False Dichotomies in Mission pt. 2 of 2 by Christopher J.H. Wright
(See part 1 for the complete context of this post, and for False Dichotomies #1-2.)
Question: In what way have we as evangelical Christians failed to grasp or live out the fullness of God’s missional intent? How (if at all) has our theology of evangelism been weak?
Answer: First of all, I agree with what Esme Bowers said about how the terrible evil of apartheid in South Africa was given theological justification, and I want to emphasize that theology, therefore, is not just playing mind games. Theology has practical effects, because what people believe determines how they act. Bad theology has bad results – and can cost lives, millions of lives. Weak theology weakens our mission.
I do not want to be only negative, or to stigmatize our whole evangelical movement, but I was asked the question, and here is an honest answer! I think that as evangelicals we have tended to make some false dichotomies, or to separate things that ought to be kept together (because the Bible holds them together), and then to give one priority over the other. And this unbiblical separation has had some regrettable bad results.
3. We have tended to separate evangelism and discipleship, and to prioritize the first. In fact, we speak of the Great Commission as an evangelistic mandate (and of course it implies and includes the necessity of evangelism – for if people are to be baptized, they need to have responded to the proclamation of the good news), when in fact the primary explicit command is "Disciple all the nations". It has been said, the New Testament is written by disciples, for disciples, to make disciples. Yet our emphasis has often been on getting decisions and converts, making Christians. Actually the word Christian occurs 3 times in the New Testament, whereas the word ‘disciple’ occurs 269 times.
Evangelism is an utterly essential part of mission. But there is mission beyond evangelism. Paul clearly believed this. Had he stopped being a ‘missionary’ when he spent 3 years teaching the church in Ephesus the whole counsel of God? He affirmed the mission of Apollos, which was a teaching mission (Acts 18:24-27), and refused to allow that either was more important than the other – the one who planted or the one who watered (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Evangelism and teaching/discipling are integral and essential parts of our mission. Great Commission Line Three: "Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you." Paul told Timothy to "do the work of an evangelist", and also to teach sound doctrine, and to mentor others to teach others also. And he did not imply that one was more important than the other: they were all essential parts of the mission entrusted to Timothy.
The bad result of separating them and prioritizing the first is shallowness and immaturity and vulnerability to false teaching, church growth without depth, and rapid withering away (as Jesus warned in the parable of the sower). As another Lausanne phrase puts it, our responsibility is to "bear witness to Jesus Christ and all his teaching."
4. We have tended to separate word and deed, or proclamation and demonstration, and to prioritize the first. But again, both are essential and integral to the presentation of the gospel, and to bringing about the obedience of faith among all nations. This is clear from Paul’s own practice: in Romans 15 he reflects on his whole missionary work and speaks of "what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the nations to obey God, by word and deed and by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. (Rom. 5:18-19).
In his letters he constantly emphasizes the evangelistic power of "doing good" (he mentions it 7 times in Titus, encouraging slaves in doing good so that they can "adorn the teaching about God our Saviour" - ie. Their good deeds make the evangelistic message more likely to be effective by being more attractive. Peter speaks about "doing good" 10 times in 1 Peter, and again links it to evangelistic effectiveness (e.g. for believing wives of unbelieving husbands). Jesus too speaks of the ‘light’ of good works, drawing people to God the Father.
The bad result of this separation is that our evangelistic efforts are sometimes derided by the world, because people discern the hypocrisy of those who talk a lot but whose lives don’t support what they say. Lack of integrity in this area has been identified by various researches as the major obstacle to the acceptance of the message of the gospel.
5. We have tended to separate evangelism from ecclesiology, and to prioritize the first. That is, when we talk about "the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world", we see the church only as a delivery mechanism, a postman delivering a letter. It doesn’t really matter if the postman who delivers my letter was having an adulterous affair last night, so long as he does his job and I get the letter. We are concerned to get the maximum number of people into heaven – we even speak of it as a ‘task to get finished’ - but have not got a clear, strong and biblical affirmation of what the church is meant to be here and now. The church itself is the product of the gospel, and the living demonstration, embodiment of the gospel’s transformative, unifying power (as we have seen in Ephesians), as a community of reconciled sinners. Instead our ecclesiology has a ‘lifeboat church’ or a ‘container church’ picture - the church is just somewhere to keep all the evangelized together until we all get to heaven. This is very deficient and far below Paul’s understanding and teaching.
The bad result of this is that the church itself can be riddled with sin, idolatry, abuses, and disunity, but we don’t care very much, so long as evangelism carries on. This is why part of our purpose in Lausanne must be prophetic, in the biblical sense. The prophets most often addressed, not so much the nations outside and their sins (though they did, of course), but the people of God themselves and their idolatries. If we are to be good news and to preach good news, we must seek a greater humility, repentance and return to the Lord. If we are to introduce Christ to the world we must look like the Christ we represent. So the call for integrity, Christlikeness, unity, etc., within the church, as part of a more robust understanding of what the church is meant to be, is an essential part of our missional task.
Dr. Chris Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership International. He also serves as chair of the Lausanne Committee’s Theology Working Group and chair of the Theological Resource Panel of TEAR Fund, a leading Christian relief and development charity. He has written several books, including The God I Don't Understand, The Mission of God, and the forthcoming book: The Mission of God's People. Chris and his wife, Liz, have four adult children and six grandchildren.
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