Occasionally, no make that fairly often, I come across a piece of writing that sums up my thinking on a subject so well that I wish that I had written it. That happened again when I came across something Chris Wright has written.
He has written a series of articles about the false dichotomies in mission which are common in the evangelical church. The points he makes to me are so important that I wanted to reproduce his points in full. I think what Chris wright is saying has huge implications for those of us seeking to reorient the church around true north for the church, the Missio Dei. He is putting his fingers on key areas when it comes to mission where if we truly want to be “Missional” we need to carefully consider whether we are holding false dichotomies or managing to hold these aspects in tension.
Original articles can be found here
<a href="http://http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/07/false-dichotomies-in-mission-pt-1-of-2-by-christopher-jh-wright.html“>False Dichotomy In Mission: Pt1
I do not want to be only negative, or to stigmatize our whole evangelical movement, but I was asked the question, and here is an honest answer! I think that as evangelicals we have tended to make some false dichotomies, or to separate things that ought to be kept together (because the Bible holds them together), and then to give one priority over the other. And this unbiblical separation has had some regrettable bad results.
1. We have tended to separate the individual from the cosmic and corporate impact of the gospel, and to prioritize the first.
That is, we put personal salvation and individual evangelism at the centre of all our efforts, (and of course individual evangelism is an essential part of our commitment.). But Paul’s order of the gospel message in Ephesians, and Colossians 1:15-26, is Creation (all things in heaven and earth, created by Christ, sustained by Christ and redeemed by Christ), then:, church (with Christ as head), and then individual Gentile believers: ‘and you also’. All of this, says Paul, is ‘reconciled through the blood of Christ shed on the cross’. So we are not saved out of creation, but as part of creation that God has redeemed through Christ. The church is not just a container for souls till they get to heaven, but the living demonstration of the unity that is God’s intention for creation, in itself a ‘preaching’ to the principalities and powers because of what God has accomplished and proved in the creation of ‘one new humanity’ in Christ. All this we learn from Ephesians and Colossians, but we still tend to put all our emphasis on getting individuals saved.
The bad result of this weakened theology is that Christians evangelized by such a truncated version of the biblical gospel have little interest in the world, the public square, God’s plan for society and the nations, and even less understanding of God’s intention for creation itself. The scale of our mission efforts therefore is in danger of being a lot less than the scope of the mission of God.
strong>2. We have tended to separate believing from living the gospel, and to prioritize the first.
That is, we seem to think that there can be a belief of faith separate from the life of faith, that people can be saved by something that goes on in their heads, without worrying too much about what happens in their lives. So long as they have prayed the right prayer and believed the right doctrine, nothing else ultimately matters, or at least, whatever happens next is secondary and distinct.
Yet in the Bible faith and obedience are inseparable. Paul actually defines his missionary life’s work as bringing about “the obedience of faith among all nations” (Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 16:26). That is a combination that echoes Abraham, Jesus, Paul, and James. You can’t obey God’s word unless you believe it. But you can’t claim to believe God’s word unless you are obeying it. Faith without works is dead.
This is seen also in the way we tend to divide Paul’s letters into “doctrine” and “ethics”, or “Gospel” and “implications”, when Paul probably would not have made that kind of distinction. For example, the phrase ‘new humanity’ in Eph. 2 is exactly the same as ‘the new self’ in 4:24. What God has done in the Christ is to be fleshed out in the life of believers. The language of ‘unity’, ‘integrity’ runs through the whole letter. Faith and life are inseparable. Ethics is not something added to the gospel, but integral to it.
The bad result of this dichotomy is that we have people called believers and evangelicals, whose actual lives are indistinguishable from the culture around them – whether in terms of moral standards, or social and political attitudes and actual behaviour (as various surveys have shown, including the recent Pew survey that showed evangelicals were the largest religious group in the USA who approved of the use of torture).
>3. We have tended to separate evangelism and discipleship, and to prioritise the first.
