Monthly Archives: October 2011

God’s Agenda & Ours

It’s so easy to take up the promises of Scripture and read them through the lenses of our own hopes and dreams.  This was the very trouble with the Jewish generation that encountered Jesus, and it remains the same for us.  In his new book, Wright captures this so well:

This is the point at which we can understand only too well how it was that the Israelite people of old, and the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, could very easily forget that their national dream and God’s purposes for them might actually be two quite different things. The prophets existed to remind them of the fact; but prophets were easy to ignore or forget. Or kill.

N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 43.


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 7

Over the past week or two, I’ve been thinking through Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book, What Is the Mission of the Church?  I’m not so much reviewing it as engaging it in conversation, working through some of the Scriptures they handle in canonical order.  Joel Willitts has also been engaging the book critically at Euangelion (see here, here, here, and here).

Today, I want to comment on the intended audience and rhetorical shape of the book.  It’s important to recognize that this book is written from and for a culture of agreement.

It’s an insider’s book, written from within a self-contained culture to others within that culture.  The authors confess openly that they’re part of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd and I think that they live and move and have their being solely within that sub-group of conservative evangelicals.

What can tend to happen in cultures of agreement is that group members don’t engage others who disagree in genuine conversation.  They tend to demonize or devalue members of other groups, minimizing their viewpoints, rarely coming into genuine contact with them.  This book is an example of this sort of phenomenon.

This book is not written for the average person interested in the mission of the church.  It is written for those within the YRR crowd who have decided already that they are not missionally-oriented Christian people.  The book is written to strengthen the identity of YRR people in their convictions about the gospel, the character of the church vis-à-vis social action, and most specifically to inoculate them against the literature and rhetoric from missional evangelicals.

I say this because the book is largely negative.  They don’t elaborate a mission for the church beyond repeating a few times that the church gathers for worship and making disciples, but isn’t responsible for doing good in the world.  Perhaps reflecting this largely negative frame for their work, Joel Willitts has been titling his blog posts, “What’s NOT the mission of the church?”

Neither is the book written for Christians who don’t know that there’s a difference between YRR evangelicals and missional evangelicals.  The authors don’t define alternative visions of church practice or help the reader to understand competing conceptions of the issues.  They dive right into their discussions in a way that would leave uninformed readers in the dust.

But insider rhetoric works in just this way.  It’s perfectly understandable to those within the camp shaped by rhetorical boundaries.  Those outside its borders are left mystified.

This book is certainly not written for missional Christians, those involved in urban churches, or those who minister among the poor.  Christians called to serve in missional churches may not feel that their philosophies of ministry are represented faithfully by DeYoung and Gilbert.

In fact, I’m not sure that the authors are familiar with the viewpoints of missional Christians.  They routinely portray them as Theonomic Postmillennialists, which is simply incredible.  They associate calls to do good in the world with the conviction that Christians are responsible to bring in the Kingdom of God by their efforts (p. 129).  They equate a missional outlook with the view that Christians are responsible to return creation to its pre-fall, edenic state (p. 75).

This is unfair and simply wrong.  I know of no missional Christian who talks or writes this way, and no one even comes close.  It seems that they know this, since they don’t cite anyone who holds the views they so vigorously and roundly critique.

Further, they regularly construct false dichotomies as they frame their position over against this straw man view of the church.  This is a typical rhetorical ploy in insider literature that constructs an “other” that is strange and dangerous.

Think “The Village.”  This book functions for the YRR crowd much like the fear-mongering that goes on in that film.  The village’s leaders spread word of monsters in the woods so that no one will venture beyond the borders of the village, discovering that they’re walled off from the outside world.

I only point this out to highlight how the book’s rhetoric functions and suggest why for some it may be a frustrating book to read.  For those who already agree with the authors’ viewpoint, it will function to strengthen their convictions.  Those expecting a fair engagement with the missional literature and an even-handed treatment of the topics they address will either be mystified or frustrated.

