Post-Constantinian Christianity

It has become popular to say that certain countries, regions, or cultures are today to be labeled “Post-Christian.” The idea behind this is that in the past, the cultural norms, presumptive beliefs, and government allegiances were tied to Cultural Christianity. I believe I must add the key term “cultural to Christianity since a lot of the hallmarks used to identify Christian have little to do with Fruit of the Spirit, or obeying the Great Commandment. Cultural Christianity is often often tied to issues of government, law, and economics. Frankly, it is hard to say with much confidence what governmental form is Christian. Moses and Joshua led a chiefdom. The Judges like Deborah and Jephthah led a tribal confederacy. David and Hezekiah led a classic monarchy. Zerubbabel and Nehemiah served as provincial governors of a (pagan) empire. The New Testament, frankly, works under the premise that Christians will live under a governmental system that is either hostile or ambivalent to them. Economically, one can read parts of the Bible and believe that God is a Laissez-faire Capitalist, and other places a Laissez-faire Socialist. Much of cultural Christianity deals with things that God is not all that interested, and in some cases actively opposes (noting, to be cautious, that I could be wrong).

It is probably best to say that the Bible supports a Christianity that is counter-cultural with no presumption of control over government or the economy. And that was true before the Emperor Constantine (ignoring Armenia, Adiabene, and Osrhoene). While Constantine did not make Christianity the “law of the land” (others did that later), he did give Christianity status and influence within the Roman Empire. Power was given to Christian leaders that went beyond their own congregations. And by taking on the self-assigned role of Bishop to bishops, Constantine made Christianity as part of the system. So while the Kingdom of God was in opposition to the kingdoms of this world, but the Church was not.

Prior to Constantine (Pre-Constantinian) the church grew despite (or perhaps because of) modest to severe persecution. With Constantine the church grew fast, but the church changed drastically and not necessarily for the best. The symbols of power were taken on by the bishops, and money flowed in from the government. In many ways the empire entered the church far more than the church entered the empire.

From Constantine onward, there were a lot of attempts to link church and state. The United States was one of the first big-scale attempts to separate the two in Western Christianity, followed by the more extreme (first) French Revolution. It was, however, not until the 19th and 20th centuries where Christendom was truly seen as problematic. The Church needs to be protected FROM the government more than it needs to be protected BY the government. Arguably the broader society needs the example of Christians rather than the coercion from Christians.

There is a cost for this link of Church and State. Only a few years ago, January 1, 2000, the government of Sweden formally broke official ties with the Church of Sweden. While the response wasn’t unanimous, it seems like the Church of Sweden rather liked the divorce. The special status the church had also resulted in the government having a fair bit of control over the church leadership and policies. Some members of the leadership of the Church of Sweden appeared to welcome the removal of that control. I am not a Swede by nationality (although my ancestors did come from Sweden) so I don’t know whether the separation was a good thing or not. However, I come from a Free Church tradition that generally sees separation of Church and State as a good thing (although some of my Free Church friends in the US seem to be rethinking that issue a bit lately).

It seems to me that Jesus was always counter-cultural. Some people believe that counter-cultural means anti-cultural. That is far from it. Counter-cultural means to be fully enculturated into a society and stand out in only specific purposeful ways. Jesus was so linked to 1st century Palestine (Judea and Galilee) that He needed to be identified by one of His friends for His arrest. He ate, drank, talked, and socialized like the people of His time. Yet, in certain key ways, His life was a testimony against certain beliefs (even worldview beliefs) in the society in which He resided.

We live in a Post-Constantinian era for the church. We (as in ‘the Church’) no longer have unquestioned sway (in most parts of the world) over government or the broader non-Christian populace.

While I think it is naive to think that one can recapture the past, some different things in the past are better than others. Recapturing Constantinian Christianity is not one we should desire to recapture. Recapturing a Pre-Constantinian (now more appropriately called Post-Constantinian) Christianity I think is a good thing. It should be embraced… welcomed.

Far too often when the church tries to use political power to attempt to solve societal problems, we become part of the problem.

