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

Should the church be committed to the mission of Jesus?

The last of the eight marks of the “true church” according to Mark Driscoll is that the “church is committed to Jesus’ mission”—and you think, well, that’s a no-brainer. Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Proclaim the good news that Jesus died for our sins. Baptize people. Incorporate them into churches under “qualified leadership”. Teach them how to think, live and give Christianly. That’s the mission of Jesus. Isn’t it?

No, it wasn’t. Not according to the Gospels, at least. The mission of Jesus, I would suggest was—not is—roughly as follows:

  • to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand—that is, God was about to intervene decisively, within the coming decades, to judge and restore his people under a new King;
  • to denounce the leadership of Israel for their failure to understand the mess they were in or grasp what God was doing;
  • to bear witness to the power of the coming intervention of God through such miraculous actions as exorcism and the healing of the sick;
  • to demonstrate the possibility of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins by embracing the marginalized and unclean;
  • to gather and train a group of disciples who would i) continue the prophetic task of proclaiming the kingdom of God to Israel, empowered by the Spirit, right up to the end of the age of Second Temple Judaism; and ii) form the nucleus of the renewed people of God, under new management;
  • to pioneer a narrow way of suffering and vindication by which Israel would be “saved” from the final destruction of a war against Rome.

In short, the mission of Jesus was to ensure that Israel not only survived the impending crisis of the wrath of God against his rebellious people but came out of that crisis radically restructured, under a very different covenant.

Is that the mission of the church today? No, of course it’s not. Not unless we think we are in some sort of time warp, forever reliving the story of Acts, like an extended Groundhog Day, never getting to the Jewish Revolt and the savage Roman response. Most of us, surely, can appreciate the fact that the world has moved on. God judged his people by the hand of the Romans as Jesus said he would. Jewish-Gentile communities of eschatological transformation went on to challenge the hegemony of paganism in Europe and the Near East, until every knee bowed and every tongue confessed Jesus as Lord. Christendom came and went. Modern evangelicalism came and reduced the great narrative of God’s people down to a personal spiritual transaction, and we are now trying to repair the damage.

The mission of the church today is to be the people that we were originally called to be in Abraham—a people devoted to the creator God, a just and obedient people which embodies in the world, in its whole corporate existence, imperfectly and with humility, the blessedness and goodness of being created. Mission is only ever the prophetic, priestly and life-giving outworking of that calling to be new creation. We could call it the mission of Abraham. Or perhaps the mission of God. But not the mission of Jesus.

Comments

While I think you’ve efficiently described the narrative of the New Testament as it unfolded in the lives of the characters I think you might be missing the typological value designed into it. If the story of Israel is used to explain how God is going to make a covenant with unclean animals (Gentiles) in the New Covenant then I think it’s worth considering an additional layer of meaning to the narrative.

Doug Wilkinson

I’m not sure either way, exactly, whether scripture calls for discipleship in the way it has been crafted in the evangelical paradigm or if, as you say, the mission of Christ is almost exclusively restricted to its first century boundaries. However, it might be possible to argue that regardless of the application of mission as it is spoken about in the New Testament, we may legitimately–and perhaps we are obliged to–derive a sense of identity and direction for our modern lives from the story of Jesus; even to the extent that we may derive theological applications from what we believe about the Deity or lordship of Christ, even if somewhat contrived.

Our self-concepts about who we are as modern men and women and the way we define such characteristics as manliness (or feminitity) or competence or other positive characterizations of a good life or a good mode of life, for example, is hugely influenced by the men and women–and events–of our (normally Western) history and traditions, even though we may have nothing truly in common with the heroes and other significant figures of yesteryear or their cultural/historical circumstances.

To give an example pertaining to lifestyle, I have admiration for men (I don’t know as many women, unfortunately) like the Englishman George Muller, Thoreau, John Cassian, Bonheoeffer, etc (an eclectic set of examples, I know) because they chose to live in ways consistent with values commensurate less with passing material affections and more with eternal principles. And there are plenty of other examples of the ways stories define cultural and personal identity (thinking of the importance of oral history and tradition in some Native American or Hmong communities, among others).

