Mission - the narrative-historical board game

What is the mission of the church? Conservatives will say that the mission of the church, at core, is to save people. Other activities, no matter how laudable, are secondary to this task because there is nothing more important than a person’s eternal destiny. More progressive types will say that the mission of the church is to serve people. That’s partly because people don’t want to be saved any more, but there’s also a gratifying ethical-political edge to it. It’s a way of getting some traction in the world.

Oversimplifying admittedly, I suggest that both the conservatives and the progressives have got it wrong. Saving people and serving people are understandable responses to the crisis of credibility that the church in the secular West faces. But they lack a sense of narrative context and for that reason miss the point.

I think it helps to differentiate between the basic vocation of the people of God and things which we need to be done along the way as a consequence of that basic vocation or for the sake of that basic vocation. It’s like a board game (click for a larger version). We start with our core identity and then have to move the piece from square to square, reacting to events along the way.

The basic vocation has been since Abraham to live as an obedient new creation people, actively loyal to and engaged with the one true living creator God, in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world, throughout the ages. This was God’s response to the rebellion, hubris, and disinterest of humanity. He set apart a people for his own possession to serve him through their corporate worship and witness, a priestly and prophetic people that would mediate between the creator and the rest of humanity.

So the basic vocation of the new creation people of God is neither to save people nor to serve people but to serve the historical interests of the creator.

Over time things happened to the family of Abraham, driven initially by the promise of a land in which they would multiply and prosper.  So what we might call “missional” tasks or responses arose: to bless the Egyptians, to escape from Egypt, to learn a way of obedience in the desert, to conquer the land, to become a state, to portray the good, wise and just rule of YHWH to the nations, to survive exile, to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem, to resist Hellenism, to suffer faithfully, to find a way to live well under Roman occupation….

These were the challenges and opportunities that the new creation people of God was presented with as a consequence of its historical existence. Mission was simply doing what needed to be done.

The Old Testament narrative, however, gave rise to a future or eschatological expectation—that the God of Israel would rule directly over the nations and empires that for so long had opposed him and oppressed his people. So the new creation people of God acquired the further task or mission of proclaiming and living towards the coming kingdom of God.

This is the mission of the apostles and churches in the New Testament. It is not a universal mission of saving people from their sins; nor does it have much to do with serving people. It is the historically and geographically circumscribed task, spear-headed by Jesus, of annexing the Greek-Roman civilisation for YHWH through faithful suffering and witness. The great commission was not as big as we think it was.

So I know it’s controversial and a quite offensive idea to many people, but I maintain that the kingdom mission, as conceived in the New Testament, was fulfilled when the nations of the Roman Empire abandoned the old gods and confessed instead that Jesus Christ was Lord, to the glory of the God of Abraham. I’m sorry, but that’s what happened, and I think that scripture demands that we take history seriously.

It meant that the “mission” or task of the church changed quite dramatically in the fourth century. It was no longer to embody the future coming of the kingdom of God but to develop a theology, legal system, ecclesial structures, civic practices, social customs, etc., that would sustain this new concrete political expression of the historical supremacy of the God who raised his Son from the dead and gave him all authority and power.

Over time the Christendom mission developed further. On the one hand, it had to include self-examination and reform; on the other, it took the opportunity offered to it by European imperialism to take the “gospel” to foreign lands. 

But that’s all in the past now. We have thrown the dice again and moved beyond Christendom; and the historical mission or task of the new creation people of God is, frankly, to work out where we go from here. This at least we have in common with the New Testament church: we have to learn what it means to embody in ourselves a new and viable future in a world that is so rapidly and furiously disengaging itself from its Christian past. That, I suggest, is our current mission.

Personal evangelism is part of it. Social action is part of it. Experiments in missional-community are part of it. Biblical-theological reconstruction is part of it. Prophetic storytelling is part of it. The recovery of moral, religious and intellectual integrity is part of it. Any exercise in rethinking and renewal is part of it.

But the overriding and urgent task is for the church, as a new creation people that serves the interests of the one true living creator God, to address its place in history. How do we remain true both to our basic vocation and to our story at this moment in time, at this stage in the game? There is no point in doggedly pursuing our particular missional agendas without some sense of where we are on the board.

Superb summary. Really enjoy this purview, Andrew. Board is particularly creative.

Who has the authority to invent a new mission?

Perhaps there is no mission and we are just to live quiet lives doing unto others as we would have others do unto us. Do we need anything more?

peter wilkinson | Tue, 08/02/2016 - 08:49 | Permalink

So I know it’s controversial and a quite offensive idea to many people, but I maintain that the kingdom mission, as conceived in the New Testament, was fulfilled when the nations of the Roman Empire abandoned the old gods and confessed instead that Jesus Christ was Lord, to the glory of the God of Abraham. I’m sorry, but that’s what happened, and I think that scripture demands that we take history seriously.

You maintain it, but a serious view of history does not bear this out. History is far more complicated than you suggest, and Jesus’ ‘kingdom mission’ is broader, richer, deeper than the political version you have presented. The history of the Roman Empire does not show that anything like Jesus’s kingdom mission was fulfilled. It does not even show that your own understanding of a judgment/restoration pattern was fulfilled through the history of the Roman Empire. So I’m sorry too, but whether your view is controversial or offensive doesn’t matter. Taking history seriously does, and I continue to maintain that a serious discussion of the issues shows that it does not lead to your interpretation of it.

Peter, you have an unerring knack of missing the point of my argument.

