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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Fitting the baptism of John into the missional narrative

I think I would be right in saying that much “missional” theory these days accepts that in our post-Christendom and post-modern cultural context there is likely to be a significant transitional period between first serious exposure to the “gospel” and conversion. People don’t simply get saved. They set out on a journey. This seems to me to be true to the extent that, in many instances, we have to reckon with large numbers of people—communities almost in their own right—who are attracted to Christ, even to the life of the church, but who remain fundamentally uncommitted.

In the New Testament context these were the “God-fearers”—Gentiles who were drawn to the ethical monotheism of synagogue Judaism but for whom it was a step too far to become proselytes. We would probably call them “seekers”, and we get frustrated with them after a while because they never seem to want to find what they are looking for.

Perhaps we underestimate the importance of such people. We have some friends working in a difficult missional context in Europe who, for the time being at least, have made it their goal not to seek “conversion”—whatever that might mean under these circumstances—but to teach people that good fruit comes from good trees. It has become something of a mantra for their ministry. They want to help people to see the connection between what they do and who they are. A bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree bears good fruit. Simple, but very practical and very relevant.

We recognize the imagery from Jesus’ teaching. He warns the disciples to look out for “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”. They are to be recognized by their fruits: a healthy tree bears good fruits, a diseased tree bears bad fruit. The diseased trees will be cut down and burned. The false prophets will suffer the judgment that is coming upon Israel (Matt. 7:15-20).

Jesus, presumably, has borrowed the idea from John the Baptist. John reproached the Pharisees and Sadducees when they came to be baptized: “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Joining the queue for baptism would not save them from the horror of war and the destruction of Jerusalem. They had to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, because the axe of divine judgment was already laid to the root of the trees; every tree that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and burned.

John started a movement of repentance in Israel with which people publicly associated themselves through baptism. He was not the messiah; nor was he the judge. A much more powerful figure would come after him, who would baptize Israel with the Holy Spirit and with the “unquenchable fire” of divine judgment. But that does not at all diminish the value of John’s role. He was the prophetic catalyst at the centre of a dynamic, far-reaching interim community, which recognized the seriousness of Israel’s sin and waited on God to act to judge and restore. He challenged people to live differently: to share what they had, to work honestly, to resist the temptation to exploit the weak and vulnerable (Lk. 3:10-14). It is not at all a bad thing to challenge people to be good.

It seems to me that our friends are doing something very similar to what John the Baptist did. I don’t want to suggest that the New Testament gives us a strict precedent or mandate for building communities that fall short of baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—the context is very different. But if this is the direction in which the Spirit is leading them in their especially challenging circumstances, then the analogy may be instructive. We may also find that it has a wider application.

Our models of mission currently fall roughly into two categories: we aim either i) to build communities of believers through the proclamation of the gospel or ii) to serve society in ways that demonstrate the love and justice of God. Or perhaps we try to do both at the same time. But what our friends are seeking to do, in effect, is to build around themselves as followers of Jesus a loosely organized community of “good” unbelievers—or of unbelievers who are learning what it means to bear good fruit.

It seems to me that their missional activity can be understood in terms of two central biblical roles. The first role is that of the prophet. Like John they are calling people to disengage from an unhealthy way of life, to repent of certain deeply ingrained destructive patterns of behaviour, to reach out for righteousness and wholeness, in the hope that God will at some point intervene in their world and make new things possible.

The second role is that of the priest. Our friends bring into the life of their community their own experience of the living God. Through their service, their teaching, through their faithfulness and integrity, through their love, through their determination, they model a very different “religious” life. They make grace available to people who mostly cannot break through the external and internalized constraints of their culture. They disciple a community of repentance and hope.

As prophets they call people out of a dysfunctional past. As priests they raise the possibility of a different future. The circumstances are such that any different future remains a long way off, but in a way this is exactly where we should be in mission: we are a prophetic and priestly people for a world that will never be converted.

