Is Theology Missional?
A good friend, after hearing of my recent activities in ministry, asked the question: Are you teaching theology or doing missions? His question reflects an assumption that the two fields are separate endeavors. In the following I attempt to defend the claim that theology is missional and mission is theological and that bifurcating the two is problematic for both.
A Preliminary Caveat
“Mission” is currently undergoing a scathing critique. Though the critique is carried on largely by academics, the tone and tenor trickles down from academic campuses and journals to schools and churches. To put it simply, missions is often viewed as the religious arm of Western colonialism, upholding European, white supremacy. It is widely held that Christian mission since the eighteenth century has been the white man’s attempt to coerce the East and South into their way of doing things—a type of enforced conformity—"the white man’s burden”—ensuring dominance and canceling cultural diversity. Although most of the critique is antagonistic towards Christian mission, sympathetic voices have arisen as well.
The purpose of this essay is not to respond to the critique but to acknowledge it is important for the question at hand. The accusation of association of Christian mission with Western colonialism has some legitimacy but is not representative of the whole picture of mission. Unfortunately, the original perpetrators of colonialism (Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, etc.) assumed the superiority of their societies, including their religion. The explorations of colonial powers were often for the victory of the crown they represented as well as the God they worshiped. Examples abound of Christian mission’s uncritical embrace of Western superiority.
However, counter examples also abound, especially as Christian mission moved from the coastlines to inland areas. In this period, Christian missionaries often outpaced their era, adopting local clothing, food, dress and, in many cases, contextualizing their worship forms to local patterns and customs. Missionary efforts upheld the use of the vernacular and prized the study of cultures and customs. From its colonial roots, Christian mission progressed quickly to understand the necessity of indigenization and partnership across cultural and ethnic divides. That progression continues until today with notable and regrettable exceptions. Without doubt, the Biblical story of God’s glory among all peoples formed the foundation for an appreciation of cultural diversity among Christ’s disciples.
Some have suggested that the very word “mission” is so fraught with colonial baggage that it is no longer usable. I believe that position is extreme, failing to give credit where it is due. The reality is that today, the Christian faith is no longer the domain of Western, white societies. Rather, it is radiating outwards from multiple global centers such as Singapore, Seoul, Nairobi, Cairo, and Sao Paulo. It may be more accurate to refer to this movement as “Global Christianity.” This terminology may also avert some of the colonial critique. Whatever term we use, the important idea is that what Jesus Christ referred to as the Kingdom of God continues its dynamic movement into diverse cultures and ethnicities. As an extension of Christ’s church, we may expect that mission endeavors will continue to be characterized by human flaws and oversights. Mission is a complex phenomenon replete with both human error and sublime triumphs.
Drawing from Scripture
Most followers of Jesus identify the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 as the mandate for Christian mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It is a concise and stately mandate, but is it where we should begin with our understanding of the global spread of Christ’s gospel? No doubt it must be part of our understanding, but it is not the place to begin. A few considerations from the Old Testament, particularly Genesis chapters 1 to 3 play a foundational role in our understanding of the nature of God and his purposes for creation and humanity.
First, God, in creation, was wholly loving to mankind. Man was made in the image of God, with an innate capacity to know God and reflect his nature to the created order. Humanity was surrounded by every token of the divine pleasure—aesthetically, the beauty of creation; socially, the intimacy of man and woman; intellectually, the ability to name the animals partnering with God the creator; vocationally, a commission to lovingly care for the created order and to fill the earth with humankind—others who also reflect the image of God to the ends of the world. Indeed, the Garden of Eden was not intended to circumscribe humanity’s activities, but to expand commensurately with the expansion of humanity. The whole earth was to be a garden of delights, peopled by the descendants of Adam and Eve. Their purpose was to glorify God by knowing him intimately and worshiping him. That purpose remains until today though it has been tragically forestalled.
Second, humanity, having been endowed with freedom by a loving Creator, instead of gratefully accepting the good gifts of God, chose rather to entrust themselves to the word of another, effectively entering into relationship with the serpent. In the Fall, the loving nature of God is again apparent as God pronounces enmity (not partnership) with the tempter (the serpent) and promises the seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. Thus, dissolution of humanity’s bond with the serpent and ultimate victory over him is assured from the very day of Adam and Eve’s transgression. This is the proto-evangel of Genesis 3:15.