Jesus’ “kingdom mission” is not at issue: it had to do with Israel and Rome and the judgment and renewal of the covenant people.

The early church (Acts, Paul, Revelation, not to mention the post-biblical literature) expected a number of events to accompany the parousia or “coming” of Jesus, the revelation of Christ to the nations:

  • Judgment on the pagan oikoumenē and its gods, including the divine Caesar
  • The overthrow of Rome as an idolatrous imperial power
  • Public vindication for its belief, held in the face of sometimes extreme opposition, that Jesus had been given all authority and power
  • The end of persecution
  • The confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, to the glory of the creator God
  • The rule of Christ over the nations, not from an earthly but from a heavenly Jerusalem, enhroned as a Davidic king at the right hand of God to rule throughout the coming ages.

This was a transformation of massive historical significance—far greater than other historical events “prophesied” in scripture, such as the exodus, the exile, the rule of the Hasmoneans, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. In my view, we greatly diminish the prophetic power of scripture if we deny that it predicted such a development—one that was well within the field of vision of the Old Testament and of Jewish-apocalyptic writings.

Certainly, the prophetic vision cannot be read as historically prescriptive in any detailed sense, but it seems to me that in concrete historical terms (rather than in idealised theological terms) all these expected outcomes were fulfilled in the establishment of Christendom.

The nations of the Greek-Roman world, the nations of the empire, were no longer ruled by Rome as the embodiment of pagan power, invested in Caesar; they were ruled by the exalted Christ, seated at the right hand of God. They confessed Jesus, not Caesar, as Lord. That is a simple fact of history.

I wasn’t sure which comment to respond to first, but in reverse order: Tertullian deserves our respect for all kinds of reasons. He was the first Latin writer to use the term ‘Trinity’, and became a Montanist, the reformist group which was later persecuted by the ‘official’ Roman church. Which raises the question: who was confessing Christ in the post-Constantinian Roman Empire — the persecuted or the persecuting church? As regards your quote from Tertullian: it says no more than what is obvious from the scriptures regarding world empires: they come and go, and God determines their fates. The quote says nothing about the Roman Empire supposedly confessing Christ, and that being Tertullian’s interpretation of scripture. Tertullian is more likely to have rejected this view in his criticisms of the apathetic church establishment in his time — which preceded Constantine and Theodosius. I also have an uncanny knack of bringing to light the inconsistencies in your scriptural interpretation. You are quite right to correct me: for you, the kingdom as preached by Jesus was not the same as the kingdom preached by the apostles and early church. According to you, the kingdom messages of Jesus and apostles/early church had a different object in view: the one Jerusalem, the other Rome. If you reduce Jesus’s or the apostles’ kingdom message to this kind of political reductionism you will believe anything. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that the apostles and early church had moved on in this kind of way. On the contrary, the OT promises of blessing to the world, incorporated by Paul into his mission mandate (Acts 13:47, quoting Isaiah 49:6) were in continuity with the kingdom message brought by Jesus, the ‘upside down kingdom’, which always lived in tension with, if not always outright opposition to political, national or imperial religion of any kind. The early church did not need the sanction of the Roman Empire to survive, and was not aiming to obtain it, or overthrow its idolatry. It was growing exponentially already, despite opposition and outright persecution. Eventually, the Roman Empire needed the church to survive, the growth slowed and came to halt within the boundaries of empire. That didn’t stop the church growing, but not through anything like the nations confessing Christ as Lord. Effective mission movements were not an outgrowth of a Christianised empire, and frequently arose despite the efforts of the establishment, not because of it. However, I do agree that we need to know where on the board of history and culture we find ourselves, to be effective in the world. It’s just that the rather anaemic conclusions that you come to would not be shared by many outside the European cultural compromise which you advocate, and the compromise would be rejected by many inside it as well. And I’m still finding the Postost theological environment one of the most stimulating anywhere. It just doesn’t stimulate me to agreement.

To illustrate, Tertullian (just happened to come across this) argued that the Romans were the last to be given empire by God, but the Christians know what God has determined for it. He does not spell it out in so many words—these are the closing words of Ad Nationes II—but presumably he means that God will also bring Rome, with its “religion of idols and temples” to an end:

All nations have possessed empire, each in its proper time, as the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Egyptians…, until at last almost universal dominion has accrued to the Romans. It is the fortune of the times that has thus constantly shaken kingdoms with revolution. Inquire who has ordained these changes in the times. It is the same (great Being) who dispenses kingdoms, and has now put the supremacy of them into the hands of the Romans, very much as if the tribute of many nations were after its exaction amassed in one (vast) coffer. What He has determined concerning it, they know who are the nearest to Him.

Andrew, I’m sure you’ve thought about this much more than I have, but I struggle some with the notion that we need to collectively find our mission. I guess it’s because I’m not sure previous generation did such a great job identifying their missions.

I’m not convinced this organized religious entity called Christianity with its doctrines and creeds is a good thing. Down through history it has obviously been a source of good around the world, but it has also been a source of bad. Can we say it is the will of God if after studying history we conclude that it has done more good than bad?

If God’s will is ultimately that humans love others, does organized religion interfere with this? Would this world quickly go to hell in a handbasket without the ongoing presence and influence of organized religion?

It seems the Christian religion is dying quite rapidly in places like Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. And Canada and America seem to be on this same trajectory. The emergents and progressives fought (and continue the fight) to make the church relevant, but their reforms only seem to have slightly slowed the continuing decline.

I know I have more questions than answers, but it’s hard for me to be passionate about saving something that I’m not sure should be saved.