by C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell
The stories of Paul in Philippi and of the issues that little church faced are stories for our churches today. God’s call on them is God’s call on us.
Global Missions Today
Editor’s note: As we celebrate fifty years as a publication committed to equipping and encouraging those in mission, we continue to take seriously the issues we face today. We asked top mission leaders around the world to reflect on missions from their respective vantage points. We pray that God will use their thoughts to challenge, inspire, instruct, and correct us all.
This article was contributed by C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell.
A BUSINESS WOMAN, a jailer for the empire, and an ex-slave girl: these are three of the founding members of the congregation in Philippi, the first European church. It was hardly a promising beginning by most standards of contemporary church planting. Yet through this motley crew, God’s Spirit worked and the Apostle Paul’s letter to them points us today in the direction that Christians worldwide must go if we are to be witnesses to Christ in the most diverse contexts.
The Book of Philippians gives us a framework within which to consider the future of Christian mission and some of the challenges the Church will face during the next decade. As the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun, and in a sense, this is also true for Christian mission. Yet while new trends might not be so “new” after all, God’s word shows us that certain issues are no less urgent, no less necessary to understand, and no less noble as we seek faithfully to embody God’s reign on earth.
The stories of Paul in Philippi and of the issues that little church faced are stories for our churches today. God’s call on them is God’s call on us. In particular, it is worth noting three main themes.
#1: There are challenges with witnessing to Christ in multi-religious and multi-ethnic settings. Philippi was a small Rome, a place that thrived on the diversity of its people, and whose inhabitants came from all over the empire seeking fame and fortune, or as slaves and manual laborers, forced participants in the games of power played by others.
With both Roman and Greek inhabitants, Philippi was a city of many gods and many customs, many cultures, and the ever present emperor worship that was demanded of all throughout the empire. There, those first Christians had to learn both how to grow in their own faith and how to be neighbors to the people around them.
Increasingly today, Christians find themselves aliens within their own culture, surrounded by other faiths or ideologies or practices that challenge the integrity of our own convictions. And many live in contexts of religious persecution and danger. Thus, learning to witness to Christ in the way of Jesus is fundamental if we are to be faithful participants in God’s mission. We are not called to control, manipulate, or give into the pressures of society around us. Instead, we are called to live in such a way that the world will know about Jesus.
In the diversity of our contexts, a fundamental task of Christian mission must be to empower the Church to be a people of integrity and simplicity, standing firm in our convictions of faith, yet at the same time learning to love our (very different) neighbors and enemies just as Jesus called us to do.
#2: The gospel disturbs the powers—political, social, and economic. When the gospel is lived and preached, it will upset the powers of this world. We should expect this because we live in a world where other lords and gods claim our loyalty and our attention.
One such god, both in Philippi and today, is money and wealth. Paul and Silas were put into prison in Philippi because in liberating the slave girl from the demon they had taken away the cash source for her owners. The accusation brought against them in court was that they were disturbing the social norms, advocating customs that upset the status quo (see Acts 16:16ff).
Can the Church be faithful in its witness without disturbing the status quo? Probably not.
Can the Church be faithful in its witness without disturbing the status quo? Probably not. Are we willing to pay the price, as did Paul and Silas, for the radical nature of the gospel we bring? Issues like slavery and human trafficking, the arms trade, corruption, and economic injustice are all aspects of the world in which we live that demand Christians take action. Embodying the gospel and bringing God’s justice to bear upon such issues is bound to encounter opposition, yet if we do not embody such good news, we fail to be the people God has called us to be and we fail to be participants in the mission of God.
#3: We need to overcome our differences for the sake of the gospel. Whether the context is an oppressive and threatening culture (as was the case for the Christians in Philippi) or a culture in which Christians find themselves in the majority, divisions among us are a death sentence for witness and mission.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a letter of joy and hope, yet even there, the apostle shows how the disagreements in that community were deeply hurting the message of the gospel: “Be of the same mind… work out your salvation with fear and trembling… do not murmur or argue…” he pleaded. Ambition and conceit, the desire for power and control, are temptations for Christians in all times and places. Paul’s challenge to the Philippians ought to serve as a loud wake-up call for the Church today—if we are not willing to work out our differences according to the gospel, to show and to receive grace and forgiveness to a brother or sister, or to another congregation, we should not expect to be good witnesses for Jesus.
Paul’s demand for Christian unity is not a superficial call or an ideal set up for another time—it is not unity for unity’s sake, but unity for the sake and integrity of the gospel we bear. Our participation in God’s mission depends on how we learn to get along and to show the world an alternative way of being that embodies Christ. As Paul tells the Philippians, if we practice these things (e.g., not arguing, gossiping, or murmuring), God promises to be faithful and to enable us to “shine like stars in this dark world” (cf. Phil. 2:12-15). Can there be a more beautiful image for Christian mission?
C. Rosalee Velloso Ewell is executive director of the Theological Commission for the World Evangelical Alliance. She is a Brazilian theologian from São Paulo, currently living in the United Kingdom with her husband and three kids. Rosalee has a MA from Fuller Seminary and a PhD from Duke University. She teaches and writes in the areas of evangelism, biblical theology, urban mission, and interfaith relations.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 405-407. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.