by David J. Hesselgrave
The word “mission” seems to embrace any and every enterprise sincere Christians undertake.
"Mission" today includes such diverse enterprises as taking a “prayer walk” around a town in Germany, building a playground in a village in India, placing a Christian teacher in a college in China, evangelizing an unreached people group in the “10/40 Window,” fighting an AIDS epidemic in Botswana, protesting sex discrimination in Afghanistan, and much, much more.
The word “mission” seems to embrace any and every enterprise sincere Christians undertake. That’s scary—especially if one agrees with Ralph Winter that “The future of the world [not just of world mission!] hinges on what we make of this word ‘mission’” (italics his). And especially so if one agrees with him that confusion is more rampant among the “experts” than among laypersons, and is true of conservatives as well as liberals!1
It’s time to retrace the steps by which we arrived at such a comprehensive and confused view of our missionary task. We must rethink and redefine the Christian mission.
THE BROAD SOCIOPOLITICAL UNDERSTANDING
The meaning of “mission” has been “up for grabs” for a long time, especially in more liberal circles. Liberals generally think of mission as the establishment of shalom (social harmony). By the Uppsala meeting in 1968 they had all but disregarded Donald McGavran’s important question, “What about the 2 billion [unevangelized]?,” preferring to “let the world set the agenda.”
Entering the 1970s conservatives were, to say the least, very skeptical of this approach. However, for whatever reasons—an uneasy social conscience, a desire for rapprochement with liberals, pressure from newer evangelicals in Latin America and elsewhere—some conservative evangelicals took an important turn.
Playing major roles in this change of direction were John R.W. Stott and the architects of the Lausanne Covenant. Stott’s book Christian Mission in the Modern World2 undergirded the change and represented an effort to mediate between the sociopolitical interpretation of mission that characterized the World Council of Churches on the one hand, and the world evangelization understanding characteristic of the Lausanne Movement (up to that time) and most evangelical missions on the other. The contrast was more stark because Stott said little or nothing about the intimate linkage between evangelism and church growth so carefully and persuasively delineated by McGavran and other well-known missiologists.3
At any rate, in the candid and convincing style characteristic of his writings, Stott explained that he had abandoned his own prior and more traditional understanding that accorded priority to the Matthean statement of the Great Commission (28:16-20) in defining Christian mission. Instead, he had come to believe that the Johannine statements (17:18 and, especially, 20:21) should take precedence.4 Moreover, he argued that in saying, “As the Father hath sent me, so send I you,” Jesus deliberately made his own mission (as summarized in Luke 4:18-19—a favored passage of liberals) a model for ours.5 We are to carry out the “principle of the Incarnation.”6
Stott concluded that social action and evangelism are partners in the Christian mission. “Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself.”7 The relationship between the Great Commandment and the Great Commission constitutes a primary illustration of this. Christians are sent into the world to serve—to demonstrate concern for man’s “total welfare, the good of his soul, his body, his community.”8 Since man is a social being as well as a psychosomatic being, a political dimension must also be added to that social concern.9 In fact, Stott went so far as to conclude that, if the larger community goes bad, it is the fault, not of the community itself, but of the church which has failed to be salt and light.10
On these bases Stott argued for a new definition of mission: “Mission describes…everything the church is sent into the world to do.” In fairness to Stott, he did maintain that Christ’s Incarnation was unique: “We arenot saviors.” In the church’s “service to the world” he gave a certain priority to evangelism. And he stipulated that mission is not everything the church actually does in the world, but rather everything it is sent to do. Nevertheless it is now apparent that, for many, Stott had accomplished what he set out to do: namely, to mediate between the “extremes” he believed were being put forward by liberals and conservatives and occupy the middle ground. It is doubtful he succeeded in changing the mind of many liberals. But for many conservative evangelicals Stott had opened the way to a new and broader understanding of mission. Increasingly, mission became “holistic mission”—a phrase variously defined, but usually in ways consonant with Stott’s understanding.
