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.

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