A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 10: End Times)

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A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 10: End Times)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Eschatology, as much as any other doctrine, undergirds the theory and practice of mission. As Russ Moore points out in A Theology for the Church, “All of Christian theology points toward an end-an end where Jesus overcomes the satanic reign of death and restores God’s original creation order.” Indeed, “In Scripture the eschaton is not simply tacked on to the gospel at the end. It is instead the vision toward which all of Scripture is pointing-and the vision that grounds the hope of the gathered church and the individual believer. In the face of death, we see faith, hope, and love. This is what we mean when we speak of Christian eschatology-the study of the last things or ultimate matters.”

The doctrine of the end times is broad-ranging, but because of the limited scope of this post, I will address only three aspects of this doctrine, and then point the way toward a missiological appropriation. We will begin with personal eschatology, speaking to the missiological implications of death, heaven, and hell. Next, we will treat cosmic eschatology, speaking to the destiny of the nations and the promise of a new heaven and earth.

The Great Divide

The Christian Scriptures instruct us about death, heaven, and hell. To be concise to the extreme, we may say that death entered the world because of sin (Rom 5:12) and is a tool of Satan’s (Heb 2:14-15). It is appointed to man once to die, and then the judgment. After death, he enters into either eternal damnation or eternal bliss. Eternal torment awaits for those who die apart from Christ (Mt 5:22; 8:12), while eternal bliss is the reward of those who are in Christ (Rev 21:2-4).

This is a difficult doctrine, but a necessary one as it is taught clearly in the Scriptures. Furthermore, it is a great motivator for the Christian and for the church. The Christian must hold three truths together in tension: (1) There is no name other than Christ by which men are saved, and all men who die apart from Christ abide in eternal torment. (2) There are countless millions of people who have practically no access to the gospel, and another two billion who have very little access. They could search for days, weeks, and months, and never find a Bible, a Christian, or a church. (3) We, as believers, have the awesome privilege and responsibility of proclaiming to them the good news. More to the point, those of us in the West have more capacity to proclaim the gospel than Christians in any other part of the globe or at any other time in history.

It is difficult to apprehend and affirm these three truths and choose not to act. Once we hold these three truths in tension, we are faced with a decision. Will we act on the implications of these three truths? There are those who have not heard the gospel; without Christ they will go to Christless eternity; we are able to take the gospel to them. Our response tends to fall into one of three categories: (1) We may change our belief system by rejecting the biblical teaching that salvation comes through Christ alone, in order to ease our conscience. (2) We may ignore these truths, so that our conscience may rest more easily. (3) We may take these truths to heart by offering ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, by building Great Commission churches and seminaries who will take the gospel to the nations, and by praying for and supporting those who do.

The Nations

The Scriptures also have, as a point of focus, the destiny of the nations. The teaching of Christian Scripture is that the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mt 24:14). But it is not only that the gospel will be proclaimed. It is also that this gospel is powerful to save worshippers from among all tribes, tongues peoples, and nations: “You are worthy…For you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

Th ingathering of the nations is not a tack-on to Christian doctrine; it is at the heart of God’s promises. The central promise in the Scriptures is that God would send Messiah, and tightly riveted to it is the promise that Messiah would win the nations unto Himself. God put His Son on the cross in order to purchase the nations. The ingathering of the nations is not an issue merely for the missiologists write about, or for professional missionaries to care about, or for churches to nod toward once a year during Lottie Moon. Rather it is central to all who are Christian because it is central to the work of Christ. We are to be instruments in God’s hands as He makes clear to the world that He is not a tribal deity. He is the Creator, King, and Savior of the nations and we will not know Him in His full splendor until we know Him as the King of the Nations.

The New Heavens & Earth

Finally, the Scriptures declare God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth. Peter instructs us to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). John sees a vision in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where there remains no pain or tears (Rev 21). And although this teaching does not get much air time in evangelical circles, it is no insignificant doctrine. Indeed, it is the doctrine of creation come full circle. The God who gave us the good creation of the Genesis narrative is the God who will give us a new heavens and a new earth.

In this new universe, God’s image bearers will experience neither sin nor its consequences. No longer will we use our rational capacities to speak falsehoods, or our creative capacities to construct idols. Never again will we use our relational capacities to suppress others and promote ourselves, our moral capacities to slander, rape, or murder. No longer will we live in an environment where tsunamis and floods destroy or where pollution poisons the ground and air. Never again will there be war or rumors of war.

