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What Is the Church’s Mission?

There are few tasks more urgent than for the church to reflect on the nature of its mission and to formulate a clear understanding of its task in the world today. As Paul wrote, “There I do not run like someone running aimlessly. I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (1 Cor 9:26). I developed the following 12 theses as a humble contribution to the ongoing conversation on this topic.

THE TWELVE THESES

(1) The church’s mission-in both belief and practice-should be grounded in the biblical theology of mission. This requires sustained reflection on the biblical teaching on mission in both Testaments; an awareness of the complexities involved in apprehending such a biblical theology of mission; and the adoption of a humble stance toward Scripture as the church’s sole legitimate source of divine revelation and thus of the church’s understanding of its mission.

(2) Reflection on the church’s mission should be predicated upon the affirmation of the full and sole authority of Scripture. Unless the church’s convictions regarding its mission and the strategies it devises on the basis of these beliefs are completely committed and surrendered to the authority of Scripture, the purity of the church’s thought and practice with regard to its mission will be compromised, and thinking derived from the social sciences will inevitably leaven the dough of its missiology.

(3) The church’s mission should be conceived primarily in terms of the church’s faithfulness and responsiveness to the missionary mandate given by the Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in Scripture. If the church is to engage in mission as prompted by God’s initiative in Christ (as is surely the case), then the church’s mission is to be conceived as essentially responsive and representational in nature. There is no need to “rise above” or “go beyond” Scripture in the church’s beliefs and practice of its mission.

(4) The church’s understanding of its mission should be hermeneutically sound. This requires the consideration of facts such as that while the Synoptics focus on Jesus’ teaching on the “kingdom of God,” John speaks instead of “eternal life.” This seems to caution against elevating the “kingdom of God” as the only paradigm by which the church’s mission is to be understood. Also, Paul emphasizes the centrality of the gospel (e.g. Rom 1:1-2, 16-17) and provides teaching on the church as the body of Christ, on spiritual gifts, and on the proper organization of the church including qualifications for its leaders (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; and the Prison and Pastoral Epistles).

(5) The church’s mission is to be conceived ultimately in theocentric rather than anthropocentric terms. Mission is part of the church’s obedience to God, just as dying on the cross for the sins of the world was part of the sent Son’s obedience to his sender, God the Father (see, e.g., John 17:4; 19:30). Thus the gospel and its abiding truth and relevance for lost sinners should be the primary point of reference as the church engages in its mission rather than human need and the contemporary cultural, political, economic, and social contexts.

(6) The church’s mission, properly and biblically conceived, is to be trinitarian in its orientation, but not at the expense of neglecting the distinct roles of the three persons within the Godhead. The church’s mission is to be prompted by God the Father’s initiative, to proceed on the basis of Christ’s redemptive mission and commission, and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there is no dichotomy between the church’s mission being Trinitarian and Christocentric-it is to be both.

(7) The contemporary context of the church’s mission, while important, ought not to override the church’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, its need to be grounded in the biblical theology of mission, and the understanding of its task in terms of faithfulness to the gospel. Once context and experience are put on par with Scripture, the former in fact take precedence, and Scripture’s authority is undermined, with the inevitable result that the gospel’s integrity is compromised.

(8) The church is the God-ordained agent of his mission in this world today. Just as it is in Christ that God has chosen to center his salvation-historical program, Christ is the head of his body, the church. As Paul writes, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession-to the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:13-14). Paul’s desire is that “to him [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:21).

(9) The way in which the kingdom of God is extended in this world today is through regenerate believers acting out their Christian faith in their God-assigned spheres of life: the church, their families, their workplace, the societies in which they live (Eph 5:18-6:9; 1 Pet 2:13-3:7). This realization precludes both an over-realized eschatology and an other-worldly escapism or heroism that has the effect of bypassing the primary God-ordained familial and social structures in this life.

(10) There is no true lasting social transformation apart from personal conversion through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe Enoch Wan is right to stress the indispensable personal and individual nature of faith in Christ and to caution against an overreaction against an unduly individualistic understanding of the biblical teaching on mission. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that mission is the church’s task, not the task of individuals apart from their membership in a given local church.

(11) Human organization does not necessarily entail a lack of acknowledgment of God and his initiative in mission. While this may be, and has been, the case in the history of the church and its mission, it is also true that the opposite of organization is chaos, and the New Testament writings (especially the Book of Acts) indicate that the early church took concerted steps to organize itself to carry out its mission successfully. It appointed and commissioned missionaries; planted networks of churches and set up leaders; and so on.

(12) The church’s task today is to nurture, renew, and plant churches composed of a spiritually regenerate membership and constituted in keeping with the biblical teaching regarding church leadership. This is the unfinished task of the church today, indicated by the open-ended nature of the Book of Acts and mandated by the New Testament commissioning passages. As Jesus said, “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” (Matt 24:14; cf. Mark 13:10).

FOR FURTHER STUDY

See Christopher J. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006); Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Missions of Jesus and of the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Andreas J. Köstenberger with T. Desmond Alexander, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission (NSBT 53; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2020); and Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission (2 vols.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004). See also Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (NSBT 24; Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2008).


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