What is the Mission of Missions? Part 3
In part 2 of this series, Joel discussed his first two concerns with today’s shift toward social action in missions: (1) the failure to learn from history and (2) the neglect of the church’s true work. His third concern is even more foundational:
3) Is the underlying theory flawed?
While Jesus did command believers to love their neighbors, I don’t see in the NT that the apostles’ missions program included resource-consuming social action projects directed at the world. In light of that, let me lay out eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions. Of course, not all social-action advocates have all eight of these problems, but naturally, when doing a survey, we need to paint with a broad brush.
Problem 1: A redefinition of the gospel.
Many social justice advocates argue that the incarnation was, at least in part, about bringing shalom, human flourishing, or general wellbeing to the human race. Therefore, they say, any Christian effort that increases human flourishing (such as digging a well or starting a medical clinic) is gospel ministry. Although this may initially seem a compelling argument, it is a very dangerous one because it is a significant redefinition of the gospel, intentionally moving away from sin and forgiveness to social upliftment.
Moreover, as D.A. Carson points out, any such redefinition of the gospel is categorically wrong. He writes, “[The gospel is] the good news of what God has done, not a description of what [Christians] ought to do in consequence.... One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments” (“The Hole in the Gospel”). In other words, by definition, digging a well is not the gospel, because the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus Christ, not what we do. How did we forget that?
But I think we can go a step further: to represent the gospel of Jesus Christ as being about the general upliftment of unbelieving society is, in fact, to misrepresent the gospel. John MacArthur writes:
I recently mentioned to a friend that I was working on a book dealing with sin and our culture's declining moral climate. He immediately said, “Be sure you urge Christians to get actively involved in reclaiming society. The main problem is that Christians haven’t acquired enough influence in politics, art, and the entertainment industry to turn things around for good.” That, I acknowledge, is a common view held by many Christians. But I’m afraid I don’t agree.... God's purpose in this world—and the church’s only legitimate commission—is the proclamation of the message of sin and salvation to individuals (The Vanishing Conscience, 12.).
Problem 2: An overly realized eschatology, or wanting the kingdom now.
An idealistic desire to bring the kingdom now often plays a role in the social-action vision of missions. Social action advocates argue that Christ came to banish the results of the Fall; therefore, “kingdom work” includes anything that diminishes or reverses those results and promotes the general betterment of society. However, this common-grace approach to the Great Commission is a thoroughly inadequate one—a kind of closet postmillennialism that attempts to create transformation that only Christ’s return can bring. Biblically speaking, a person participates in the blessings of Christ’s kingdom by believing in the King.
Look for part 4 one week from today.
Joel James has served as the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa since February 1995. This series was adapted from Joel James and Brian Biedebach, “Regaining Our Focus: A Response to the Social Action Trend in Evangelical Missions,” MSJ 25, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 29-50.