When climbing a mountain, it’s wise to pack only the essentials. Every tool or provision must efficiently serve its purpose. Climbers can’t afford unnecessary weight. For many missionaries, the task before them feels like climbing such a mountain. Unfortunately, many also see the doctrine of the Trinity as cumbersome and expendable baggage.
Some missionaries, concerned by the weight of a contextually bound history they perceive in the language and doctrine of the Trinity, wonder about its necessity: Wouldn’t it be better for a new culture to discover and describe the God of the Bible in their own terms?
For others, the idea of teaching the Trinity is a burden too heavy to carry. As they prioritize gospel witness they might question its value: Do people really need to understand Nicene orthodoxy to be saved?
However, the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t optional gear. Instead, understanding and teaching the Trinity is essential to the missionary task, because without our triune God there is no Christian mission.
The Triune God as Precedent for Christian Mission
One of the essential aspects of God’s nature is that he doesn’t need anything to support his existence (Acts 17:24–25). If a perfectly self-sufficient, satisfied, wise, and good God has chosen to create, then he must have a purpose for doing so. In this way, divine creation presupposes divine mission.
Divine creation presupposes divine mission.
As Scripture reveals, the mission of God involves sharing and increasing the knowledge of himself within his creation. This knowledge of God is most fully revealed in the sending of the Son in the incarnation (John 1:1–18). God’s self-revelation then continues in the sending of the Holy Spirit to fill the church (John 14:15–26).
Furthermore, Jesus describes the relationship between the sending mission of God and the sending of his disciples when he says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). God’s Trinitarian nature, then, grounds our concept of mission as he calls us into his own purpose: to share the knowledge of the triune God to the ends of the earth.
The Triune God Demands Christian Mission
The triune God isn’t only the precedent for mission; the doctrine of the Trinity also demands our participation in God’s mission. In Matthew 28:18–20, Jesus provides specific instructions for those he sends. Jesus calls us to make disciples among all nations, teaching them to obey everything he commanded. New disciples are then integrated into the people of God by being baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This new community of the baptized is formed by Christ’s total authority, identified by the triune name, and assured of Christ’s ongoing divine presence by the Spirit as they undertake the disciple-making work assigned to them.
Disciples, then, are the gospel-redeemed products of and participants in the triune God’s mission in the world. If the mission of the triune God is to increase the knowledge of himself within creation, then those called into this mission must proclaim the Trinitarian nature of the God who reveals himself in the gospel.
The Trinity Makes Mission ‘Christian’
For a Christian to speak the gospel, it’s necessary to speak of the Trinity. In a pluralistic world where there are many contenders to the title “God,” it’s insufficient for missionaries to settle for commonly held cultural understandings of God while focusing merely on Christ’s gospel accomplishment.
In fact, Christ’s gospel is unavoidably Trinitarian. The Chalcedonian conclusions regarding the person and work of Jesus demonstrate that he must be fully God, or he wouldn’t be able to forgive sins (Mark 2:7). Likewise, Jesus must be fully man, or he wouldn’t be able to heal humanity (Heb. 2:14). The gospel hangs on our understanding of the nature of Christ, and that understanding pushes us to seek biblical clarity on the nature of God.
Being clear about the Trinity will inevitably present challenges for the missionary. In polytheistic cultures, he must avoid portraying the Trinity as three gods. Meanwhile, in monotheistic contexts, he must avoid flattening God into a monad or minimizing the sonship of Christ. Seeking to mitigate difficulties or potential confusion isn’t grounds for missionaries to ignore the Trinitarian nature of God—and certainly not to tamper with his self-revelation.
This means teaching the Trinity will often involve the long, precise, textually-driven work of exposing the biblical foundations of this self-revelation. It also will require a thicker understanding of the gospel than a mere invitation to believe that Jesus will forgive sins. Thus, it may take longer than alternative methods on offer. Of course, a simplified form of the message may be transmitted faster, but it may also fail to be Christian.
What About Urgency and Contextualization?
While this argument may seem uncontroversial, it’s necessary to assert these truths afresh, especially within today’s evangelical mission community.
A simplified form of the message may be transmitted faster, but it may also fail to be Christian.
Among contemporary missiologists, some are rightly concerned with the urgency of our task. They encourage the church to sow gospel seed as broadly and quickly as possible. But for those prioritizing urgency, these reminders challenge the idea that the Trinity is too weighty to introduce in pioneer settings. Missionaries shouldn’t discard Trinitarian doctrine just because they assume it’s a heavy topic that will unnecessarily slow down gospel advance.
Similarly, there are those rightly concerned to see the gospel take root in local soil and bear fruit that’s contextualized. They don’t want to burden indigenous churches with Western concepts and categories, including the theological formulations of Greek-speaking Christians in centuries past. But for those wanting the gospel to take local expression and promoting indigenous theology, these reminders challenge us not to compromise revealed truth to maximize contextual buy-in.
As we look up at the mountain of Christian mission before us, we realize the task will not be easy. But we must also understand that the Trinity isn’t some optional gear or nonessential baggage. Our triune God is the basis for mission itself.