point of the Bible’s story is to communicate that through the work of the Messiah Israel and the nations can be reconciled to God. This is expressly the point, as Paul so poetically makes clear in Eph 2—3.

But what is interesting is the way DeYoung and Gilbert frame the story from anthro-centrically, rather than theo-centrically. Furthermore, they introduce elements that seem foreign to the story line, elements not indigenous to the story. For example, no less than eight times they use the adjective “perfect” when presenting the point of the story (e.g. “perfectly just and righteous”, “perfect fellowship”, “perfectly glorify God”, “perfect relationship”). These are not the Bible’s own categories. While it is true that God’s perfect and perfectly  . . . (put the noun in), and humanity is not in “perfect” fellowship with God, this isn’t the way the Bible itself expresses things.

If we take Paul’s retelling in Acts 13 as an example we would be more biblical to say that the Creator God is setting out to save Jew and Gentile. Jesus resurrection means his death was redemptive, that sin is forgiven. The question of the Bible’s story then is “How is God going to reconcile a lost world back to himself?” “How is God going to bring harmony to the created order which is in rebellion?” It’s a question of God’s vindication as creator. By the way, it’s not just or even primarily humanity that is most at issue. Tim Gombis, for example, in his book on Ephesians [I posted about the book a week or so ago] has usefully reminded us of the thoroughgoing presupposition of ancient Jews, including the writers of the New Testament, of the suprahuman forces in the Bible’s storyline. It’s perhaps not at the top of the surface of the Bible’s story, but the NT writers fundamentally believe that while the nations are to blame, angelic forces are at work directing humanity toward idolatry and away from their creator. Fundamental to the definition of sin the Bible is idolatry. Idolatry is not one form of sin; it is Sin. Humanity disobeys, because they worship the wrong thing. So the lake of fire is primarily created for the “devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).

Ok, so what does this have to do with the mission of the church? Well if the storyline is about God’s vindication, and as Paul puts it in Eph 3, the mission of the church is to “make known” the “manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The church as it proclaims and makes disciples of the nations is exposing the deceit of idolatry and enacting harmony, where it leaves a footprint, in the disharmony of the lost world. These actions are the storefront window of God’s eternal purposes. All of this is the mission of the church.

 

3. THE GOSPEL

I want to reflect on the fourth chapter “Understanding the Good News”. It is a chapter on the question “What is the Gospel?”

They begin the chapter by referencing the recent contentious discussion among evangelicals today about what the gospel is. They contend that most of the disagreement boils down to a “talking past” one another. They think that on the one hand there’s a group who advocates a “Wide angle lens” approach which defines the gospel as “the good news that God is going to remake the world, and that Jesus Christ is the down payment of that transformation and renewal”. As they understand this approach, the advocates “look at the gospel with the widest possible lens, taking in all the promises that God has made to his people”.

On the other side, are the “zoom-lens people” who define the gospel narrowly in terms of God’s act “to save sinners through the death of Jesus in their place and his subsequent resurrection”. So this side focuses on “that which lies at the foundation of salvation”. Through the chapter they attempt to show that both senses of the Gospel that the two sides advocate for are biblical. They think that the two groups are actually attempting to answer a different but related question. The wide lens folks are asking “What is the whole good news of Christianity”? While the zoom lens peeps are asking “What must a person believe in order to be saved?” They believe the NT uses the word “gospel” in both ways and they set out in two sections to present the two senses from NT passages.

After discussing a number of passages on both senses they attempt to synthesize the data into a coherent picture. Are there two gospels? “Heck no”, they say (well not exactly in those words). In the end, as I read it, DeYoung and Gilbert’s view on the gospel can be summarized conversely to their own statement: the gospel of the cross includes the gospel of the kingdom. Their second summary point is stated rather, “the gospel of the kingdom necessarily includes the gospel of the cross” (107). But this seems only to be revised by their third, final and climatic point: “the gospel of the cross is the fountainhead of the gospel of the kingdom” (108). They conclude:

Because the broader blessings of the gospel are attained only by means of forgiveness through the cross, and because those broader blessings are attained infallibly by means of forgiveness through the cross, it’s entirely appropriate and makes perfect sense for the New Testament writers to call forgiveness through the cross—the fountainhead of and gateway to all the rest—“the gospel” (109).

What do you think of the schema of two senses of “gospel”?

