Is Christian Missions Un-Biblical?

The Jordan River
Jordan River.  Image via Wikipedia

This sounds like a fairly combative or confrontational question. However, it has been asked on numerous occasions.

Historically, there was the Anti-missions movement in the 1900s, particularly among Baptists. This movement felt that no social entity outside of the local church is ordained by God to carry out His work. I see no evidence (Biblically or otherwise) that God limits Himself to work only through one social entity. Among the more mainline groups, the Laymen’s Commission of Appraisal (1932) questioned the exclusivity of Biblical revelation, suggesting that mission work as it was envisioned back then was misguided. Rather, Christian missions should be focused on social change. The Bible does call for social justice (and I seriously question “Christian missions” that is oblivious to this concern) but the Bible also calls for spiritual transformation.

Additionally, some have taken a “hyper-calvinistic” or “consistent-calvinistic” viewpoint that suggests that human missionary effort is useless, resulting in no change as far as human response to God. I cannot see how someone could use an uncertain soteriological interpretation of Scripture (let’s be honest, there are as many verses exhorting people to choose God as there are verses that imply that God chooses for us) to justify rejecting unambiguous commands of God.

Recently, I was reading a blog of an individual who was challenging anyone to show him that missionaries (as professional ministers) was Biblical. I did not challenge him. I hate verbal fights and am not good at them. Additionally, I rather agreed with him that the call to mission work is for everyone… not for a chosen subset of the church. On the other hand, the term “apostle” (apostolos) appears to have been used by the first century church in a way that is pretty much the same as we use the term missionary today. If one accepts this idea, then the Bible has a lot to say about missionaries. Further, not having a role mentioned or authorized in the Bible, does not necessarily make it unbiblical. The term “Pharoah” is in the Bible, and that role appears to be both acknowledged and respected in Genesis and Exodus (and elsewhere). Does that make “Pharoah a more biblical role than “seminary president”?

But that is not what I am talking about. Rather, I am saying that Evangelical Christian missions (regardless of whether it is good or bad) is not built on a solid Biblical foundation. At least I am concerned that the foundation is weak. Here are a couple of evidences that the foundation is weak.

  1. The Biblical Basis for Christian Missions is Limited. Typically, at least from my experience, if one reads the Biblical basis for Christian Missions, one gets the Great Commission (usually the Matthew or Acts version). If one gets a more thorough basis, they may add Old Testament passages such as Genesis 12, Psalm 68, and the book of Jonah. It doesn’t take too long before one realizes that the study is mislabeled. It is not the “Biblical Basis for Christian Missions” but the “Biblical Justification for Christian Missions.” In this I mean that the Bible is not used foundationally in missions. Rather, Christian missions is being done, and then is proof-texted to attempt to justify its role. However, this is too narrow. Proof-texting a narrow set of passages taken out of the broader context could be used (and in fact has been used) to justify genocide, slavery, and suicide (to name a few). A limited, proof-texted Biblical basis for missions isn’t Biblical, and isn’t a sound basis.
  2. The Biblical Basis for Christian Missions is Uncritical. This is related to the first point. When one simply grabs verses that support one’s actions and beliefs, one is ignoring passages that may challenge one’s actions. This filtering process is “eisegetic.” Eisegesis is a term used in Bible interpretation where the beliefs of the reader are imposed on (or read into) the text, rather than the reader seeking to draw meaning from the text. For example, the Book of Jonah shows God’s love for the Assyrians and His desire for them to repent and come to Him. However, how does one integrate this with the rest of the Old Testament where the Assyrians were not reached out to with God’s truth. Without the book of Jonah, one might presume that God wanted the Assyrians simply to remain in spiritual ignorance and then be wiped out by the Babylonians.

Sadly, Evangelical missiology has historically made little attempt at Biblical Criticism. In recent years that has been starting to change (for example, Christopher Wright’s book, “The Mission of God”). This historical failure is strange since in general Evangelical thought, the whole Bible is missional. God is a missional God and has revealed Himself missionally through His entire revelation. Generally, the most solid work on a critical examination of Scripture has been done in Catholic missions. Chapter 11 of Samuel Escobar’s book “A Time for Missions: The Challenge for Global Christianity” reviews some of the work that has been done in this area.

