Southeastern Seminary (1): A Mission Framed by the Story of a Great Commission God

Years ago, President Akin challenged the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to make every classroom a “Great Commission classroom.” Since then, our faculty members have put considerable time and energy into doing just that. We have tried to build a Great Commission seminary, curriculum, and faculty. Often, however, we are asked what we mean when we say that SEBTS is a Great Commission seminary. In response to these questions, I recently put together an essay which gives a brief theological rationale for our seminary’s mission, followed by an attempt to show how that mission is fleshed out in our curriculum and in our criteria for hiring, electing, and promoting faculty members. In the blog series of which this post is the first installment, I offer a concise version of that essay, divided into five sections which describe Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission as one which is (1) framed by the story of a Great Commission God and (2) centered on our Lord’s Great Commission; further, (3) its curriculum is marked by five core competencies and (4) its faculty members assess themselves by five criteria, while (5) aiming for faithfulness and excellence in their vocation.

Baptist, Confessional, Missional

Before embarking upon an explanation of what it means for Southeastern to be a Great Commission seminary, it is best to start with SEBTS’s denominational identity, doctrinal confessions, and mission statement. The seminary is an institution of higher learning and a Cooperative Program ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. Its faculty members confess the Bible as the authoritative Word of God and covenant to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith & Message. They further affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Together with the Board of Trustees and the administration, faculty members share a mission in which “Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary seeks to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20).” In summary, SEBTS is a confessional seminary in the Southern Baptist stream of historic Christianity whose mission is to be a Great Commission seminary.

A Mission Framed by the Story of a Great Commission God

The seminary’s rationale for its mission is undergirded by theology proper. To speak about mission is to speak, first of all, about the Triune God whose identity, character, and mission are depicted in Christian Scripture. This God—Father, Son, and Spirit—did not create by necessity but freely and from the overflow of inner-Trinitarian love and for the sake of his glory. In the beginning, he called forth something from nothing, shaped the something which he called forth, and called it “good” and even “very good” (Gen 1:31). At the pinnacle of this series of creative acts stand man and woman, whom he created in his image and likeness. To his imagers alone he entrusts the tasks of being fruitful and multiplying, tilling the soil, and being stewards of the created order (Gen 1:26-28; 2:15). To humanity alone he gives the charge to act as vice-regents under God the King, worshiping him and spreading his glory as they fill the earth and till the earth. Indeed, God’s design was for his imagers to flourish under his good reign, living in rightly ordered relationship with God, each other, and the created order. This state of universal flourishing, order, and peace is encapsulated in the biblical concept of shalom.

As the biblical narrative progresses, we learn that the first man and woman—Adam and Eve—forsook their call to vice-regency and chose instead to strive for autonomy, seeking the Regency which is rightfully claimed by God alone. Their rebellion is the first instance of idolatry, of exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1). The effect of this sin upon them, and upon humanity, was disastrous (Rom 1:18-32). Humanity no longer lives in a state of shalom, but instead in a world disordered by sin and its deleterious effects. As human beings, we experience these effects in the form of a broken relationship with God, as well as broken relationships with self, with others, and with the rest of the created order. Our relationship with God is broken, as we now stand under his just wrath, with no hope of salvation on our own apart from Christ Jesus (Rom 1:16-32; Acts 4:12). We also find ourselves alienated from others (Rom 1:28-31); rather than loving our neighbors as ourselves, we lie, murder, rape and otherwise demean our fellow imagers. (e.g. Gen 9:6). We further find ourselves alienated from the created order, as our attempts to “work the garden” are full of frustration and pain (Gen 3:17-18). Finally, we find ourselves alienated even from our self, as sin distorts and disorders the human heart, rendering life on this earth vain and meaningless (Ecc 1:1-11).

In response to the first couple’s sin, God responds not only with a curse (Gen 3:14-19), but also a promise of life (Gen 3:15), in which the Seed of the woman would destroy the serpent, thereby eradicating sin and death, and restoring God’s intended shalom. Paul recognizes this promise as a prophecy of Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16), God’s Son who is “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). The biblical narrative wends its way through the lives of the patriarchs and of the nation of Israel, finally reaching the point in history when God’s Son was born of a woman. Through the Son’s life, ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection, he fulfilled his ministry as Savior of the world. By his stripes we are healed, and upon his shoulders the sin of the world was borne (Is 52:13-53:12). Through his atonement, our Lord will win for himself worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5), and will redeem even the non-human aspects of creation. He will “reconcile all things to Himself, by Him” (Col 1:20) and will “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Eph 1:10).