The chapter ends with six implications from their discussion:

(1) It is wrong to say that the gospel is the declaration that the kingdom of God has come. I think this point is misleading. They only mean to say that the gospel must also include the means of entering it. The real point this statement is making would have been better to include the word “only” before “the declaration”: “It is wrong to say that the gospel is only the declaration . . .” It is nonsense to say that the gospel is not the declaration that the kingdom has come. This is exactly what Jesus preached. Of course he also preached, as DeYoung and Gilbert point out, the “therefore” (so repent and believe!). But do we really want to disagree with Jesus?

(2) It is wrong to say that the declaration of all the blessings of the kingdom is a dilution of the true gospel. It is true that you don’t have a gospel without the cross. However, I’m confused with the language of “blessings of the kingdom”. The coming of the kingdom carries wrath and judgment as well as blessing. When one announces the kingdom, one is announcing the judgment of God. Look at Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (17:30-31). That’s the Gospel!

(3)  It is wrong to say that the message of forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus is a reduction of the true gospel. More on this below.

(4) No one is a Christian simply because he or she is living a “kingdom life”. This statement is confusing because I could either agree or disagree depending on what one means by “living a kingdom life”. They mean that the person is following the ethics of Jesus (love your neighbor as yourself) without an allegiance to Messiah. But in fact, living a kingdom life by necessity demands allegiance to the king of the kingdom. Perhaps they’re reacting to something specific, but as it is the statement doesn’t really make sense; a kingdom necessarily means a king.

(5) Non-Christians do not do “kingdom work”. This is a larger question that I can’t tackle here. I do have sympathy with this assertion. And I am largely in agreement. However, the weakness of this view is the denial that the Creator-King of this world is working in and through his creation to accomplish his will in this world. I think there is a compelling case to be made that God continues to sustain his creation and to fulfill his kingdom purposes even outside his people. I can think of God’s use of Cyrus the Perisan king as perhaps a case in point. God through Isaiah remember calls him “his messiah” (Isa. 45:1). Of course Cyrus would not have seen it that way, but the biblical interpretation of that event is that Cyrus unbeknownst to him was an instrument of God’s kingdom purposes.

(6) All this helps us understand why Jesus fully commissioned the church to bear witness to him and to make disciples. Of course! But I think we need to drill down on what it means to “bear witness” and to “make disciples”.

My Evaluation

Two Schema Gospel. I don’t want to walk through their biblical discussions here, although it would be useful. I only will make two points. First, not everyone will be convinced of their scheme of two senses of gospel. The evidence is not straightforward and it can be construed in very different directions. In other words, it is not so clear to this reader that they have been able to substantiate the case from the examples they provide. Their discussion of Romans 1:16-17 is weakened by their neglect of Paul’s explicit definition of the gospel in Romans 1:1-7. This prior definition should set the context for 1:16-17. However, to acknowledge this would undermine the proposal. In my view the framework is imposed onto the evidence rather than emerging out of it. My feeling is they want their cake (zoom lens), and eat it too. They realize there are too many passages that put the cross and personal salvation in a much larger frame of reference.

Second, there’s a real problem with the following assertion: “Why does he [Paul] never preach, “The gospel is the good news that Jew and Gentile can be reconciled to one another through Jesus”? (107) Isn’t this in fact what Paul does say the gospel is in Ephesians 2 and 3? There Paul equates the terms “God’s grace”, “mystery”, “gospel”, and “the multi-colored wisdom of God”. They all describe what God is doing in and through the gospel. In Ephesians 3, Paul uses “the gospel” to express both the reality of the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile and the means by which they are reconciled. DeYoung and Gilbert are just flat wrong here. Paul does proclaim a gospel of reconciliation between Jew and Gentile on the basis of “the blood of Christ”.

Definition of the Gospel. If there aren’t “two senses” to the New Testament’s gospel, what then is the Gospel? Here I will offer my two cents on this hot topic for what its worth.  I think the two alternatives that DeYoung and Gilbert provide both miss the mark. The “gospel” is neither what a person believes to be saved nor the story of new creation. While personal salvation and the mechanics of salvation are surely a central element of the gospel and certainly the final restoration of creation is the closing frame of the gospel’s story line, I have believed for a long time now that the “gospel” is in fact the best part of the on-going story of Israel. It is the best part of Israel’s story. It is that scene in the movie that brings the powerful a-ha moment. The gospel is that part in Israel’s story; its the a-ha moment. The gospel is the resolution of Israel’s story, which has universal consequences.

