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.

12 thoughts on “The Mission of the Church, Pt. 3

  1. Dan Jr.

    It seems as though the authors believe God abandoned His original intentions for humanity; which is interesting considering how Reformed theology emphasizes God’s immutability.

    I also find it interesting that I’ve heard so many Reformed preachers hammering on people living split lives, lukewarm lives that worship God in church but then live for themselves the other 6 days of the week. But it’s their own theology that actually is the impetus for this split or dichotomy in how church-goers live out a Kingdom-shaped life.

    1. timgombis

      I think this is where the YRR crowd is out of step with the larger stream(s) of Reformed theology. Reformed thought typically holds all of life together, nailing a holistic vision of all things under God’s gracious reign. This is also why I think that McKnight and others rightly call them “neo-Calvinists” or “neo-Reformed.” The term isn’t meant to demean anyone, but to point out that YRRs (their self-designation) lack significant awareness of and influence from historic Calvinist tradition.

  2. Jaime Hancock

    I haven’t read the book, and so I’m reading it through your eyes, at this point in time, but so far, all I have to say of your critique is, “Amen.”
    The Jews refer to this flourishing and restoration as “Tikun Olam” the Restoration of the World. I believe Paul has a lot more “Tikun Olam” ideology tucked into his letters than many might realize.

    1. timgombis

      If Scripture configured all acting as a zero-sum game, then God acting rules out our acting, and our acting minimizes God’s acting. But if all things are all of God and from God, then we are welcomed into acting in the world with freedom and joy, knowing that our glad welcome with God is not contingent. That’s a settled issue — now we can enter into the joy of receiving all good things from God and radiating his goodness to the world in fulfillment of our original commission.

      This is highly relevant to the book’s argument. Since God brings in the kingdom, human acting is inappropriate. That’s a false antihesis, one of many, unfortunately.

  3. Allen Browne

    Love the way you picked up the Gen 1:2 words, unformed and unfilled, Tim. ‘Formed’ and ‘filled’ are important words for Isaiah and Paul, but I’d never quite put this together with Rev 22, where the original creative command of Gen 1 reverberates as missional invitation now.
    The voice of the bride (*formed* in Christ’s image) and the Spirit (*filling* his temple and fulfilling the creative/prophetic word)… So ‘missio dei’ ends in creation formed in the resurrected Ruler (we in him) and filled with the hovering Spirit (he in us). Wow. Come Lord Jesus!

    1. timgombis

      Good stuff, Allen! Not surprising that this theme crops up everywhere, since the Scripture writers configure salvation in terms of recovering the human as worshiper, including all human behavior as worship unto God, unto and for whom and from whom are all things.

  4. Pingback: Tim Gombis on What is the Mission of the Church? | Euangelion

  5. John Thomson


    Re ‘neo calvinism’ this is generally re as ‘Kuyperian’ in Reformed circles as far as I can gather. ‘Neo-calvinism’ does not accept the secular-sacred divide. Two Kingdom theology (which is much nearer the position of De Young etc) argues there is a secular-sacred divide. It argues this was traditional reformation thinking, in particular, the thinking of Luther.

    Be that as it may, I do not know how we can avoid some kind of sacred-secular divide. I confess it is not always easy to delineate but it seems to me to exist. The problem is how to make a case in a post comment.

    I would wish to distinguish between creation and new creation. I do not think new creation is simply old creation restored. It seems clear to me that new creation is something further. It is new. It is ultimately glorification.

    The difference is seen in the two heads of creation; in source and condition they are different (though both human). Adam is of the earth and earthy. Christ is a life-giving spirit and from heaven. Adam (unfallen or fallen) is natural and Christ is spiritual. However, we understand these differences they exist and constitute the differences between two creations.

    We all agree that we must separate from what is sinful in the old creation as a result of the fall. We must have nothing to do with the works of darkness, instead expose them. But what about what is good in the first creation. God has given us all good things to enjoy. Yet even here we must remember that this creation is passing away. That new creation radically reconfigures the old to such an extent that the new is ‘new’. It is not simply the old restored. There is for example no marriage in new creation. This alone profoundly alters the shape of new creation.

    And so there is a tension between the old and new. Jesus in Matt 19 upholds the value of the old in terms of marriage. Yet he says some will forego marriage because of the priorities of the kingdom of God (the new). Paul make a similar point in 1 Cor 7.

    There are things that are good in and off themselves that are for this life only and the priorities of the Kingdom may mean we forego them. So yes, I will wish to help the hungry but in so doing I recognise my help is useful for this life only. The real help I give is when I help them to discover how they can truly flourish and this involves the gospel as a message.

    I don;t think fulfllling the potentiality of creation is the important thing for it is a world that is passing away. The important thing is fulfilling the potentiality of new creation. This means living as aliens and pilgrims. It means having here no continuing city but seeking a city to come, a heavenly one. It means like Christ building for a world beyond death and into resurrection.

    1. timgombis

      Boy, that’s a lot to digest! I’m just using the term “neo-Calvinist” as some others are doing these days, though I’m not sure it’s the best way to refer to some in the Gospel Coalition crowd. There’s certainly a strong non-Kuyperian impulse there.

      On the creation / new creation issue, I’m not convinced you can use that to speak of how it is that for the church there is no sacred-secular divide. Ontologically, the cosmos has not yet been made new, but the church is indeed called to live the life of the new creation in the world that has not yet been made new. This involves a range of things that I’ll not get into now. Further, the fallen world order is passing away, along with its cosmic rulers, but the world itself is not one that is passing away. It will be renewed. In my post I’m only talking–thus far–about the character of creation itself before the fall, so I’ll put off getting into how you’ve configured things here. Just to say, I’m not sure you can sustain the sacred-secular distinction for God’s people based on a broken creation.

  6. jonathan mcgill

    Yes, yes and yes. One of my favorite passages is at the very end of Zechariah. The prophet is talking about how, in that day, the glory of the Lord will extend throughout all of Jerusalem so that even everyday cooking pots will be considered “holy to the Lord,” just like the instruments used in the Temple. Nothing is left untouched when Yahweh invades our realm. All is holy as He is holy.

    1. timgombis

      Exactly, Jon. That’s the original design and God’s intentions in salvation, too. I think DeYoung and Gilbert might see it in the creation and consummation, but don’t think this determines Christian reality in the current age. We’ll have to plough through loads of NT texts to demonstrate otherwise.

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