Encountering Theology of Mission

I recently finished reading Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I enjoy Mission Theology, and have long been concerned that much of missions has a sort of Machiavellian quality to it (do what seems to work), partly due to a failure to recognize the foundational nature of theology to sound ministry practice.9780801026621

I read as an interested party rather than a reviewer. As such, I probably lack the critical eye needed to give a proper analysis of the work. What I can say is that I felt that the first two parts (‘Biblical Foundations of Mission’ and ‘Motives and Means for Mission’) were excellent giving a good overview of the subject matter. Although clearly from an Evangelical perspective, the picture given was broader, and appropriately tentative, commonly, with regards to conclusions.

Perhaps I need to read it again, but the third part (‘Mission in Local and Global Context’) left me rather unsatisfied. It seemed to me that the coverage of contextualization of theology was inadequate, with no serious mention, as I recall, of evaluating localized theologies. I think the weakest section was the final chapter, dealing with ‘The Necessity of Mission: Three Uncomfortable Questions.’ It seemed like the rather balanced and theological tone of the previous chapters disappeared, and was replaced by a more apologetic approach to some awkward questions in Evangelical circles. There is a tendency here to challenge the arguments for non-traditional viewpoints (to an Evangelical) with equally disputable arguments. To be fair, they were dealing with tough questions that will always be open to honest disagreement, and maybe I am being unfair since my views may not be entirely in line with the authors in this section.

For me the strongest section would probably be chapter 6 where I feel the authors did an excellent job of dealing with the difficult balance of “Spiritual” and “Social” aspects of Missions. Additionally, the historical and contemporary motivations and understanding of mission tasks I felt to again be fair and address intelligently the diversity that has been associated with the Christian mission.

All in all, those interested in theology or missions (or theology and missions) should find this book interesting and valuable. To me, it establishes a good foundation historically and biblically for viewing a number of issues regarding theology of mission. At its strongest, I found it greatly rewarding without getting bogged down in minutiae. Even in its less strong points, it still provides a good starting point for additional research. Of recent books that I have read on a theological or biblical foundation for missions, I would place it second only to C.J.H. Wright’s book, “The Mission of God.” And compared to Wright’s book, this book is shorter and more accessible. That does have its advantages.  Bosch’s book “Transforming Mission” is hard for me to compare to this book because of the years separating the reading. I guess I would have to say that one should really read all three books… and value each one for its own strengths.

 

What if the Ten Spies Had TOO Much Faith?

When I was young, we sang a little chorus in Sunday School. The lyrics went like this:

Twelve men went to spy out Canaan,
(Ten were bad and two were good)
What do you think they saw in Canaan?
(Ten were bad and two were good)
Some saw giants, big and tall!
Some saw grapes in clusters fall,
Some saw God was in it all.
(Ten were bad and two were good)

It was a fun song, and I think it helped teach us something from the Bible— particularly Numbers chapter 13. Still, when the song says that 10 were bad spies and two were good spies, I think it begs the question, “In what way were the 10 bad?”

First of all they were all pretty competent spies. They went into the land, did surveillance, and came back out and gave a fairly accurate picture of the land and its inhabitants. In that sense they were good.

Second, they were probably considered generally good people anyway. They were considered leaders of their respective tribes. Of course being recognized as a leader doesn’t mean that one is good (far from it). However, Moses probably chose these leaders. Moses had a tendency to be a bit of a micro-manager, and it seems doubtful that even after the advice of Jethro that he would allow representatives from each tribe to be drawn by more democratic processes.

Third, the things they did wrong were not necessarily evidence of true “badness.” One thing they, perhaps, did was confuse the purpose of their mission. For Joshua and Caleb, they appeared to understand their mission as determining “HOW” to enter the land. The same understanding was held by the spies years later in entering the land of Canaan via crossing the Jordan. For the ten spies, it seems as if their understanding of their mission was to determine “IF” to enter the land, rather than how. Although I will question that view later. The other thing is that they did their own interpretation of their findings. The passage described the spies as “lying” to the people. This is the English translation, I don’t about in the Hebrew. It seems as if lying is a bit strong of a term. They interpreted their findings and then gave the findings a certain… spin… based on their interpretation. Arguably, that makes the ten spies bad in their profession… however, Joshua and Caleb also gave an interpretation or spin to their findings. Additionally, since God sought leaders from among the tribes, it seems likely that a certain amount of discernment or interpretation was expected of them. Perhaps from a professional standpoint, they did some aspects of their job badly.