The New Testament’s central claim of the gospel is Jesus is Messiah. Paul states, “Remember Jesus Messiah, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel” (2 Tim 2:8). Jesus is the Messiah of Israel come to fulfill Israel’s story. The gospel story Matthew tells is of Jesus, the Davidic and Abrahamic Son and Son of God. Jesus is the answer to Israel’s unfulfilled potential, her unfaithfulness, her exilic state of being. Through Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, Israel finally achieves the full potential God intended for her. And Jesus’ death atones for Israel’s sin; it purifies Israel; it saves Israel. What’s more, Jesus as Israel’s Messiah in reaching Israel’s full potential and providing saving redemption for Israel sets in motion the blessings of Abraham into the world on the nations who turn in repentance to the Israel’s Messiah. In this light, Paul is, to use the title of a recent book on Paul, the “Pioneer of Israel’s Messiah” to the nations. I don’t think I can say it better than Scot McKnight has in his recent book. The gospel is “the Story of Israel that comes to completion in the saving Story of Jesus, who is Messiah of Israel, Lord over all, and the Davidic Savior” (131). This leads to a related thought.

Inconsistency. DeYoung and Gilbert’s chapter on the gospel reveals a fundamental inconsistency in the book. They want to allow the “wide angle” to be a legitimate definition of the gospel, they really only pay lip service to this assertion however. I say this for two reasons. First, in the previous chapter on the story of the Bible they already argued that the central issue in the Bible is how “hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God”. This understanding of the Story’s point prioritizes from the beginning the zoom-lens definition of the gospel. Their presupposition about the Bible’s story predisposes them to favor a narrower definition of what the gospel is. This means that fundamental to any definition of the gospel is one’s prior understanding of the point of the Story of the Bible. The argument then about the gospel is an argument about the meaning of the Story of the Bible. We can discuss all day long wide angle versus zoom-lens definitions of the Bible and say that both are present, but I don’t think we can have it both ways. The gospel means one thing. And our interpretation of the larger Story of the Bible in which the gospel is part is wholly determinative for our understanding of the Gospel.

Pure Gospel. One final comment. Although they seem to say otherwise, I think in fact DeYoung and Gilbert implicitly believe that the “zoom-lens” definition is the gospel in its purest and most basic form. From their perspective then, I don’t see the point of the wide-angle lens definition. Everything in addition to the penal-substitutionary death of Jesus and the mechanics of the application to one personally, is just the “blessings of the kingdom”; they are just the “package of blessings that Christ secures for his people” (95). I agree actually that the subsituitionary death of Jesus is a centerpiece of the gospel Story; a non-negotiable one. I agree that the gospel without it is no gospel, and even an anti-gospel (108). But for me, there is the question of the relationship between the death of Jesus and the victory of Jesus, Messiah the crucified, Messiah the King. I would see the former as the foundation of the latter, but also the means by which the latter is accomplished. Therefore the accent falls on the latter more than the former. Foundations are always essential but they are almost never the point. They serve to support the point. With a home, the foundation is without question necessary, but few will look at a house and say “what an impressive foundation!” The foundation is in the background (underground) the structure on top is in the foreground (above ground).

 

4. THE DUAL TASK OF MISSION – JESUS’ EXAMPLE AND COMMISSION

Let’s pause and take stock where we are. DeYoung and Gilbert’s thesis is the church’s mission is singularly proclamation and worship. As they stated:

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 mine).

The church’s mission in the world, according to DeYoung and Gilbert, has nothing essentially to do with the enactment of justice, mercy, truth and faithfulness in the world. While these may be outcomes from individual disciples as they scatter into the world outside the church, these activities, while good, are not central to the church’s commission in the world. The church’s mission is not to “change the world” or to “Transform the city” (129-30). The desire is commendable, but not only is it overly optimistic, but more than that, it represents at best a peripheral concern for the church.

It comes as no surprise, but I take a different view of things. And while I hold much in agreement, I think the points of disagreement are extremely significant. Primarily what I think is wrong with this book is what DeYoung and Gilbert deny. If it was simply a matter of bringing the proverbial pendulum back to center, in light of recent attempts to make the mission of the church simply faithful presence, I’m all for that. I agree that we need to reaffirm the necessity of proclamation in the church’s witness in the world. But this book goes well beyond that by attempting to lay out a biblical vision for a church mission that is concrete-less, intangible. A church that only secondarily or accidentally transforms the world within which it exists.

That kind of a mission may be something, but it is NOT the biblical mission of the church.

In my view, Jesus sent his disciples (and by extension the post-resurrection disciples) on mission to perform a number of actions in the world. Jesus tells his disciples:

As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near (“so repent” is implied [4:17]).” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. (Matt 10:7-8).

There are three observations to make here.

