Thursday, 17 November 2011

*What is the Mission of the Church?*

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have created another stir in the evangelical world with their book, What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.  While I haven’t read the book yet, I’ve been watching the blogosphere on both sides of this discussion and am thoroughly amazed.  This could be one of the silliest debates I’ve ever witnessed. 

Rather than respond to each point they make, I’d like to just offer a few thoughts on their recent clarification and response to Ed Stetzer.  They state in their clarification on the mission of the church the following:
However, we should probably say something here about the common idea that the church’s work of “making disciples,” that is, “teaching them to obey everything I commanded,” necessarily means that the church itself, as an institution, must provide an example of or model all those things.  Sometimes, of course, that’s true.  As the church loves one another and cares for one another, we are certainly modeling to one another what it means to love and care for others—our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, the needy, and others.  But sometimes the case is made that the command to “teach everything” implies that the church is to be “exampling everything.”  So, the argument runs, if we want Christians to care for the poor, the church as a whole needs to care for the poor.  If we want Christians to feed the hungry, the church needs to feed the hungry in order to provide a model for its members.  But surely that’s too easy a solution.  If you’re talking about a clothes closet or a soup kitchen, that solution works just fine. It makes sense in that particular case.  But considered as a driving principle, the idea that the church “teaching” necessarily includes the church “exampling” just doesn’t work.  You have to ask how far that goes.

My response is, simple, and not complex.  It goes as far as the teachings and example of Jesus goes.  Did Jesus care for and feed the poor?  Did Jesus advocate that those who wished to follow him would have to make sacrifices to aid the poor?  Did Jesus teach, embody and advocate for social and restorative justice, i.e., that people engage in acts of forgiveness, restitution, and acting righteously for ourselves and others?  In specific areas, too many to list here (just read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Jesus modeled and taught the way of the Kingdom.  The church, the people of God, are to go and do likewise. 

Their reasoning for the above stated position, follows this line of thinking:
For example, must the church, as an institution, be modeling to its members how to make good Christian films?  Must it be providing an example of how to do good Christian art?  How about good Christian cooking or marathon-running? We are not trying to be snarky with these questions. We believe there is a legitimate point to be raised. Must the church as an institution be actively engaged in politics so as to model what Christian civic engagement looks like? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that the church as an institution is to teach Christians what Jesus commanded, and teach his disciples that they are to obey him in every area of their lives, rather than to say that it must provide an example or model obedience in every particular instance?

Did Jesus say anything about Christian films?  Art? Cooking?  Did Jesus say that the Church (as an institution) is to be actively engaged in politics?  Never.  So Christians are encouraged to flourish in these areas and bring about influence and perhaps even change, but this is not part of their mission.  However, the mission of God does include all the types of activities that Jesus himself engaged in. 

They get to the heart of the issue when they state clearly their aims and intentions.
The question we are addressing in the book is whether the mission of the church—the thing it is organized and sent into the world to do—is to do those good deeds to the end of making the world a better place.

Their position on this question is, no.  My positions is, of course.  By following Jesus, and doing the things Jesus taught us to do, we will inevitably make the world a better place (see What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us?: Its Role in Shaping the World Today by Jonathan Hill; How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt; The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark and most importantly, Edwin Judge’s Social Distinctives of Christians in the First Century).   By being a “faithful presence” (See, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter which DeYong and Gilbert draw from), Christians have always made an impact on the world (for better and worse, but hopefully we’re getting better!).   Our aim is to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer 27). 

One final comment on their take on “moral proximity.”

For starters, we believe the principle of “moral proximity” is a biblical principle. According to the New Testament we must do good “especially” to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). We have an even higher responsibility to care for members of our own household (1 Tim. 5:8). In the Old Testament it was never the case that God’s people were equally responsible to meet the needs of everyone.

Galatians 6:10 - So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
1 Thess 5:15 - See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.

So much more can and should be said about these two verses, but suffice it to say that Paul saw a mandate for Christians to be a blessing and benefit to those in society (See the careful work of Bruce W. Longenecker Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World). 

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