A Review of Sorts: “What Is the Mission of the Church?”

missionWhen I first read Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s book, What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (2011), I planned to write a blog post for each chapter. The book covers significant ground, and I felt it deserved attention, both to highlight important themes and to present counter arguments to some of the book’s assertions. However, due to lack of either energy or focus, that ambitious plan has been whittled down into a new project–this single post.

I can appreciate the social and theological location of the authors. To oversimplify, they are evangelicals writing to evangelicals, attempting to neither undersell nor oversell biblical teachings on social justice (pp. 173-177). The success of their efforts in reaching this audience is evidenced by the support it received in WORLD Magazine, a right-leaning evangelical magazine about culture, politics and ministry, which is where my father-in-law read about it and was convinced to buy it and share it with me.

Despite the important ground that the book covers, I found it wanting in at least three broad areas–scholarship, emphasis, doctrine. These overlapping terms don’t entirely name what I’m getting at, but they are a clue in the direction of my thoughts.

First, the authors list their reading homework completed before writing the book. It was a decent selection of authors, but lacking were Anabaptist theologians, people who I view as leaders in this area. This was the first sign that the scholarship was limited. How do you write a chapter on shalom and not reference John Howard Yoder, Perry Yoder or Willard Swartley (for starters)?

Another example of a “scholarship” problem is a statement about the kingdom of God. “Neither ‘kingdom of God’ nor ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a phrase used in the Old Testament. It is a term unique to the New Testament” (p.118). Against this, Glen Stassen and David Gushee present seven reasons why they believe Jesus’ thoughts on the “kingdom of God” reference the book of Isaiah. Here is the sixth reason or clue:

In Jesus’ day, the use of Hebrew was something like the use of Latin in the Catholic church a half-century ago. It was no longer generally understood by the people. The people spoke Aramaic. Therefore, Jesus taught in Aramaic. In worship services a translator, called a meturgeman, would paraphrase the Hebrew Scripture passage into the language of the people. He did not give a literal translation but paraphrased it so that it would make the most sense to the hearers…. Out of this practice a written version in Aramaic finally came together in the fourth century. It contains paraphrases that were used in Jesus’ day mixed with later material from the following three centuries. These documents are called the Targums.

What is intriguing is that in the Isaiah Targum four passages speak directly of “the kingdom of God,” and one speaks of “the kingdom of the Messiah.” (p.24)

Now Stassen and Gushee agree with DeYoung and Gilbert about the broad strokes of eschatology–all four support inaugurated eschatology (p. 20 and p. 117 respectively)–yet DeYoung and Gilbert’s lack of following this line of evidence left me uneasy about their commitment to thorough scholarship.

A final example relates to a central theme of the book–why Jesus came to earth and what this means for disciples and the church today. This example will lead into the second theme of emphasis. I have written previously about their assertion that “there is not a single example of Jesus going into a town with the stated purpose of healing or casting out demons” (p. 56). Against that claim, we see Jesus telling his disciples to do this very thing in Matthew 10:1-8. To split hairs about whether it was Jesus doing it or his disciples is to miss the broader argument DeYoung and Gilbert are trying to make in the book about what it means for us to be disciples today. Their focus on the great commission misses this point exactly (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18). More on that in a moment.

Second, I disagree with DeYoung and Gilbert’s understanding of the role of compassion and miracles (compassionate miracles) within the mission of Jesus, the church, and disciples, which they attempt to tease apart (here again a study of John Howard Yoder would add much to the discussion of our crosses and Jesus’ cross). The last example of the problem of scholarship (healing & casting out demons) leads to problems of emphasis. They summarize the mission of Jesus like this: “The focus of his ministry is on teaching. The heart of his teaching centers on who he is. And the good news of who he is culminates in where he is going–to the cross” (p. 57). Acts of compassion are some distant facet of Jesus’ mission; their only purpose was to show his power and identity.

This is played out later in the chapter on Jesus’ Great Commission. Their line of reasoning splits discipleship from demonstration. “If our mission is discipleship, this will set us on a different trajectory than if our mission is to make earth more like heaven” (p. 242). I believe we need to bring these two elements back together. The first disciples demonstrated God’s compassion (again, see Matt. 10:1-8); therefore, I believe they are united today. Disciples proclaim God’s kingdom of love with word and action. In little test plots we embody a bit of heaven as we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.”

For Seventh-day Adventists, this nearly singular emphasis on Jesus death, which puts compassionate actions down a notch in importance, is insufficient because we believe that the cross was cosmic in scope, God’s method of dealing with sin and sinners that reveals God’s character to humans, angels and all (see “It Is Finished” in The Desire of Ages). Jesus took on human form for multiple reasons, which I believe include but are not necessarily limited to themes in all of the major “theories of atonement.” I believe he died in my place, showed love which influences my morals, conquered principalities and powers, and demonstrated God’s character in contrast with Satan’s character for all to see.

That last point–demonstration–is vital to the great controversy, both for Jesus and for his disciples today. Consider these insights from Ellen White (more here):

It is only by an unselfish interest in those in need of help that we can give a practical demonstration of the truths of the gospel…. Much more than mere sermonizing is included in preaching the gospel…. The union of Christlike work for the body and Christlike work for the soul is the true interpretation of the gospel. (Review and Herald, Mar. 4, 1902; Welfare Ministry, pp. 32-33)

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me” (Ministry of Healing, p. 143).

