Christopher Wright on The Christian Mission

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary had the privilege this week of hosting Christopher Wright for the annual Page Lectures. Dr. Wright is International Director for Langham Partnership International and the author several books including The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP), Old Testament Ethics and the People of God (IVP), and The Mission of God’s People (Zondervan). Dr. Wright is a noteworthy theologian who has written extensively about God’s mission, the church’s mission, and international missions.

Watch his first lecture, “Reading the Whole Bible for Mission: What Happens When We Do.”

Watch his second lecture, “God, Israel, and the Nations: The Old Testament and Christian Mission.”

On a related note: in coming days, BtT will invite discussion about God’s mission and the church’s mission. We hope to hear from you then.

Missions & Seminary Education (3): Seminaries Must Find Ways to Forge a “Deep Connect” between their Theology Faculty and their Mission Faculty

In order for a seminary to produce healthy mission-minded students, it must ensure that theology and missiology are inseparable by (1) hiring theology faculty who are concerned to show how theology issues forth in ministry and mission, (2) hiring missiology faculty who are theologically orthodox, theologically aware, and theologically savvy, and (3) crafting curricula that reflect the close relationship between theology and missiology.

Christian theology issues forth in mission:

A truly Christian theology will inevitably issue forth in mission. Any theology is deficient if it does not foster a healthy desire to take the gospel to the nations (including the multiple cultures and myriad sub-cultures of the USA). Therefore, a seminary is wise to hire and to develop theologians who evidence Great Commission passion and savvy. This is of the utmost importance. Students will not take missions seriously unless their theology professors take it seriously. Theology is the core of the seminary curriculum and if it is taught in such a way that it is divorced from the concept of mission, we can be assured that our seminaries will fail in the area of mission.

For what it is worth, here is how I try to model that when I teach the basic systematic theology courses at SEBTS. (1) I treat the concept of mission up front in the first semester by treating it briefly under the doctrine of the Trinity, with the Father’s sending of the Son. By showing that the seed idea of mission is located in the Godhead, it is less likely to be minimized. (2) Toward the end of each three hour teaching segment, I show how the particular doctrine (e.g. God’s attributes) subverts its counterpart in Islam, Eastern religions, atheism, and religious moralism/legalism; and I show how that same doctrine shapes and forms our missiological method. (3) I find other ways to verbally place value on the task of mission. The reason for doing so is that I am convinced that although SBC seminaries talk about the value of mission, the practical reality is that there sometimes is a tendency to view applied theology faculties as inferior to systematic theology faculties. I don’t think this is intentional, but I do think it is a fact. For this reason, many of our brightest students refrain from studying missions which hurts not only mission agencies and the nations, but also keeps our brightest students from doing PhD work in missiology, which in turn handcuffs the seminary presidents and deans when they are looking to hire missiology faculty members.

Christian mission is inescapably theological:

One of the most significant challenges facing our churches today is the imperative to allow her evangelical theology to shape her actual ministry practices. We declared our belief that the Christian Scriptures are ipsissima verba Dei, the very words of God. Our declaration, however, is not always consistent with our practice. We sometimes “bank on” our high view of Scripture, but undermine that by not doing the hard work of allowing biblical doctrine to shape our ministry and mission philosophies, strategies, and practices. A faulty doctrine of God, for example, will lead us to a wrong definition of ministry success. A poor hermeneutic will lead to an aberrant definition of God’s mission and of our mission. A misguided soteriology will neuter our attempts at evangelism and discipleship. A reductionist ecclesiology will result in anemic churches that fail to disciple their members or reach their communities, or that multiply aberrant doctrine and unhealthy churches. In order to foster a healthy missiology, therefore, we must seek carefully, consciously, and consistently to rivet mission strategies and practices to Christian Scripture and its attendant evangelical doctrine.

In other words, a truly Christian missiology is profoundly theological. Christian missiology finds its starting point, trajectory, and parameters in biblical theology. When missiology is separated (in principle or in practice) from biblical theology, it becomes a sub-Christian enterprise in which cultural anthropology, sociology, business marketing, and pragmatic situational human reasoning take the driver’s seat. In fact, evangelical mission is often driven by the social sciences rather than being supplemented by them. Evangelical mission is often a-theological rather than robustly theological. And all of this is in spite of the fact that most evangelical missiologists profess a high view of Scripture.

Seminary curricula should reflect a seminary’s view of missiology and the task of mission:

One way to close the divide between theology and missiology, between theology proper and theology applied, is to build curricula that connect the two. Doing so is not easily or quickly accomplished, as we have found out in our own efforts at Southeastern. One way that we have tried to close the divide is by creating a Ph.D. in Applied Theology (with tracks in both International and North American Missiology) that intentionally seeks for its missiology to be theologically-driven.