But there is a different interpretation.

What if the ten spies had TOO MUCH faith.  Or perhaps it would be better to say, Too much of the wrong kind of faith. Consider their recent history.

  • The Israelites were helpless to leave Egypt, and God miraculously brought them out.
  • The Israelites were helpless trapped between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds, and God miraculously brought them to safety.
  • In the following months, the people of Israel complained about bitter water, lack of food, and lack of meat. In each occasion, God miraculously solved their problem.

In each case, Israel’s helplessness brought about God’s miraculous response. It is possible that these leaders picked up the pattern all too well. They come back and said, “The task is too big, the enemy is too strong. We are too weak. We can’t do it. We should go back to Egypt.” They expected Moses to come back an say. “God wiped out your enemy, go ahead and enter at your own leisure.” But God did not do things that way. He said, “Too bad. Wander around in the desert for decades.” At that point, it is obvious that the declaration of going back to Egypt was only a ruse. Once that ruse failed, they were all motivated to push forward into Canaan… and failure.

If this scenario is true, the spies were not bad people necessarily. They also were not bad because they lacked faith. Rather, they were bad because they had the wrong kind of faith.

About half the time God did what the people wanted, and half He didn’t.

The bad faith they had was a faith in themselves in knowing what God will do. They believed they had “figured God out.” If they whine and complain and act helpless, God would do what they wanted.

I rather like this interpretation, and it is certainly still a problem we have today. We still want to manipulate God—

  • Throwing around pleasant sounding but poorly grounded bumper sticker phrases like, “Let Go, and Let God” or “Expect a Miracle.”
  • Taking a Name it and Claim it attitude regarding life as if God is our servant rather than vice versa.
  • Grabbing promises that were given to other people and saying that they apply to us. (A strange form of thievery indeed).

A good faith is based is based on the object of our faith rather than presumptions about our own discernment. As such, the words of Caleb and Joshua seem a better faith. They stated that if they obey God, God has promised victory. This is certainly better than trying to presuming how God would give them victory, or trying to manipulate how.

At the same time, two of those who had explored the land, Joshua (son of Nun) and Caleb (son of Jephunneh), tore their clothes in despair. They said to the whole community of Israel, “The land we explored is very good.  If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. This is a land flowing with milk and honey! Don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. We will devour them like bread. They have no protection, and the Lord is with us. So don’t be afraid of them.”  Numbers 14:6-9

This same good faith is demonstrated in Daniel 3:16-18.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to explain these things to you.  If you throw us into the hot furnace, the God we serve can save us. And if he wants to, he can save us from your power. But even if God does not save us, we want you to know, King, that we refuse to serve your gods. We will not worship the gold idol you have set up.”

So maybe the children’s song is correct. Two spies had faith in God that led to obedience, and ten spies had faith in their ability to manipulate God. Indeed ten were bad and two were good.

Perfection as Holy Defect

I am working on an article right now that

ptforsyth

P.T. Forsyth.  (Image from Wikipedia)

considers a different metaphor for understanding the goal of “perfection” as a Christian. So this post is a bit of a scratchpad where I put down my thoughts. Commonly, the term is linked with moral holiness and holiness often is connected to the metaphor from the OT sacrificial system, an animal “without spot or blemish.” It is indeed a metaphor… a lack of problem externally in an animal, or lacking variety in coloration hardly means in some “real” sense that the animal is particularly holy, to say nothing of perfect. One only has to consider the illustration of Jesus regarding “whited sepulchers.”

One of the challenges in the Bible is that in Greek thinking, there was at least two very different ways to look at perfection. Aristotle listed three, but two of them overlap considerably. One can think of the perfection in terms of Substantive Perfection, or Functional Perfection. In one case, perfection is seen as something absolutely complete, inherent to the item, and lacking the possibility of being improved upon. The other means that it meets the need or function it was designed for… perfectly. As such, the perfection is not inherent but in its role. In the former understanding, perfection is static, final, unchanging. With the latter, there is no such assumption.

