The Words of the Pople Family

Christian Theology of Missions: Ecumenical Views

Joy Pople
April 1981

"There is a burning relevance today in describing the mission of God," reads a 1968 document on mission produced by the World Council of Churches, "in which we participate, as the gift of a new creation which is a radical renewal of the old and the invitation to men to grow up into their full humanity in the new man, Jesus Christ."

The "radical renewal of the old," seen by the World Council of Churches, applies to many aspects of contemporary life, Christian missions not exempted. This World Council of Churches document, entitled "Renewal in Mission," is a compromise between modern liberal theology and traditional doctrine. Still, the reader notes that the point of departure is the world situation, and not God, and finds the substitution of "moral problems" for sin, "restoration" for salvation, "community" for church and "dialogue" for evangelism, characteristic of modern works on mission.

The need for deeper truth in our age was expressed by W. C. Smith, writing in 1960 for the Christian Century, a liberal Protestant magazine: "The Christian community is at the moment theologically unequipped for living in the twentieth century, with its pluralistic mankind."

The roots of recent changes in Protestant theology are beyond the scope of this study. One result, however, has been to extend the meaning of the word "mission" to include nearly everything the church does. So overextended, the concept of mission has lost its former priority in the church as a whole.

Nevertheless, modern theology as expressed in Protestant ecumenical publications has made creative contributions to the understanding of the mission of the church. In Europe, especially, Christian thinkers have sought to find a more comprehensive theology of world mission that can motivate modern men to participate in mission. One such person, Johannes Blauw, secretary of the Netherlands Missionary Council, wrote The Missionary Nature of the Church in 1962, showing a progression of mission through the Old and New Testaments. The following summary of his thinking presents an example of how the traditional Protestant view of mission has expanded.

Taking Genesis chapters 1-11 as the foundation for God's dealings with men, Blauw shows how God is creator of heaven and earth, with man at the center of the creation. However, man misuses his creativity and does not understand his responsibility. His alienation from God results first in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden (ch. 3), second in the flood judgment (ch. 7-8) and finally in the dispersion of nations throughout the earth (ch. 10-11). God made peace with man after the flood, so when man united to build a tower without God, His third judgment was not destruction but dispersal. This scattering is a symbol of the fellowship men once had, but lost. Therefore, the resulting division of men into nations is a sign of both God's will to peace and His judgment.

After this, history enters a new phase, with Abraham. God's call to Abraham reflects salvation and judgment, but this time salvation prevails (which of the two results depends, as always, on man's response to God's call). The choosing of Abraham means that God has not abandoned His work, but rather chooses one person, as a witness to many, and a future means of blessing to the nations. "The whole history of Israel is to be understood from the unsolved problem of the relation of God to the nations," Blauw asserts.

This choosing of Israel is not primarily a privilege but a responsibility (see Amos 3:2 and Deut. 7:6-11). Israel's role is variously defined as a nation of priests (Exod. 19:6) and an instrument for the universal purpose God has for the world.

The nations are not specifically rejected in the choosing of Israel, as there is always a possibility of their reception into Israel as the people of God and sharing her blessing. While the nations are instruments for punishing Israel in times of disbelief, they are also witnesses of God's dealings with Israel (Ps. 67). In a rare example of universalism, Psalm 87 even implies that all peoples have their origin and destiny in Jerusalem the seat of the temple.

Thus, when Israel forgets her role, she commits treason, not only against the covenant of God, but also against those nations for whose sake she was set apart. However, her failure will not prevent God from reaching His goal. During and after the Babylonian exile, prophetic messages abound of the coming of the Messiah, upon whose arrival Israel's hopes and responsibilities will be consummated.

Throughout the Old Testament, there is a trend of "progressive reduction," according to Blauw, from the chosen nation, to the faithful remnant and finally to the one servant (mentioned in Isaiah 40-55). This servant (a messianic figure) will reveal justice to the nations and be a light to the nations, so that the salvation of God may reach the ends of the earth.

In the Old Testament, instead of going to other nations to evangelize them, Israel is supposed to be a witness by her example. (The book of Jonah offers a unique example of a prophet who was called to go to the Assyrians as a missionary.)

In summary, the salvation promised to Israel is universal: however, it was never received during the Old Testament age. This salvation of the nations was connected with the coming of the Messiah and would be a gift granted by God Himself to and via the Messiah (Dan. 7:14).

There is a continuity between the Old and New Testaments in that the expectations of the Old are fulfilled in the New, often exceeded, modified and corrected.

For example, in the gospels, Jesus avoided a mission to the gentiles (non-Jews) and taught that Israel is God's vineyard and God's flock (Matt. 10:6, Mark 12:1 ff.). To Israel the Kingdom of God will be granted (Luke 12:32). The gentiles do not know God, but rather seek the thin-, of this world (Luke 12:30) and act contrary to the will of God (Luke 21:24). Furthermore, when Jesus first sent out his disciples to teach, he forbade them to go to the gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6). Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, however, indicates that he was not a nationalist.

