As the Father Hath Sent Me…

My favorite “Great Commission” is the one recorded in John “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21). But it is not the most popular one. Some people prefer the one in Acts 1:8. That sending forth nature of the Gospel Call is inspirational. I recently read one writer who noted his preference for the Luke 24 version. I can’t remember why but maybe because it was more clearly focused on redemption. Most prefer the Matthew 28 passage. I suppose it is that it is suggestive of a process— Discipling in terms going, baptizing, and teaching.

But there is a more questionable side to the preference, or priority, of the Matthew 28 passage. That is the tendency to see that passage as providing a limitation of what is “Real Missions.” Should such a limitation be considered appropriate? I don’t really think so. For the following reasons…

#1. A missionary is first of all a Christian. As such, a missionary is responsible to live out the ethics of Christ. So, for example, the ‘extreme spiritualistic’ perspective of missions really cannot be justified. That perspective says that one should not be involved in caring ministries, or social justice ministries, because they are a distraction from the “real” work of missionaries. Since holistic care and justice are front and center in terms of the ethics of Christ, a missionary should be involved with them as Christians EVEN IF HE OR SHE FEELS THAT THAT IS NOT PART OF THEIR CALLING AS A MISSIONARY.

#2. The Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. Some have suggested that we are missionaries because of the Great Commission. Arguably, we would not need the Great Commission to know that we need to serve in a missions capacity. The Bible as a description of God as a Missionary God who calls us to join in His work, tied to our call to love our neighbors as ourselves, as part of our love of (and obedience to) God, is enough. But I don’t think a narrow interpretation of the Great Commission really stands up in this same way. God’s mission is so much bigger, and so is the Great Commandment.

#3. A missionary is driven by the example of Christ. In part, this ties to the John’s version of the Great Commission. Christ’s sending of us is linked to the Father’s sending of Christ. Therefore, we learn something about our role in being sent by understanding Jesus’ role in being sent. Beyond that, a disciple of Christ is obedient to Christ, in terms of calling, in terms of proclamation, in terms of service. To know what a missionary should do, one should look to see what Jesus did as a missionary. Jesus was, after all, a missionary. This is consistent with the Hebrews passage describing Jesus as an apostle (Hebrews 3:1), and (once again) John’s version of the Great Commission where it is stated that he is one sent out by God.

Looking at it a different way, we know who we are to be by what Jesus commanded us, and by what Jesus actually did.

<I am drawing much here from “Encountering Theology of Mission” by Ott, Strauss and Tennent.

A number of reasons that Jesus was sent does not apply directly to missionaries.

Paul focused on Jesus’ coming as primarily about redemption. It is hardly surprising then that many Evangelicals today seem to think that Jesus only came to save us from our sins (“Born to Die”) Evangelicals (and they are not alone) often focus on the Epistles rather than on the Gospels. Seems backwards, but that is the way it is. Missionaries are not “the way to redemption” and they are not a “ransom for sinners. Perhaps we cannot say that we were sent to the “Lost Sheep of Israel.” However, others are more applicable.

Jesus was (1) Sent to preach the Kingdom (Luke 4:43 et al). This is a purpose for missionaries as well. That links also to Luke 10 where Jesus disciples were to travel announcing the kingdom of God.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

Jesus was (2) Sent to create division. (Luke 12:49, 51 et al). Missionaries are not tasked to destroy families or cultures. Nevertheless, the message does call for transformation, and forces a decision to accept or reject.

(3) Jesus was sent to give social justice and holistic care (Luke 4). In Nazareth, Jesus quoted Isaiah and then declares that this passage is being fulfilled at this time. This is generally viewed as a declaration of Jesus’ understanding of His own mission. Some people like to take this declaration very figuratively (often by people who if anything tend towards knee-jerk literalism in other parts of the Bible). But Jesus actively preached against the abuse of the poor, especially by the Jewish elite, and healed the sick. Additionally, He trained his disciples to do the same. Frankly, for those who like to look at Jesus’ reading in Luke 4 as figurative needs to look on the broader thrust of the Gospel of Luke as Jesus as caregiver and compassionately siding with the marginalized. In that light, Jesus’ declaration was placed there and is thematically significant for the book as a whole.

