Two Approaches to the Church’s Mission

MGP WIMC

Christopher Wright. The Mission of God’s People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

Imagine that you are responsible for drafting your church’s budget for the upcoming year. Further suppose that a large portion of the budget has traditionally been allocated to a certain soup kitchen. This ministry has become so well known that the local community naturally associates the kitchen with your church’s name. But one day a deacon in your church makes a novel suggestion: what if we divert the funds from the soup kitchen in order to start up an evangelistic ministry on a local college campus? Wouldn’t this be more in keeping with the church’s primary task of proclaiming the gospel? After all, meeting people’s material needs is all fine and good, but doesn’t ministering to their souls matter infinitely more? Of course, it would be nice if we could do both, but sadly, no church’s budget is limitless. We can’t always have our cake and eat it too. So who gets the money?

In answering this sort of question, it might be helpful to start by discarding two extremes. On the one hand, we don’t want to fall prey to the so-called “social gospel.” This doctrine, which arose in the nineteenth century as the product of Enlightenment modernism, defines salvation as the transformation of political, social, and economic institutions. It amounts to man’s attempt to establish a utopian heaven on earth. Clearly, such a doctrine misses a (the?) central teaching of the gospel, which is God’s salvation of sinners. On the other hand, we don’t want to slide into a sort of “gnostic dualism” that completely devalues our bodies and the physical world. People who follow this approach denigrate the goodness of God’s creation, and their message ultimately boils down to, “Give them the good news, and let them eat cake.” I am sure that James would have plenty of strong words to say to such people.

Neither of the books reviewed here falls under either of these two extremes. Rather, they represent different perspectives within the evangelical orthodox “middle ground.” The Mission of God’s People by Christopher Wright (hereafter MGP) could be considered a prime example of cultural transformationalism, whereas What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert (hereafter WIMC) belongs in the category of pietism (or “ordinary means of grace” based ministry).1 Transformationalists value engaging the world in every area of life—including science, the environment, politics, etc. Pietists, on the other hand, believe that the institutional church should stick to doing what it does best—namely, preaching the Word of God and administering the sacraments. My goal here is to compare and contrast these two evangelical approaches, in order to discern the true extent of the church’s mission. Although both books do their best to ground their missiology in the text of Scripture, I ultimately side more with Wright. Nevertheless, I believe that DeYoung-Gilbert provide many needed cautions and qualifications.2

A brief sketch of each book

The subtitle of MGP is “A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission,” and this aptly summarizes Wright’s approach. As he traces the development of missional themes throughout the canon of Scripture, Wright devotes most of his attention to the Old Testament, which he believes provides the necessary foundation for our doctrine of mission. Like most neo-Calvinists, he opines that far too many evangelicals overlook the first and last chapters of the grand story of salvation—readily affirming the fall and redemption, while neglecting creation and new creation. Such a misreading leads to a reductively anthropocentric view of salvation and mission. By starting with a firm grasp on the goodness of creation, the image of God, and the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26-28), Wright highlights the role that creation care should play in the church’s mission. Wright proceeds to examine the call of Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3, which he believes underlies the missional thrust of the rest of Scripture. Abraham was commanded to practice righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19), and in so doing he would become a blessing to the nations of the earth. Likewise, believers today are called to live holy and attractive lives, embodying a redemption as far-reaching as the Israelites’ own exodus from Egypt—through which they were delivered from spiritual, economic, and political bondage. To be sure, gospel proclamation plays a central role in our mission, but it is also necessary that we show mercy and justice to those both inside and outside the church.