Consider Jesus in Luke 2:52. Most of us would see Jesus as perfect. The passage speaks of Jesus growing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. With the first definition, Jesus would be transitioning towards perfection but as a child would be imperfect. However, with the latter definition, children are suppose to learn, grow, and develop. As such, there is no reason to presume that Jesus was imperfect as a child. He was growing exactly as a child should. Likewise, Jesus scars after His death and resurrection are not imperfections, but demonstrations of God’s perfect faithfulness and power.

For me, a useful metaphor for the perfection of the saints is not in line with the Holiness movement… or with linking perfection with holiness at all. If we are called for perfection, even though we are flawed and constantly changing, it seems as if we have to see perfection as unattainable—- OR we have to rethink our understanding of perfection.

<A similar thing comes up with Righteousness. Some link righteousness with holiness. But the OT word for righteousness “tsedeq” has more to do with “right relationship.” So when we are told in the New Testament that through Christ we are righteous, this is more than simply a legal sleight-of-hand (“penal substitutionary atonement” may be a useful explanation, but it misses the point in this case). Through Christ we have a right relationship with God, so in that sense we are righteous even though we are not sinless.>

I am getting long-winded and I haven’t even gotten to writing the article. But I found a very nice quote by Forsyth:

“Perfection is not sinlessness. The perfect in the New Testament are certainly not the sinless. And God, though He wills that we be perfect, has not appointed sinlessness as His object with us in this world. His object is communion with us through faith. And sin must abide, even while it is being conquered, as an occasion for faith. Every defect of ours is a motive for faith. To cease to feel defect is to cease to trust.”  –Peter T. Forsyth (1848-1921)

Anyway, I am still researching. I may change my mind still.  But my hypothesis of perfection being a more dynamic rather than static quality appears to be good… so far.

Bad Contextualization of the Gospel

I am happy to say that I don’t hearblog_ifyouonlyhaveahammer this much anymore… the idea that the gospel message needs not be contextualized or made to be recognized relevant to the hearer. On occasion, one hears someone quote Isaiah 55:11, believing that God word accomplishes what it is supposed to do, despite us.

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Usually, rather than attacking contextualization, what is challenged is the motive behind contextualization… the belief (or perhaps fear) that contextualization is some sort of pluralistic relativism, diluting the Christian faith. Can it be that? I suppose… one can interpret almost anything as anything… that is the characteristic of pure symbols. However, such fear can be a lazy excuse to use just one presentation of God’s message, even where such a presentation would in all probability be a failure. Or it may be a lazy or selfish choice to not understand others.

Let’s consider a rather extreme case of bad contextualization of the Gospel. It is the story of Emperor Atahualpa, and the Conquistador Pizarro. You can read the story in one of my previous posts… HERE. This version of the story is from Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” Look at the method of presentation of the Gospel, and the results.

On the quick read one might argue that it wasn’t a presentation of the gospel at all. For Evangelicals it does not push toward the tradition of the “Sinner’s Prayer.” There is also no focus on sin, repentance, and faith. Yet it does have a couple of  features that make it an even more theologically sound presentation of the Gospel. Consider the following:

A.  The friar was offering to teach the people to be friends of God. This focus on discipleship certainly places it superior to calls for belief without Lordship of Christ, or a call even to follow Christ in any meaningful way.

B.  The message of Good News was actually from God’s Word, the Bible. In fact, the friar gave the Emperor the Bible, and sought to help him use the Bible. This certainly places it superior to presentations that are more logical or clever, but clearly outside of utilizing the whole of Scripture.

So if this was such a good presentation of the Gospel, why did it fail so miserably. (Frankly, I hope most readers would identify the killing of thousands of non-Christians and the subjugation of the rest as an undesirable result of a gospel presentation.) Many of the problems with the presentation were due to the cross-cultural gap that had to be bridged. But there were other problems as well that may not have as much causation from poor contextualization. Let’s consider the contextual issues first.