Why then did Jesus concentrate on Israel? Blauw explains that salvation must first be offered to Israel, and that the blood of the true Passover lamb had to be shed before the way of the gentiles could be opened. (However, the Principle indicates that Jesus preached first to Israel because they were they most prepared to receive him: then they could go to the gentiles with Jesus' message).

In teaching of the coming judgment, Jesus indicated, however, that gentiles as well as Israel would stand before God, and that belonging to Israel would not guarantee protection against God's judgment (Matt. 3:9.). Although the differences between Israel and the gentiles would eventually fade, Jesus said that Israel would be held more responsible than the gentiles (Matt. 12:41-42).

In addition, Jesus referred to himself in terms of a universal mission, especially in using the title "son of man" (the one given everlasting dominion over the nations in Dan. 7:14). His suffering and dying is explained as being for the "many" (Mark 10:45, 14:24). Using the term "son of David," Jesus also implied the universal position described in Psalm 110.

Even more, Jesus pictured a widespread effect of God's message: the city set on a hill or the light placed on a stand (Matt. 5:14-15) and the seed which would grow to a great tree where all the birds would come to nest (Matt. 13:31-32). Many people would be gathered from the east and the west (Matt. 8:11) and many sheep from other flocks (John 10:16).

However, with the coming of Jesus as Messiah and in him the coming of the Kingdom of God, we still have only a provisional fulfillment of the promises God made to Israel during the Old Testament age, Blauw reminds his readers. The previous age ended with Jesus' death and resurrection. But the complete breakthrough of the Kingdom of God still remains a future hope, connected with the second coming of Christ. So the provisional fulfillment becomes a source of new expectation.

The early Christians awaited daily the Second Coming of Christ, and some scholars believe that its delay caused great disappointment and a re-evaluation of faith among the first Christians. Other Bible students say that the resurrection or the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promises of the second coming. However, Blauw believes that there is strong evidence that the Second Coming remains for the future.

In addition, Blauw explains that by Christ's suffering, judgment is not only postponed, but in a sense borne by Christ. So in Christ exists the possibility of escape from judgment.

This possibility is then the missionary motivation to go to all nations, and "preach what Christ has done vicariously for Israel," Blauw asserts. Jesus appeared as the seed which dies (John 12:24) but which later bears fruit. The fruit, however, needs a time for ripening, and a time for bringing in the harvest -- an abundant harvest from the whole world.

The time for the "coming of the nations" stretches out from the resurrection through the full length of history. This history is the time of sowing and growing before the harvest, of throwing out the net and gathering in the fish before the sorting and of the working of the leaven in the dough.

This is how Blauw explains the basic assumptions and motivations for preaching the gospel to the nations.

The message is the proclamation of the lordship of Christ among the nations. Whereas in the Old Testament, God never commanded the Israelites to go and preach to the nations, Jesus in Matthew 28 said, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations"; this is the great turning point of the gospel. " ... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" indicates a total dedication and submission to what Christ commands. "... I am with you always," Jesus said, giving his presence as the great gift to his disciples. " ... even to the end of the world" indicates Jesus' hope for the consummation of the world. This "great commission" at the end of the gospel of Matthew emphasizes Jesus' royal authority, while the end of Mark stresses his liberating authority and the final instructions in Luke highlight Jesus' authority to forgive.

It is the Holy Spirit's coming which later gives the disciples the authority and power to be witnesses -- guaranteeing the power of life in the church, the presence of God in the world and the publicizing of the gospel. And the gospel moves from Jerusalem, the center of Israel, to Rome, the center of the known world.

Thus Blauw offers a theological basis for mission, broader than the traditional one. Other writers have promoted what they believe should guide today's church in mission. Furthermore, some Christians have become confused about the church, and doubt the validity of Christian mission at all.

The writings of a Catholic theologian in the latter category Robert McAfee Brown, illustrate a dilemma some Protestants share as well. "The church is going through such radical challenge and restructuring from within," he asserts, "that it is not at all clear at the moment that it has a message to proclaim to those without, or even that it can identify a contemporary message."

His reasons for uneasiness about Christian missions today also include a doubt about claims of traditional Christianity to be the only valid revelation from God. "As long as it was firmly held that there was only one true faith, only one way to salvation, only one possibility for men to know God -- and that way was ours -- there could be considerable zeal expended in plucking brands from the burning and getting people into the one club that could guarantee their eternal life." His loss of that confidence, probably shared by many contemporary Christians, dampens the zeal to evangelize others.

A third crisis of faith for Brown comes from current theological upheaval. "Obsessed by the need for relevance, we no sooner master one theological approach than it becomes outmoded," he laments. The alternative to chasing theological fancies is returning to the old solid gospel, but Brown acknowledges that such a change would be difficult because to do so would mean sacrificing one's intellect.