God’s plans for redemption will culminate one day in the renewal of his good creation—a new heaven and earth (Rev 21; 22). While the first two chapters of Scripture depict God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the last two chapters depict his creating a new heaven and earth. This new creation is one “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13) and in which “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), thus fulfilling God’s good purposes for his world. The mission of God culminates in God the King’s dwelling with redeemed anthropos in a renewed cosmos.

Theology & Practice of Mission: An Interview with Bruce Ashford

Recently, our own Bruce Ashford published an edited volume, Theology and Practice of Mission (B&H, 2011), which embodies the Great Commission resurgence we are seeking here at SEBTS and in the broader SBC. In the post below, I’ve interviewed Bruce about the book, its unique format structured around the biblical narrative, and its unique collection of authors (missionaries, theologians, church planters, pastors, and missiologists). Below are the seven questions I asked him, followed by his responses.

First of all, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I serve as the Dean of the College at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also serve as Associate Professor of Theology & Culture and Senior Fellow at the Bush Center for Faith & Culture. I am also a Fellow in Theology at the Paideia Center for Public Theology.

Over the years, I have served as a pastor, an evangelist, and a church planter. At present, I have the great privilege of being one of the directional elders at The Summit Church, where we have a vision to plant 1,000 churches in the next 30 years.

I am married about 51 feet over my head to Lauren, who is mother to our two beautiful little girls, Riley and Anna.

OK, now tell us why you put together this book, Theology and Practice of Mission?

Together with 18 other contributors, we wanted to put together a unique book that we hoped would accomplish four things: (1) address this thing we call “mission,” in light of current debates; (2) to do so in a theologically-driven manner, rather than a pragmatically- or social science-driven manner; (3) to do so w/ contributors who are both theologically- and missionally- credible, many of whom are younger voices who have not yet been heard, and (4) to contribute to the Great Commission Resurgence arising out of the SBC, and other similar missional movements in the broader evangelical world.

In my mind, the uniqueness of this volume lies in its unique attention to the biblical narrative, and in the unique backgrounds of its authors. Would you focus in on those aspects?

All of the essays are built around the creation-fall-redemption-restoration rubric, and around a few common themes (e.g. the need for a theologically-driven missiology). Each chapter is written in conversation with that narrative. The first chapter launches our discussion of mission by telling that narrative so that it can be a framework for the rest of the book. The other chapters flow directly from it. For example, the chapters on Islam, Postmodernism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Animism give a blow-by-blow exposition of the ways in which these worldview-religion complexes fail in light of that narrative.

As for the authors, they are a wickedly savvy collection of theologians, church planters, pastors, and missionaries. The reader will notice that several of the names are pseudonyms, in light of the fact that those authors work in security sensitive areas around the world. In fact, most of our authors live and work in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, the Pacific Rim, and Africa. Other contributors are church planters, pastors, and professors here in the USA. For example our USA-based contributors include J. D. Greear (pastor of The Summit Church and author of Gospel), Danny Akin (President of SEBTS and editor of A Theology for the Church), Sean Cordell (founding pastor of Treasuring Christ Church), George Robinson (professor at SEBTS and author of Striking the Match), Zane Pratt (Dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Seminary), David Sills (professor at Southern), and Keith Whitfield (a brilliant polymath who works for Ed Stetzer and teaches at New College Franklin).

What did these authors write about? In other words, give us a concise overview of the chapters and the topics that are covered.

This book is about mission. It is about the church’s call to live as a witness to Christ, drawing the nations into worship him. This mission, as we see it, does not begin in Matthew 28 or in the book of Acts, but rather all the way at the beginning of the biblical narrative.

Part One, “God’s Mission,” argues that any discussion of the church’s mission must start with a discussion of God’s mission to glorify himself by redeeming his image-bearers and restoring his good creation. Our first chapter tells the “story of mission” by unfolding the biblical narrative in four plot movements-Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The second chapter, “The Triune God,” investigates what it means to say that God is the agent of missions, arguing that God’s nature is both the foundation and the pattern for the church’s mission to the nations.

Part Two, “The Church’s Mission,” treats the church’s mission in light of God’s mission. The church’s mission is to glorify him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. The church’s mission is framed by God’s mission, seen upon the backdrop of God’s mission, and understood in light of God’s mission. This part of the book includes chapters on core doctrines related to the church’s mission (humanity, salvation, and the church) and on hot-button issues related to the church’s mission (evangelism, social responsibility, culture, and lifestyle).