Church and Missions Relationship

How one sees the relationship between the church and missions has ramifications on how one sees missions. Consider three perspectives as shown above.

First let’s consider OPTION A. With this perspective, the church consists of local churches only. Missions occurs only to the extent that local churches directly carry out missions. There are two groups who embrace this perspective as far as I can see.

  • Churches that embrace a “Primitivist” perspective can see things this way. In this view, The local church is the only institution that is God-ordained to carry out His mission on this earth. Such groups are normally very limited in mission work. For some such groups this is exacerbated by a hyper-Calvinist theology that sees God’s predestination as negating the need for mission outreach by the church. But even for those who don’t embrace this, the rejection of specialized structures outside of the local church does hurt their competency for outreach.
  • Churches that embrace the Missional Church movement can move TOWARDS this perspective at least. The local church is missional at its core and so focus is placed on the church organizing and doing missions more than partnering with outside mission organizations. This can be quite commendable. My wife and I were sent out by a local church not a mission organization. However, the lack of specialized structures to deal with the unique challenges of cross-cultural work can be a challenge. In the case of my wife and I, we established ministries not directly tied to a local church, and also work with and through a seminary (which is a sodality structure, much like mission organizations).

Let’s jump ahead to OPTION C. In this case, mission organizations are outside of the church in some way. There is a strong separation. Those who embrace OPTION A sometimes start here. They see the universal church as from God and missions (mission organizations) as not part of the church. Thus they reject mission organizations (and other sodality structures) entirely. However, others can do a similar thing. One might argue that the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Churches, and Anglican Church works this way with two separated groups— Diocesan or Secular priests and Religious Priests. The first group is tied to a bishop and normally linked to a parish/church. The second group is tied to a religious order— many of which serve as the missionary arm of the denomination.

In the latter case, it could be argued that there is a strong connection between religious orders and parishes in the Catholic Church (for example). In fact, in 1978 there was a push state that religious orders existed within the local church— autonomous but not independent. Be that as it may, history has at times (including in Protestant circles) where a denomination has a missionary arm that is funded and overseen by the denominational leadership, but whose link to and influence on the local church is very indirect. As the link becomes more tenuous, the missional vitality of the local church wanes.

In between is OPTION B. To understand this, I like to draw on different views of God. One view of God is Unitarian (Unitarian Christian groups, along with Muslim and Jewish groups). In this view. God exists as unity and there is no discernible structure within God’s unity. This is rather like Option A. Another view is Tritheism. This is where God is not a unity but exists as multiple beings (gods rather than God). These gods may have some form of relationship between them, but far from existing in terms of unity. The Hindu “Trinity” or the “Trinity” of Mormonism. This is rather like Option C. In between is historic Trinitarianism (or Binitarianism as well, I suppose). With this view, God is seen as Unity (not gods) but there is discernible structure within that unity. This is somewhat like Option B. The universal church exists as the assembly of the faithful, but there are discernible structures within that unity. Some are people-structured (local churches and bible studies, for example), while some are task-structured (mission organizations, training organizations, helps ministries, etc.).

To me, Option B has the best POTENTIAL. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. But seeing the work of God done by the church as existing not only in terms of work down by modalities, but sodalities, best fits the calling of God in the Gospels and Acts, as far as I can see.

Still, these three Options are still VERY GENERAL. Each has a wide range of minor variations that need to be considered.

Ultimately, we need to find a way to honor and empower the specialization needed often to carry out specialized work, without pushing such specialization completely outside of the church.

Quote on “Weak” Missions

Any mission that does not measure up to the Kingdom of God is not a true mission. Mission is solely for the Kingdom of God. Mission comes from the Kingdom of God, and is executed for his reign.

Therefore, as Jesus did his mission from a position of weakness on the cross for the Kingdom of God, we should do our mission in like manner as Jesus Christ, whose mission characterizes a position of weakness. Only by following in the footsteps of our Master, can we be faithful to the mission for the Kingdom of God.