  • The Word of God wasn’t really presented in a way where it could be responded to. The Incan Emperor did not know how to read Latin, so he could not have read it, to say nothing of responding to it after understanding it. Giving the Bible to someone who can’t understand it, thinking it will have a positive result is quite foolish. The power of the Bible is in the message it conveys… not some magic associated with it, and not the physical structure of the Bible.
  • The Bible was not even in a medium that the Emperor could appreciate. The Incans had no written language, so he had no concept of written language. He did not even know how to open the book. The present the Bible utilizing a medium that the people cannot connect to is much like establishing a Christian radio station in the 16th century— an impressive accomplishment, but no one will be able to receive the message. They won’t even know that there was a message being sent in the first place.
  • The message was given disrespectfully. When the Emperor did not know how to open the book, the friar tried to reach up to help. The Emperor was angry. Probably, although I am just guessing, the behavior was inappropriate when dealing with the Emperor. Of course, making the emperor angry through a social faux pas is quite likely to drive a wedge between the two rather than leading to agreement.
  • The behavior of the friar and Pizarro was thoroughly ethnocentric. It was so ethnocentric that when the Emperor tossed aside the Bible (tossing something he had never seen before– and did not look all that interesting since he could not read), the friar called them enemy dogs and the Emperor a tyrant. In all likelihood the friar did not know the Emperor well enough to know if he was a tyrant. He may well have been no more of a tyrant than the Spanish royals. Calling them dogs is a disappointingly classic form of dehumanization and of self-elevation. In the 1500s explorers and theologians struggled with the question of whether the strange beings they found in other lands were truly human or not. The wise of that time didn’t know the limits of what is, so it is understandable if there was some confusion. Still, if one was actually superior, it hardly seems appropriate (or even necessary) to degrade the others further. Certainly presuming that their deaths were less of a tragedy than one’s own people, qualifies as ethnocentric.

There were other problems as well:

  • Mixed motive. Pizarro was a conquistador… driven forward by the desire for conquest (thus the term “conquistador”) and wealth. The friar actually joined the group because of his desire for plunder, not hearts turned to God.
  • Mixed allegiances. Pizarro calls for the Incans to be subject to God, the the King of Spain, and the Roman Catholic church. It is understandable that missionaries sometimes identify themselves with their nation of origin or their own denomination so strongly that they struggle in separating those allegiances from allegiance to God. History does have many stories that may lead one to concern about mixing denominationalism (or creedalism) or nationalism, with allegiance to God.
  • Mixed methods. Mixing the message of God’s desire to make peace with all mankind with an army bent on destruction and colonization certainly sends a double message.

I think it is safe to say that contextualization, and proper motivation has a strong effect on how people respond to the Gospel.

 

 

 

Motivation for Missions

Reading through “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent. In Chapter 7 they list 13 motivations for doing why_go_graphicmission work. They divide them into two categories: Questionable Motivations and Appropriate Motivations. For me, I would like to play with the list a little bit. For me, some of the questionable motivations are poor motivations, while some are simply inadequate. Of the appropriate motivations listed, one seems to me to be Inadequate, and one Poor. Two I thought should be combined into one. I decided to move the list of 13 into three groups:    Poor, Inadequate, Appropriate. 

Of course, one could argue that even the ones described as Appropriate may still be Inadequate if other motivations are completely absent. Still the list feels good to me, and am in no way suggesting my organization is superior… it just works better for me. I don’t plan to add a lot of  commentary at this time. Perhaps later, I will look into some more thought and text.

Poor Motivations

Civilization, Colonialism, and Cultural Superiority — Cultural or Governmental Imperialism is clearly poor since each culture has strengths and weaknesses. Those that seek to transform a culture or place under the subjection of another typically are blind to their own weaknesses. It is an act of power, not love.

Ecclesial Power and Denominationalism — Similar to the previous one, it is a misguided use of power and of personal kingdom building rather than building God’s kingdom.

Condescending Pity — Both of the previous ones assume that the missionary or the missionary’s culture, or the missionary’s denomination or agency is superior to alternatives. This is tied to that but also more personal— much like Jesus’ story of the pharisee in the temple praying and thanking God at how awesome he (the pharisee) was compared to that sinful tax collector near him. It is a mixture of power and pride.