In my opinion, this is extremely disappointing.  We have the responsibility and privilege to bless one another and sharpen each others’ thinking.  That includes treating each other fairly and speaking and writing truthfully about one another.


Prayer for the Weekend

 

Father, we praise you for the love you have shown to us in Jesus.  We praise you that you have set your love upon us from all eternity.  You plotted and planned to pursue and to rescue us.  When we were dead in transgressions and sins, you gave us life.  When we loved our sin, when we lived to please ourselves, when we planned and plotted and schemed for our own glory, to make a name for ourselves, you came to us in Jesus.  You broke through our hard, encrusted hearts, and you brought us salvation, gave us life, you brought us into the light, you brought us to yourself.

You delight to save sinners; you are eager to redeem what is lost.  You exult in the simple and awkward act of worship by a neglected and despised widow.  You choose a prostitute to populate the family line of the Messiah.  You rush out to meet the returning prodigal.  You sit down and eat with tax-collectors and sinners.  You choose your murderous enemy to be your Apostle.  You welcome into paradise the thief on the cross.  You gently restore the one who denied you again and again and again.  We praise you, Father, that you are so unlike us.  Our hearts are small, but you are a Magnanimous Giver of all good things.

We praise you, Father, for your forgiveness.  We praise you, Father, that your mercies are always already arriving into our lives, greeting us in the morning, walking with us throughout the day, meeting us wherever we go.

We praise you for uniting us to Christ by your Spirit.  We praise you for uniting us to one another, for making us a family.  We praise you, Father, for Jesus, our Savior, who taught us to pray…

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.


God’s Love for Creation

I’ve been engaging with the work of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church?  They are concerned that some missional writers have been identifying humanity too closely with the rest of God’s creation (p. 70).  They emphasize, on the other hand, the distinction between humanity and the rest of creation and humanity’s unique relationship to God that the rest of creation doesn’t enjoy.

Narrowly speaking, this isn’t entirely wrong.  Humanity does indeed enjoy a special relationship with God, being uniquely in the image of God.  This has much to do with humanity’s cultivating creation and overseeing, on God’s behalf, the spread of shalom throughout the world.

DeYoung and Gilbert, however, take up the narrow point of humanity’s distinction from the rest of creation and portray God’s work of redemption as having to do exclusively with the restoration of his relationship to humanity.  After reviewing the narrative of Scripture, they note the following:

The “whole story” is not, as one author suggests, about us becoming “conduits for him to bring healing to earth and its residents.”  It’s not about our call “to partner in a restorative work so that the torch of hope is carried until Christ returns.”  The story is not about us working with God to make the world right again.  It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again (p. 89). 

Now, we might cite this as one of a number of false dichotomies that characterizes their work.  But I just want to note that this reading of the biblical narrative undergirds their claim that the mission of the church has to do with gathering for worship and making disciples to the exclusion of concern for the rest of the world and creation itself.

Throughout the biblical narrative, however, God is regularly and consistently concerned about his world.  Just a few passages to make this point:

First, after God’s judgment in the flood, God promises never to judge the world in that way again.  What’s often neglected is that God does not only make this covenant with Noah.  In Genesis 9:8-17, God makes covenant with Noah and his sons and all creation:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth . . .  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

Second, Jonah demonstrates God’s pursuit of his creation—both human and non-human.  The story is familiar.  God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’s impending judgment.  Jonah, standing in for all of Israel, hates the Ninevites and would love to see the God of Israel rain down judgment on them.

But Jonah does not want to go to Ninevah because he knows the God of Israel too well.  He knows that God’s posture toward the world is one of loving pursuit.  Jonah is angry after Ninevah repents and God relents from his declared judgment:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:1-2).

Jonah then has a conversation with the God of Israel in which God reveals his heart of love for his creation.

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals” (Jonah 4:10-11)?

