Friday, April 8, 2011

Michael Horton on the Meaning of "Missional"

Michael Horton recently was interviewed by John Starke at the Gospel Coalition website about his new book, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God's Strategy for Making Disciples.

In the third question of the interview, Starke asks Horton is he is comfortable with the term "missional" and Horton's reply to that question and the two followup questions is very insightful, in my opinion.

When Lesslie Newbigin coined that term, it made sense. I knew what he meant. I had the privilege of getting to know him over tea on several occasions while we were both in Oxford, and I have great respect for his labors as a missionary bishop in India. His point was that the West is now a mission field in its own right and missions isn’t just something the church sends a few people to do, but a joyful task in which all believers are engaged. However, in books like Darrel Guder’s The Missional Church, this idea became more radical. I think that the salutary point about knowing our culture became inflated. Terms like incarnational began to undermine the qualitative difference between Christ and us. Affirming that the church is a people who are active in the world, the tendency was to downplay the church as a place where Christ is the active party, forgiving and renewing sinners. The official ministry of the church (Word, sacrament, discipline)—the three marks of the church—have been dangerously contrasted with being a “missional church.”

A major concern of The Gospel Commission is to reconnect mission and marks; in other words, to see that the mission of the church (according to Jesus’ commission and its concrete execution in Acts) is to bear the marks! So a church that is not reaching out to non-Christians can’t take pride in having the marks of the church. After all, the marks are not only to have true doctrine and practice, but to proclaim God’s Word, to baptize, to commune, and to shepherd heirs of the new creation until together with all the saints we reach our everlasting homeland. At the same time, a church cannot claim to be “missional” if it isn’t preaching God’s Word, administering the sacraments, teaching, and looking out for the flock’s spiritual and temporal welfare. Peter gives us the right balance in his Pentecost sermon: “The promise is for you and your children AND for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God calls to himself.”

What are some problems you see with people identifying their ministry as “incarnational”?

By “incarnational” a lot of people mean that, like Jesus, we should identify with our neighbors in humility, rather than stand aloof. But it often is attended today by a lot of loose language about “doing the gospel” and “being the gospel,” of our work of partnering with God in the redemption and reconciliation of the world, and so forth—“Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words,” as the oft-quoted saying attributed to Francis of Assisi goes. The problem is that this confuses us with Jesus, the redeemed with the Redeemer, the ambassadors with the King. In Philippians 2, we are called to imitate the humility of Christ, revealed in his descent from glory in order to save the lost. However, everything else in that passage highlights the ways in which we cannot imitate Christ. We did not share equally with the Father and the Holy Spirit in deity. We did not become incarnate. Our “humiliation” is not for the redemption of others, but for our witness to the name of Christ. So the gospel is something that can only be proclaimed, because it’s about someone else—what he has already accomplished—and that makes it Good News. Like John the Baptist, we point away from ourselves to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Although we are called to imitate his suffering humility, Christ’s incarnation itself is not a model for us to imitate, but a wonderful announcement for us to bring to the world. The gospel is not about me or us; it’s about the Triune God and what he has accomplished for us in Jesus Christ.

You regularly raise the concern that many are confusing Christ’s work with our work. Can you briefly explain where the confusion lies?

This concern follows from the previous points. The Reformers made the startling point, so evident in the Scriptures, that in relation to God we are only receivers. All good gifts come down from the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. So then where do our good works go? God doesn’t need them. I don’t need them, because Christ is my righteousness. The only place for our good works to go, then, is out to our neighbors in love. They need us to bring them the gospel. They also need us to help them fix their roof, rebuild after an earthquake, watch their children while they take a sick child to the hospital, and so forth. Through the many works that Christians execute in their daily lives, God loves and serves the world in common grace. Through our witness to the gospel, God loves and serves these neighbors with saving grace. But if we eclipse God’s service, which we receive supremely in the public ministry of Word and sacrament, into an emphasis on our service, then the salt loses its savor. We may be really, really active in the world, but are we Christian in that activity? Scripture gives us commands as well as promises; tasks to perform as well as Good News to embrace. However, if we take it for granted that everybody already “gets” God’s saving grace in Christ (as though it were merely a matter of assenting to a series of doctrines and then moving on to the real stuff of Christian discipleship), we’re doing things backwards. Works flow from faith and faith feeds daily on the gospel."

Horton is concerned to distinguish between Christian service to neighbor and contributions to culture-building, which are part of common grace, and the specific task of announcing the Lordship of Jesus Christ and calling people to faith in him.

In an article at the 9 Marks site, entitled "Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex," Horton criticizes much of Evangelicalism for confusing the living out of Christian discipleship in the world with the Gospel itself. He sharpens the points made above when he says:

"If this theological argument is correct, then we should question popular statements like, "All of life is kingdom work." No, proclaiming the Word, administering baptism and the Supper, caring for the spiritual and physical well-being of the saints, and bringing in the lost are kingdom work. Building bridges, delivering medical supplies to hospitals, installing water heaters, defending clients in court, holding public office, and having friends over for dinner are "creation work," given a pledge of safe conduct ever since Cain under God's regime of common grace. In this work, Christians serve beside non-Christians, as both are endowed with natural gifts and learned skills for their common life together.

Only when Christ returns in glory will the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Until then, the New Testament does not offer a single exhortation to Christianize politics, the arts and sciences, education, or any other common grace field of endeavor.

Of course, Christians will bring their worldview and values to their secular callings. Instead of simply working for the weekend out of pure self-interest, believers should choose and fulfill their vocation as a way of best loving and serving their neighbor. What the church does for those who are of the household of faith is different from what individual Christians do as neighbors in the world.

Where we might hope for triumphant calls to "redeem culture," the New Testament epistles offer comparatively boring yet crucial exhortations to respect and pray for those in authority, to treat employers and employees well, and to be faithful parents and children. We are called "to increase more and more" in godliness through the ordinary means of grace in the church. And in our secular vocations we are called to "aspire to lead a quite life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside and that you may lack nothing" (1 Thes 4:10-12)."

Read the rest here. Horton is one of the sharpest thinkers around on the issue of the mission of the church. His distinction between "creation work" and "kingdom work" is very Augustinian and worthy of serious reflection.

1 comment:

Gordonhackman said...

Very good post. Thank you. I am part of small missional church plany and I found this post to be help and clarifying. I will probably try to get Horton's book and read it at some point (maybe once I get done reading the several books I just purchased at the Wheaton Theology conference ;)