Our ministry is not to be judged by the outward success of a ministry, but by the issue of whether we have been faithful in our mission or not, as in following in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some people may be afraid that when we begin our mission from a position of weakness we may have poor results due to ineffectiveness. In reality, the opposite can be true. The most effective mission or the mission that can bear maximum fruits turns out to be mission from a position of weakness. In our mission, nonetheless, the outward result or effectiveness of the mission should not be a priority, because in human eyes success can be very deceptive. True results or effectiveness will appear in the long run. Often times, it is fully understood when the next generation observes history.

Throughout history, many missions that were so fruitful and sacrificial and thus fruitful in God’s eyes, were not recognized as fruitful by the contemporary observer, including even Christian leaders. Those missions were often regarded as failures.

Paul Yonggap Jeong. Mission from a Position of Weakness. Page 4


Is Kabunian Jesus? Part 2

I really think you will need to read Part 1 to make any sense of this post. You can CLICK HERE.

I suppose I might summarize the first post in saying that one should reject naivety in presuming that a simple YES or NO suffices. Kabunian (a central mythological figure in Cordilleran traditional religion) is NOT Jesus (the central historical figure of the Christian faith). However, there are enough similarities to wonder whether one can use Kabunian as a bridge to the Christian faith, especially since it is quite possible that Kabunian changed through interaction with Christianity such that the deity has taken on a some characteristics we would associate with Christ. I have written before on the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois as a faith that bridges the polytheistic older faith of the people with the Christian faith. For some people the Longhouse Religion has kept people from converting to Christianity. For others, I believe it has served as a bridge to Christ.

I have talked to a number of Christians over the years who are Cordilleran. Generally the view is that one cannot use Kabunian in any way in the Christian faith. Kabunian is seen as too interwoven into the traditional religion so that it is seen as mixing bad with good, or syncretistic. One cannot separate the name from its associated worldview and beliefs. Myths have power. Sometimes such power is beneficial. Paul used the myth of Epimenides and the Unknown God and its powerful place in Athenian thought to express key aspects of the Christian faith. I doubt however that Paul kept using that myth during the discipleship phase of those who converted to following Christ. I could be wrong of course. On the other side, the powerful role of Olympian gods in Hellenistic regions could also undermine Christian ministry. In Lystra, Barnabas and Paul did miracles— presumably not only as acts of compassion, but also as signs of the veracity of their message. However, the firm belief of the locals in the Greek myths led them to interpret these acts as evidence that Barnabas and Paul were Greek gods walking among them. Myths have power to enlighten as well as to confuse.

Perhaps there is a better question that can be asked:


In this view, we start asking the question of whether God is at work in other faiths and cultures, utilizing the hopes and fears to slowly draw them to Himself. If one takes this view, Kabunian is NOT NECESSARILY a snare of Satan. He could be a human construct that informs us of what people in the culture value most. Or it could be a divine work that can serve as a redemptive analogy, a preparation for the gospel.

Or maybe it is all three. Regardless, it is not a healthy endpoint. In the most positive expression, Jesus Christ FULFILLS Kabunian. Kabunian points in some sense to Christ. The qualities of Kabunian that meet the genuine spiritual need of the people point to Christ, who can ultimately meet those needs. And those aspects of Kabunian that fail to meet those needs point ultimately to Christ because of that lack.

As I said in my last post, I am in no way and expert of Cordilleran Traditional Religion. As such, when I talk to my students and friends who take a very negative stance regarding this faith and theology, I am simply not in a position to tell them they are wrong. In fact, I really am compelled to trust them in this. I have read a paper that takes the ethical system of the culture (‘Lawa at Inayan’) in a very positive light. But it appears to be an exception to the rule— at least among Evangelicals.

However, I would add a small caveat. This caveat is that when one meets a Cordilleran who embraces the traditional religion… or (often more commonly) expresses their faith with a syncretistic mix of that religion and Christianity… don’t react with repulsion. See how their genuine hopes and fears are expressed through their faith, and how their faith can serve as a bridge to the One who can, ultimately, satisfy these hopes and relieve these fears.

I do believe that Christ may not be expressible in terms of Kabunian, but that Christ ultimately can be expressed in ways that honor the best of Cordilleran culture (rather undermining and replacing). Jesus challenged much of Jewish culture while ultimately be a fully inculturated Jew.