Instead, we will live in unbroken relation with God, with others, with the new universe, and with ourselves. We will be “man fully alive,” man worshipping God in spirit and truth. But what does this doctrine of a new heavens and earth have to do with the mission of the church? Of the many implications, here are three:

First, we may use our God-given human capacities to glorify him in human culture, as a sign of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. We may flesh out the implications of the gospel for the arts, the sciences, and the public square. We may teach our children that it is an honorable thing to be an artist (writer, composer, singer, painter, graphic designer, etc.), a scientist (biologist, chemist, physicist, sociologist, anthropologist), or a participant in the public square (journalist, lawyer, politician, ethicist, educator).

Second, we may seek to glorify God in all of our callings. As Luther pointed out, the Christian has multiple callings, to workplace, family, church, and community. May we speak and live the gospel in all of those contexts so that the glory of God is not limited to the four walls of a church building, but instead is broadcast across every square inch of his universe.

Third, we may demonstrate that if there is anyone who cares about God’s good creation, it is the evangelical Christian. We do not care about it inordinately, or in the wrong way, but we do care. We have a different motivation than do most “environmentalists.” We recognize the creation as God’s good creation. We do not take the gift that God has given us and trash it recklessly. This is an insult to the God who made it and gave it to us to have dominion over it.

Conclusion

The promised Messiah has come, and He will come again to win the nations unto Himself and to reconcile all things unto Himself. He will do this because He loves the world (Jn 3:16-17). In His first coming, He provided the first fruits of that redemption and in the second coming he will provide the consummation of it.

We find ourselves living between those two comings, and the ramifications of this are multiple and significant. First, we must proclaim the gospel not only in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth. Second, we must seek to glorify him in every facet of creation and culture, and in all of our multiple callings. This is because our God is worthy of worship, and that worship should not be limited or reduced to what happens once a week on Sunday mornings.

We look toward, and hope for, the day when we can join the chorus around the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 9: Church & Missiological Issues)

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A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 9: Church & Missiological Issues)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

In the previous post, we gave a summary of the basic tenets of ecclesiology for the purpose of allowing those tenets to drive our treatment of various missiological issues. Here are four of those issues, and the beginnings of a theologically-driven treatment of these issues:

Bible Study or Church?

One of the first questions that a fledgling church planter often faces is “When does a group of believers become a church?” This is another way of asking, “What are the marks of the church?” In the previous post, we affirmed the patristic and Reformation marks of a church. The patristic marks were the answer to a certain set of questions, while the Reformation marks were the answer to another set.

There is, however, yet another challenge which causes us to raise this question once again. Truly evangelical Christians will always seek to evangelize and to see churches formed. This is the case today as the IMB and other like-minded agencies seek to bring the gospel to, and plant churches among, every unreached people group in God’s creation. In an eagerness to do so, some well-intentioned missionaries have counted as churches things that were not churches. For example, Bible studies or small clusters of believers who know one another are sometimes improperly counted as churches.

So, how do we know when a group has become a church? First, we should say that churches can be placed on certain spectrums, such as mature and immature, healthy and unhealthy, developed and undeveloped. A group of believers can be a church without being a fully developed, mature, or healthy church. Second, we must affirm certain things at a minimum in order for a group to qualify as a church. There must be a group of baptized believers, consciously committed to one another under the headship of Christ, partaking of the Lord’s Supper. They may or may not have a pastor, but at the very least must be praying for the Lord to raise up among them a pastor. Such a group may be called a church even if it is a very small group.

Church in a House?

The church is not a building; the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit. We do not need a temple because we are the temple. Therefore, where the people meet is of less significance, perhaps, than we tend to think. In many of the contexts in which we are seeing the gospel go forth and churches planted, conversion to Christianity is illegal and therefore the purchase of a building is also illegal. In these cases, of course, a church usually meets in a house. This raises two questions.

Does this make house church a second-rate type of church? It absolutely is not, although churches in the United States and Europe might tend to think so. A church is a church, no matter where it meets. It has the same nature, and is held to the same standards, as the church described in the last post. As mentioned in the previous post, there is precedent in the Scriptures for churches meeting in a house, and such churches are never treated as inferior. A house church is, in every sense of the word, a church.

Is house church the superior model for church? We have no grounds for making that argument either. Those who are involved in house churches are sometimes tempted to speak as if churches that meet in houses are superior in every way. This is not the case. While a church in a house might tend to better fulfill one of the ministries of the church (e.g. fellowship) it might also tend to lag behind in another ministry (e.g. teaching).

An Indigenous Church?

Much ado has been made, over the past 100+ years, about the “indigenous” church. Henry Venn, Rufus Anderson, Roland Allen, and others have argued for a church that is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, and few Baptists would disagree, at least in principle. Based upon our doctrine of the church, especially our views on regenerate membership and congregational rule, we affirm these principles. In practice, however, we struggle to implement what we believe.