On the other hand, some contemporary writers on mission theory have offered eloquent insights into the church's role. One such person is J.C. Hoekendijk, professor of missions at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

In commenting on the eschatological (last days) perspective in missionary thinking, he enlarges the aim of evangelism to include the fulfillment of the messianic hope of the great prophets of Israel. The Old 'Testament writers called the Messiah the "prince of shalom" (Isa. 9:6), and expected him to realize the plans of shalom (Jer. 29:11), which the Lord had in mind for his people, to give them a future and a hope.

The Hebrew concept of shalom (literally, peace) means much more than personal salvation, in Hoekendijk's analysis: "It is at once peace, integrity, community, harmony and justice. Its rich content can be felt in Psalm 85, where we read that shalom is there, where 'mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven." He also cites New Testament references to show shalom as the content of the life in the kingdom (see John 14:24, Acts 10:36 and II Cor. 5:20).

"This concept in all its comprehensive richness should be our leitmotiv in Christian work," he continues. "God intends the redemption of the whole creation." Hoekendijk offers various possibilities of what this shalom might be: destruction of all solitude, obliteration of all injustice, apocalyptic realism and the "mood of expectant wonder, of ecstatic joy, of buoyant confidence."

For him, evangelism is the realization of hope, and his study of church history convinces him that "wherever this hope became once more the dominant note of Christian life, an outburst of evangelistic zeal followed,"

Hoekendijk calls for a dynamic view of mission. The first aspect is the proclamation that "Christ is here," giving the history of God's dealings with man. However, a preacher in isolation is just an orator. The missionary needs the community, the continuous reminder of the message; but only insofar as people partake of the same word can they live in true communion and fellowship. The third aspect of mission is to take the position of a humble servant. However, if service is separated from proclamation, or given undue emphasis, it becomes mere philanthropy.

Recent works on mission often cite Hoekendijk's analysis, using three Greek words to describe these three aspects of mission: kenjgma (the proclamation of God's dealings with man), koinonia (the community of those who try to live the message), and diakonia (service to others, as an object lesson of what at the Kingdom of Heaven should be like).

One can observe from Hoekendijk's work that a true theology of mission will be a theology offering new hope. For evangelical Christians this hope is the second coming of Christ. However, many liberal-minded Christians no longer expect the personal return of Christ, so their hope is often little more than a better environment for mankind.

Such a humanistic trend can be seen in Shaull's writings. He offers a new paradigm for the missionary task of the church in our days since we are living in what he sees as a new stage in history, a stage beyond Christendom. The "Christian style of life" has been replaced with a more human, secular style. He sees the aim of mission as to "accelerate the process of liberation," and to work for the formation of the new man in the midst of the secular order.

Shaull has not yet found a blueprint for the new man, but he believes that new models will appear out of the community of faith, which will continue to have dialogue with its heritage through the Bible, theology, worship and sacrament.

"Perhaps one aspect of our missionary task is that of playing the role of John the Baptist, to prepare the way for a new epiphany," he concludes.

Another writer, Max Warren, comments on the changing environment for Christian mission. Christian missions have to be prepared for new nakedness, he believes. In the colonial era, churches and Christians were "clothed" (connected to the government and receiving financial aid from abroad, etc.). Perhaps now, they have to be "unclothed," both for their own salvation and future resurrection, and also to equip them for mission.

Warren also advocates a shift in emphasis from "theodicy" (justifying God's ways to man, as in St. Paul's speeches in Acts 14:16-17 and 17:30) to a new Christology, which presents Christ as God active in reconciliation, Christ as universally present in all of mankind's search for truth and Christ present in mercy and guidance, in judgment and correction.

In this brief study, we can see that liberal Protestant Christians have made advances in relating the gospel message to the present needs of mankind, raising Christianity from provincialism to a world-wide perspective. In addition, they have added the dimension of God's creative and providential role in the world, and the Christian's responsible part in carrying it out. The significance of Jesus is extended from a divine being to a true model for contemporary man, the new creation and the second Adam.

Their weaknesses, however, include a tendency to reduce salvation to human progress and mission to social action attempting to improve man's physical condition. More radical thinkers translate salvation as "liberation" and give economic and social revolution priority over spiritual renewal. In general, an ecumenical theology of missions often takes the world as its starting point, rather than God. Finally, modern Christians have sometimes defined mission so broadly that it loses it meaning and primacy as an on-going task of the church.

These trends in Protestant views of missions are effects of a re-thinking of Christianity. However, questioning the fundamentals of faith may result in a loss of faith altogether.

In conclusion, evangelical theology, has inspired great efforts and brought impressive results in missions. If modern Christians abandon the firm confidence past Christians had in a simple gospel message, they must find a more profound and comprehensive explanation of God and His will in our age, and then transmit that to mankind. 

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