What would Jesus look like as a fully inculturated Cordilleran? I saw a picture of Jesus, with His disciples, as a Cordilleran. The image, of course, is far from adequate to answer that question. Still, I think the image points towards a better expression of Christ than we often see where I live. At least it opens the door to questions that need to talked about in community. I will share that picture here again. (The picture is in a Cordilleran restaurant, Ay Wada Casa Lomi House, outside of Baguio City, Philippines. Sorry for the poor quality of my photography skills.)

Is Kabunian Jesus? Part 1

We had an interesting, even if short, discussion in class on whether it is okay to say/believe that Jesus is Kabunian. For those not from a very specific part of the world, this question is meaningless or at least confusing. However, similar questions have come up in many settings. For example, “Must one use the term ‘Jehovah’ or ‘Yahweh’ as the God of the Bible?” as some Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Messianic groups suggest? Is it okay to say that the God of the Bible is Allah, or that the God of the Bible can be called Allah?” Perhaps it is easier to discuss this with less emotional baggage (for many Christians at least) with the case study of Kabunian.

Kabunian is the traditional deity (or prime deity) of the peoples of the Cordillera mountains of northern Luzon Island (Philippines). While a majority of Cordillerans would identify themselves as Christian, Kabunian still has a strong role in this region. Some argue that early Cordilleran religion was built around spirits and ancestors, and the focus on Kabunian is a fairly late evolution of the faith that post-dates contact with Christianity. As such, Kabunian did not have a strong role in the religion until he was needed as an alternative to the God of Christianity. Truthfully, I am not an expert on Kabunian or of Cordilleran traditional religion. Because of this, I truly don’t know if this is actually true, or is a false reinterpretation of that faith.

<Aside here… sometimes there is a strong temptation to reinterpret a religion through a preferred lens of an outsider rather than through its adherents’ own self-understanding. For example, those who embrace the History of Religions school of thought, believe that traditional faiths are polytheistic (and animistic, and shamanistic) and so a traditional faith that has a strong central deity must have gotten that way through interaction with a ‘more mature faith.’ Additionally, within Evangelical Christian circles, there is the belief of some that God only reveals Himself through Christians. Other religions are traps of Satan, and therefore any other belief system that embraces something that is seen as ‘true’ must have gotten that truth through interaction with Christians. Note here, I am just bringing up two possible reasons for falsely believing that Kabunian as primary deity is a recent innovation. I have not studied the issue enough to know the truth. But one must always be cautious of people who are too quick to say that a group believed “A” centuries ago, when the tradition of that group is that they believed “B.”>

But this gives one POSSIBLE reason for saying that Kabunian can be said to be Jesus. PERHAPS KABUNIAN IS A LOCAL CONTEXTUALIZATION OF JESUS. After all, if Kabunian developed in response to Christianity, couldn’t it be seen as a local expression of Christ? I have issues with this idea. A contextualization is more than simply grabbing a term and linking it to another. The name Kabunian means, essentially, “The one to be prayed to” (in the Kankana-ey language). Kabunian as chief god and the one to be prayed to certainly aligns with Christ. However, the stories of Jesus and the stories of Kabunian don’t really line up. The teachings of Kabunian and Jesus don’t really line up (sometimes). That is also a major issue with linking the God of the Holy Bible and Allah from Al-Qur’an. Although there are historically common roots, and Arab and Aramaic Christians called the God of the Bible Allah before the time of the founding of Islam, many of the characteristics of each do not align. Because of this, lazy conflation can lead to confusion. Confusion can be a problem and lead to syncretism. However, to simply reject everything local and simply bring in an outside term can lead to its own form of syncretism— unhealthy mixing of the Christian faith with an outside, rather than local, culture. So let’s consider further.

