Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (What Is the Mission of the Church?) are concerned about the inflation of missionality in Evangelicalism. They are in favor of churches that engage in mercy ministry and advocate for justice but they insist that these dimensions of the church’s work are not at the center of the church’s mission. That mission is the work of making disciples by preaching and teaching those who are gathered into churches (cf. 62).
The book is a helpful contribution (especially in the sections on social justice), but unfortunately the authors make a couple of early missteps that weaken the overall argument.
To define the church’s mission, they examine on the commissioning texts of the Gospels and Acts. On Matthew 28, they write, “Jesus’s followers are to make disciples of the nations (ta ethne). As is now widely known, this is the word not for political nations-states but for people groups. Jesus envisions worshipers and followers present among every cultural-linguistic group on the planet” (46).
On their own reading, that’s not what Jesus says. Even if ethne doesn’t refer to nation-states (and how could it, since nation-states didn’t exist in the first century?), the word does refer to organized social entities that inevitably take some political form. Jesus commissions the church to disciple (the Greek verb matheteuo) ta ethne—that is, to disciple people groups. Discipling a group is different from worshipers and followers being present in every group. Ta ethne are the object of discipleship; the groups are the object of baptism and teaching. In short, DeYoung and Gilbert de-socialize and de-politicize Jesus’s commission.
Throughout, the book displays an odd deficit of pneumatology. The authors of course believe in the Spirit and speak about the “Spirit-empowered” witness of the church. Yet at several points, they forget the Spirit when they oughtn’t. They write, “the mission in the Bible is the mission of the Father sending the Son” (43). No: The mission is a double mission, the Father’s sending of the Son and then the Father’s and Son’s commission of the Spirit (Acts 2; Galatians 4:4-6). This is a united mission because the Spirit comes as the Spirit of Jesus and because the Spirit speaks of the Son rather than of Himself. But that united mission is differentiated into two sendings, separated by several decades. There can be no more a unitary mission than there can be a single procession; positively, because there are two processions—the Son and Spirit—and because these are equally God, so the mission of God must also be a double mission. Along the same lines, they discuss John 20:21 for several pages (52-58) without mentioning the “Johannine Pentecost” in verse 22.
This isn’t a minor oversight. They ask, “what if we are not called to partner with God in all he undertakes? What if the work of salvation, restoration, and re-creation are divine gifts to which we bear witness, rather than works in which we collaborate?” (42). Those questions boil down to: What if there is only one mission (of the Son) to which we bear witness (in the power of the Spirit)? As soon as we factor in the Spirit’s mission, a different logic emerges: As the Spirit inaugurated and guided the mission of Jesus, so the Spirit of Jesus inaugurates and drives the mission of the church. The Father sends the Spirit to unite us to sent Son; the mission of the Spirit is to incorporate us into the mission of the Son. In the Spirit, we are not merely witnesses to the Son’s mission but are swept into the mission of God.
As a result of this pneumatological deficit, and despite their efforts at balance, the authors lean toward a zero-sum understanding of the relation of divine to human action: If X is a gift, it cannot be a product of human action (cf. 205-7). It leads them to say that Jesus is the Last Adam who accomplished the dominion mandate (correct) without recognizing that the Spirit forms a new-Adamic humanity that shares in the rule of Jesus. When we give pneumatology its full weight, we can see that our actions are God’s gifts; and we can say “work out your own salvation” since we know the sequel: “because God works in you.” Or: “Carry on the mission of God because the sending God sends in you.”
Finally, the authors insist on a flimsily supported distinction between Jesus’s primary mission of proclamation and teaching and a secondary, corroboratory work of healing and exorcism. Miracles “are far from the main point” (56) that provide “corroboration of the gospel through signs and wonders” (57). They assert, “there is not a single example of Jesus going into a town with the stated purpose of healing or casting out demons” (56; italics original).
If they mean “there is not a single example of Jesus entering a town only to heal or cast out demons and not also to preach the gospel,” they’re right. But that is an odd thing to claim, since it relies on the very distinction they’re trying to prove—the distinction between Jesus’s mission of teaching and the corroborating, secondary work of healing. If they mean that Jesus went to towns to preach and happened to end up healing and exorcising as well, Matthew 4:23 contradicts them: “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” This summary of Jesus’s Galilean ministry doesn’t allow any ranking of mission activities: Jesus went to Galilee to teach and proclaim the kingdom and to heal sickness. Matthew 4 implies that the mission is to announce the kingdom by preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons; the latter aren’t corroborations of Jesus’s real business, but integral to the business of bringing in the kingdom of the Father.
This mission of preaching-healing-exorcism was the mission He gave the Twelve in Matthew 10. To return to the pneumatological point above: In Luke-Acts, Jesus carries out His mission, dies, rises, and ascends; He sends the Spirit, and the apostles who receive the Spirit carry out exactly the mission that Jesus did—preaching, teaching, healing, suffering, rising the whole bit. With the added bonus, as Jesus promised, of doing “greater things” than He did (John 14:12).