Though other conservative evangelicals have proposed various forms of “holism,” Stott’s case has been most influential if for no other reason than the esteem in which he is held by all of us. As one mission leader in Latin America (now deceased) expressed it, “I guess that, since Stott said it, I did not even stop to analyze the biblical text on my own.”
Whatever other factors may have precipitated it, this broad understanding of mission has become widely accepted. In fact, under the heading “Emerging mission paradigm at the end of the second millenium [sic]” the new Mission Handbook (1998-2000) identifies that “emerging paradigm” as the “centrality of holism—life, deed, word and sign.”12
THE INADEQUACY OF THIS KIND OF HOLISTIC MISSION
This broad understanding of mission should be abandoned for two primary reasons. First, it is based on a very questionable interpretation of the biblical text. Second, it is counterproductive from a practical point of view.
The theology of “holism” as proposed by Stott has been challenged before,13 but to my knowledge we now have the most incisive and definitive study of “Johannine mission” yet attempted by an evangelical scholar. I refer to Andreas J. Kostenberger’s 1998 book The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel: With Implications for the Fourth Gospel‘s Purpose and the Mission of the Contemporary Church.14 This book contains a meticulous examination—almost 200 pages—of relevant philological and historical data. Here we can do no more than highlight three of Kostenberger’s conclusions that bear mightily on holistic mission in general and Stott’s argument in particular.
a) The Fourth Gospel does point to an analogous element between Jesus’ ministry and that of his disciples, but they are not analogous in every respect and not in the ways indicated in holistic mission.
b) The Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of the mission of Jesus centers on his provision of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Even Jesus’ signs transcend his actual works, functioning as a revelation of the nature of his Sender, the Father, and the authenticity of Jesus’ representation of the Father. The notion that the disciples’ (and our) mission is to be seen as “service to humanity” is inconsistent with the theology of John’s Gospel. “The church cannot afford to let urgent needs or pressing circumstances set its agenda.”15
c) The incarnational model of mission is at odds with John’s Gospel, which portrays Jesus’ Incarnation as “thoroughly unique, unprecedented, and unrepeatable.” In fact, such a model seems to “jeopardize Jesus’ salvation-historical uniqueness.”16 Insofar as we can speak of a Johannine model, it is representational. It is not the way that Jesus came into the world (i.e., the Incarnation) but rather the “nature of Jesus’ relationship with his Sender” (i.e., one of obedience and utter dependence) that is in view in John’s Gospel.17
It is commonly thought that all efforts to meet human need invariably validate the gospel and enhance evangelism and church growth. Knowledgeable and experienced missionaries and national leaders realize that this is not always the case. Humanitarian aid can be abane as well as a blessing. It is often attended by serious problems: the inadequacy of delivery systems, the temptation to acquisitiveness and greed, the infusion of divisiveness, and (one of the most troublesome) the maintenance of any kind of significant priority for evangelism and church planting in actual field situations. Political involvement tends to exacerbate the situation even more.
TOWARD A MORE BIBLICAL AND HOPEFUL DEFINITION
In the early 1970s liberals coined the word “contextualization” and infused it with a meaning that detracted from biblical theology and mission. In response, conservatives adopted the word but redefined it to agree with Scripture and enhance mission. Something similar should happen now with “holistic mission.” Providentially, important factors that encourage and contribute to just such a needed redefinition are already in place.
Theologians should pay special attention to Matthew 28:16-20. First, the precedence traditionally accorded to the Matthean statement is hermeneutically correct since, as far as the Gospels are concerned, it is Jesus’ final and most complete statement on the subject. Second, it highlights priorities that bode well for mission in the new millennium. Robert Duncan Culver’s excellent book on the theology of mission, for example, gives priority to Matthew over John and also highlights the importance of “teaching them to observe all things [Christ] commanded” as indicated by the grammatical construction of the text.18
In this connection, believers in the providence and sovereignty of God cannot but be impressed by the fact that the central concern of hundreds of Evangelical Missiological Society and Evangelical Theological Society missiologists and theologians meeting in Orlando last November was based on Matthew 28:20: “Teaching them…all things.”