On the other hand one could make the argument that Kabunian CANNOT be equated with Jesus because the two names are different. Relatedly, some would say that Kabunian is pagan and so can have no part of Christian theology or terminology. On this I think we have to be a bit cautious. While YHWH appears to be a Hebrew-only term, Elohim appears to have been connected with the Phoenican god El. Does that mean that the two are being equated? Well, Yes and No. Let’s take it further, in the New Testament, the dominant term used is Theos. This term has roots in the Greek culture and religion. The term Theos seems to have a link to the term Zeus, the chief Olympian god of the Greeks. Supposedly, the English term ‘God’ has a similar connection to Odin or Wotan, through the proto-Germanic term “Godan.” Does this mean that we have to throw away all terms for God in Christianity with pagan roots. I would argue that the answer is decidedly NO. If one takes the individual cases above, in the case of Elohim, the term may be linked to El, but is transformed in both its written form, but in its meaning as well. Elohim is above all creation and “gods” much as is the Phoenician god El, but differs as God is NOT the father of Baal and Ashtoreth (among other differences). The choice of term draws people to think of the God of Israel as the god of the heavens but its transformation helps avoid too close of a link. The same could be said in the New Testament. The Bible used the Greek term Theos for god, but did not use Zeus. One could argue that there is too much baggage associated with the character Zeus, but there is value in the more abstract Theos. Likewise, in English, the term Odin has too much pagan baggage, but the more generic/abstract term “God” is open for utilization. In places in Asia, for example, missionaries have often sought to equate the God of the Bible with the local expression of the god of the heavens. Is there problems with this? Sometimes there can be. There can be problematic baggage to deal with in the term. For this reason, sometimes the local term is not used, or it is used but changed somewhat. There is, however, considerable value in helping people understand that the God of the Bible is their God as well. In the Philippines it is more common to use the term “Diyos” which is a Spanish term that ultimately traces back to the Greek Theos. At other times, the term Panginoon is used, which is seen more as a descripter of God rather than a name for God.

I think perhaps a better goal in language is that of “Fulfillment” rather than EQUATE OR EQUIVOCATE. We can talk about this in Part II. To go there direction, you can CLICK HERE.

Book Review: “Encountering Theology of Mission” (Ott, Strauss, Tennent)

The book, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent, is the best Missiology book I have read in quite some time. I just finished reading it about 2 hours ago, so I don’t think this will be a carefully crafted review… but I hope that is okay.

ENCOUNTERING THEOLOGY OF MISSIONS: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS, HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS, AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES. Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). Part of the Encountering Mission series.

When I first began reading the book I was a bit down on it in that it did not seem to have a theme or framework. But clearly, the goal of the book is not to give a single clear theological vision for mission (or missions), but to review the landscape and range of perspectives in the Theology of Mission. This certainly not only adds to its strength as a textbook, but also helps those involved in missions to come up with our own perspectives. As the sub-title suggests, it addresses Biblical Foundations for missions- but it is more than most such Biblical foundations which (at their worst) is little more than quoting a lot of Scripture verses. It deals with Historical Developments of missions and does do honor not only to Evangelical Protestant missions, but Catholic, Conciliar, and Orthodox missions as well. And it deals with many of the Contemporary issues that are bandied about today.

While the perspective of the writers is clearly Evangelical, the book does not try particularly hard to be a defense of Evangelical perspectives. It criticizes some perspectives within the Evangelical world with regards to missions, often shows respect (even if respective disagreement) with perspectives from others, and is cautious in generally avoiding strong dogmatic statements.

I will add two negative comments here.

First, there are some topics that I feel were glossed over a bit. The Honor/Shame Theology versus Guilt/Innocence (to say nothing about other models of connecting Christian theology to worldview categories) was not addressed more than off-hand. I understand that the book came out in 2010, but I do feel like these issues were around enough at that time to be seen as a real contemporary issue worth dealing with more. Additionally, the section of contextualization did not do much in the area of tests for good localized theology versus bad. In this particular case, the book did speak to this issue more than just off-hand. To me, however, it could have benefited from an in-depth review.