Asceticism — Some have traditionally (and perhaps still do) go on missions as a form of self-denial. Some may do it in the form of penance (Green Martyrdom) or more focus on service (White Martyrdom). This (and the other items in the Poor section are probably not as bad as the first three, but it still is essentially self-serving (yes self-denial can be a form of self-service).

Adventure and Romantic Ideals– One could list this as inadequate… but it is VERY inadequate. If one wants adventure and the “romance” of doing really cool and awesome things, there are better choices out there.

Eschatological Motivation— In the book, this motivation was listed as acceptable. For me, it is no better than inadequate, and probably more in the poor category. So much bad missions has sprung from reaction to the belief (right or wrong) of the imminence of Christ’s return or even (shockingly) the belief that doing certain things will speed up Christ’s return. Perhaps if what was meant was support of Christ’s kingdom, in terms of its connect to Eschatological (or Salvation) History, maybe I could accept it as an acceptable motivation. But even then, it seems more like a useful understanding of missions, rather than a motivation for missions.

Inadequate

All of the three that I put as inadequate are related to the passion that God has placed in us to grow and fulfill some sense of purpose. Perhaps I could have put the desire for adventure heref, or even asceticism… but these three seem superior to those two.

Self-realization and Edification —   This is clearly inadequate since missions is other-centered or God-centered, not self-centered. However, it is fine and appropriate to want to find a sense of purpose in the work.

Gender-related  — Historically especially, although of course still present, women would join missions seeking to serve God when other formal roles of ministry were denied to them. This is a very understandable motivation… but inadequate by itself.

Divine Calling or Inner Compulsion — This was listed in the book as Appropriate. But I can see it no better than inadequate. And considering the fact that no mission board that I know of sees a sense of calling as enough to approve commissioning, I don’t think I am alone in this. Also, the theology of divine calling often pushes people into redefining desire for self-realization, overcoming gender barriers, or even romantic adventure, as a divine calling. Anyway, since it is a self-centered motivation, unlike the ones that follow, the best that could be said is that it is inadequate.

Appropriate

Compassion and Human Need — The most common emotion ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels is Compassion. Compassion implies action as well. Missions can be seen as an appropriate response to the second part of the Great Commandment— to love one’s neighbor (one in need) as one loves oneself.

The Love of Christ… and Obedience to Christ’s Command — These were listed separately in the book, but I see them as going hand-in-hand. If one loves Christ one keeps His commands. The Great Commission, additionally can be seen as an application of the Great Commandment… loving God with one’s entire being. I can see one choosing to separate these, but for me at least, the two go hand-in-hand.

Doxology… the Glory of God — Missions can be seen as an act of worship. Additionally, one can be motivated by the desire that all creation (all tribes, nations, tongues, peoples) worship God… in spirit and in truth. The image of Revelation 9 can be a great motivation.

Even with these “Appropriate motives” a missionary should probably have all three, not just one. He or she may also have some inadequate, but not necessarily bad, motives. They may even have some poor motives…. such as desire for adventure, or advancing one’s denomination.

Any missionary or missionary candidate should, thoughtfully and honestly, consider their motivations.

Inward, Outward, Upward

The book “Encountering Theology of Missions” by Ott, Strauss, and Tennent, has been a very beneficial read for me. One section I especially like is where they look at missions in terms of “Kingdom Communities.” They could have said “Church,” but I suppose they wanted to avoid people who picture the idea of church too narrowly, rejecting small fellowships of believers, or perhaps sodality structures or even (maybe) cyber-communities.

They suggested that such communities should operate with three dimensions that could be marked as axes on a cube. The axes are:

  • DoxologyCube
  • Evangelism & Discipleship
  • Compassion & Social Transformation

In the table below, I listed some ways of looking at these dimensions. There is considerable simplification but still I think it an be useful.