Though Israel had come to crave the destruction of its enemies, the God of Israel, because he is the God of all creation, is still passionately committed to his original aims for creation.  He still wants humans all over the world experiencing flourishing by worshiping the God of all creation.

A third text.  In Revelation 11:16-18, John describes this vision:

And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Empires that sustain themselves by raping the earth rather than caring for it according to God’s original intentions will be destroyed by the God of all creation. 

As the heirs of a worldview that assumes a range of dualisms (physical vs. spiritual, political vs. religious, etc.), we tend to prioritize the spiritual at the expense of the physical.  We assume that God’s concerns can’t be so . . . earthy.  Perhaps this only highlights how much we impose our dualisms on Scripture, and how different our priorities are from God’s.  To my mind, DeYoung and Gilbert fall prey to this at point after point throughout their book.

All of this is just to say that God is intensely concerned for his creation.  He wants creation to flourish and appoints humanity to oversee the spread of shalom on the earth and to experience flourishing along with the rest of creation.

God’s aims are indeed frustrated at the fall and with the entrance of Sin and Death into the world.  In the gospel, God aims to restore what was lost.  Because so much was lost, the gospel seeks to recover so much more than we might assume on a narrow reading of Scripture. 

There’s something wrong with a conception of the gospel and the mission of the church that sets aside what is so central to the heart of God.

I’ll have to treat other texts and issues to draw this out more fully.  For now, however, I just point to these passages to note God’s intense concern and love for his entire creation.


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 6

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert argue for a narrowly focused vision of the church in their book, What Is the Mission of the Church?  They claim that the people of God are called to gather for worship and disciple-making.  The church is not an agency of doing good in the world.  Such activity is commendable and ought to be done by individual Christians on their own time.  But such pursuits are distractions from the church’s central task.

At the heart of DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s book is a narrowly conceived conception of God.  I can’t say whether their portrayal of God drives their vision of the church or whether the dynamic works in the other direction.  It seems certain, however, that their vision of God is closely bound to how they envision the role God’s people in the world.

They speak of God largely in legal and moral terms, leaving aside many of the images and metaphors given in the opening chapters and books of Scripture.  Throughout their work, God’s posture toward the world is antagonistic.  They repeat three times in their survey of the biblical narrative that one question “stands at the very heart of the Bible’s story: How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God (p. 69, italics in original)?”

It seems that this conception of God is necessary to make their case.  If God’s posture toward the world outside the church is antagonistic, then it makes sense for the church to focus on activity within the church and to see doing good to outsiders as merely optional.

Again, to be fair, DeYoung and Gilbert conclude their survey of Scripture by noting that they haven’t drawn out every possible biblical theme (p. 89).  But their singular emphasis on God’s posture of antagonism toward humanity and the world to the exclusion of other depictions of God characterizes their overall presentation.  They consistently isolate certain biblical notes and themes and stress them in a way that marginalizes other biblical themes—even ones that are more prominent or arguably nearer to the central thrust of Scripture.

Here are just a few Scriptural passages that present a different conception of God’s posture toward humanity and his creation.

In God’s climactic revelation of his character to Moses, God stresses his mercy first:

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7).

God will indeed judge the guilty, but the stress is on God’s overpowering goodness and love, not his posture of antagonism.

Second, DeYoung and Gilbert run the risk of too strong a distinction between God himself and the revelation of God in Jesus.  They leave the impression that God and Jesus play “bad cop” and “good cop” with humanity—God, the angry, authoritarian cop; Jesus, the friendly cop who’s really on our side.

John’s Gospel moves in the opposite direction, noting that Jesus truly reveals the very heart of God.  John says in 1:18 that “no one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  John puts this revelation of God in striking terms here.  “Made known” is the verb for “exegete.”  Jesus “exegetes” God, drawing out and performing for the world in a 33-year long life what God is really like.

Philip, perhaps trying to sound pious, says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8).

Jesus does not respond by pointing to his teaching, as if he has been talking about the Father all along.  He directs their attention to his pattern of life: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (v. 9).