Second, I felt that it was a great book that was really let down by the final chapter. That chapter “The Necessity of Missions” did not really need to be there. It dealt with three “uncomfortable questions.” that are related to the justice and fairness of God. These are good questions, but are starting to move away from Theology of Mission into Soteriology and Theology Proper. It does feel like the authors simply weren’t that strong in those topics. The issue of Hell was especially weak in my mind. It did not deal with the wide range of perspectives regarding the nature of Hell…. limiting to three perspectives, and even then only covered one in-depth (the one they supported). It went into a fairly unconvincing Biblical justification for the ECT (eternal conscious torment) perspective. That seems pretty out of line with the rest of the book that tried to be multi-perspectival and sought to avoid verse-bombing. Personally, I am in the undecided category regarding much about the nature of Hell because the Bible is shockingly vague in this area. I can’t really complain that the authors have a perspective on it— that is fair and reasonable. I, however, feel like this chapter was added as a bit of an afterthought and was not well developed. I would say that I do find it curious that there seems to be a presumption in the last chapter generally that Christians should find it more motivational to do missions if non-believers experience eternal conscious torment then if they are consumed and perish. (Frankly, why would missionaries feel greater motivation to faithfully serve a God who appears to be less fair and merciful, humanly speaking, than one who appears to be more fair and merciful.) I am not trying to make a big point about Hell and about the Justice of God, but, again, I feel that the final chapter was added in a rushed manner based on editorial comments. I could be wrong.

I spent way too long on these two negative comments. If I ever get a chance to teach Theology of Mission again, I will definitely use it as a key textbook (unless something more updated comes along). I must commend the high quality of the book, and recommend it to all interested in this topic.

Escaping the Labyrinth: A Parable

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is well-known. In the story, Theseus volunteered to enter the Labyrinth— a maze-like structure created by Daedalus, in the Minoan capital of Knossos. Doing so was considered a death sentence. Either Theseus would be killed by the Minotaur, a creature who is half-man and half-bull who roamed the Labyrinth, or he would become hopeless lost in its twisted, confusing passages. However, the daughter of King Minos gave Theseus a thread that he could unwind as he traveled deep into its depths to give him a return path.

One can, perhaps, add a tiny bit to the story. One can imagine that Theseus had just killed the Minotaur. As he began to wind the thread to guide his way out, he saw some shapes begin to come out of the shadows. He soon found that there were several others who lived in the Labyrinth. These were other enemies of King Minos who were sent into the Labyrinth as their punishment. They had managed to stay out of sight of the Minotaur, only coming out when he slept, to gather food scraps for their own survival. Their lives were a daily misery, but now one of their great concerns, the Minotaur, was dead. One more remained, getting out of the Labyrinth.

After greeting each other, Theseus said, “Please join me friends. I know the way out.”

One responded, “I don’t know. There is a breeze I have noticed that comes out of the passage near the Minotaur’s sleeping chamber. I am sure that must mean that it is a safe passage out of here.”

Another said, “That passage is heading downward. Escape must be upward not downward. Above us light comes in. Now that we are safe from the Minotaur, I can tie together wood scraps to make a ladder to climb to freedom.”

Yet another said, “That’s dangerous. We need help from others. Now that the Minotaur is dead, all we have to do is leave a note in the lift mechanism that the King’s servants use to lower food to the beast. Once, they know he is dead, certainly they can be convinced to pull us up out of this pit.”

Theseus was frustrated and spoke over the bickering group. “Friends!” he said. “What you all are saying makes sense I suppose. Following a moving air, or light above, or maybe friendly outsiders may work. I don’t know. Maybe there are a hundred ways out of this place. But the one thing I know is that I have the thread and it connects this place to the entrance of this place. I will follow it, and I will get out. If you want out, I recommend following me. Otherwise, all I can do is wish you well and pray your plans work out for you.”

With this, he began following the thread again. How many followed him. I don’t know. Of those who chose their own way, we don’t know how many found their way and how many were trapped there until their deaths.

All we know is that Theseus was saved by a thin thread that led to his freedom..

In Support of an Incarnational Model of Missions

I have been reading the book by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission.

Chapter 4 has a fairly large section that speaks about Incarnational Missions. This is missions that is understood via the metaphor (or model) of the Incarnation of Christ. It seems like the authors look at this understanding of missions positively. Nevertheless, they have a short section that points out those who see it negatively.