In contrast to MGPWIMC offers a more circumscribed view of mission. DeYoung-Gilbert claim that many of the widely-trumpeted Old Testament passages on mission (such as Abraham’s call in Gen. 12:1-3) can’t bear the theological freight that transformationalists load into them. Abraham, for example, was never commanded to bless the nations per se—although that would be the indirect result of his obedience. Instead, DeYoung-Gilbert contend that “it makes sense that we would look to the New Testament more than the Old for a theology of mission” (WIMC, 42). In light of the radical impact of Christ’s resurrection on God’s people, DeYoung-Gilbert believe it is more appropriate for Christians to ground their mission primarily in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In essence, they argue, “mission” means being sent out to do a particular task. And the chief task for which the church is sent out into the world is disciple-making. God may be in the business of cosmic restoration, but the church is not. It is important to point out that DeYoung-Gilbert are not at all opposed to things like creation care or social justice; they would heartily embrace these and other cultural activities that Wright calls for. They just wouldn’t place such activities in the category of “mission.”

A problem of definition: a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens on mission

All of this underscores a fundamental difference between MGP and WIMC: they are operating from very different definitions of the word “mission.” For Wright, the church’s mission encompasses just about everything that believers are commanded to do—including both word ministry and deed ministry. But DeYoung-Gilbert would argue that the church needs to keep the main thing the main thing. As important as caring for the poor may be, it is far more important to share the good news of salvation by faith. To borrow terms that DeYoung-Gilbert use with respect to the gospel (WIMC, 94ff.), Wright is using a “wide-angle lens” on mission, while DeYoung-Gilbert are using a “zoom lens.” Most evangelicals would acknowledge that there is a certain centrality to gospel proclamation in our mission (even Wright affirms this; MGP, 278). The question then becomes whether mercy ministries likewise occupy a necessary—though perhaps more peripheral—role in our mission.

This is where I would humbly offer some critiques of DeYoung-Gilbert’s view. To begin with, I would question their devaluing of the Old Testament’s role in shaping our mission. As mentioned above, they see the task of “sending” as an essential element in mission. But if this is the case, is it even proper to speak of ancient Israel having a mission at all? Sure, Abraham was “sent” from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan, but once Israel is in the land, they aren’t going anywhere. There are no evangelistic programs to the Hittites (yes, yes, Jonah would be the exception that proves the rule here).3 Instead, Israelites were called to embody God’s love and justice within their own borders, acting as a peculiar people who attract the attention and admiration of their unbelieving neighbors. This mission (“come and see”) might differ from that of the New Testament church (“go and tell”), but it is still “mission” in a very important sense.

That being the case, it seems appropriate to locate Israel’s laws on social justice under the rubric of mission. As an example, Deuteronomy 22:6-7 contains the peculiar instruction regarding birds and eggs: when a hungry Israelite comes across a nest, they may take the mother or the eggs, but not both. This is a good example of the principle of environmental stewardship, and if it properly belonged to Israel’s mission, it seems difficult to rule it outside the bounds of our mission today. God’s people may have changed, but God’s heart has not.

As a matter of fact, we find that stewardship of creation is a constitutive element of humanity’s image-bearing. When God made humans in his image, he gave them the task of “subduing” and “ruling” over creation. The fall may have frustrated this task, but it did not eliminate it. And since the New Testament teaches that believers are being remade in the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), it naturally follows that the cultural mandate continues in force. DeYoung-Gilbert write, “We are not little Adams striving to accomplish Adam’s original work. No, that work has been picked up and completed by our Lord Jesus” (WIMC, 213). It appears here that DeYoung-Gilbert are confusing Adam’s special responsibility as our representative under the Covenant of Works with his general (and imitable) responsibility as vice-regent over creation.

The kingdom of God

Another weakness I find in WIMC is DeYoung-Gilbert’s description of the kingdom of God. They state in rather stark terms, “The kingdom doesn’t grow” (WIMC, 133-134). We find in-breakings of the kingdom here and there, but since they see “kingdom” not as a geographic domain but rather as a relational dynamic, it really can’t be quantified with terms like “growth” or “advance.” Yes, DeYoung-Gilbert are aware of the parable of the sleepy farmer (Mark 4:26-29) and the mustard seed (4:30-32). But they believe that these parables are not about the size of the kingdom, but rather its perceived significance (I’m not so sure I buy their exegesis here). Consequently, they claim, believers do not play a role in building up the kingdom. Another way of stating this is that we are not participants in God’s mission; we are merely witnesses to it.