So, when Jesus goes around healing the sick, restoring sight, casting out demons—restoring shalom and flourishing to a wounded and enslaved creation—he is revealing God’s heart for his world and his passion to restore his creation.  When we see Jesus touching the unclean, going to the outcasts, prostitutes, tax-collectors, sinners, and outsiders, we see anything but God’s antagonistic posture toward humanity.

Speaking about Jesus’ life and ministry is not to diminish the cross—Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It’s just to say that Jesus truly and most fully reveals God.  If we see Jesus calling humanity back to God, then we should assume that’s what God wants.  If we see Jesus seeking to do good in the world, then we should assume that’s on God’s heart.  If we see Jesus seeking to restore humanity’s and creation’s flourishing, then we should assume that this is the heart of God for his creation—human and otherwise.

If that means that God’s ultimate aims involve more than what we previously thought, then let’s adjust our agendas to match God’s.  It just might be that the gospel is bigger than we’ve imagined and that there’s more on God’s heart than is on ours.


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 5

It seems to me that both “missional” Christians and the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” folks envision God on a mission.  They just configure that mission differently, and the result is two different conceptions of the church and the church’s mission.

DeYoung and Gilbert offer a narrative reading of Scripture in their third chapter.  They portray the creation condition mainly in static terms.  Humanity had a relationship of “perfect harmony” with God.  This was a state of moral and legal purity that needed to be guarded and protected.

Adam and Eve disobeyed and violated the relationship with God in a moral and legal sense.  It’s at this point that God initiates his mission, and his goal is to restore the relationship with humanity.

Every story has to have an obstacle that needs to be overcome, providing the central tension.  For DeYoung and Gilbert, the obstacle is this broken relationship: “the main tension of the Bible’s story line seems to revolve around the question, How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God (p. 89)?”

The mission of God, on this conception, involves God’s aims to repair his relationship to humanity.  This mission begins at the fall and ends at the consummation, returning creation to a sort of static condition of moral and legal perfection.

This narrative shapes the identity of the church by making it the place where God’s restored people gather.  And what is the church’s mission?  They are to gather and worship and give thanks for their restored relationship.  If they do anything beyond that when they scatter, that’s commendable, but there isn’t anything essential beyond their gathering for worship and making disciples.

In addition, it may be worth considering how God’s supposedly antagonistic relationship with outsiders shapes the church’s attitude toward doing good in the world.

Missional Christians will respond that this narrative has the wrong starting point, an inappropriate narrative obstacle, a misplaced resolution, and a thinned-out ecclesiology.

They’ll point to an alternative narrative, claiming that God’s mission begins at creation.  It’s not a static condition at all, but a vigorously and vitally dynamic one.  God gives shape to what was formless and begins filling with wonderful things what was formerly empty.  He creates a vibrant, teeming, swarming, and super-abounding world that is overflowing with life and commissions humanity to join him in filling it even more.  Further, God wants the whole of his creation to be characterized by shalom and universal flourishing.

As the Creator God’s image multiplies and spreads throughout the earth and continues to grow into this role, the Creator God will be increasingly glorified in all of creation—God’s temple.  God’s glory increases with the spread of creation’s flourishing.

A missional reading of Scripture gives priority of place to Genesis 1-2 and not Genesis 3, considering God’s passion for and delight in creation as the driving force in the narrative.

The obstacle in the narrative is, of course, the fall.  Humanity has rebelled, failing to carry out God’s commission to subdue creation and manage the spread of universal flourishing.

The question that drives the narrative is, How can the Creator God redeem humanity as his image, reclaim creation as his temple, and restore creation’s flourishing for the glory of his name?

Missional Christians will claim that this story line satisfies in ways that the other doesn’t.  It recognizes the dynamic and compelling character of God’s original intentions for creation.  It makes sense of God’s call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations.  God still wants to be glorified by all of creation and by all the nations.  He didn’t toss out that original desire at the fall.