(1) Notice that the list is not in an order of priority or hierarchy. The proclaiming activity in this list is coordinate with the activities of healing, raising, driving, and giving. Central to the mission of followers of Jesus are proclaiming task and a set of procuring tasks.

(2) This dual task of mission (to announce and actualize) is consistent with the activities of the early apostles and disciples. While it is not explicitly stated in Matthew 28:19-20, or the other commissioning statements of John 20 or Acts 1, this dual task of mission is implied and carried out.

(3) Furthermore it is not justifiable to appeal to Paul’s missionary efforts for support of a “proclaim” only mission. This argument which I’ve heard recently goes something like this: After the resurrection and ascension and after the so-called “birth” of the church (Acts 2) the mission of the disciples changed from that of Jesus as confirmed by the Acts. In Luke’s presentation of Paul’s missionary efforts in the Roman world we can see that he’s not interested in tasks related to faithful presence. He doesn’t concern himself with the tasks of justice, mercy and truth and faithfulness in the cities he visits. His only concern is the gospeling of pagan Gentiles and his Jewish compatriots. Therefore, as the argument goes, the church’s mission is to be more like Paul’s than like Jesus’.

This argument is suspect for two reasons. First, it is hermeneutically naïve and, second, there is counter evidence that doesn’t fit this model.

To take this view is to read the Bible flatly. Such a view doesn’t take into account Paul’s unique task within the wider church’s mission. Paul is not the primary model for the church’s work in the world. He was the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 2) and was called uniquely to fulfill that particular role. Paul describes his role in 2 Corinthians 2—3 comparing his New Covenant ministry to Moses’ Old Covenant ministry. Our model for church mission, if we can find such a thing in Acts and Paul’s letters, should not be Paul, but the communities Paul left behind.

Nevertheless, Acts does in fact present Paul conducting the dual-task mission. Two examples will suffice to make the point. In Lystra and Derbe on Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul heals a lame man who had been listening to his gospeling. When hailed Roman gods Zeus and Hermes Paul and Barnabas  say:

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavesn and the earth and the sea and everything in them (Acts 14:15)

Then again Paul’s three-year stent in Ephesus recorded in Acts 19 provides another example. Here besides “arguing persuasively in the synagogue” and teaching two years in the lecture hall of Tyrannus with the result that “all of the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord”, Paul performed, rather God through Paul, “extraordinary miracles” of healing and casting out demons (19:8-10).

From these examples, it seems Paul too conducted the same dual-task mission which Jesus gave to the disciples. I might add, lest someone wrongly assume, Luke does not present these miraculous deeds simply as authenticating signs, validating Paul’s message. While they would have no doubt accomplished this, these acts of mercy and justice were part of his mission.

Another place where one might find this dual-task mission implied is in Galatians 2:10. The so-called pillars, James, Cephas, and John, have recognized the task entrusted to Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles and have extended to he and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship in the gospel mission. The only other thing they asked of Paul was “that we should continue to remember the poor”. A request, Paul adds, was “the very thing I had been eager to do all along”. What should we make of this reference to the poor? Since it does not seem to be a metaphor describing the “spiritually poor”, it must be a reference to real poor people. But if Paul was not pursuing the dual-task mission what do poor people that have to do with his mission?

Finally, I want to point to one piece of evidence that may be overlooked as an expression of the church’s mission in the world; the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians. One relevant aspect that I want to highlight is the way Paul’s exhortations in these code lists revolutionize the societal structures. It is worth remembering that the ancient household and the ecclesia overlapped and essentially one and the same social space in the early decades of Christianity. The church was not a separate social space segmented from the wider society in the way it is in our Western social and political contemporary context. The authority of the Empire Augustus established reached even into household. Augustus legislated the roles within the household and defined familial decorum. In Paul’s letters the structures are maintained, but the relationships within these structures have been transformed. Paul’s Gentile believing communities were transforming the household of the Roman Empire.

I have attempted to plot out what I think the mission of the church is which consists in the dual task of announcing and actualizing the kingdom of God. In the next post, I will reflect on DeYoung and Gilbert’s understanding of the Kingdom of God, which as it turns out is the most definitive element in their biblical vision of the mission of the church.

 

5. KINGDOM OF GOD

Like DeYoung and Gilbert I too am very concerned that we get this right. I have the unique privilege of being both a professor of New Testament at North Park and pastor of college students at Christ Community Church. So the question of the church’s mission is squarely at the center of my vocation.

Furthermore, my academic pursuit has largely been focused on just this set of questions. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Jesus’ mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6; 15:24) in Matthew. In that study the issues of kingdom, Messiah, and mission were front and center. I love Messiah and his church. I want us to have a biblical vision for our corporate mission that determines in practice how we prioritize our work in the world.