True sympathy between man and his fellow man is to be the true sign distinguishing those who love and fear God from those who are unmindful of His law. (Review and Herald, Mar. 24, 1891; Welfare Ministry, p. 36)

Christ identifies His interest with that of suffering humanity. He reproved His own nation for their wrong treatment of their fellow man. The neglect or abuse of the weakest, the most erring believers He speaks of as rendered to Himself. The favors shown them are accredited as bestowed upon Himself…. Will the church arouse? Will its members come into sympathy with Christ, so they will have His tenderness for all the sheep and lambs of His fold? (Letter 45, 1894; Welfare Ministry, p. 23-24)

The tender sympathies of our Saviour were aroused for fallen and suffering humanity. If you would be His followers, you must cultivate compassion and sympathy. Indifference to human woes must give place to lively interest in the sufferings of others. The widow, the orphan, the sick, and the dying will always need help. Here is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel–to hold up Jesus, the hope and consolation of all men. When the suffering body has been relieved, and you have shown a lively interest in the afflicted, the heart is opened, and you can pour in the heavenly balm. (Medical Missionary, Jan. 1891; Welfare Ministry, p. 26)

Please read Isaiah 58…. This is the special work now before us. All our praying and abstinence from food will avail nothing unless we resolutely lay hold of this work…. The fast which God can accept is described. It is to deal thy bread to the hungry and to bring the poor which are cast out to thy house. Wait not for them to come to you. (Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 33-35; Welfare Ministry, pp. 29-31)

This work for people’s needs is not secondary to Jesus or to the church. It is central to mission of proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God. We are to be like “tiny pink taste-test spoons from Baskin-Robbins” (Kingdom Calling, p. 23).

Thirdly, DeYoung and Gilbert view eternal hell as key to the message of the church.

The doctrine of hell, however unpopular it may be and however much we may wish to soften its hard edges, is essential for faithful Christian witness (p. 244).

Since hell is real, we must help each other die well even more than we strive to help our poor neighbors live comfortably. Since hell is real, we must never think alleviating earthly suffering is the most loving thing we can do (p. 245).

If we lose the doctrine of hell, either too embarrassed to mention it or too culturally sensitive to affirm it, we can count on this: the boat will drift…. Lose the ballast of divine judgment and our message, our ministry, and our mission will all change eventually (p. 245).

So, to all the wonderful, sacrificial, risk-taking Christians who love justice, care for the suffering, and long to renew their cities, Jesus says, “Well done. But don’t forget the ballast” (p. 246).

How should an Adventist view such comments? We do believe in hell, just not as eternally burning torture (overview: 27. Millennium and the End of Sin). We believe the refining fire of God’s glory ends the existence of sin. God is powerful enough to solve the sin problem; God is not so weak as to be unable to accomplish a complete remedy nor is God so unloving as to torture humans for eternity. So is hell–even with these qualifications–our ballast? Is it yours? It’s a question for each of us to wrestle with.

As Adventists, we do believe God is not without wrath. Chris Blake writes in Searching for a God to Love: “God cares enough to mean business. Life matters. Peace matters. Love matters. When we read in the Bible of God’s wrath, we must put it into context as well. There is a righteous wrath of God. Ellen White writes…. ‘The sufferings of every person are the sufferings of God’s child, and those who reach out no hand to their perishing fellow beings provoke His righteous anger. This is the wrath of the Lamb'” (p. 201, “The Worst Lie Ever Told”). We believe the God of love will one day end this sin problem permanently; sin will be eradicated with love. Injustice will be no more. God is working this out, requiring patience on the part of the saints (Rev. 13:10; 14:12).

While holding this, I also believe with Chris Blake that fear is a poor motivator, not the kind of ballast that can last. He writes, “Fear is an effective short-term motivator, as we can all attest…. What fear lacks is staying power. As a long-term motivator, fear is impotent. Once we think we won’t get caught, or we don’t care if we do, our loyalty and obedience evaporate” (p. 190). “Compliance that arises from terror will not last, cannot last. We’ll live cautious, resentful lives, hiding behind fences and braking with every curve, belly flopping on dives and wondering all the while, Why does God make this so difficult?” (p. 192).

Additionally, fear is a poor foundation for building a lasting and loving relationship. “Friendship without fear is a maturing theme in interacting with God. Apparently God desires personal, authentic interaction, as does any sincere friend” (p. 192). Not surprisingly, these sentiments led the only reviewer at Christian Books to give this work 1 star out of 5.

At the risk of over-quoting Ellen White in this post, this message from her seems relevant:

The shortness of time is urged as an incentive for us to seek righteousness and to make Christ our friend. This is not the great motive. It savors of selfishness. Is it necessary that the terrors of the day of God be held before us to compel us through fear to right action? This ought not to be. Jesus is attractive. He is full of love, mercy, and compassion. He proposes to be our friend, to walk with us through all the rough pathways of life. (That I May Know Him, p. 320)

With these three disagreements or concerns–scholarship, emphasis, hell/fear as ballast–one could believe I find nothing positive in the book. This is not true. It is all worth studying and contemplating. These are my/our brothers in Christ. We are all walking together; we journey in conversation. DeYoung and Gilbert have written a better book than I could; I simply offer my perspective on themes to which I believe my faith tradition has something to offer.

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