This also makes sense of Jesus’ life and ministry.  He did indeed come to die, but he also came to live!  His life isn’t just a bunch of insignificant details until he goes to the cross.  He enacts the truly human life that God wanted all along, one that subdues creation and seeks human flourishing in so many different ways.

This also makes Christ’s work on the cross multi-faceted.  Jesus’ death and resurrection provides forgiveness, effects the reunion of shattered humanity, unleashes resurrection life on creation, and inaugurates the new creation.

All of that sets the trajectory for the church’s mission.  The church is God’s people on earth, created, sustained, and empowered by the Spirit to experience God’s own life and joy in Christ.  They are created to be communities of justice and flourishing, and this is to have a spill-over effect so that churches are literally “bodies of Christ.”  They do in their wider communities what Jesus did when he came to earth, bringing healing, shalom, flourishing.

To a world that is enslaved to Sin and Death, suffering under the weight of evil’s devastation, the missional church embodies good news.  And the church is a sign to the world of God’s coming renewal that will free creation finally and completely so that it once again becomes God’s temple. 

At that point, the story starts to get profoundly better and the narrative really takes off…


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 4

I mentioned last week that I’m engaging Kevin DeYoung’s and Greg Gilbert’s book, What Is the Mission of the Church?  I’m sort of working in canonical order, starting with their handling of the beginning of the biblical narrative.

There is a second way in which DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s handling of Genesis 1-2 is problematic.  They impose an unnatural framework on the creation account, along with Genesis 3, that overshadows and marginalizes essential elements of the biblical narrative.  This leaves them with an incomplete account of the creation and the fall and leads to an inadequate depiction of God’s work of salvation and the mission of the church.

Now, to be fair, DeYoung and Gilbert note that in discussing Genesis 1-2 they’re not saying all that could be said about the creation account.  It’s such a rich narrative that they can’t possibly talk about everything.  That’s exactly right.  I want to be clear that I’m not criticizing them for only focusing on one theme.  Every writer must be selective in developing any theme from Scripture.

The problem here is that they first emphasize features of the narrative that the text does not highlight.  That’s not necessarily wrong, especially with such a richly resonant story.  If one makes that move, however, one must be very careful.  But DeYoung and Gilbert make these outside-the-text features the main point of the narrative and set them over against features that are present in the text.

This move has massive implications for understanding the character of God, his relation to humanity, the character of the fall, and God’s mission to recover what was lost and reestablish his sovereign rule.  I’ll briefly describe how they handle Genesis 1-3 and then elaborate my criticisms.

In handling Genesis 1-3, DeYoung and Gilbert claim that missional thinkers have made too much of the connection between humanity and creation (p. 70).  They want to correct this by stressing the distinction between Adam and Eve and the rest of creation.  The first pair had a special relationship to God, enjoying “perfect fellowship and harmony” with God.  At the fall, this relationship was broken in a “legal and moral” sense (p. 73).

Because the main point of Genesis 1-3 is humanity’s relationship to God, according to the authors, the “themes of alienation from God and salvation by a Mediator” become central to the story line throughout Scripture (p. 75).  DeYoung and Gilbert set this central thrust of Scripture against another alternative.  They state that “the hope of salvation is not for Adam to work to return the world to its original ‘very good’ state, but rather for God to effect salvation through a Mediator” (p. 74, italics in original).  Again, “there is nothing in the early chapters of Genesis that would lead us to believe that the work of returning the world to its original ‘very good’ state falls to Adam.  God does not give him such a charge, and the reason is that Adam has already blown it” (p. 75).

There are several problems with this depiction.

First, DeYoung and Gilbert distinguish between humanity’s status before God and humanity’s function within creation.  As I noted previously, humanity’s relating to one another and managing creation’s flourishing constituted their worship of God.  They can’t be separated and set against each other.