DeYoung and Gilbert and I have a great deal in common. I don’t know these guys, but it would be great fun to discuss these together over a pint, perhaps even smoking pipes! I don’t know if they read our blog, but I invite a conversation in that kind of enviroment.

In this post I’m looking at chapter six of the book, “Kings and Kingdoms: Understanding God’s Redemptive Rule”.

I believe this chapter and the discussion of the “kingdom” is the most fundamental of the whole book. It seems to me that how one defines “kingdom” largely determines what kind of gospel one preaches and what kind of mission the church pursues.

In reading the chapter I see now more clearly than ever the fundamental difference between my understanding of the church’s mission and theirs; and it has everything to do with the definition of the kingdom of God.

How should we define the kingdom?

DeYoung and Gilbert organize the chapter by first establishing the framework called inaugurated eschatology made popular among evangelicals by George Ladd in the middle part of the 20th century. They then tackle directly the definition of the kingdom which they define, following Ladd, as God’s reign in distinction from God’s realm. It is this distinction that forms the basis of their understanding of kingdom; and it is a very common definition in both scholarly and ecclesial circles. They are certainly voicing a mainstream evangelical, non-Dispensational perspective (at least classic and revised Dispensationalism). This framework is the basic position of the historic-premillennial position articulated by Ladd. My guess is that that is DeYoung and Gilbert’s position given their praise of Ladd.

Using biblical texts they argue that the term “kingdom” is parallel with terms such as “power” and “dominion”. Thus, they conclude: “Kingdom is a dynamic or relational concept, not a geographical one” (119); “[The kingdom of God] is a dynamic word (about power) and a relational word (about human beings’ relationship to God their King) (120, emphasis theirs). While they say that geography is not “irrelevant” to kingdom, it is, nevertheless, “[non-] essential” to kingdom (120). “When Jesus and the apostles talk about the kingdom of God, they are speaking specifically of God’s benevolent, redemptive reign over those he has saved” (120).

This non-geographic, relational definition then leads to a primary “ramification”. I quote them at length because I think the definition and their inference from the definition is the crux of their thesis about the mission of the church.

Understanding that the kingdom is a dynamic, relational word rather than a geographic one keeps us from thinking that “extending the kingdom of God” is the right way to describe planting trees or delivering hot meals to the homeless. Sometimes people talk as if by renovating a city park or turning a housing slum into affordable, livable apartments, we are extending God’s reign over that park or that neighborhood. We’re “bringing order from chaos”, someone might say, and therefore expanding the kingdom. But as we’ve seen, the kingdom isn’t geographical. Rather, it is defined relationally and dynamically; it exists where knees and hearts bow to the King and submit to him. And therefore you cannot “expand the kingdom” by bringing peace and order and justice to a certain area of the world. Good deeds are good, but they don’t broaden the borders of the kingdom. The only way the kingdom of God—the redemptive rule of God—is extended is when he brings another sinner to renounce sin and self-righteousness and bow his knee to King Jesus (121).

Read this again. This is the most important paragraph in the book.

So, the bottom line: if one defines the kingdom differently, one will likely understand the mission of the church differently. If one does not agree with the disjunction of reign and realm, so fundamental to DeYoung and Gilbert’s definition, then one is more likely able to see the relationship between people and place.

What if . . . the body of Messiah leaves a footprint in the world and it and its footprint (its tangible presence in the world) IS kingdom of God.

 

6. KINGDOM OF GOD, A DEFINITION

Here’s my opinion about the DeYoung and Gilbert’s discussion of the kingdom: as is the case with their view of the mission of the church it is subbiblical. In other words, in their attempt to be more biblical, they are not biblical enough. But this is not a criticism directed at them. Neither of these guys are New Testament scholars; they are pastors—and good ones I imagine. But they have to depend on experts in the field of New Testament studies for the explanation of biblical texts and ideas. Truth is most scholars, even evangelicals, are subbiblical on the question of kingdom; and this is because the godfather of inaugurated eschatology, George Ladd, was subbiblical. We are not being biblical when we separate realm from reign. This dichotomy you will not find in the Bible. I should say, rather, you will find it only if you’re looking for it. Ancient Jews just did not think this way.

