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Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

February 7th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

DeYoung, Kevin. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

An Incomplete Ecclesiology

This is an important book. I appreciate the authors’ care and scholarship in making a clear argument for their main thesis that the mission of the church is the proclamation of the gospel. And I don’t essentially disagree with that thesis, but I think the authors have a narrow vision of what it means to preach the gospel and what it means to be the church.

The second point first. The thesis suffers because the authors propose an incomplete ecclesiology. I don’t recall the point ever being stated explicitly but the authors proceed from a basic understanding that the church and Christ are not the same. This can be seen on page 41 where the question is posed, “But what if we are not called to partner with God in all he undertakes? What if the work of salvation, restoration, and re-creation are divine gifts to which we bear witness, rather than works in which we collaborate? What if our mission is not identical with God’s mission?”

Clearly, the authors are suggesting that God is responsible for one set of functions and the church another. God is to do the work of salvation and restoration, and the church is to bear witness to it. Thus, God and the church are two. The problem here is that if we believe in the Trinity (we do), the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all persons of one God (no separation). If we believe Paul when he writes to the church, “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:5 ESV) and, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27 ESV) and, “he is the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18 ESV) (we do, and we could go on) then there cannot be any separation of the church from God. When we see it this way the authors’ proposal that Christ has one mission and his body another seems exceedingly odd. The mission of the church is the mission of Christ because the church is Christ.

The idea of mystical union, or dying to our old life and rising to new life in Christ is fundamental to Paul’s theology. His description of the church as the Body of Christ is representative of the relationship of individual Christians to the church. Not all members have the same function, but all members are necessary for the life of the body, and since the body is Christ, the mission of the body is Christ’s mission. Paul goes into great detail describing how all parts come together to form the perfection (completion) of the body as “the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4:13 ESV)

So then we have to ask what Christ’s mission is. And indeed it *is* to proclaim the gospel. But if we look at the earthly ministry of Jesus we must conclude that proclaiming the gospel is much more than just preaching, much more than just telling people there’s a way out. Jesus did do that, and he demonstrated by his acts what the way out looked like, and then he became the way out. Jesus didn’t minister only to those in the church because there wasn’t any church. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to confine their concern only for those close to them but to everyone, especially those far away. Jesus doesn’t just love, or tell his disciples to just love, insiders. He tells them, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV) And then Jesus himself demonstrated that love by dying on the cross for those who were his enemies.

What do you think Jesus means when he says “love your enemies”? What does he mean by love? Let’s revisit the well-known verse where we are told that, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son”. (John 3:16 ESV) What does it mean that God “gave” his Son? Doesn’t it mean that he sent Jesus on a mission that would lead to the cross. And what is the cross? It is God’s complete outpouring of himself to reverse the brokenness that entered the world in Eden. (Phil. 2:6) He suffered the death that we deserve so that we could live the life we were created for. Jesus proclaimed the gospel from the cross. And he provided new life in himself, the church. So again, if the mission of the church is Christ’s mission, then the mission of the church is crucifixion. Complete outpouring of self for the enemies of God. It is inconceivable that the mission of the church could be simply to talk about what somebody else did and/or is going to do.

I appreciate the complexity of the issue of social justice. It is too easy to confuse good works with surrender to God’s will. It is too easy to align Christ’s mission with whatever our culture currently defines as justice. It is too easy to conclude that our mission is to solve the problems of the world as Christians, rather than to live and die for the world as a Spirit filled church. That is the world’s approach, and its fruits are evident in the news of the day. Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative, neither a socialist nor a capitalist (in spite of the authors’ defense of capitalism on p. 191).

We return to the beginning: the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel. But proclaiming the gospel is more than “preaching and teaching, announcing and testifying, making disciples and bearing witness.” (59) It is loving the world as God loves the world. If we are to carry out our mission, we must acknowledge that we are here “to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 ESV)

I agree with much of what the authors have written in this book. I disagree with the thesis. But I am richer for having read it, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the authenticity of the gospel.

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