Part Three, “The Church’s Mission to the Nations,” exposes the comprehensive reach of God’s mission, a reach that extends to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations. Although the church’s mission to the nations has often been relegated to international missions, we now are recognizing that those who minister in the United States often must cross cultures and sub-cultures and overcome linguistic barriers in our efforts to proclaim the gospel. This part of the book includes chapters on the OT and NT in relation to “the nations,” on the church’s mission in relation to hot-button topics (unreached people groups, discipleship, church planting, and suffering), and on the church’s mission in relation to various belief systems (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and Postmoderns.)

Part Four, “Concluding Challenges,” consists of two chapters. The first concluding challenge, “A Theologically-Driven Missiology,” challenges evangelicals to craft a truly theological paradigm for missiology, particularly in relation to some of today’s contested missiological issues. The second concluding challenge, “A Challenge for our Churches,” encourages our churches and mission agencies to do whatever it takes to build a powerfully biblical and culturally strategic mission strategy for the 21st century.

Your book covers a great deal of topics. Why the breadth?

We cover a lot of topics because we think the church’s mission is comprehensive. We are called to glorify God and bear witness to him by participating in the redemption of his image-bearers, and by living as a sign of his kingdom and of the restoration of all things. When the church gathers, we do so through teaching, fellowship, worship, and witness in word and deed. When the church scatters, we also bear witness in word and deed, but do so in every realm of society and culture. The fact is that sin has ravaged every square inch of the fabric of society and culture, and therefore every square inch ought to be brought under submission to the Lordship of Christ.

There is a great struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, Christ and Satan, and between truth and error. This great struggle manifests itself in different ways in human history, and right now it manifests itself in the challenges posed by modernism, postmodernism, Southern fried moralism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc. Christians should resist this totalitarian assault on spiritual, moral, social, cultural, and political life. We should fight it tooth and nail, not only from the pulpit, but in the university, business, arts, sciences, public square, etc., and we should resist it in an openly and robustly Christian manner. I see this as part of the church’s mission.

The longest section of the book is the section on the church’s mission to the nations. Why the priority?

Revelation 5 is perhaps the most breathtaking and powerful vision in all of Scripture, and it serves as the climax of a major thread that runs throughout the Scriptures-God’s determination to make himself known to the nations so that they may worship him. In this vision that God gives to John, all of heaven bursts forth into praise of the Lamb who was slain. Among those represented are worshipers from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This is the vision that drives us-that our Lord will be worshiped from all corners of the globe.

And yet there are almost 2 billion people who have little or no knowledge of Christ. In many corners of the globe there are no churches, no Bibles, and no Christians to bear witness. I repeat, there are hundreds of millions, upwards of 2 billion people, who could leave their homes and search for days and months, and never find a church, a Bible, or a Christian.

Our great privilege and responsibility is to bequeath to them the treasure that was given to us-the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I hope that the recent movement towards church planting and revitalization leads toward an equally powerful movement to take the gospel to every corner of the earth until there is a church within walking distance of every house on this planet.

You also write about the church’s mission in our American context. What are some things that you address in the book?

Yes, I think our churches in here in the US are realizing that ministry in our home-context is a lot more like international missions than we once thought. Let me mention four things our SBC churches can do, and which many of our churches are already doing:

  • 1. Confront the brutal facts about our racially monolithic legacy: Our convention built its legacy on reaching white people. But we’ve got to do whatever it takes to change this legacy. The gospel demands that we do so. God the Father sacrificed his son to reach the diverse peoples and tribes, and to bring them into gospel unity. As the USA becomes increasingly diverse, our all-white churches increasingly appear as a contradiction to the gospel. If we are not careful, public perception will be along these lines, “If you want racial integration and unity, rely on the US government. But if you want all-white gatherings that are bizarre anomalies in a diverse culture, go to a SBC church.”
  • 2. Confront the challenge of reaching the dizzying variety of sub-cultures that our churches must deal with. We must take our USA contexts as seriously as international missionaries take theirs. This means that we take the time to learn a little bit about the lives of the people around us. We learn what they believe, how they live, what music shapes their lives and emotions, etc. In our sermons we avoid tribal language, we-them language, sentimental pompous pep talks, and talking as if unbelievers are not present.
  • 3. Equip our people to bring all of their lives under the lordship of Christ, using every facet as leverage for the gospel. We want to equip our people do view their workplace and their leisure pursuits as arenas that are ordained by God, ordered by God, and are arenas in which we can work out the implications of the gospel.
  • 4. Encourage one another to reach the cities, the suburbs, and the rural and remote areas of our country, rather than just one or two of those.
  • 5. Focus on church planting, church revitalization, and cooperation.