Others reject the model altogether as theologically and exegetically inappropriate (e.g., Kostenberger, Schnabel, Hesselgrave). They argue that the point of comparison between Jesus’s sending and the sending of the church in John 17:18 and 20:21 is not the incarnation or identification, but rather the relationship between the sent and the sender. The incarnation of Jesus is entirely unique and cannot in any way be replicated or imitated by Christians. The focus of Jesus’s ministry in John’s Gospel is not “service to humankind” (as some incarnational mission models advocate) but rather the work of redemption and forgiveness. Andreas J. Kostenberger concludes, ‘Not the way in which Jesus came into the world (i.e., the incarnation), but the nature of Jesus’ relationship with his sender (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence), is presented in the Fourth Gospel as the model for the disciple’s mission.’

Erhard Berneburg argues that the incarnational model of missions is a ‘functionalization’ of the biblical doctrine of the incarnation. the incarnation becomes a methodological model for evangelism and ethics and can thereby lose its unique redemptive meaning. David Hesselgrave and Christopher Little argue that while we can clearly learn from Jesus’s example, Paul’s ministry is the more appropriate model for missionary practice today.

Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, Timothy Tennent Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 103. <Note: inline references were not included here that is in the original text.>

The four arguments listed here are (1) The incarnation is so elevated above us and so unique that we cannot in anyway be replicated or imitated by us. (2) John’s recording of the Great Commission does not point us towards an incarnational model for missions— but rather towards obedience and dependence of Christ. (3) Using the incarnation as a model for missions causes people to lose recognizing its primary purpose in terms of redemption. (4) Paul is a better model for missions than Jesus.

Number One. The first of these points is the one that bothers me the most. Kostenberg seems against using the incarnation as a model for anything that has anything to do with us. I am, sadly, limited to the text here since I don’t have Kostenberg’s writing in front of me. Commonly, a writer’s words are summarized in a manner that is far from the total picture of their perspective. But, drawing from what I have, I believe the incarnation is a very useful metaphor or model for missions. The fact that the incarnation is in some ways completely removed from our own experience actually helps. A metaphor after all is a self-contradictory, providing meaning by relating an abstract concept with a tangible concept. While the incarnation of Christ may indeed be a mystery, it is still a tangible mystery. It allows us ‘to see his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Missions is completely abstract. To understand an abstract concept we utilize analogies/metaphors.

Using the tangible, historical mystery of the incarnation to help us understand the intangible abstract mystery of our calling to serve seems perfectly reasonable— and it certainly does not, in any way, demean the Incarnation. As Ott, Strauss, and Tennent noted, Paul used the Incarnation of Christ in Philippians 2 to explain how we are to live as Christians. I would also argue that Paul’s description of the church as “the body of Christ” is using the incarnation as metaphor for the mystery of the spiritual unity that comes through Christ. I don’t believe that Paul was trivializing the incarnation when using it to help us understand the Church, or how we are supposed to behave. (Jesus suggested the metaphor of “Daddy” for understanding the first person of the Trinity. Is that belittling? Some would say so… but not Jesus.)

A possible point of agreement is that a metaphor can be pushed too far. Because of this, a metaphor helps us understand something, but it really cannot be used as part of an argument. To take a ridiculous case, the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and we as the Sheep, cannot be used as the basis for an argument that Christians must wear woolen clothes. Metaphors are powerful, but they are most decidedly limited.

Number Two. The second point MAY have some merit. It is possible that John’s version of the Great Commission is a call to obedience and dependence on Christ rather than a call to utilize Jesus as a model for missions. The argument in support of this is that John’s focus of Jesus’s ministry was really about His role as redeemer. Therefore, Jesus must not be calling on His disciples to emulate Himself ministerially. I don’t know. I know that Harmonization of the Gospels is looked down upon right now, but assuming that the messages (“Great Commissions”) in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 all come from the same event, and if one assumes that Jesus literally said the words in John 20:21, then those words have to be understood not only in terms of the Gospel of John, but the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well. The disciples were not living the gospel of John. As such, they would not be interpreting it through the lens of that gospel. Further, if Jesus’s real purpose for telling His disciples that He is sending them as He was sent refers to their call to obeying Him, then obedience means adhering to His words and to His deeds. I cannot see how John’s version of the Great Commission can be seen in anything other than calling on Jesus’s disciples to have Himself as their example. We are back to the sending of Christ being a guide for our ministry.