(4) Jesus was sent to “do the work of the Father.” (John 6;38 et al)

(5) Jesus was sent to “teach the truth.” (John 18:37)

(6) Jesus was sent to give fullness of life. (John 10:10) Again, some may try to narrow that down to salvation, but the broader context of that verse is Jesus using the metaphor of Shepherd. While one of the potential meanings of the metaphor is self-sacrifice, the dominant themes that relate to the Shepherd are more in terms of care and faithfulness.

I have noted that Barnabas and Paul are the best exemplars for missionaries. However, Jesus is the ultimate exemplar for being a Christian. And since missionaries are Christians first, ministers second, Jesus is in many ways a better guide for what a missionary is to be than Barnabas and Paul.

Wings versus Springs

I have been reading Christopher Wrights’s book “The Mission of God”… I am a slow reader. But I was also reading a review of that book by Trevin Wax… actually a very good review… but there was a part that got me thinking. 20130809105526u20220dTrevin was noting some disagreement (or apparent disagreement) with Wright’s focus on holistic missions (as opposed to “spiritualistic missions”).

But if eternal suffering in hell is one of the motivations for evangelism, then it should follow that evangelistic outreach is of the utmost importance. Political and social activity will be of eternal significance only insofar as they demonstrate the truth of that evangelistic message.

In other words, the weight of eternal suffering ought to make ultimacy pulse with passion for proclamation and demonstration – not as if they are two equal planes that need to be kept upright (one temporal and one eternal), but in seeing everything related to mission as ultimately designed to proclaim the gospel that relieves all suffering, especially eternal hell.

Therefore, it is not enough to say that mission is deficient if it does not contain gospel proclamation. We ought instead to say that mission is non-existent if our deeds are ever disconnected from the motivation and intention of proclaiming the gospel verbally.

John Stott would describe spiritualistic (or proclamation) ministry and social (demonstration) ministry as being two wings on an airplane (or a bird), are two blades for a pair of scissors. But the reviewer is suggesting that the implied symmetry is misguided. One is clearly more important than the other.  So for him, the plane model is inappropriate, and scissors (symmetrical) should be replaced with shears (that are typically assymetrical).

But I like the metaphor generally but there are clear problems with the metaphor.  Let’s elaborate problems and value associated with the metaphor. (Don’t get me wrong… every metaphor fails on a certain level… knowledge of the limitations of a metaphor is needed for the metaphor to be useful.)

1.  Two wings gives to impression that proclamation evangelism and demonstration evangelism are connected (in the middle) and aid each other but are otherwise independent of each other. For example, I think few of us could imagine a bird (let’s use a falcon as an example… why not?) that could fly if it only had one wing. We probably are pretty convinced that a one-winged falcon could not fly. However, we probably can imagine a falcon with only one wing. A one-winged falcon would still be a falcon, even if it could not fly. But I would suggest that proclamation without demonstration is not evangelism and is not missions. One is reminded of the “gospel bombs”– paper gospel tracts dumped into people’s back yards in the short story “The Gospel Blimp.” This, and other forms of “evangelistic littering,” is something… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Donating money to a secular charity is nice and it is kind and it is loving… but it is not evangelism and it is not missions. Prayer walking may or may not have value… but it is not proclamation and it is not demonstration. It is not missions or evangelism. It is now something else.

2. The two-wings metaphor suggests that holistic missions can be discretized… disconnected into two separate things. The term “holistic” (I do prefer the spelling “wholistic”) fights against this. It suggests an integratedness, a gestalt, a synergy, that defies dividing them into two camps. Successful missions is neither really proclamation nor demonstration….. but RELATION. Relation cannot be broken down into words and actions… they join together inseparably. While I understand that from a taxonomic standpoint, one could possibly separate mission/evangelism into two categories… the question is, is there any usefulness in such categorization (functionally speaking)? I think the usefulness is often lost in the confusion it creates.