Further, humanity is indeed the apex of creation and given the task of overseeing its flourishing.  But DeYoung and Gilbert inappropriately stress the distinction between humanity and creation whereas the narrative stresses their inseparability.  Adam was made “from the ground” (2:6) and was put in the garden for the purpose of cultivating and keeping it (2:15).  In terms of the creation account, human identity is defined in terms of relation to the creation.  Adam’s relation to the ground is both what makes him human and constitutes his worship of God.  DeYoung and Gilbert seek to separate what the text holds together.

This is crucial because it isn’t merely that Adam and Eve sinned against God in the abstract.  Their sin was a very specific failure, having everything to do with being the “image of God.”  They failed to subdue the serpent.  They refused to represent God to the creation, failing to properly be the image of God within the Creator God’s temple.

Pointing ahead, Paul picks up on this in Romans 1:23-25 and describes how God’s work of salvation restores humanity to the image of God, leading to restored worship (Rom. 12:1-2).  This has everything to do with image of God, which has everything to do with humanity’s relation to one another and creation.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

Second, DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize the “moral and legal” components of the fall.  Humanity has been alienated from God and this becomes central to the story line of the Bible.

It isn’t wrong, of course, to stress the brokenness of humanity’s relation to God.  But DeYoung and Gilbert do this in a way that minimizes the fact that this alienation takes a specific form.  What has gone wrong is that Adam and Eve are alienated from one another and from the ground.  The functions to which God committed them are now corrupted.

The central theme in the remainder of the biblical narrative, then, is that something has gone horribly wrong in God’s temple with direct reference to creation’s cultivation.  The “image” has been corrupted in some way and this is the problem that needs to be addressed.

Once again, I’m not criticizing DeYoung and Gilbert for stressing humanity’s alienation from God.  This is clearly central in Scripture.  But they do so in a way that distinguishes this from the manner in which this relation is embodied and excludes humanity’s relation to creation.

Third, the rhetoric DeYoung and Gilbert employ here is very unhelpful.  I had intended to work through the substance of their work first and then later address their rhetorical strategies.  I’ve talked with others who have read the book and were very frustrated by its rhetoric and argumentation.  I’ll comment later on how I believe their rhetoric relates to their perceived audience.

For now, however, I’ll call upon my undergraduate logic class and note that the authors here run into the fallacy of the excluded middle.  This fallacy involves presenting one’s own position against an extreme version of another position, ignoring more reasonable options that may constitute a middle position.

As DeYoung and Gilbert begin their book, they cite several other writers, such as Christopher Wright, David Bosch, John Stott, and N. T. Wright.  For the remainder of the book, however, they stop citing other writers and begin setting their own view in opposition to an extreme position that I don’t think anyone holds.

This strategy associates missional thinkers with a misguided quest to return to the pre-fall creation condition.  This is very unhelpful and I tend to think it’s a bit unfair.  I don’t know of any evangelical who would talk like that or advocate such a position explicitly.  This strategy unfairly skews the discussion and prevents fruitful reflection on a properly biblical engagement with a broken creation.

This post has already gotten too long, but I believe that Scripture portrays God’s work of salvation in terms of the restoration of creation rather than its abandonment.


Identity Formation

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I occasionally opened our Midtown services with a welcome that reminded us of our identity as God’s gathered people.  Here’s another:

Cheers, Kate Roberts.

Welcome, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, sent into an enslaved world, crucified, and raised to life by God and seated as King of all creation.  Jesus has sent his Spirit into the world and has given us life from the dead, opened our eyes and unstopped our ears so that we might have life, so that we might see and hear the truth, so that we might enjoy his life and his presence among us.  May the peace of Christ be with us all.

 Welcome to Midtown Christian Community.  We are a bunch of people who were dead in trespasses and sins, who had grown skilled and developed expertise in self-destruction and folly.  We constantly made the wrong choices, disappointing others, frustrating ourselves.  We lived lives that advertised the brokenness and enslavement of this world.