Our thought process includes the following three realizations: that (1) Doctoral programs in missiology are considered to be “applied theology” or “practical theology.” But one cannot “apply” what one does not possess. Therefore doctoral programs in missiology should include a substantial amount of systematic theology. (2) For this reason, Ph.D. seminars are consciously crafted in such a way that theology and missiology are riveted together. For example, a seminar in anthropology should never be merely a course in cultural anthropology. That seminar must be a course in theological anthropology which is in conversation with cultural anthropology. I am convinced that evangelical missiology is still beholden schools of cultural anthropology that run directly adverse to gospel, and is driven by the social sciences rather than by theology. (3) For this reason, in some of the seminars, our theology professors teach in tandem with missiology professors, and in other seminars missiology professors put in the work necessary to handle the theological aspects themselves.

Concluding Thoughts

In conclusion, missions and seminary education has sometimes been a match made in hell, but it more naturally should be a match made in heaven. By God’s grace our seminaries and our mission agencies will continue to develop their mutually beneficial partnerships for the glory of God, the benefit of the lost, the building of Christ’s church, and the advance of his kingdom.

Baptism and the Great Commission

Southern Baptists have been discussing a Great Commission Resurgence for a couple of years now. One related discussion concerns the relationship of baptism to the Great Commission. Some Baptists at least tacitly downplay the role of baptism and instead cast the Great Commission as simply the advancement of the gospel to all nations. Other Baptists argue that baptism is a crucial component of the Great Commission, and without it, the gospel may indeed be advancing but the Great Commission is not being fulfilled. So who is right? It seems to me that much is hinges upon how we define the Great Commission.

It has been popular since at least the 18th century (and possibly earlier) to refer to Matthew 28:19-20 as the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

In Matthew 28:19-20, part of Jesus’ commission is the command that we baptize new disciples. So if this passage alone is the Great Commission, then there is no doubt that baptism is a necessary component of the Great Commission.

But most missiologists argue that Matthew 28:19-20 is only one of five different articulations of the Great Commission found in the New Testament. Rather than equating the Great Commission with the Matthew passage, these scholars instead argue that the Great Commission is more broadly Jesus’ sending of his followers to preach the gospel to all people. Note the following:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

And said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:20-23).

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Of these other passages, the only one that mentions baptism is Mark 16, which is a disputed passage that many scholars believe is not original to Mark’s Gospel. Even if the Markan account is original, one could make the case that if all of these passages are indeed the Great Commission, then it cannot be argued that baptism is necessary to fulfilling the Great Commission since it is not mentioned in every version.

For my own part, I think both sides are right. I do agree with missiologists that the Great Commission is a broader concept than is found in Matthew 28 alone. The Great Commission is Jesus’ sending of his followers to proclaim the gospel to all nations. But I also believe that Matthew 28 is the fullest account of what it means to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and Matthew’s version makes it clear we are commanded to baptize in the name of the Triune God.

This question is important because Southern Baptists are not just a generic group of missions-minded Christians-we are Baptist Christians. And as Baptist Christians, we believe that New Testament churches are regenerated assemblies of immersed believers. When Baptist Christians spread the gospel to new places, we “do” Matthew 28 because we not only win the lost to Christ, but we baptize those new disciples and then attempt to teach them all things in the same way we honestly believe happened in the earliest New Testament churches.

I do believe there is a sense in which non-baptistic churches are pursuing the Great Commission, broadly speaking-they are preaching the gospel to all men and planting new churches among all the peoples of the earth. But as a Baptist Christian who wants to follow all the commands of my Lord, I also believe that baptistic groups alone are fulfilling the Great Commission in the totality of the way intended by our Lord through the planting of local churches of baptized disciples among all the peoples of the earth.

So what is the application? Well, part of what it means for us as Southern Baptists to embrace a Great Commission Resurgence is a renewed commitment to planting healthy churches in every corner of the globe. As we understand the Scriptures, this means those churches should be assemblies of disciples who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation and followed their Lord publicly through the ordinance of believer’s baptism. This is the New Testament way.

Southern Baptists should celebrate how God is working through many Christian groups to spread the gospel to all nations. I even think we should look for ways we can in good conscience cooperate with other Great Commission Christians in spreading the gospel to all people. But we must continue to hold fast to our New Testament commitment to plant churches of baptized disciples who will in turn plant more churches of baptized disciples. To do anything less would be to disobey our Lord’s commands about all that it means to “go therefore.”