June 18, 2014

The Role of the Church in Cultural Transformation (1)

The following will be a series of posts based on the MA thesis of David Nixon. David is a good friend and has graciously allowed us to publish his work in order to educate us about this important topic.

Part I: The Background: The Mission of the Church Controversy

The Lord Jesus Christ spent three years discipling a community of followers to recognise that the hopes of Israel and promises of God were being fulfilled in him. Immediately prior to his departure, Jesus commissioned his apostles, as the foundational representatives of the church, with a task in this world: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

To begin understanding this mission of the church (missiones ecclesiae) it must be placed within the context of the mission of God (missio dei): “The question might fairly be asked, does the church have a mission, or does God’s mission have a church? . . . God has called the church into existence for the very purpose of serving his mission”. God’s ultimate mission can be defined: “Mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation and to call people into a reconciled covenantal relationship with God”. However, the question is what is the particular task entrusted to the church at the present time within that ultimate mission of God?

Whatever answer is given will have significant implications for the work of the church. Yet it has no single uncontroversial answer, as Little has commented: “there is a growing divide among evangelicals today regarding the fundamental meaning, role, and purpose of Christian mission”. This debate forms the background to this study.

2. The Problem: The Ever Expanding Scope of Mission

In his missiological magnum opus, David Bosch begins by observing that there has been a“significant broadening” of the scope of the church’s mission since the 1950s. He argues that the church has practised different models of mission throughout history, which reflected its varying relationships with culture. When that relationship changed then the paradigm for mission changed too. For example, there are great differences between how the early church engaged in mission and how the later medieval church acted in Christendom. This reflects the early church’s marginalisation and its privileged position in society thereafter. Therefore, Bosch concluded that present post- Christendom culture called for a new paradigm which did not reduce mission to evangelism or proclamation: “Mission is the church sent into the world, to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to heal, to liberate ... it is therefore better to uphold the distinctiveness of evangelism within the wider mission of the church”.

Among the wider proposed scopes for mission is John Stott’s suggestion that it includes “everything the church is sent into the world to do”. Accordingly, Stott led many evangelicals to expand their understanding of mission to include social involvement alongside evangelism in the Lausanne Covenant (1974).Subsequently, the Cape Town Declaration (2010) drafted by Christopher Wright has expanded it further:

“Integral mission means discerning, proclaiming, and living out, the biblical truth that the gospel is God's good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons,and for society, and for creation. All three are broken and suffering because of sin; all three are included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God's people.”

This has resulted in an increased interest in relating issues of environmentalism, injustice, poverty, social transformation, and cultural renewal to the church’s mission.

These significant developments have provoked debate at both the popular and academic levels within evangelical circles. For example, one recent book What is the Mission of the Church? had the stated aim: “what we want to correct is an overexpansive definition that understands mission to be just about every good thing a Christian could do as a partner with God in his mission to redeem the whole world”. Also Ferdinando has expressed concerns about this expanded scope of mission: “The problem, however, is that if the making of disciples is subsumed under a category of mission which is much broader and far more inclusive, its absolute importance risks being compromised”.

While debate can be healthy for the church, it can also be divisive by encouraging distrust between evangelical churches and Christian organisations, undermining their effectiveness in mission. Therefore, with a desire to preserve the unity and effectiveness of the church engaged in mission, this thesis will explore these debated issues. It will specifically consider the proposed place of social transformation and cultural renewal in the expanded view of the church’s mission.

While there are many facets and ways of defining culture this thesis will follow the definition developed by the Willowbank Consultation on Gospel and Culture (1978):

“Culture is an integrated system of beliefs (about God or reality or ultimate meaning), of values (about what is true, good, beautiful and normative), of customs (how to behave, relate to others, talk, pray, dress, work, play, trade, farm, eat, etc.), and of institutions which express these beliefs, values and customs (government, law, courts, temples or churches, family, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, unions, clubs, etc.), which binds a society together and gives it a sense of identity, dignity, security, and continuity.”

This is because it was produced in consultation with thirty-three contributors from different disciplines (pastors, missionaries, theologians, and cultural anthropologists), combining many of the insights of other definitions of culture into one. This definition in combining internal beliefs and the externalisation of those beliefs in society shows how culture and society are connected, which is why this thesis will consider cultural renewal and social transformation together.

Furthermore, while mission has local and global dimensions, this thesis will focus specifically on the social and cultural responsibilities of the local church. Nevertheless, this will have implications for global missions, since newly planted churches will face these questions in their own indigenous social and cultural contexts.

3. The Method: Christianity and Culture Leading to Missiology

This thesis assumes that these differing perspectives on the church’s mission in society and culture each express and presuppose a particular relationship between Christianity and culture, like those found in Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. He presented five models broadly classifying the different historical answers to the “broad questions of the church’s responsibility for social order”. They describe a spectrum of views on this relationship, ranging from hostility (“Christ Against Culture” represented by Tertullian, Monasticism, and the Mennonites) to acculturation (“Christ of Culture” represented by the Gnostics and Liberal Protestantism); with three mediating views (“Christ Above Culture” represented by Justyn Martyr and Roman Catholicism; “Christ and Culture in Paradox” represented primarily by Luther; and “Christ the Transformer of Culture” represented by Augustine, Calvin, and Maurice).The latter two models, Paradox and Transformer, he described respectively as the “dualist” and“conversionist” relationships of Christianity and culture.Each of these models has missiological implications and yields a different perspective on the church’s mission in society and culture. This helps to understand the divergent views of mission in the present debate.