Now, on this particular point, you may be about to say, “Wait! We were talking about the incarnational model of missions and now we are talking about interpretation of John 20:21 that has nothing directly to do with the incarnation.” I have to agree. From the context, all I can do is suggest a certain logic here. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, many Evangelical missiologists (MacGavran, Winter, Wagner, et al.) were arguing for missions to be all about evangelization, churchplanting, and discipleship. John Stott (and a few others) spoke strenuously in support of a more holistic understanding of missions. Ultimately in Lausanne (1974) and in other places, a view that was more in line with Stott was expressed, even though it was clear that many Evangelical missiologists would prefer a more one-sided, spiritualistic, view of missions. Stott used John 20:21 as a major part of his argument that missions should be holistic. I would argue, actually, that Stott did not even have to do this. The Great Commandment, and its (in part) interpretation in the Good Samaritan compels a holistic understanding of following Christ— and so does Christ’s call to obey and the New Testament’s overall call for Christ to be our example (including in John 20:21). So why make a big deal about interpreting John 20:21 that supports holistic ministry indirectly rather than directly? One theory might be that many missionaries see the Great Commission as both their justification for missions, and their guide for missions. If none of the Great Commandments seem to point to a holistic view of ministry, then such missionaries may embrace a spiritualistic (-only) view of missions. However, it doesn’t really matter how one interprets that verse… the thrust of the Gospels presents ministry and Christlike living in terms of both proclamation and compassionate works. The problem is the poor training of missionaries, who see their “reason for missions” as the Great Commission (a guidance that is simply a more specific guidance of the overall thrust of Christ’s teaching)

Number Three. The third point just seems foolish. Would the use of the Incarnation as a model for missions lead one’s away from a high understanding of the Incarnation in terms of Trinitarian theology? I suppose I can imagine that happening. But I suppose that can happen whenever we use metaphors. Describing the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ certainly could be seen as demeaning the Trinity. Comparing Jesus to Adam perhaps undermines a high Christology. To say that a metaphor can be abused hardly justifies removing metaphors. This point just doesn’t seem to have any weight to it. (Maybe I am missing something.)

Number Four. Is Paul (or Barnabas, since the model used by Paul appears to have originally come from Barnabas) a better model for missions than Jesus? In a sense, Yes. The context of Paul’s work is post-Pentecost, while the work of Jesus was pre-Pentecost. Jesus’s ministry was “first” to the lost sheep of Israel (although Jesus was as inconsistent in His focus on Jews as Paul was inconsistent in his focus on Gentiles) seems more narrow than His command to His disciples (in Acts 1:8 and elsewhere) to go to every nation. Still, the apostles do appear to have seen it important to be guided ministerially by Jesus. Barnabas and Paul worked in a missionary band that is healing and declaring the good news of Christ while embracing a dependence on God for sustenance. This is very much guided by Christ, not only in terms of ethics, but in terms of methodology. During the first three centuries, those who embraced an apostolic calling took vows of poverty and served very much in line with Christ. So is Paul a better model for us than Jesus when it comes to missions? Probably… but it is not that simple. Christ may be the the ultimate model of minister, but Paul’s context is closer to our own. As such, Paul’s ministry could be seen as a contextualization of the ministry of Christ that we would benefit from.

This got way too long. My short point is that the Incarnational Model of Missions I find to be useful (functional). The arguments against it really seem weak. That being said, since it is a model (broad-based metaphor) it is useful only as long as it is useful. At the point it loses its edge to help us understand missions, it ceases to have value and can be tossed aside. That is how metaphors are supposed to be used. They are not supposed to be reified, or held onto as a treasured relic. They are not supposed to be used to justify an activity or a belief, but rather to help in understanding and addressing something creatively. Maybe in the not too distant future the Incarnational Model will not be helpful.

But until then, let’s use it cautiously and creatively.