But God has loved us in Jesus.  When we were dead, God gave us life.  When we were enslaved, God brought us freedom in Christ.  When we were enemies of God and in conflict with one another, God made us his friends, his children, uniting us to one another and to himself.

We are gathered here because we’re a bunch of people loved by Jesus, pursued by God the Passionate Lover, called to receive his love and be agents of his love to one another.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 3

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert build their case from a range of biblical texts in What Is the Mission of the Church?  In engaging their work, I’ll start with how they portray the beginning of all things—the creation account and God’s intentions for humanity.

I find their treatment of the character of creation problematic in two ways, and I’ll treat these in separate posts.  First, throughout their book they distinguish between worship and human flourishing, setting them over against each other as two separate dynamics.  Referring to the consummation of all things in the end, they assert the following: “Worship is the end of the end of the story, not human flourishing, because a redesigned world is nothing without delight in God” (p. 247).

I noted in the previous post that for DeYoung and Gilbert, the central task(s) of the church is worship and disciple-making.  Seeking the flourishing of creation through good works is something that is commendable, but not essential.  It’s a distraction from the church’s central task and it’s something Christians may do on their own when the church scatters.

But this misrepresents the essential identification of worship and human flourishing in the creation account.  Genesis 1-2 utilizes temple imagery to frame God’s relation to the world and humanity’s relation to God and the world.  Scripture depicts the whole of creation as God’s temple, the place where he is encountered, known, and worshiped.  God places Adam and Eve in the garden as his “image.”  Just as “images” are found in pagan temples to represent an unseen deity, so God places Adam and Eve in the garden to “image” the unseen Creator God.

God charges Adam and Eve with tending and keeping the garden (Gen. 2:15).  Further, they are to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28)  He had already commanded them to be fruitful and multiply (v. 28), referring to the procreation and spread of humanity all over the earth.  So “filling the earth” involves the development of culture in all its wonderful variety.

Just as God formed what was formless, and filled what was void or empty (Gen. 1:2), humanity is to fill the earth with all sorts of created and creative things.  It is crucial to note that Scripture identifies these pursuits as the manner in which they play the role of being God’s image

Further, Adam and Eve were to “subdue” the creation (Gen. 1:28).  In Genesis 1-2, the garden reality is not equivalent to the whole of creation.  The garden is where God’s shalom was present.  Outside the garden is still undeveloped, loaded with potential.  Creation—both the garden and what was outside the garden—needs humanity to continue to manage it, overseeing its flourishing and the cultivation of ever-expanding and ever-increasing shalom.  God gives humanity the task of spreading shalom throughout the whole of creation so that all of it might flourish.

And here’s the point: All of this is worship.  All human pursuits are activity within the temple.  Their work was worship.  Their Sabbath rest-from-work, their play and exploration of the wonder of creation was worship.  Their discovery of new tasks and development of tools was worship.  Their discovery of one another and delight in each other was worship.  At the point of creation, all human activity is carried out in the temple and is therefore “sacred.” 

The identification of all human activity as worship in Reformed theology, along with other Christian traditions, is why most Reformed theologians do not operate with a split between the sacred and the secular.

Humanity’s furthering of shalom and their management of creation’s flourishing constituted exactly and precisely their worship of the Creator God.  It was the means whereby they enjoyed being all God designed them to be in God’s good world.  God delighted in their filling out what it meant to be human and enjoyed it all along with them.

There’s so much more to say about this, but the bifurcation between worship and seeking human flourishing in DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s book falls short of a faithful representation of Genesis 1-2.  This leads to a serious misreading of the character of salvation and the mission of the church.  Throughout their book, they set discipleship over against good deeds.  They set worship over against seeking the flourishing of creation.  Obedience to God, on their view, is something other than God’s original intention for humanity.  This leads to the “sacred-secular” split that runs through their work.  Activity in church is essential, but what I do the rest of the week, however good, is non-essential.