BUT DOES IT MATTER? Maybe, maybe not. I do believe that sharing the good news of Christ is Biblical, as is churchplanting, and social ministry. But I believe a limited, uncritical, non-foundational use of the Bible in our missions can lead us astray. I have known of churches who have stopped supporting supporting orphanages because it does not meet the “Biblical” goal of saving souls. How in the world could anyone come up with such a— okay, I’m going to say it— devilish logic as that? The answer is a complete lack of Biblical foundation for missional outreach. Here are a few obvious challenges (I don’t feel qualified to go beyond the obvious).

A. The Old Testament has often been described as providing a “centripetal” model for missions while the New Testament provides a “centrifugal” model. The Old Testament does talk about the role of the people of Israel in being a blessing to all nations. However, this blessing focused on the temple (primarily the main temple in Jerusalem). Faithfulness to God focused on temple rites in Jerusalem. Since going to the temple was unrealistic for most peoples of the world, the system appears to be missionally hopeless. Of course some have argued that this inward directing (centripetal) system was doomed to failure, and this is why God changed things with a system that is not geographically bound. But why would God use a system that was flawed? Was it to done to demonstrate its flawed character? Or did it have a sound purpose, regardless of its effectivity. What does the OT model say about our Missional God?

B. How can God love of all peoples be seen in light of the Canaan invasion. When I was young, there were a number of hymns that focused on the Jordan River as a symbol of the separation between where we are and the promised (heavenly) land. But that is an Israelite perspective. From the local perspective, the Jordan river was their first line of defense from genocide. The Canaanites were not supposed to be “evangelized.” The one group that could be described as being converted were the Gibeonites who pretty much had to trick the Israelites into not killing them. How do we address this? While in New Testament theology, we might call ourselves the “New Israel” or “grafted branch,” by blood, most of us are Gentiles… like the Canaanites. And yet the Old Testament spoke very strongly about showing kindness to strangers and aliens. While this fact may balance the Canaanite invasion, it probably adds even more to the confusion.

C. In the New Testament, the apostles took a non-combative role with the culture they were in. Although there were behaviors in the broader society that were odious even by today’s standards. This included rampant slavery, ritualized prostitution, child molestation, gladiatory bloodsport, infanticide, and all forms of social injustice. This apparent lack of interest in these evils… was it based on a radical separation between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God? Was it a pragmatic response to the church’s lack of political power at that time? Were they highly interested in broader societal justice, but we are ignorant of it because of limited texts that have been brought forward to us?

D. Does the Bible provide principles for missions, or methods, or both? Many churches like to focus on the “New Testament Church.” But there was more than one type of NT church. Same with missions. Do we do good missions if we mimic the mission behavior of Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, or Apollos, or John, or Philip, or Stephen? Should we see value in the OT models? How should the imminent (or eventual) return of Christ affect our mission methodology? (Or should it have no effect?)

E.  Our understanding of Christian mission comes from Jesus Christ. In the book of John, Jesus said that “As the Father has sent me, in like manner I am sending you.” Many interpret this to say our missions calling is built off of Jesus calling. That is fine. But Jesus claimed divinity, worship, and authority. He chose to die as a sacrifice. Clearly (in my mind) this is not part of our calling. But how can we look at Christ’s ministry and clearly know what parts of it should guide our mission work, and what should not.

I am not saying that missions as it is commonly practiced is “wrong”. Nor am I downplaying the importance of other studies in missions (particularly the human sciences). But our foundation must be solid rock, not sand. Any foundation that does not involve a broad, critical understanding of a missional God who gave us a whole missional revelation (the Bible) and missional Word (Jesus) is at risk of being washed out at any time.

2 thoughts on “Is Christian Missions Un-Biblical?

  1. Pingback: My Version of God | A Beautiful Rainy Day

  2. Pingback: A "missional basis of the Bible" rather than a "biblical basis of missions" - Video

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