The Mission of the Church: An Ecclesiological Question

We were pleased to host Christopher J.H. Wright at Southeastern Seminary last week as he delivered the annual Page Lectures. His theme for the lectures was “The Bible and the Mission of God,” which is an important and somewhat controversial topic among evangelicals. His two lectures were titled “Reading the Whole Bible for Mission: What Happens When We do?” and “God, Israel, and the Nations: The Old Testament and Christian Mission.” Both of his excellent lectures can be viewed on the multimedia page of the SEBTS website.

Wright is a prolific Old Testament scholar and missional theologian. He is the author of a couple of very important books on mission titled The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006) and The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010). In those books, Wright lays out a holistic understanding of mission that is rooted in the Bible’s grand narrative and that results in the final redemption of the cosmos. The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation in Christ through word and deed in every sphere of life. In many ways, this view of mission is a continuation of the position advocated by John Stott in his classic book Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975) and articulated by the Lausanne movement through the Lausanne Covenant (1974), Manila Manifesto (1989), and Cape Town Commitment (2011). (Stott was the principle author of the Lausanne Covenant, while Wright was the principle author of the Cape Town Commitment.)

Recently, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have offered a friendly critique of this understanding of mission in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011). DeYoung and Gilbert are hesitant to define mission too broadly, preferring to focus on verbal proclamation of the gospel. They argue that Christians can and should engage in social justice ministries, but they don’t necessarily see this as being as crucial as evangelism. I may be misreading them, but I think they’re arguing that deeds complement gospel proclamation, but deeds aren’t mission in and of themselves in the same way as proclamation. While affirming a grand narrative reading of Scripture, DeYoung and Gilbert want to be clear that we not confuse what God and God alone does in his mission and what the church has been tasked with in her mission.

I’m going to go ahead and say what everyone already knows, but in my circles is mostly whispered in hushed tones. The aforementioned books (and many others I haven’t referenced) represent a massive debate among evangelicals that has simmered below the surface for several years and is just now coming to light, in part because of the publication and responses to What is the Mission of the Church? It is, for the most part, a friendly debate among substantially like-minded brothers-that’s the good part. But when it comes to the question of mission, there are at least two different tendencies present among inerrantist, non-Arminian, complementarian evangelicals, and these tendencies have the potential to become out-and-out factions. All you have to do is read Ed Stetzer’s review of What is the Mission of the Church?, the responses to Stetzer’s review, and the responses to those responses to see that there is at least the potential for significant controversy.

For my part, I’m not interested in offering a substantive review of the relevant books; plenty of folks have already done so, and from a variety of perspectives. Rather, I want to raise an ecclesiological question that I’ve been mulling over since I read What is the Mission of the Church? a couple of months ago (I’ve previously read Stott, Wright, and several of the other authors whom DeYoung and Gilbert critique). To what degree are representatives of the different tendencies talking past each other because they mean different things when they use the word church? To say it another way, to what degree is this a debate between folks who prioritize the church universal versus those who prioritize local churches?

Many representative voices of the “holistic mission” tendency are either Anglican (Stott, Wright) or intentionally non-denominational (the Lausanne movement). This stands in contrast to DeYoung and Gilbert, who are Reformed and Southern Baptist, respectively. As a general rule, Anglicans and interdenominational and/or parachurch evangelicals are referring to the wider body of Christ when they use the word church, whereas Baptists and at least some Reformed Christians are typically speaking of particular congregations when they use the term. Both believe in both the church universal and local churches, of course, but the primary emphasis tends to be on one or the other.

One reason I think this ecclesiological difference might factor into the mission debate is because, to my understanding at least, both tendencies are in about 95% agreement about what Christians ought to be doing. Both affirm, unequivocally, verbal proclamation of the gospel as the center of mission. Both agree that Christians should do justice and love mercy. Both advocate Christian cultural engagement. In other words, everybody agrees that both word and deed is part and parcel of faithful Christian living. And yet, we have this disagreement. Is it at least possible that Wright (to name just one example) is arguing that Christians in general-the church-should be about X & Y, while DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing that local congregations-the church-may engage in X & Y in different ways and to varying degrees? This seems to be the case to me.

By raising this question, I’m by no means minimizing real differences that are present within the various positions. It’s clear that there is a spectrum of evangelical opinions regarding the church’s mission, though again, I think the differences might seem at least somewhat wider than is really the case. But if we are to work toward any sort of consensus-and avoid factionalism-then we need to understand why different folks land where they do on this issue. I’m convinced ecclesiology has been under-discussed in reviews and other discussions of the key books on the topic. Perhaps as we ask what the church’s mission is, we would do well to be clear what we mean by the word church.

(Update: I’ve just learned that Collin Hansen wrote on a related topic yesterday for The Gospel Coalition.)