Concerning self-support, often our stateside churches subsidize overseas pastors and fund overseas churches in a way that undermines the health of those same pastors and churches. While it is certainly acceptable to take up special offerings for specified needs, we must be very careful with our well-intended financial gifts. We might very well harm the future of the very national churches we are trying to help. (1) Supporting national pastors tends to sever accountability between the pastor and the church; and (2) supporting national churches on a regular basis can foster the mindset that an expensive building is necessary for a church to be formed. Those who think in such terms, both in America and abroad, likely will not plant multiple other churches to win their people group, because likely they will not be able to afford to financially. Short-term help, in this instance, may handicap long-term growth. It is appropriate that we lovingly allow the churches we plant to grow without being dependent on us.

Concerning self-governance, the churches we plant must submit to the leadership of Christ, who is their Head. We must not, unintentionally, set up a hierarchy with the church planter (or the mother church or the church planting agency) as the Pope. Long and Rowthorn describe the missiological context in which Roland Allen proclaimed the need for an indigenous church: “In missionary work overseas, concern for ‘traditions’ made missionaries reluctant to hand over real responsibility to indigenous leaders and often confused the Tradition of the gospel with the particular traditions of the church and society from which the missionaries came.” We must love and care for, exhort and admonish, and even hold them accountable, but we must not control the congregations that we plant.

Concerning self-propagation, we must consciously seek to plant churches who understand their responsibility to reach their own people group. We must plant sound, healthy churches that will grow over the long run and not just in the short term, and we must remove anything that unnecessarily hinders the potentially rapid growth and multiplication of the church. They must not see the Westerner as the “key” to the evangelization of their people group; they have the God-given privilege of winning their own people.

Church Planting Movements?

In recent days, much has been said about Church Planting Movements (CPM), and rightly so. David Garrison defines a church planting movement as, “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.” Evangelicals, including Southern Baptists, have long been praying for and working towards the birth of CPMs among the unreached people groups of the world, and indeed, even in our own country.

But there is much work left to be done to ensure that, here in the United States and across the oceans, our methodology is driven by the Scriptures. It must be biblical theology that gives church planting methodology its starting point, trajectory, and parameters. Of the many substantial missiological issues that cluster around CPM theory, here are two that must be treated:

First, in regards to CPM as a goal: As laid out in Part Three of this series, our ultimate goal, above all others, is the increase of God’s glory. No goal that we have should subvert this goal. For this reason, we are concerned not only with rapidity, but also more importantly with the purity of the gospel and the health of the church. On the one hand, if the church multiplies rapidly, but is not healthy, the long-term picture is bleak. An inordinate emphasis on rapidity will likely lead to reductionist methods of evangelism and discipleship that will harm the church in the long term and actually curb its growth. On the other hand, if the church is “doctrinally pure,” but not seeking to multiply, the long-term picture is bleak. Or maybe it would be better to say that a church cannot be doctrinally pure without praying for, and working toward, the healthy and rapid growth of God’s church.

A final note regarding CPM as a goal: CPMs are not the only worthwhile missiological accomplishment. Sometimes, God does not grant such a thing or He does not grant it immediately. In Hebrews 11, we read of men and women of great faith whose reward was not a CPM; instead, their reward was torture, destitution, affliction, and martyrdom. Many faithful workers who labor in prayer and in deed, hoping with all that is within them to see a CPM, never see the birth of a CPM. This does not mean that their labor is in vain. If they have labored for the glory of God, then He is pleased with their efforts. (Also, it should be pointed out that the early church experienced its most explosive growth only after many years of prayer and work. See Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Early Christianity.)

Second, in relation to leadership development: The rapid reproduction of the church will lead to some challenges in leadership identification and development. If multiple churches are planted in a short period of time, the churches are faced with the question of how recent is “too recent” for a believer to be recognized as an elder. Further, in a context where the church is persecuted, how will these elders train for pastoral ministry? Also, how will they be discipled if they are not able to read? These are not hypothetical scenarios; there are multiple church planting situations, globally, that are facing these challenges at any given time. We must take seriously the biblical teaching concerning the church, discipleship, and elder qualifications and work hard to apply it in challenging situations such as the one above.

Conclusion

These are only a few of the methodological issues connected to the doctrine of the church. Not only are there many more issues, but each of the issues are raised from within numerous different civilizational, social, and cultural contexts. Further, the answers are not always clearly given in Scripture. We must do the hard work of taking biblical principles and applying them to conrete situations. However, though the challenges are many and though they are not easily met, we may conclude with J. L. Dagg that, “Church order and the ceremonials of religion, are less important than a new heart; and in the view of some, any laborious investigation of questions respecting them may appear to be needless and unprofitable. But we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects, and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience; and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will. Let us, therefore, prosecute the investigations which are before us, with a fervent prayer, that the Holy Spirit, who guides into all truth, may assist us to learn the will of him who we supremely love and adore.”