DeYoung and Gilbert assert that the phrase “kingdom of God”, ubiquitous in the triple tradition of the gospel (the term “kingdom” is only used twice in John), is not found in the Old Testament. This assertion they likely found among the things they read in the secondary literature on the subject. It is, however, not entirely accurate. In the Old Testament there is actually one verse that uses an equivalent phrase, nearly identical to “kingdom of God”. Additionally, the context in which the phrase is used is extremely important for understanding the meaning of the phrase on Jesus’ lips. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say: the omission of this passage from consideration is devastating to an accurate, biblical definition of kingdom of God. But this is not their fault. Most discussions I’ve ever read of the kingdom of God overlook this passage. If they were depending on others for their understanding of the meaning of kingdom of God, they surely would have missed too.

So what is the passage and where is it found?

1 Chronicles 28:4-5 (NIV)

“Yet the LORD, the God of Israel, chose me from my whole family to be king over Israel forever. He chose Judah as leader, and from the house of Judah he chose my family, and from my father’s sons he was pleased to make me king over all Israel.  5 Of all my sons—and the LORD has given me many—he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the LORD over Israel.

  • “the kingdom of the Lord”
  • basileias kuriou (LXX, ancient Greek translation)
  • malkut yhwh (MT, Hebrew)

This is of course David announcing to “all the officials of Israel” (28:1) his the will of God as it had been shown to him. David is referring to the covenant God made with him as recorded in 2 Sam 7 and 1 Chron 17. I tell my students this every semester: you cannot understand what Jesus meant by kingdom of God if you don’t know about God’s promise to David and its earth-reaching implications. I believe that the Davidic covenant is the most overlooked, yet without doubt most essential, element for one’s understanding of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus.

To DeYoung and Gilbert’s credit they at  least reference the Davidic covenant in a brief section “The Kingdom of God Is the Reign of the Messiah, Jesus”. But the problem with their interpretation is it has not fully appreciate the significance of  2 Sam7/1 Chron 17 for defining the kingdom of God. In light of the Davidic covenant and seen quite clearly in the above 1 Chronicles passage, God’s kingdom in time and space is David’s kingdom, the kingdom of Israel: “he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the LORD over Israel.”

So to be biblical here’s how we should define the kingdom of God:

The “kingdom” is the government of God in the incarnated in Israel’s Davidic Messiah.

I think “government” is a useful synonym for “kingdom”. The kingdom of God is essentially intangible.  A government is not a thing; it is not a person; it is not a place. Government is authority, power, ideals.  But a government without tangible expression is nonexistent. As Scot McKnight has pointed out recently, a kingdom has a king, land, and people. A government becomes tangible when it elects; when it acts; when it builds; when it fights. A government is made tangible in its citizens, its territory, its ruling class.

Through the progress of the Bible’s story of Israel, God’s government becomes forever and inextricably linked with David and his Son. When John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles reference the kingdom of God, it is this they have in mind. It maybe in some form here now and not yet, but it is nothing less than this Davidic kingdom, the kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of God.

 

7. SOCIAL JUSTICE

I want to commend Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s two chapters on Social Justice: “Making Sense of Social Justice: Exposition” (6) and “Making Sense of Social Justice: Application” (7) in their book What’s the Mission of the Church?.

These chapters usefully center of a pendulum that has swung far in one direction for some time. This will perhaps alienate me from some readers, but I have to agree with DeYoung and Gilbert that the Bible’s message is not primarily about social justice. As I have said in an earlier post, I believe the story line is about God’s vindication (by the way this word is related to the nouns righteousness and justice), which is connected to the issue of social injustice for sure, but it is not the primary concern of Scripture.

This does not take away the fact that the Bible says a very great deal about the poor. I’ve heard Jim Wallis powerfully talk about a Bible with holes. The image of a Bible with all the poverty passages cut out of it. My experience growing up in fundamentalist and evangelical circles is Wallis’ “Bible with holes” was, for all intents and purposes, our Bible.

No fraud, no favoritism

In the first of the two chapters DeYoung and Gilbert explain the meaning of 12 common “social justice” texts: Lev 19:9-18; 25; Isa 1; 58; Jer 22; Amos 5; Micah 6:8; Matt 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 8-9; and James 1; 2 and 5. While one could quibble with certain omissions like Luke 4 (although they discussed it earlier in the book [37-39] and unfortunately dismissed its relevance for defining mission), it is a solid contribution of commonsense exposition of key texts. In finishing with James they write:

The Bible condemns in the strongest of terms fraud and favoritism. More than that, we are positively enjoined to show special compassion to the most helpless among us. If we truly believe the gospel of God’s grace, we will be transformed to show grace to others in their time of need. You may want to reread the previous three sentences, for they provide a good summary of the Bible’s teaching on social justice: no fraud, no favoritism, help the weak, freely give as we have abundantly received (171).