The far-reaching impact of the Fall is sketched in Genesis 3-11. The downward spiral of humanity is most clearly portrayed in God’s declaration of regret at having made humanity (Gen 6:6-7). This tragic state is due to the proliferation of violence and exploitation on the earth. Nevertheless, a preserver of humankind is found in Noah.
Third, God interrupts humanity’s arrogance by confusing languages and separating peoples into distinct linguistic groups (Gen 11—the account of Babel). God determines that humanity will not centralize in one location but continue to spread across the globe, separated by diverse languages.
Fourth, God intervenes by choosing Abraham with the express purpose that in him, all nations (Hebrew mishpot—tribes or families) of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). These are the very tribes which formed as a result of Babel in Genesis 11. We begin to see that, though God’s original loving purposes have been diverted by human rebellion, God pursues the same objective articulated in Genesis 1 and 2—to fill the earth with those who bear his image and live intimately related to himself.
God’s global purposes, then, were not first conceived at the giving of the Great Commission. Rather, that commission was but a rearticulation of God’s purposes in creation. Moreover, the Old Testament, properly understood, leads to the inescapable conclusion that God’s people collectively were to proclaim his praise and worth among all the nations and peoples of the earth. As they failed to do that, God sent them into exile where major world powers (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus of Persia) were confronted by the Hebrew deity.
A fifth consideration is that, contrary to many contemporary Christians, Jesus Christ saw the Old Testament as intricately linked to his calling and person. It is clear in Luke 24:44-48 and many other passages (e.g. John 5:39, 46-47) that Jesus thought himself to be the axis of the Old Testament scriptures and boldly asserted such among the experts of the Mosaic law in his day. For this reason, the apostles and early Christians thought of Jesus as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises. Moreover, the missional mandate of Messiah is perceived clearly in Old Testament prophecies (Isaiah 49:6; 61:1-3, etc.).
A sixth consideration is that the apostles understood their purpose and calling to be the proclamation of Christ’s gospel among all peoples and nations. This is certainly evident in the apostle Paul who identified as the apostle to the Gentiles (nations). Paul’s deeply theological letters were birthed from questions related to the inclusion of the Gentiles in what had been understood as the domain of Judaism. The missional headwaters of Pauline theology should not be overlooked when considering the question of the inter-relatedness of theology and mission.
It is not always evident to Christians that Peter, representing the twelve, was also deeply engaged in the proclamation of the Gospel to the nations. We conceive of Peter as the apostle to the Jews, but consider Peter’s ministry in Samaria (Acts 8) and the all-important gospel impact on the household and friends of Cornelius—a military commander of the Roman forces occupying Israel (Acts 10). We find Peter first ministering to the Jewish towns and villages such as Joppa and then showing up in the Jewish-Gentile congregation of Antioch (Galatians 2). Going beyond the confines of the New Testament, church history records that Peter ministered in Corinth before martyrdom in Rome (at roughly the same time as Paul). It is clear that Peter left the well-established Jerusalem church, following his Lord’s command and example to bring sheep of other folds together with those of Israel to form one flock with one shepherd (Jn 10:16).
God’s Mission and Ours
God’s mission to fill the earth with beings created in his image, reflecting his glory and love to the creation is often referred to as the Missio Dei (Latin for the Mission of God). Various churches and church leaders have drawn the conclusion that God is the one who accomplishes his mission without human involvement. Famously, the young and eager William Carey, after arguing that means should be used for conversion to the faith of Christ, was told by a prominent minister: “Sit down young man! If God wants to save the heathen, he will do it without your help or mine.” Carey did not sit down but became a pioneer missionary to India.
The origin of the Missio Dei precedes creation being rooted in God’s Trinitarian nature—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The relations between the divine persons are characterized by self-giving, other-preferring love. In this love, the Father sends the Son, by whom he creates the world and redeems fallen humanity. The sending of the Spirit seals the presence of God with man. Sending (i.e. mission) is a prominent attribute of God. God sends because he loves.