Although Niebuhr’s typology has received much criticism, still it remains valuable for commencing this study. After examining its weaknesses and proposing some improvements Marsden agrees it remains: “extraordinarily useful for analyzing the attitudes of almost any Christian on almost any cultural issues ... One could do a lot worse than to employ Niebuhr’s categories for sorting out these issues and clarifying how participants should think about them”. Likewise, Keller agrees it remains valuable because each model contains “a motif or guiding biblical truth that helps Christians relate to culture ...Through their limitations, models encourage leaders to avoid extremes and imbalances and to learn from all the motifs and categories”. Therefore, Niebuhr’s models will be used as this study’s starting point.

Having observed the intense debate in North American evangelicalism over the mission of the church, particularly between the Two Kingdoms and Transformationalist theological traditions, this thesis will engage with these two perspectives on mission. They are related to Niebuhr’s Paradox and Transformer models, respectively. Since we live in a globalised world and this question has been asked throughout history, this debate and these theological perspectives are relevant beyond their immediate contexts.

They have been chosen as the focus for this study because they most directly pertain to the discussion about the church’s transformative engagement with culture and society, offering differing missiological perspectives on it. Niebuhr’s other models, while relevant and worthy of further study, have less direct bearing on this specific discussion. For example, the Christ of Culture and Christ Above Culture models call for the church to embrace the surrounding culture; and the Christ Against Culture model calls for the church to separate and challenge the surrounding culture by modelling an alternative society. So this thesis will limit its scope to these two models.

As stated, each model produces a different missiological perspective, which will be examined in Chapters Two and Three and briefly summarised here. The Two Kingdoms model believes that the church is the only manifestation of the City of God within the City of Man. This results in the church not pursuing a direct agenda of social transformation or cultural renewal, rather it focuses on personal salvation in evangelism and the making of Christian disciples, who themselves will engage in society to make a positive contribution for the common good. The Transformationalist model believes the church’s mission includes the redemptive transformation of the City of Man in anticipation of the City of God. So it places emphasis on the local church’s work of social transformation and cultural renewal, alongside personal salvation.

Chapter Two will consider the Two Kingdoms perspective by engaging with two of its prominent advocates, who have reflected on its missiological implications: Michael Horton (Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics) and David VanDrunen (Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics). They are colleagues at Westminster Seminary. Horton has worked on its systematic and applied theological basis, while VanDrunen has worked on its historical and biblical theological basis.

Chapter Three will consider the Transformationalist model by engaging with two of its advocates, who have reflected extensively on its implications for the church’s mission: Craig Bartholomew (Professor of Philosophy, Religion and Theology at Redeemer University College) and Michael Goheen (Professor of Missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary). They have collaborated on three companion books.Goheen has written another book on missional ecclesiology, which is influenced by his PhD on Lesslie Newbigin’s call for a missionary engagement between Christianity and culture.They belong to the Neo-Calvinist theological tradition.

In both of these chapters engaging with these perspectives the following research questions will be posed: Firstly, they will be placed in context: what is the biblical basis and historical development of the theological perspective? Secondly, they will be critically analysed to determine: what are their distinctive theological insights? Thirdly, they will be evaluated: what significant implications do they contribute for the church’s mission? Finally, it will be considered if either model is sufficient to be the sole answer to the question of the church’s mission?

4. The Goal: Moving Towards a Consensus

This study aims to show in each case that a way forward in the debate over the church’s mission is not in choosing either alternative model but in seeking a consensus between them both. Hence, Chapter Four proposes that a preliminary consensus between these differing perspectives on mission is possible and desirable. As a matter of fact, Niebuhr said God “employs their partial insights and their necessary conflicts”.23 Consequently, recognising that each model is a piece of a bigger puzzle compels this thesis to explore what the church’s mission and its responsibilities in society and culture look like. It is hoped such a consensus will shed further light for seeing a little clearer what is the mission of the church.

At this juncture it may prove helpful to relate this study and its goal to the wider missiological literature. In Andrew Kirk’s mainstream and wide-ranging book What Is Mission? he takes further Bosch’s work to the turn of the century. At the end he sought to map out four trajectories for thinking about mission, which he believed would continue to be represented by different groups into the new millennium. The first and third trends he identifies can be read to parallel the emphases of the two theological models under consideration in this thesis. Also it is suggested that his fourth trend parallels the spirit of the preliminary consensus proposed in the fourth chapter. Kirk’s first trend focuses on “the growth of Christian communities as cells of the kingdom ... their emphasis will be on the quality of discipleship before the quantity of converts made,” which will be seen to resemble the focus of the Transformationalist model. Both emphasise the gospel transformation of individuals, communities, and society as the values of God’s kingdom are lived and worked out by the church within society. His third trend focuses on “the classic terms of planting churches and thus increasing the numerical witness of Christian believers in society ... The priority of mission for them will be pioneer evangelism,” which will be seen as mirroring the emphasis of the Two Kingdoms model. However, Kirk concludes with a final trend which focuses on integration: “some will continue to strive hard to integrate the best aspects of all these different emphases”.This thesis is exploring such integration by seeking a way to move towards a consensus between these two models after identifying their missiological strengths and the mutual enhancement possible by learning from one another to correct their blind-spots.

Despite the conflicting definitions of the church’s mission in the present, the scriptures are clear about its ultimate outcome. The climax of the church’s mission is depicted as people from every society and culture gathering together in worship around Christ's throne (Revelation 7:9-12). All their different voices will blend together harmonically, singing the “new song” of the redeemed to their redeemer (Revelation 5:9). Applying this analogy to this thesis’ hypothesis, while the new song is made up of beautiful individual melodies and solo parts (represented by each of Niebuhr’s models), the fullest grandeur of the new song is found in the harmony of the parts (represented by a consensus between the models for the church’s mission).It is argued that progress in the debate can be made by focusing on the harmony of the new song (a preliminary consensus between these two models) rather than trenchantly defending one of the melodies as the only answer.

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