Now obviously, there are aspects of God’s work in which we cannot participate—the atonement is a good example that comes to mind. However, Scripture permits us to say that God’s mission is incomplete without our help (please don’t hear what I’m not saying! I’m all for the doctrines of divine aseity and monergistic salvation). In Colossians 1:24, the apostle Paul speaks of filling up in his own flesh “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” And perhaps more tellingly, we have the Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-9; 49:1-12; 50:4-8; 52:13-53:12). Within these songs, Isaiah writes of a “servant” who is given a task by the Lord to bring justice to the ends of the earth. Initially, this servant is described as corporate Israel (41:8-9), but as the songs progress, it becomes clear that the servant is identified with a unique individual who is called to suffer in the place of his people. This “individualizing trajectory” within the Servant Songs indicates that God’s people (first Israel, now the church) are called to participate in the servant’s mission of bringing justice to the ends of the earth, but they are only first enabled to do so by the unique redemptive work of the Messiah. All that to say, we as the church should play a role in “bring[ing] forth justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1).

Marks of the true church: Word, sacraments, discipline… and mercy?

Now it is certainly possible to overstate the importance of mercy and justice ministries in the life of the church. Historically, there have been only three marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and the right exercise of church discipline. We don’t want to say that a congregation has failed simply because it isn’t involved in a wetlands reclamation project. This is where I think DeYoung-Gilbert provide some helpful correctives to the over-zealousness of some neo-Calvinists. I am in complete support of their idea of “moral proximity,” according to which our moral duty to serve the material needs of our neighbors is directly proportionate to our geographic and/or relational proximity to them (WIMC, 183-186). Moreover, we need to be careful not to turn a “can” into an “ought.” Just because churches are free to engage in mercy ministries within their communities, that does not mean they have an absolutely binding obligation to do so. Much less is it their moral obligation to follow concrete, one-size-fits-all programs for such ministries. The Lord has given us the freedom to discern how best to serve our neighbors, and we would do well to distinguish “opportunities” from “responsibilities” (WIMC, 193).

But there may come times when a congregation feels especially called to carry out a particular deed ministry, even at the expense of a particular word ministry. Sometimes the soup kitchen might in fact matter more than the college evangelism program. We should recall Paul’s own efforts at collecting famine relief funds for the church in Jerusalem (Rom. 15). This task was so important to him that it even took priority over his goal of evangelizing the Western Roman Empire (MGP, 215). Yes, the eternal matters more than the temporal. That is certainly true and biblical. But Christians also need to avoid the temptation of falling into the mindset that the spiritual matters more than the physical. That is most certainly not biblical. We should strive to make the proclamation of the gospel central to our mission, but we must never fail to adorn our proclamation with good works (Titus 2:10).

Chart comparing and contrasting MGP and WIMC

  Christopher Wright Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
Theological system Cultural transformationalism Pietism
What is the church’s mission, in one sentence? To participate in God’s redemption of all creation. To proclaim the gospel and make disciples.
Biblical “charter text” of mission The call of Abraham
(Genesis 12:1-3)
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)
The nature of God’s kingdom The kingdom grows as God gradually redeems the cosmos. Recognition of the kingdom may increase, but the kingdom itself does not grow.
Our role in God’s kingdom We are partners in the advance of God’s kingdom. We are witnesses to the reality of God’s kingdom.
Motive for good deeds Good deeds are a vital part of the church’s mission. Good deeds are simply the natural fruit of a redeemed life.

Notes

  1. Some readers may be tempted to associate DeYoung-Gilbert’s view with what has come to be known as “two kingdom theology,” but this would be inaccurate. As DeYoung has written here, he sees a number of shortcomings with two kingdom theology.
  2. My focus will be mainly to examine the respective hermeneutical foundations of each book, rather than the lengthier task of dissecting the particulars of each book’s structure, exegesis, readability, etc.
  3. On the subject of Israel’s missionary task, see Michael Bird, Crossing over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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