In fact, we speak of the Great Commission as an evangelistic mandate (and of course it implies and includes the necessity of evangelism – for if people are to be baptized, they need to have responded to the proclamation of the good news), when in fact the primary explicit command is “Disciple all the nations”. It has been said, the New Testament is written by disciples, for disciples, to make disciples. Yet our emphasis has often been on getting decisions and converts, making Christians. Actually the word Christian occurs 3 times in the New Testament, whereas the word ‘disciple’ occurs 269 times.
Evangelism is an utterly essential part of mission. But there is mission beyond evangelism. Paul clearly believed this. Had he stopped being a ‘missionary’ when he spent 3 years teaching the church in Ephesus the whole counsel of God? He affirmed the mission of Apollos, which was a teaching mission (Acts 18:24-27), and refused to allow that either was more important than the other – the one who planted or the one who watered (1 Cor. 3:5-9). Evangelism and teaching/discipling are integral and essential parts of our mission. Great Commission Line Three: “Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist”, and also to teach sound doctrine, and to mentor others to teach others also. And he did not imply that one was more important than the other: they were all essential parts of the mission entrusted to Timothy.
The bad result of separating them and prioritizing the first is shallowness and immaturity and vulnerability to false teaching, church growth without depth, and rapid withering away (as Jesus warned in the parable of the sower). As another Lausanne phrase puts it, our responsibility is to “bear witness to Jesus Christ and all his teaching.”
4. We have tended to separate word and deed or proclamation and demonstration and to prioritize the first.
But again, both are essential and integral to the presentation of the gospel, and to bringing about the obedience of faith among all nations. This is clear from Paul’s own practice: in Romans 15 he reflects on his whole missionary work and speaks of “what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the nations to obey God, by word and deed and by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. (Rom. 5:18-19).
In his letters he constantly emphasizes the evangelistic power of “doing good” (he mentions it 7 times in Titus, encouraging slaves in doing good so that they can “adorn the teaching about God our Saviour” – ie. Their good deeds make the evangelistic message more likely to be effective by being more attractive. Peter speaks about “doing good” 10 times in 1 Peter, and again links it to evangelistic effectiveness (e.g. for believing wives of unbelieving husbands). Jesus too speaks of the ‘light’ of good works, drawing people to God the Father.
The bad result of this separation is that our evangelistic efforts are sometimes derided by the world, because people discern the hypocrisy of those who talk a lot but whose lives don’t support what they say. Lack of integrity in this area has been identified by various researches as the major obstacle to the acceptance of the message of the gospel.
5. We have tended to separate evangelism from ecclesiology and to prioritize the first.
That is, when we talk about “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world”, we see the church only as a delivery mechanism, a postman delivering a letter. It doesn’t really matter if the postman who delivers my letter was having an adulterous affair last night, so long as he does his job and I get the letter. We are concerned to get the maximum number of people into heaven – we even speak of it as a ‘task to get finished’ – but have not got a clear, strong and biblical affirmation of what the church is meant to be here and now. The church itself is the product of the gospel, and the living demonstration, embodiment of the gospel’s transformative, unifying power (as we have seen in Ephesians), as a community of reconciled sinners. Instead our ecclesiology has a ‘lifeboat church’ or a ‘container church’ picture – the church is just somewhere to keep all the evangelized together until we all get to heaven. This is very deficient and far below Paul’s understanding and teaching.
The bad result of this is that the church itself can be riddled with sin, idolatry, abuses, and disunity, but we don’t care very much, so long as evangelism carries on. This is why part of our purpose in Lausanne must be prophetic, in the biblical sense. The prophets most often addressed, not so much the nations outside and their sins (though they did, of course), but the people of God themselves and their idolatries. If we are to be good news and to preach good news, we must seek a greater humility, repentance and return to the Lord. If we are to introduce Christ to the world we must look like the Christ we represent. So the call for integrity, Christlikeness, unity, etc., within the church, as part of a more robust understanding of what the church is meant to be, is an essential part of our missional task.
Here is what I am thinking about. Chris Wright frames mission negatively by pointing to false dichotomies, what in practical terms would a church look like that was holding these dimensions of mission in dynamic tension?