So I would suggest that the prophetic church today should provide a public rationale and setting for people to “repent” of, disengage from, express profound dissatisfaction with, the vain, shallow, acquisitive, consumerist, hedonistic, celebrity-obsessed, brutal, dehumanizing, anti-social, and godless lifestyle that, to whatever degree, characterizes modern western culture, and which may yet bring the “wrath of God” down on our heads. I would even go so far as to suggest that the prophetic church might administer some manner of “baptism” of repentance, as representing a break from an unhealthy and unethical way of being, whether or not it is followed by baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time the priestly church mediates the presence and grace of God to those who yearn for transformation, freedom and goodness, but who cannot—for whatever reason: intellectual reservations, social pressure, religious constraints—fully identify with Christ. The priestly church cares for and disciples such people, teaching them how to live well in the space created by the ministry of John, in the space around the synagogues occupied by the God-fearers, in the spacious courtyard of the Gentiles, which made the temple not only a place for Israel’s worship but a house of prayer for all the nations (Mk. 11:17).

Comments

To imitate John the Baptist in this way is a good thing.

Hi Andrew, thanks for this thought provoking look into one couple’s sincere effort to carry the light of the gospel into a dark continent.

There is definately value in seeing salvation as a journey - as Paul says we are to continue to work out our salvation. That includes a journey to saving faith and onwards in saving faith. I remain persuaded from scripture though that there is a moment of salvation where through the conviction of the HS and the calling of the Father a person chooses to trust in the finished work of Christ as the only way of avoiding judgment and enjoying reconciliation. Teh difficulty comes i suppose when we give the idea that “Ok, that person’s safe, lets move on.” The journey in faith can be so minimised that the new believer, biblically an infant in the faith, is left to their own often inadequate devices.

My only concern with the approach your friends in Europe are following is that it does not seem to invest sufficient power in the Cross and the HS’s work of regeneration. The outcome may in the end be a group of morally good, but spiritually lost people. I sat with an unbeliever a few weeks back and he shared with me how he had attended a “pshycological renewal course” that had provided a emotional detox and enabled him to face up to many root issues of his past. That is not bad at all. Except for this.

This man like so many of us is a self-made man. And he wants to be a self re-made man! Our conversation turned to why he was battling to recognise real change comes from surrender to Christ and not through self effort. We agreed the problem was a very ancient one - pride.

In the end this group of “baptised” unbelievers face the risk that they achieve their goal and drift into self-righteousness or fail and walk in continual, low-grade condemnation.

When Paul said it is the foolishness of preaching that “brings” people to salvation, maybe he had in age our day. It is still true today as it was 2000 years ago, that whomsoever calls on the name of the lord will be aved.

Rob, thanks for the valuable feedback.

Neither I nor my friends would disagree that “there is a moment of salvation where through the conviction of the HS and the calling of the Father a person chooses to trust in the finished work of Christ as the only way of avoiding judgment and enjoying reconciliation”.

What the baptism of John model allows for is a positive evaluation of the incomplete journey. But John baptized people on the understanding that there was more to come. We are always looking for the more to come.

The difference of perspective arises partly from the fact that your “unbeliever” is presumably a person of secular convictions, who is by and large free to choose his own intellectual, moral and spiritual course through life. As you say, he is a self-made man. The couple in Europe are building relationships with people who, by virtue of their origins, are much less free to pursue their own course through life. I probably could have made the point more clearly, but my observation was simply that they made some limited but significant progress in the hope that God would open up new social possibilities in the future.

In the end this group of “baptised” unbelievers face the risk that they achieve their goal and drift into self-righteousness or fail and walk in continual, low-grade condemnation.

That is an important point and needs to be kept in mind.

But I would also repeat my general view that I don’t think the mission of God’s people should be reduced solely to personal evangelism. As I read scripture, part of the impact of God’s people being a light of truth and righteousness in the world is that there will always be people who walk in that light, benefit from that light, are blessed by that light, without becoming that light. Whether we should regret that fact, I don’t know.