Another contribution to the needed redefinition of holism is implicit in the writings of a number of prominent conservative evangelical scholars.
David Wells, pointing to syncretism in the world church, says that while we have been debating the nature of the Bible, the Bible itself has fallen into disuse. He writes: “Two decades ago, the debate was over the nature of Scripture; today the debate should be over its function.”19
William Dyrness argues that “…what is transcultural is not some core truth, but Scripture—the full biblical context of Christ’s work. It is this that must be allowed to strike its own spark in the light of the needs of particular cultures.”20
Daniel Fuller concludes that biblical theology—viewing Bible writers and their writings in the larger context of completed revelation and allowing salvation history to inform the text—affords us the best hope for determining the meaning and significance of the biblical text for our day. 21
The missiological significance of the foregoing emphases is perhaps best stated by Donald Carson:
. . . the Bible as a whole tells a story, and, properly used that story can serve as a meta-narrative that shapes our grasp of the entire Christian faith. In my view it is increasingly important to spell this out to Christians and to non-Christians alike—to Christians to ground them in Scripture, and to non-Christians as part of our proclamation of the gospel. The ignorance of basic Scripture is so disturbing in our day that Christian preaching that does not seek to remedy the lack is simply irresponsible.22
These understandings undergird the mission strategies of Tom Steffen at Biola, Trevor McIlwain of New Tribes Mission, Harry Wendt among Lutherans, and James Slack and J.O. Terry among Southern Baptists, among many others.
ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF A NEW DEFINITION
Of course, it is presumptuous to offer a new definition of holistic mission, because the basic elements are already so apparent in Matthew 28:16-20. That passage clearly presents the very “holisms” or universals intrinsic to biblical mission: “all authority,” “all nations or peoples,” “all things whatsoever I havecommanded,” and “I am with you always. “ If we want to preserve the term “holistic mission,” we can do no better than return to the priority and meaning that our Lord himself ascribes to it.
However, in light of recent deficiencies in missionary strategy, and in view of the secularized, syncretized, stumbling world we will face tomorrow, we may want to go further. We should then focus on one of the most needed, and neglected, requirements of Great Commission mission—discipling the ethne by “teaching them to obey all things [Christ] has commanded. “ Both Christ’s reliance on, and use of, Scripture reinforce the significance of that strategy. Both apostolic preaching and precept further reinforce it. Communicating the whole, unfolding revelation of God, the whole counsel of God, is in view here. That is the comprehensiveness that leads to comprehension. That is the holism that Christ commends and commands.
The heart-rending poverty and suffering of millions that we all feel—and a softening of the biblical teaching on lostness that some now espouse—prompt certain questions that deserve answers.
Question: “Certainly it is valid to look to our Lord Jesus as an Example of mission ministry. After all, he was the greatest Missionary of them all.”
Answer: Yes, and no. He certainly is our Example of obedience to the Heavenly Father and of sacrificial service to the world. But Luke 4:16-21, which is most often used in this connection, is a recapitulation of the signs of his messiahship as prophesied in Isaiah 61:1-2. These signs were literally fulfilled in Christ’s ministry. They will not be literally fulfilled by anyone else. When Paul and Barnabas testified concerning their mission, they quoted Isaiah 49:6: “I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth” (Acts 13:47).
Question: “What about the Great Commandment to love our neighbor and do to our neighbor as we would have done to ourselves? Are we justified in disregarding this basic command in carrying out Christian mission?”
Answer: No, of course not. But the problem has to do with relationship. The Great Commandment neither completes the Great Commission, nor competes with it. It was a summation of the Law and, as one of Christ’s commands, complements the Great Commission. It is to be obeyed along with all other things Christ commanded (cf. Gal. 6:7-10). Teaching people to obey it is essential to disciple-making and part of Great Commission mission. Actually obeying it is an important aspect of discipleship, and part of our Christian duty. There is no problem with that. The confusion has to do with transmuting “part of our Christian duty” into a more or less equal “partnership in Christian mission.” That is unwarranted.