Scripture also reveals that God engages humanity in his other-preferring, sending love. God chooses Abraham to be blessed, but also that through him all nations would be blessed. God sent Moses to show his glory to the Egyptians. He sent Jonah to proclaim repentance to the Ninevites. Solomon showed his glory to the Queen of Sheba, Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar. The Great Commission and the global ministry of Christ’s apostles express Christ’s mandate to be carried out by the church. The clarity of the Missio Dei in Scripture leads to a confident participation in his mission. God’s mission flows from his Trinitarian nature, and the mission of the church derives from God’s mission and is sustained by it. Mission is not one of many menu items of church activities.
It is evident from this overview that there is a third element that is integrated into both theology and mission—worship. This triad is the DNA of Christ’s church. It has been said that mission exists because worship does not. This triad corresponds well to a holistic approach to learning and indeed change itself. Theology involves the intellect. Mission involves the will. Worship involves the heart and emotions. Of course, none of these elements excludes the other domains as all overlap and intersect. Minimizing any of the three renders the church mal-formed, unprepared for its calling in the world. In and through Christ, the body of Christ gives witness to God’s glory to all nations, peoples, tribes and tongues through theology, mission and worship.
Re-integrating Mission and Theology
In our day, the study of theology is often relegated to theological seminaries or theological faculties of universities. We are the inadvertent heirs of European scholasticism—a far cry from Jesus’ training of his disciples. Often the image of a theologian is one who attempts to answer ambiguous and arcane questions about God. Theology, for many, is the domain of academics and professors rather than apostles and pastors.
Against that dangerous misunderstanding, theology is innately missional. It is birthed from the mission of God, or, in other words, the purpose of God vis-à-vis his creation and humanity. God’s nature (theology) can only be understood through his purposes (his loving sending) and vice versa. Theology’s effect is to conform hearts to God’s purposes. We only know him as we engage in his purpose of bringing the renewal of Christ’s gospel to all peoples of the world, culminating in worship. True theologians are worshippers on mission. They have drawn close to God, perceiving his loving purposes for all humanity such that the only fitting response is to bow the knee and proclaim the greatness of God.
Indeed, the final scenes of scripture are scenes that weave together God’s magnificence with his global purpose that Christ receive glory and honor among all nations of the earth.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:9-12)
So, am I doing missions or teaching theology? The answer is that all theology is missional. Theology grows out of God’s nature and his redemptive purposes expressed among the diverse nations and peoples of the earth. Far from being a colonialist exploitation of the world’s peoples, mission, at its best, sustains the value of every ethnicity. Indeed, it values every individual because all are created in God’s image and are invited to be reconciled to him through Christ, leading to heartfelt worship. In our day, mission is no longer the domain of Westerners. Rather, the purposes of God are penetrating all peoples and ethnicities through the joyful sending of witnesses from the ends of the earth to the ends of the earth. I have just returned from a “Mission School” held in a Middle East nation, attended by Kurds, Yazidis, Sunni and Shiite background followers of Jesus, Arab Christians of varied nationalities and even the occasional
Westerner. Despite vast cultural differences we were all united in our desire to share the good news of humanity’s reconciliation to God in Christ with the varied cultures of the Middle East.
The reintegration of mission with theology will be salutary for the church. The church must re-engage with each new generation in the pursuit of God’s glory among the nations. As the “body of Christ” the church carries forward the incarnation of her Lord. By nature of the fact, the church is local and global. Even a small, localized community of Jesus followers must remain aware that its faith has implications for all peoples and languages, near and far. This is even more critical in our globalized and mobile societies.
A further implication is that mission practitioners must also reintegrate Biblical and historical theology into their craft. Anthropology and sociology have become dominant in mission studies. While every field of human endeavor can contribute to the global spread of the gospel, there can be no doubt that the liberating knowledge of God is paramount. The burden of contemporary mission has been the contextualization or indigenization of the gospel’s good news. The fields of anthropology, sociology, linguistics, etc., are useful tools in the practitioner’s toolkit. However, the content of the faith expressed in Scripture and articulated in the historic creeds is the substance that must be interpreted to other cultures and languages. The mission of Christ is integrally theological and theology is possible only because God in love has undertaken to make his glory known—the Missio Dei.