Thank you Andrew. This is a very helpful perspective for me in personal application. I am a criminal lawyer who seeks to minister, but am constrained to not proselytise. I have had a significant role in many of my client’s spiritual development, yet have never led anyone through the ‘Roman Road’. In my early years this had troubled me as a failing, but for the past five or more I have come to see this ‘never having led someone to faith’ as a gift that has freed me to minister in a whole other context. Your illustrations of the priestly / prophet roles in missional ministry is validating and encouraging. Truly, thank you.

Thank you, Andrew, for this refreshing reading of a familiar text. What you are offering is a fresh reading on the Biblical text that allows the possibility of seeing something we did not see before because of our theological presuppositions, something that has been there all the time.

I like what you say in a separate page, “My overriding theological interest at the moment is in how we retell the biblical story as we negotiate the difficult transition from the centre to the margins of our culture following the collapse of Western Christendom.” I am one step behind you, just learning how to ‘re-read’ the biblical story for my own personal growth.

Your concept of prophet and priest as functions we can exercise for the sake of a lost world opens new andhopfeful perspectives on ministry.

Alex

Neither I nor my friends would disagree that “there is a moment of salvation where through the conviction of the HS and the calling of the Father a person chooses to trust in the finished work of Christ as the only way of avoiding judgment and enjoying reconciliation”.

Although my belief that everyone is going to heaven puts me at odds with Rob’s premise, I think you - having here stated your agreement with his premise - have given his conclusion short shrift.

If the two of you are correct that there is “moment” in an individual’s life that establishes an eternally happy existence (and without which there is no eternally happy existence), then nothing is more important than getting people to that moment. Nothing. Rob is at least taking the premise more seriously than you are.

There doesn’t seem to be any room in my church for a “Court of the Gentiles”. If you are not in, or moving toward, the Holy of Holies, you are probably getting social cues to get out. I wonder if we could even have a place that would be its equivalent.

Sadly, you are not alone.

Every church should place huge value on the idea of a spiritual journey. … there is no demand that that journey be complete this week or even this year, but there is an implicit expectation that there is movement. People will journey at various speeds depending upon many factors, but the guide (and we as church leaders must at least be guides - or we should get out of the way if not) should exhort and encourage the pilgrim to keep going.

To stop, thinking they have arrived because they have mastered some moral hurdle or ticked off a religious attendance box, is a tragedy when the guide knows the true goal, reconciliation with the Father through relationship with Jesus, is up ahead.

No we dont have a court of the gentiles, anyone can come right into the belly of church life; but unless they have been reconciled through Jesus that experience will soon prove like some many religious moments, deeply dissatisfying.

“will soon prove like some many religious moments, deeply dissatisfying.”

Although I ultimately believe this to be true, there are many good, moral people in my life that want to do the right thing, but do not want to come to church. I wish that there were a place, a real place, that would welcome these good people into our Commonwealth, a figurative “Court of the Gentiles”. They would be welcomed not necessarily as prospects or seekers, but as fellow laborers in the restoration of God’s Kingdom (even if they do not recognize it as such). It would be a place where we could work side by side bringing God’s mercy and justice to those who need it; a place that welcomes them to do God’s work, rather than shunning them if they are not ready to “accept Jesus as Boss of your Life.”

Rob, again, I don’t disagree, but the way you state things presupposes an inward movement towards Christ, a journey towards the centre. Isn’t there a corresponding outward movement of the church in priestly service, which in itself creates a “court of the Gentiles” space outside the church? Isn’t that what happens, say, when we pray for a muslim neighbour? We mediate the presence of the God whom we know through Jesus Christ? We give the love of God away without necessarily expecting that it will initiate an inward movement towards Christ.

Yes Andrew i see your point and agree wholeheartedly