Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What is the Mission of the Church?

What is the mission of the church? This question generates different answers depending upon who you consult and what books you read. For some the mission of the church includes the active engagement with culture in a way that is designed to bring relief to physical suffering and for others it is confined strictly to evangelism and discipleship. Authors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert tackle this question in their recent 266 page book of the same title (ISBN 978-1-4335-2690-9). On Page 62, after examining the classic texts relating to the Great Commission, they answer the question as follows: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”

DeYoung and Gilbert are not blind however to the significant healing ministry of Jesus (and the Apostles), as well as the obvious OT emphasis on God’s loving concern for the economically and socially vulnerable, a concern shared by the writers of the NT (Gal. 2:10; Jam. 1:27). In working through the difficulties of applying these two truths the authors develop the idea of a “wide-angle” and “zoom lens” to explain the various Scriptural emphases (pg. 94).

In their view the “wide-angle” approach, which they later call “the gospel of the kingdom” (pg. 106), focuses upon the passages in both the Old and New Testaments which speak of “the entire package of benefits that Christ secures for his people” (pg. 95). While the “zoom lens” approach, which they also call “the gospel of the cross” focuses much more narrowly on the forgiveness of sin through the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross (pg. 100). In this discussion they correctly note that the blessing of the former depend completely upon the redemption secured in the later.

Chapter six of the book includes a very helpful and exegetically sound explanation of “social justice” in the OT, which by itself would be worth the price of the book. In chapter nine the authors deal with the responsibilities of both the church as an institution, as well as the individual Christian, correctly noting that they have overlapping, but not identical spheres. The church must preach the gospel because it is uniquely the guardian of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The individuals who make up that church may legitimately choose to become involved in a plethora of social ministries, but they do not individually set the agenda for the church. The church may choose to become involved in various ministries to improve social conditions, but if it so engages it must never forget the eternal truth that “there is something worse than death [hell], and there is something better than human flourishing [heaven]” (pg. 242), and only the preaching of the cross enables a person to escape one and gain the other.

I found this book to be very profitable to read and think through. I recommend reading it with a Bible at the ready in order to follow the flow of the argument and evaluate its exegetical support. My only real criticism of the book comes in its confusing eschatology (particularly chapters 5&8) in which the millennial promises to Israel are transferred to the church, or confused with the new heavens and new earth. In fact the whole section on the “wide-angle” and “zoom lens” gospel would have been much clearer and compelling if the authors were able to acknowledge the great physical blessings of Messiah’s Millennial Kingdom that come only to those who enter through the doorway of spiritual redemption (Jn. 3:5).