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

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A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Missiology is inextricably intertwined with ecclesiology; one cannot be discussed properly without the other. It is probably for that reason that there are so many controversial issues at the intersection of the two disciplines. In this post, we will give a cursory overview of some of the main themes of ecclesiology. This concise biblical ecclesiology will give us a “place to stand” as the next post will speak to some significant and controversial ecclesiological issues in contemporary missiology.

Being the Church

Scripture does not give us a dictionary definition of the nature of the church. What it does instead is give us images and analogies that help us to understand the nature of the church. The church cannot be defined apart from its relationship to God, which is evident especially in the following three images.

In I Pet 2:9-10, the church is described as the people of God, which serves to remind us that we are God’s possession, and that we are a community rather than a collection of individuals. Second, Paul instructs us that we are the body of Christ. Sometimes he uses the image to refer to the church universal (Eph, Col) and sometimes to the church local (Rom, 1 Cor). This image helps us to understand that we are many members but one body (unity and diversity) and that each of us belong to the other members of the body (mutual love and interdependence). Third, we are told that the church is the temple of the Spirit. Our body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19); we are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). This image not only evokes the memory of Christ who “tabernacles” with us, but also the idea of relationship. We are held together by the Spirit.

As the Fathers and the Reformers reflected upon the Scriptures, they came to identify the church with certain marks. The church fathers spoke of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We are one, in that we are indwelt by the same Spirit. We are holy, in that we seek to allow as members only those who profess faith in Christ and show visible signs of regeneration. We are catholic, in that the gospel is universally available for all people, in all places, at all times. We are apostolic, in that we hold to the same gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Moreover, the Reformers noted that the church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to church discipline.

These marks, however, are not exhaustive. There are many ways we can describe the church. For example, as John Hammett has pointed out, the church (1) is organized and purposeful, (2) is primarily local; (3) is by nature, living and growing; (4) is centered on the gospel; and (5) is powered by the Spirit.

Hammett also correctly and persuasively argues that the church is composed of regenerate members (1 Cor 5:11), that this is the center of Baptist ecclesiology, and is directly linked to the purposes of the church. While, on this side of eternity, we will never know for sure the state of another person’s soul, we may keep diligent watch over the church, discipling and disciplining toward the goal of faithfulness and holiness.

Doing Church

The way that the church functions is a direct outworking of who the church is. Scripture gives us specific guidance as to how we are to live as the church. Among these are four.

Because the church is defined by its relation to Christ, we are actually connected to one another. Our union with Christ connects not only to God but also one to another. This is evident especially in the Eucharist and in the “one another” commands. For example, we must live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16; 15:5), forgive and bear with one another ( Col 3:13) and must not pass judgment on one another (Rom 14:1). We must admonish and encourage one another (1 Thess 5:14) care for one another (1 Cor 12:25), and comfort one another (2 Cor 13:11). Perhaps all of the many “one another” commands could be summed up in 1 Thess 5:15: “Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

These commands are given to all of the members of the church. It is not just that the leaders are responsible for the church. Rather, we are all responsible to one another, and ultimately to Christ. The church is congregational (Acts 6:3; 13:2-3; 15:22). While recognizing Christ as the ultimate divine authority, we recognize the congregation as the human authority. We follow Christ as he leads the church. This is not at odds with the appointment of pastors, to whose leadership we submit, unless for doctrinal or moral reasons their leadership is rescinded.

As to leadership, Scripture teaches that the church has two offices, that of the bishop/elder/pastor and that of the deacon. The officers are chosen by the churches (Acts 14:23). The bishop/elder/pastor much be able to administrate (bishop), teach and nurture (pastor), must be mature in the faith (elder), and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). The deacon is a servant (Acts 6:1-6) and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Tim 3:8-13). The pastors, in particular, are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The church’s ministries are manifold and may be summarized in five categories. Hammett points out that these five ministries may be seen together in Acts 2:42-47. Those ministries are teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.

The Scriptures speak of churches that meet in houses (Rom 16:5) as well as house churches that were connected to one another as city churches (Acts 13:1). Further, the Scriptures speak of these churches, together, as a sort of regional church (Acts 8:1), and of the church universal (1 Cor 1:2). The universal church includes believers both living and dead, is not synonymous with any one institution, denomination, or network of churches, and is not entirely visible at any time.

Conclusion

It is difficult to overstate the significance of ecclesiology for Christians in general and for missiologists in particular. We must agree with Mark Dever, who writes in A Theology for the Church: “The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church. Present-day errors in the understanding and the practice of the church will, if they prevail, still further obscure the gospel. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.” May we not obscure the gospel by neglecting the church.