The point is, we derive an understanding of ourselves from multiple disparate figures and storylines that we see, experience and learn about through life, and the resulting paradigm allows us to function in ways that define for us what success is, what prudence is, what honor means, what boundaries should not be crossed etc. To go as deep as 2,000 years back in history and as far as Palestine seems to cross no substantial existential or metaphysical boundary that would prohibit us from living well or living in the Good today. Invariably, we end up living and thinking in ways previously unknown to humanity, and while we can reduplicate some of the patterns of former thinking and living, we are forced to compromise them in our own emerging contexts.

This leaves me with the question: what do we really risk in identifying ourselves with Jesus’ mission and contriving an application for today (assuming we are not applying an intended purpose for us to do exactly that), and what metric do we establish to curb us from descending into absurdity by thinking that we can actually live out the stories of our heroes? There seems to be a tense interplay between the dynamics involved here that I don’t know how to resolve.

I read the article in question and I think that CT should be embarrassed to publish such nonsense. It’s a rant against stories, as if narative theology is about personal messages.

But the truth is the other way around. It’s evangelicals/fundamentalists who perfect the “what does this mean to me?’ form of Bible study.

More seriously, Fields glosses over the fact that everybody views the scripture through some lens, unable to understand that her “orthodox” version is a modern narrative that basically glosses over 90% of the meaning of scripture. Fields wants to assume that the orthodox lens is serious and accurate, but she doesn’t engage in any actual defense of why, just argues against a strawman.

Narrative theology actually takes bible a thousand times more seriously than disjointed views that come from interpreting the bible through odd snippets taken out of context.

This leaves me with the question: what do we really risk in identifying ourselves with Jesus’ mission and contriving an application for today (assuming we are not applying an intended purpose for us to do exactly that), and what metric do we establish to curb us from descending into absurdity by thinking that we can actually live out the stories of our heroes?

Joseph, thank you for your thoughtful comment. 

I don’t think that the narrative-historical approach precludes arguments from analogy such as this—partly because it is a natural way to read any story, and partly because scripture itself does similar things.

Problems arise, however, in my view, when reader-response approaches begin to obscure or distort the historical narrative. Modern evangelicalism is essentially founded on a reader-response hermeneutic that does just that.

My argument is that we need to learn to think narratively, to recover the historical structure of biblical thought, including its forward-looking dimension, and indeed to interpret the church’s existence historically, before we start taking hermeneutical shortcuts again.

The risk, otherwise, is that we again accommodate the public, political biblical argument about the reign of God to the domestic dimensions of a private spirituality.

I really appreciate your last paragraph here. It should be written into every church statement… (if such thing exists..)

Is there any room in your thinking for gospel mission? Is there a message of salvation at all for the nations? Nations are made up of individuals - is there not room in your thinking for personal evangelism?

[On another note: I’d be interested to hear also what you believe ‘church’ to be and how the gathering should or should not be focused, structured, (I’m writing as one coming through several different churches - once very rigid patriachal reformed, through to unstructured house church for a period and now find myself back in an instituitionalised church setting with the classic ‘service’ with music items, childrens talks and a powerpoint sermon - ahhh)]

Is there any room in your thinking for gospel mission? Is there a message of salvation at all for the nations? Nations are made up of individuals - is there not room in your thinking for personal evangelism?

Yes, I have always made the point that corporate narratives are made up of individual lives. The issue is how personal evangelism is framed. I would like to see people invited to be part of a people that tells this overarching story about itself, in these terms. That participation will entail personal salvation—we become part of God’s new creation. But it cannot be limited to personal salvation.

I’d be interested to hear also what you believe ‘church’ to be and how the gathering should or should not be focused, structured…

I think that “church” should be structured in the best way to fulfil its purpose. Most churches are structured in a traditional manner to fulfil a traditional purpose. The challenge is to redefine the purpose and then decide whether the current forms of church help or hinder the task. If they hinder, then for the sake of the glory of God and the future witness of his people, the forms need to change. The medium is the message.