Unconstrained and Constrained Justice

DeYoung and Gilbert observe that the term “social justice” often goes undefined and they believe this is a problem since anything can parade around as social justice. And since that label has a significant cashe these days, it allows for an activity to go if can slap that term on it. As they put it “who in their right mind favors social injustice” (180). They suggest that there are two ways to define the term. The unconstrained approach thinks that justice is a result so that whenever people don’t get their “fair share” there is injustice (181). Inequality of resources whether they be opportunities, income, or education, in this view, is injustice. The constrained view sees justice as a “process in which people are treated fairly” (181). Justice on this view is upheld by “the rule of law, a fair court system and equitable treatment of all persons regardless of natural diversity” (182). DeYoung and Gilbert believe that the constrained view is more closely reflects the way the Bible speaks of justice. Still they acknowledge that both views can be understood as biblical (citing Tim Keller). Their interest is primarily that “we don’t all mean the same thing by ‘social justice’ and therefore we should be careful to define what we mean if we use the it” (183).

I think their point needs to be heeded. For me, I believe social justice includes both on the simple fact that justice in the rule of law is dependent on the assumptions and applications of that law. There is such a thing as systemic injustice. It does someone no good if she is being justly treated by a rule of law that is unjust. Social justice must also relate to the systemic injustice of society.

Moral Proximity

The last item I think is noteworthy out of these chapters is DeYoung and Gilbert’s discussion of the concept of moral proximity. I found this section useful. Moral proximity is the simple idea that those whom we are most closely connected to are our first and most important moral responsibility. This does not primarily mean geographical proximity, but it certainly includes that. And given our “global village”, moral proximity can then also be global. Here the helpful thing is to work with a moral vision that allows one to make decisions about what to prioritize with the limited resources at our disposal. This section provides a good resource. I laughed out loud at one point when I read this very true excerpt:

Without the concept of moral proximity we end up just putting “helping the poor” in the disobedience column and start thinking about football (185).

 

8. SHALOM AND THE NEW HEAVENS AND EARTH

I want to reflect on chapter 8, “Seeking Shalom: Understanding the New Heavens and the New Earth”. While I don’t think I’d come out much different from them in conclusion—they advocate a “faithful presence” a la James Davidson Hunter, I think there are at least two weaknesses in the discussion.

DeYoung and Gilbert’s major assertion in the chapter is the responsibility of bringing into existence the new creation is God’s and Jesus’, as the new Adam, and, therefore, is not ours. They critique evangelical views that suggest that Christians have a role in bringing about New Creation – singling out specifically Gabe Lyons.

Internal to this argument is assertion that the so-called cultural mandate given to Adam was rendered impossible by the fall. And only with Jesus, the second Adam (Rom 5), does Adam’s mandate come to its completion; and, as Jesus’, again it is not ours in any sense.

Finally, they note the ambivalence in Scripture in regard to the question of continuity and discontinuity between the old heaven and earth and the new.

The major weakness in their argument is the absence of Israel and David in the discussion of God’s redemption story in reference to the cultural mandate. They, like so many others, completely ignore three-fourths of the Bible’s story by inappropriately jumping from Adam to Jesus, completely skipping Israel and David as antecedent elements of  an Adam Christology. While they acknowledge the ongoing story with a single reference to the role of the Levitical priests as “workers” and “keepers” of the tabernacle/temple, they have no appreciation of the relationship between Israel, David and Jesus.

It is not possible to fully develop it here, but it is quite clear that Israel in the Promise Land too represented a new Adam. Israel was given the Promised Land as a gift (as the Eden to Adam) and commanded to subdue it (as Adam was). However, (like Adam) they failed in their “cultural”, vocational mandate. This mandate was then transferred for all of Israel to their kingly representative. With the Davidic covenant, Israel’s vocation was inextricably linked to the Davidic king. David became God’s new Adam as Israel’s representative. David and Solomon go far in fulfilling their mandate. In fact, if you look at the borders of their kingdom at its zenith, they take more of the land that was promised to Abraham than at any other time in Israel’s history; but still they don’t subdue the whole land of Promise.

What’s more, David and Solomon fail to be faithful to God. Israel’s kingship, while developing and furthering the Story, does not succeed bringing to completion the cultural mandate. Yet Davidic kingship is now unalterably the shape of the Story, and will lead to the coming Messiah. The prophets foresaw a day when God would renew the earth. He would bring about a new creation (Isa 65-66); he would rebuild the “fallen tent of David” (Amos 9) and install a new Davidic king over a restored Israel in a restored, sin-free creation (Ezek 34-37). Jesus is that predicted new Son of David. Jesus is therefore the new Adam.

