What is the Mission of Missions? Part 6
In the final installment of this series, Joel concludes his discussion of eight biblical problems with the social action model of missions.
Problem 8: A willful blindness to how the apostles fulfilled Jesus' Great Commission in the book of Acts.
John Stott has written this about the Great Commission: “Not only the consequences of the commission but the actual commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility” (Christian Mission in the Modern World, 23; emphasis added). In spite of Stott’s assertion, neither Jesus’ commission in Matthew 28 nor Luke 24 contain even the smallest mention of social action. In fact, His closing instructions in both those Gospels focus exclusively on evangelism and teaching. From where, then, does Stott draw his belief that the actual commission itself overtly includes social reform? Stott tries to circumvent the silence of Matthew and Luke by assigning a unique interpretation to Jesus’ declaration to the disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” Stott says this is a veiled reference to the content of the disciples’ mission: they were to do social relief, just like Jesus did. Unfortunately, this is a clear case of eisegesis, and we rightly expect better of a man like John Stott. When Jesus said, “I send you as the Father sent Me,” His focus is on His divine authority to send—an authority that parallels His Father’s. In spite of Stott’s efforts to find it there, the content of the mission simply isn’t under consideration.
In fact, if Jesus was giving the disciples a veiled instruction to make evangelism and social relief equal partners in their missions efforts, then they clearly failed to understand Him. One look at what they did in the book of Acts tells you that. In fact, several times in Acts the apostles summarized in their own words Christ’s commission to them, such as in Acts 10:42, where Peter told the listeners gathered in Cornelius’ home, “He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge” (see Paul’s similar summary in Acts 26:16-20).
The truth is, the apostles never mention social action when discussing Christ’s commission, nor does Acts speak of social action projects as a means of uplifting or evangelizing the world. In fact, the notion that social action and gospel proclamation are “two wings of the same bird” is indefensible when your read Luke’s report of the early church. In Acts, proclamation is a condor wing and social action a sparrow’s—and actually, that’s being generous because there is not one mention in Acts of social action missions projects.
So, if we allow the book of Acts to lay down the lane markers for our missions efforts, then church planting, leadership training (and Bible translation, where necessary) will be our focus. That’s how the men whom Jesus trained understood and applied His commission. There is no doubt that the early Christians showed concern for the needy unbelievers around them. They met “pressing needs” as Titus 3:14 says. They did good to all people, as Galatians 6:10 instructs. That’s what Christians do simply because they’re Christians.
And I would hasten to add that I encourage such things among the people in my church. For example, people in my church are employed at orphanages, teach Bible studies for orphans, volunteer at a hospice, direct a school for underprivileged African farmers, minister in prisons, sponsor theological training for needy pastors, have created a food-for-trash program for street children, and a host of other compassion efforts. They do those things because they’re Christians. However, what Christians do because they are Christians, and what the church does as its organized, corporate missions program is not the same.
So, my suggestion is that when you read Acts, social relief missions projects directed at the world can’t be found. Let me illustrate that from the apostle Paul’s long-planned mission to the city of Rome. In Paul’s day, Rome was a sprawling metropolis with over a million inhabitants. Its social woes were the equivalent of or worse than those found in any modern city. What would the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans have looked like if it were written by one of today’s evangelical social action advocates?
I can’t wait to come to Rome to lead the charge of Christ-centered social justice! Deed must precede word! We need to proclaim Christ’s love for the city by working to improve the general civility, race relations, and social conditions in Rome. We need to eradicate slavery and poverty. We need to start orphanages. The people of Rome won’t listen to the gospel unless we first help them flourish socially and economically. But if the church organizes a series of community-based services to eradicate unemployment and to uplift the disadvantaged, then we’ll see the city of Rome transformed.
Of course, you know what Paul actually wrote: “For my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.” And in Romans, Paul makes it clear that his gospel is a gospel of sin, wrath, Christ, the cross, repentance, faith, and forgiveness. Paul was fully aware of the social conditions that prevailed in any large city in the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, he showed the same systematic disregard for social action missions one finds in the book of Acts.
Of course, because of the varying gifts in the body of Christ, some missionaries will add more mercy and compassion components to their ministry than others: believers have different gifts. That is not my concern. My concern is that we are allowing corporate social action missions—something we see no example of in the NT—to take over our missions efforts. At the very best it is disproportional to the book of Acts. And in fact, it’s hard to say that it reflects the book of Acts at all.
Long after the AIDS orphans have grown up, the wells have been blocked with sand, and the medical clinics have closed due to a lack of Western funding, the people of Africa will need churches to preach the Word and proclaim the gospel. If we send out missionaries who are primarily focused on social action, who will plant and pastor those churches? Unbelievers and NGO’s don’t preach the gospel and plant churches: only the church does that. While the work of social action is emotionally rewarding for missionaries and for the churches that send them, I fear that we’ll wake up one day and realize that we’ve not been helping the world in the most helpful way.
What can you do to correct this trend? It’s not that hard. First, remind your current missionaries that the proclamation work they're doing is of highest significance. Old-guard missionaries who are doing book-of-Acts kind of missions sometimes feel pressure to embrace the new social-justice model. Furthermore, they know that, when writing support letters in today’s church environment, “We cared for fourteen orphans this week,” is far more likely to produce a positive financial response than, “We are in our fourteenth week of an exposition of Philippians in our church plant.” Write your missionaries or visit them on the field and encourage them not to redirect their efforts based on trendy rhetoric—stick to what the apostles did.
Second, when preparing to send out new missionaries (or if you are preparing to go to the field yourself), sit with the book of Acts open on your knees to determine your philosophy of missions: what they did, you do. If you are a preacher, preach Acts: let it shape—even dominate—your view of the church, and therefore, your missions program. It’s no mystery. To sum up everything I’ve said, how the men whom Jesus trained understood and fulfilled the Great Commission is the right way to fulfill the Great Commission.
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.