Let us be clear. The word “mission” itself is not a New Testament word as such and therefore allows for a variety of stipulated definitions. For example, in a context where he discusses the “external service” of the church, Arthur Glasser says that “mission” is often described in terms of ministering to the needy, working for social justice, and bringing the unsaved to Christ.23 This is obviously true. “Holistic mission,” as currently understood, describes it in precisely those terms. We might even agree that, if it is made clear that this definition is a stipulated definition, the definition has a certain legitimacy. After all, a stipulated definition is no more than an invitation to accept the proposed definition within a certain context.
However, when the word “mission” is used in such a way as to give the impression that what is being described is biblical mission (i.e., what our Lord commanded in the Great Commission; what the New Testament has to say about the “apostolate” and the primary ministry of the apostles in general and the apostle Paul and his team in particular), the case is entirely different. In that context, Arthur Glasser correctly writes:
If one were asked to describe the relative importance of the differentcomponents of the missionary task, he would be obliged to confess that evangelism is 100% important …. Training is 100% important …. Church planting is 100% important …. All are of fundamental importance. The program of God embraces all three.24
Never has there been such a need to master and apply the principles of mission outlined in the New Testament. They are as true and workable now as when they were first applied: when a Roman world was won to Christ. They need to be used today if the cause of Christ is to advance in the teeth of the gathering storm.
We can feed some of the hungry, but we cannot feed the whole world. We can help heal some of the sick, but we cannot heal the whole world. We can support the rights of some disenfranchised people, but we cannot enfranchise the whole world. But we can evangelize the whole world, and no one else will do it if we do not. In Matthew 24 our sovereign Lord tells us that it can and will be done; and in Matthew 28 he tells us both that we must do it and how it is to be done.
1. Ralph Winter, Mission Frontiers, March-April, 1998. p. 15.
2. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1975.)
3. Cf. Stott, pp. 15-20 where the fact that, in wider mission circles, evangelism would normally be coupled with church planting and church development. See reference to Arthur Glasser below.
4. Stott, pp. 22-23.
5. Stott, pp. 23-24.
6. Stott, p. 24.
7. Stott, p. 27.
8. Stott, p. 30.
9. Stott, p. 30.
10. Stott,p. 32.
11. Stott,p. 30.
12. John A Siewert and Edna G. Valdez, eds. Mission Handbook: U.S. and Canadian Christian Ministries Overseas, 1998-2000 (Monrovia: MARC, 1997), p. 9.
13. See Trinity World Forum, Spring, 1990, and Spring, 1991. Also see Gary T. Meadors, “John R. W. Stott on Social Action,” Grace Theological Journal, vol. 1, no. 2 (Fall) 198O, pp. 129-147.
14. Andreas I. Kostenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel: With Implications for the Fourth Gospel’s Purpose and the Mission of the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
15. Kostenberger, p. 212.
16. Kostenberger, p. 210.
17. Kostenberger, p. 210.
18. See Robert Duncan Culver, A Greater Commission: A Theology for World Missions (Chicago : Moody Press, 1984), pp. 150-51, fn. 7.
19. David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 150, 212.
20. William A. Dyrness, Learning About Theology From the Third World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 28.
21. Daniel P. Fuller, “Biblical Theology and the Analogy of Faith,” in International Journal of Frontier Missions, April-June, 1997, pp. 65-74.
22. D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 195.
23. Arthur F. Glasser, “The Apostle Paul and the Missionary Task” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: a Reader, rev. ed., Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1992), p. A-130.
24. Glasser, “The Missionary Task: An Introduction,” in Winter and Hawthorne, p. A124.
David J. Hesselgrave is author of more than a dozen books, including Scripture and Strategy (1994), Today’s Choices for Tomorrow’s Mission (1988), and Communicating Christ Cross-culturally (1978). A former missionary to Japan, he is professor emeritus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, Ill.).
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