  1.  Doxology. I showed it here as Worship. Ott (and his coauthors) described the guidance as The Great Calling. In terms of Direction, it is focused Upward… toward God. And I see it as a Heart activity. Of course, it is more than simply a heart activity, but some aspects of worship drift into the other dimensions.
  2. Evangelism & Discipleship. I show this simply as Discipleship. As the Engel Scale would indicate, one can see Evangelism as one aspect of the overall activity to develop disciples. It takes it’s guidance from The Great Commissions (especially the Matthew version of it). Direction-wise, it can be seen as focused Inward. As Kingdom Communities, they are bringing people in and develop those who are in these communities. It can be seen as a Head activity. Although discipleship (and evangelism) is truly holistic, it’s most characteristic quality is in terms of faith, belief, understanding, and repentance. These, right or wrong, are often seen to be more of thinking (as opposed to feeling or doing) activities.
  3. Compassion & Social Transformation. I show this simply as Compassion. It can be seen as primarily guided by the Great Commandment (although the Golden Rule wouldn’t be inappropriate either). It can be seen as especially Outward-directed, even though these same ministries may be directed inward to the community, or drawing inward of those outside the community. I put it here as a Hands type of ministry. Even though Compassion may be viewed as a feeling, it is only recognizable in terms of action.

Cube TAble

Looking at the cube, the Yellow face, the plane established by discipleship and compassion, is much like the quadrant I use when talking about holistic ministry (where the axes are spiritual ministry and social ministry). You can see it’s use in the Videos on Social MinistryVideos on Social MinistryVideos on Social Ministry.

So I could call the yellow plane as Holistic Ministry. The problem is that I am not sure what to call the other two planes– the Pink one (Discipleship and Worship), and the Orange one (Compassion and Worship).

Any ideas in that would be appreciated.

 

…After God’s Own Heart

Quoting from Acts 13:22.

After removing Saul, he (God) made David their king. He testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.‘”180px-rey_david_por_pedro_berruguete

My father was the head deacon at our church (and his father before him) and a Sunday School teacher, and he always had trouble with this verse. He wondered how David could be described as a man after God’s own heart. Truthfully, I struggled with this for many years.

Some people point to the final phrase as the solution… “he will do everything I want him to do.” But we know that is not true… at least if one interprets “everything I want” in terms of obedience to God’s law or will (and that sure seems a pretty reasonable interpretation). He disobeyed God regularly. He was guilty of pride, guilty of lying and deception, guilty of adultery, guilty of treason and racketeering, and guilty of murder… just to name a few. He was also an unfaithful husband and a neglectful father. It always seemed to me that if David was a man after God’s own heart, then pretty much all of us would also qualify.

But maybe three or four years ago, I came up with an answer that satisfied me. It might even be correct.

Although he was truly a flawed and sinful man, when confronted with his sin David would humble himself before God and repent. A king who humbly repents and returns to God. Do you know how rare that is? How many kings in the Bible would admit they were wrong in the Bible? Very few. Even less after they have gotten comfortable with praise and power. David is almost unique as a man of power who could humble himself before God, repent, and turn to obedient service of God. The only other examples I can think of from the Bible are Kings Manasseh and Nebuchadnezzar. In each of those cases it took a very tangible external humiliation (imprisonment in Assyria or 7 years of madness) to bring about an internal humbling of heart and will. 

It is sad that with pastors, the same challenge is true. Commonly, when pastors fall due to sin, they express great sorrow, and desire to change. But all to often, that starts to change as the pastor begins to minimize the sin, blame others, and balk at discipline and accountability guidelines. Reading the experiences of others in ministry, my experiences are hardly unique. Some truly humble themselves before God and others, and accept a time of discipline. Others seek to cover-up, claim innocence, blame others, and reject being held accountable.

For those who do embrace change, they work on 3 “B” issues:

  • Boundaries (identify their weaknesses and establish wise “gates and walls”)
  • Balance (shift from a human doing to a human being)
  • Burnout (recognize they are limited, need help, and must know when to say no)

Further, they need to establish a support system starting with a solid relationship with God. But it can’t stop there. It must continue to family, friends, accountability partners, and mentors. They need less unilateral relationships, and more mutual relationships.

Ultimately, time is the true evidence of change, and God the true judge, but a minister who can humbly repent and accept discipline, and receive God’s grace I believe can truly be said to be “a man (or woman) after God’s own heart.”