Get this right the. Paul doesn’t skip over Israel to Adam. Jesus is the new Adam precisely because he’s the Davidic messiah, because Jesus is the Davidic messiah of Israel, because Jesus is the Davidic messiah of Israel that resets the fallen Adam and completes the cultural mandate. Israel doesn’t get side stepped in the argument. Israel and its Davidic king are the structure of the mandate.

The second weakness is the lack of clarity on the question of who is the “us” and “our” in the call to faithful presence. Consider this statement:

No, our task, as it has always been for the people of God, is to live in this passage age with simple faithfulness. We are to strive for a “faithful presence” in a fallen world.

My question: whose task is this? Mine as an individual or ours as a church body? If the latter, then it seems that faithful presence is at the core of our Christian identity and therefore at the core of our mission as corporate body of Messiah.

Which leads me to on final point. If we are the corporate body of Messiah, then why wouldn’t it follow that together as the body of Messiah we would not have the cultural mandate that he has? Can someone tell me why we would not, by extension, have the mandate that Jesus does? Isn’t it the case that in him we are also the “image” of God as we are formed by His Spirit (Rom 8; Col 1-2)?

 

9. CONCLUSION

I bring 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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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Whew. Scathing review. Perhaps necessary. Not sure, haven’t read it yet. But, my initial critique from reading your reactions here would be that it does appear a bit reductionistic. If the entire mission of God is boiled down to “making disciples,” it would seem many other elements of God redemptive story are trumped if not all together wiped out. You appear to demur other many central features of the text. Frankly, you’ve made me want to read it more 😉

    Thanks for this review. Keep up the good work Joel.

  • Richard

    Split personalities? I don’t understand how a text that is “sub-biblical” in things as central as the Kingdom of God and the Gospel can be considered “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 understand how DA Carson lands there because my impression of him is that he’s already very sympathetic to their framework and their success. I just don’t understand how you landed their when you seem to strongly critique them as reductionist and missing the richness of the Biblical mission.

    • Anonymous

      I think it offers a strong argument worth engaging. I don’t agree with it, but I think it attempts a biblical theology if mission.

      • Richard

        I appreciate the clarification, that seems more in line with the overall engagement you’ve provided. And it also seems a far cry from the strong endorsement Carson gives it. Thanks again for your work here on this.

  • Anonymous

    “Jesus as Israel’s Messiah in reaching Israel’s full potential and providing saving redemption for Israel sets in motion the blessings of Abraham into the world on the nations who turn in repentance to the Israel’s Messiah.”

    Thank you SO much for saying explicitly what is only assumed in so many discussions of Jesus and the Israel, namely the WAY in which Jesus completes Israel’s story. To those not involved in the discussions of the last few years or who have not had the time and money to read everything that Wright and McKnight – love the rhyme – have written, the Jesus-completes-the-story-of-Israel meme was scantof content. I kept asking myself, “What does that even mean?” Now it seems pretty clear. Thanks again.

    Of course, the next step is, “What’s the next step?” Does the church, powered by the Holy Spirit, now pick up the narrative? You are quite correct in claiming that one’s view of the Kingdom drives your expectations for the church. And vice-versa?

  • Wow, I made it through most of the review. Great, great work, and very helpful for me personally in clarifying what I believe about mission. It sounds like the authors would have benefited from John Bright’s book about the Kingdom of God, which dealt extensively with the concept in the OT.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent blog! You demonstrate how a Christ-follower can disagree without being rude or obnoxious. I think your points are valid and well made.

    As someone who has grown up and lived among so-called restorationist churches (Churches of Christ, Christian Churches, and Disciples of Christ) yours and Scot McKnight’s views resonate with me.

    I especially appreciated the Caneday quote: “faith and works are organically indivisible” (when it is understood properly there is not antithesis between faith and works–especially when one views “works” as focusing upon the “law that gives liberty” namely, “Love your neighbor as yourself”).

  • Anonymous

    One other thing: I am now motivated to do a parallel examination of “gospel” throughout the New Testament to see where it is explicitly defined (e.g. Mark 1, 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 1, etc.). I believe this will be a very useful exercise. Thanks for planting that seed through your discussion.

  • The Church was created by the apostles under Jesus Christ commands to “spread the word of God, the word of salvation”. God bless

  • Ehanson

    Nothing is more critical that getting our mission (marching orders) from our King correct! As a “missions practitioner”, this type of dialogue is very helpful and essential. Thanks, Joel! You are a gift to the body.