by Rollin G. Grams
This article is in response to “Reflections on the Meaning of ‘All Nations,'” by Frank Severn in the October 1977 issue of EMQ.
I agree with Severn’s concerns (which, in the climate of current missiological discussion, might best be termed “disjunctions”) and will attempt to expand his argument.
The first disjunction, at the heart of the debate, is “Ethnic Variety vs. Universalism?” or “All People Groups vs. All People, Both Jews and Gentiles?” A linguistic approach (the meanings of ethne) builds a possible case that the New Testament missionary perspective involved an effort to evangelize all people groups.1 Yet a historical examination of the New Testament suggests that the mission was geographically defined.
Luke, whose wording of the Great Commission may allow for a people group missionary strategy (Luke 24:47), does not demonstrate this in Acts. According to Luke’s geographical thesis statement in Acts (1:8), the gospel is to move from Jerusalem (where Jesus departs) to Judea (Jews) to Samaria (half-Jews) to the ends of the earth (Gentiles). Luke describes Paul’s mission as that of creating “church epicenters” (Damascus, Tarsus, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome), from which the gospel could spread to the surrounding areas. Even though Paul had already died when Luke wrote Acts, and even if Paul possibly had traveled to Spain after his Roman imprisonment (1 Clement 5:7), Luke is content to conclude his second volume with Paul in Rome. The mission to the ethne has reached its goal for Luke: The gospel has been taken from the center of Judaism to the center of the Gentile world. This is a very different from a strategy that focuses on each and every ethnos.
A possible, but not necessary, danger in a mission strategy focused on people groups may, as Severn points out, leave fields white for harvesting unharvested in order to collect a few specimens from exotic regions (the 10/40 Window).
In Matthew, Jesus’ sending of the disciples to every lsraelite village (Matt. 10) is meant to parallel his sending them to every nation (Matt. 28). Nothing in the text of Matthew 10 suggests that the disciples are trying to evangelize by clans and tribes. The parallel of Matthew 28:19 with Matthew 10 suggests that the emphasis in the former is a universal, geographical progression of the church among the Gentiles. The result of a geographic progression by missionaries throughout the world inevitably means an ethnically diverse church, but this is not the emphasis in Matthew. Indeed, Matthew does not hold out the hope that every nation will be represented among Jesus’ disciples. Just as certain Israelite towns will not receive the disciples (Matt. l0:14f.), so also some nations will not accept the gospel (Matt. 25:31ff.). The missiological goal in Matthew is a building of Jesus’ church (Matt. 16:18) from individual disciples from both Jews and Gentiles.
A second disjunction might be titled, “Planting vs. Watering?” Is the missionary task completed once people have been converted? While few would answer Yes, the emphasis on evangelism in end-time/people group mission strategies needs balancing with other missionary concerns. For example, Paul’s mission included evangelism, church planting, and nurturing believers in the faith, as his letters make clear.2
A third disjunction is “My Gift vs. Your Need?” An evangelism strategy that emphasizes needs may lead to a strategy that calls for evangelizing a large number of people quickly. A strategy that begins with a consideration of what best we can offer may lead in a very different direction. For example, if evangelists from neighboring people groups have less cultural baggage to overcome in reaching that people group, we would do well to encourage this approach to missions rather than one that sends evangelistic missionaries from North America. Three directors of mission efforts have told me that the greatest contribution the American church can make in missions today is in theological education. Perhaps the best contribution North American missions can make to evangelize the six unreached peoples in Bosnia identified by the Joshua Project 20003 is to send professors to a theological seminary inthe Balkans to train students (who have the language and know the culture). These students will in turn evangelize, plant churches, and nurture new believers in a sound theology and Christian life.
Related to this disjunction, fourthly, is “The Spirit’s Work vs. Our Work?” In his depiction of the early church’s mission, Luke repeatedly emphasizes that what happened was a result of the Spirit’s leading. This does not minimize our planning and efforts, but it puts such into a spiritual perspective. Before, during, and after our planning, we must submit our understanding and calling and actions to the Spirit. He redirects our plans to reach the Bithynians and sends us to the Macedonians (Acts 16:7-9), only to reach the Bithynians at a later time in some other way (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1).
A fifth disjunction is “Finish the Evangelistic Task vs. Continue a Faithful Witness to Christ as Kingdom Communities?” Here are two concerns for missions: eschatological and ecclesiological. Eschatolo-gically, some speak as if they are able to plan the final stages of the task before Christ’s return, and the prayer “Maranatha (Our Lord, come!)” has come within our power to accomplish. Yet, as W. Paul Bowers points out, “Paul in his mission is much more demonstrably working from an eschatological event than toward one.”4
Ecclesiologically, we might contrast a missionary vision that collects some from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation with a vision that prepares a church without spot or wrinkle for Christ. The more we realize that the church’s mission only begins with evangelism and must further seek to establish mature churches, communities testifying to the reign of God in this world, the more we will accomplish the true missionary task.5 Frankly, missionary goals defined as “doing” (“tasks”) rather than “being” (“holy communities”) will always remain half-measures.
These five disjunctions should not be alternatives. The issue is more one of emphasis, the right ordering of our missionary values. The “hidden people group movement” in missions today serves an important task with which the apostles would have been pleased: It helps us identify where the gospel must still be preached. But this value needs to be put into a larger missionary perspective that includes other values, such as evangelistic universalism, being Spirit-led in our ministry, harvesting where the field is ripe, appreciating our gifts, and being the kingdom community in the world.
1. For such an interpretation, see John Piper, “The Supremacy of God Among ‘All the Nations’,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13.1 (January-March, 1996): 1526. Also cf. Arland J. Hultgren, Paul’s Gospel and Mission (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 125-128. What such studies have not shown (1) is how texts describing a universal, geographic mission equal an ethnic mission; significant overlap between these notions does not mean that they are identical. Also, (2) texts that describe a plurality of”nations” rejoicing in God’s salvation do not thereby teach a mission strategy. For example, a significant body of Jewish literature supports the notion that the Gentiles will be included into God’s people not by going to all the nations but by their coming to Zion (cf. M. Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul: Between Damascus and Antioch (Louisville, Ky.: West-minster/John Knox Press, 1997): p. 426 n. 898.)
2. Cf. W. Paul Bowers, “Fulfilling the Gospel: The Scope of the Pauline Mission,” JETS 30 (1987): 198.
3. Cf. Luis Bush, David Hargrove, and Dan Scribner, “146 Gateways Emerge to All the Remaining Unreached Peoples”, Mission Frontiers vol. 18.11-12 (November-December, 1996): 39.
4. W. Paul Bowers, “Mission,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G. Hawthorne, R. Martin, D. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 618. The age to come has dawned with the coming and work of Christ. This was not precipitated by but inaugurated a mission to the Gentiles. Any setting of criteria to be met before the End (e.g.,Matt. 24.14; 2 Thess. 2) is obscured by eschatological uncertainty (e.g., Matt. 24.36; 1 Thess. 5).
5. Cf. Gary R. Corwin, “Just where are the frontiers?” EMQ 28.2 (April, 1992): 118-123.
Rollin Grams is New Testament professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia, and founder of Friends of Timothy, an evangelical fellowship committed to theological education in Eastern Europe.
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