We’ll address the important question of whether God is recovering what was lost at the fall, or if he sets aside humanity’s original design and pursues something else.  DeYoung and Gilbert indicate that salvation involves the latter.   Since God’s design has gone wrong, the tasks to which God committed humanity are no longer our responsibility.  They claim that Christ has fulfilled Adam and Eve’s commission (p. 211), and indicate that after the consummation of God’s saving purposes humanity will once again take up its original task (p. 213).  For now, however, human flourishing is a distraction from the church’s central task.  The Christian church should focus on worship and making disciples.  The flourishing of creation is not our responsibility.

We’ll revisit this claim as we work through the Scriptures.  Just to look ahead, at point after point, Scripture portrays God’s saving mission as one in which he is recovering what was lost, restoring humanity to its original role as God’s “image.”  This role does not allow for the division of worship from seeking creation’s flourishing.


The Mission of the Church, Pt. 2

In this post I will briefly sketch the overall purpose of What Is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.  In subsequent posts I will engage the biblical, theological, and ideological arguments that support their larger intention.

DeYoung and Gilbert write to bring clarity to the discussion regarding the purpose of the church.  They “want to help Christians articulate and live out their views on the mission of the church in ways that are more theologically faithful, exegetically careful, and personally sustainable” (p. 24).

Their central contention is that the “church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations” (p. 26).  This involves “gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands” (p. 62).

The discipleship of which they speak is carried out within the church and involves cultivating “a life of poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace” (p. 127).

For DeYoung and Gilbert, this is the central task with which the church must concern itself.  The remainder of the book distinguishes this singular mission from the variety of things in which individual Christians may be involved.

This is a very important distinction for DeYoung and Gilbert.  The church gathers and focuses on discipleship and worship.  These are essentials, what the gathered church ought to do.  When the church scatters, individual Christians can be involved in good deeds in the world, but they are not obligated to do so.

The majority of the book makes this singular point.  It is commendable for individual Christians to do good deeds in the world, contributing to culture, meeting others’ needs, helping the poor, and fighting human trafficking.  For the church, however, these are distractions from the main task of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples (p. 193).

One of their main concerns is that Christians have been made to feel guilty in the past for not doing enough to alleviate suffering in the world.  They “want Christians freed from false guilt—from thinking the church is either responsible for most problems in the world or responsible to fix these problems” (p. 23).

Some Christians make it sound like every poor person in Africa is akin to a man dying on our church’s doorstep, and neglecting starving children in India is like ignoring our own child drowning right in front of us.  We are told that any difference in our emotional reaction or tangible response shows just how little we care about suffering in the world.  This rhetoric is manipulative and morally dubious (p. 185). 

They claim that this rhetoric comes in the form of talk among Christians about “social justice,” “restoring shalom,” and “advancing the kingdom.”  They address each of these topics throughout the book, attempting to place them properly in relation to the central mission of the church.  I’ll engage their treatments in future posts.

One final note.  DeYoung and Gilbert may object that it isn’t fair for me to engage their book.  I have a Ph.D. in biblical studies and teach New Testament at the seminary level.  The authors state that this book isn’t for me:

This is not a book by and for biblical or theological scholars.  We will deal with a lot of texts and interact with a lot of theology (and hopefully will do so responsibly), but we are not attempting a scholarly monograph on a biblical theology of mission (p. 25).

I’m engaging their work for the following reasons.  I committed myself to biblical scholarship precisely because I am compelled to serve the church out of love for Jesus Christ and the wonder of being included among the people of God.  My life is in service to the church and I want to play my role in discerning between life-giving words and destructive counsel. 

Second, the authors present a vision for the mission of the church based on a range of theological notions and biblical texts.  It is inappropriate to criticize them for failing to handle them as scholars—they’re writing to a broad lay audience.  They must, however, be read carefully to see that they have handled Scripture and theology faithfully.


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