3.  As noted before, there is a huge inequality between the two wings. In the quote above, Trevin noted that if one views eternal destination as more important than present circumstances (an understandable viewpoint) than proclamation must be seen as the more vital. But one can reverse it pretty easily to suggest that the other side is greater. Consider the argument used. One side is proclamation… but what does that entail?

  • Wing 1:  “verbal communication of adequate facts/data to allow another to make an informed decision whether or not to follow Christ.
  • Wing 2: Everything else.

If that is how the two wings are divided, Wing 2 would take up most of the activities of any evangelizer or missionary no matter how much one tries to focus on Wing 1. One may seek to prioritize Wing 1, but in the end, Wing 2 is likely to be dominate in one’s time and effectiveness. The question is whether one does Wing 2 well or does it poorly. The two wings are unequal in various ways. As such the model is challenging.

An additional assymetry is effectivity of separation.

  • Wing 2 (Social ministry) without Wing 1 (proclamation) is clearly inadequate. However, behaving in a loving manner to those who need such love, but without proclamation of the gospel), while (again) inadequate, at least can serve as a preparation for the gospel.
  • Wing 1 (proclamation) without Wing 2 (social ministry or demonstration) may be effective in some circumstance. However, it is also quite likely to lead to rejection. How many non-Christians have been turned off to the gospel by people who preach up the love of Christ, but are not able to live out the love of Christ.

The first scenario is inadequate but neutral to somewhat positive. The second scenario ranges from negative to positive. On the other hand salvation comes from a response to a message, not to demonstrated love without the object of that love presented.

4. Talking about which is more important is ultimately foolish. Looking at point #3.  In terms of adequacy, proclamation is more important… the message is adequate for response, while this is not true of demonstration not linked to the message. On the other hand, in terms of size of ministry, social is greater. And in terms of effectivity, social is greater (in the sense that proclamation is more harmed by divorce from its partner than is demonstration).

The two wings suggests, incorrectly, that one can do one or the other or both. In the quote above the reviewer rightly noted that demonstration without proclamation is not missions. But he needed to go further. Proclamation without demonstration is not missions either. Doing one without the other is not Christian missions. Trying to do proclamation without demonstration is difficult, and likely to backfire. Arguably, it is impossible since to proclaim without focusing on demonstration (“social ministries”… everything on Wing 2) simply means to demonstrate poorly. To demonstrate God’s message poorly is to effectively preach against one’s spoken message. And to demonstrate God’s love without God’s message of hope is so incomplete as to arguably not ultimately be missions.

Ultimately, I would suggest a different metaphor… not to replace the wings, but to supplement them. I would suggest the metaphor from James of a fountain. or a spring. James 3: 11-12 suggests that we cannot use our mouths to both curse and bless. After all can a single spring bring forth both fresh and salty water or both sweet and bitter? Of course, we know that people both bless and curse with one mouth. The point is that it is unnatural… a violation of how things are suppose to be.

Let’s bring the idea of a spring 2over to evangelism or missions.

A. A spring has a source… which in this case is God and God’s mission.

B.  It has an outward flow from a place of abundance to a place of lacking. I would argue that this flow is love… relational. God loved us first, and we respond with love for God and love for who and what God loves. The reality of hell, for example, may inform the message, but should not compel the action. Likewise, the Great Commission may inform our methodology, but it should not be our motivation… one simply of duty. Love compels word and action.

C.  To love halfway… such as loving with word that is disconnected from deed, or deed disconnected from word… is unnatural… and a violation of what it truly means to love just as it would be unnatural for the spring to be both salty and fresh.

Ultimately, I believe the reason we have these arguments is that we don’t truly love those around us (yes, I am including myself here). Therefore, we find ourselves playacting… guessing at… how one is supposed to act if one loves. Does one focus on words? Does one focus on doing nice stuff? Does one focus on programs, formats, or anything else?

If we did not playact loving God and loving others as we love ourselves… we would not have to figure out all of this stuff… working out methods and priorities. It would flow… like a spring of cool pure water for a parched land. (see Isaiah 58:11)