For several weeks now, I’ve talked and corresponded with ministry leaders and pastors who are thinking hard about the mission of the church and evangelism. Our conversations have centered around the word incarnational, a common way for many to characterize their ministry today.
I suggest we abandon this usage and will make that case in this article. But I realize these church leaders are doing praiseworthy work in difficult places, places where many of us would hesitate to bring our families. And I want to let those who use the term speak for themselves so my response accounts for the best arguments for describing our ministry as incarnational.
From the Incarnation to Incarnational
The fact that so many are attempting to work out the theological significance of God becoming man is, at first glance, noteworthy and encouraging. There is a refreshing lack of business/CEO talk in all of it. Alan Hirsch, author of several books including The Forgotten Ways and Untamed, wants to put the incarnation back into the imagination of the church’s mission. For Hirsch, incarnational gives us a more theologically rich vision than what sociological terms like contextualization and enculturation can provide. He says, “If missional means going out (being sent into the world), then incarnational means going deep down into the culture.” Hirsch elaborates:
[The fact that Jesus] was in the neighborhood for 30 years and no one noticed says a lot about God and how he engages the human situation. The incarnation thus shows us that God speaks from within a particular culture, in ways that people can grasp, understand, and respond. The incarnation gives us the primary biblical model of engagement—this is how God does it and we who follow his way should take a similar path.
However, when you talk to several people who use the word incarnational, you begin to realize the usage is anything but uniform. I talked with Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and he observes, “Over the last few years I’ve seen how so many different people are the using the word ‘incarnational’ to convey very definite and different theological agendas.” Keller surveyed folks from a high-church setting, who mean “sacramental ministry,” to others like Hirsch, who contrasts incarnational with attractional ministries, where instead of bringing friends to hear the sermon, you go into the community to love people and share the gospel.
Keller explains that in the past he has used the term to mean that our “deeds and lives should embody what we believe” or “a synonym for expressing the Christian life to a new situation.” He says:
So I’d say that a young Broadway actor who wants to show his peers the beauty of the gospel will have think out how to “incarnate” the gospel in his life. It won’t be exactly the same way that an 80-year-old grandmother living on a farm with her extended family does it.
It’s interesting to note that Keller uses incarnational in a non-technical way, unrelated to Christ’s incarnation. This may seem like a small distinction, but it's important to note that I don't think he makes the same error others do.
Should We Rethink Incarnational Language?
The term incarnate can mean a number of things. However, when we use Christ’s incarnation as a pattern for ministry, we are in danger of misconstruing what the incarnation means. Eckhard J. Schnabel, writing Early Christian Mission, Volume 2: Paul and the Early Church, begins to get at the problem:
For [the Gospel of ] John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a “model” for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father.
Schnabel is certainly right, but his response doesn’t quite expose the problem. Hirsch and others could adequately respond that their incarnational model actually obeys and depends upon the Father by doing exactly what their incarnational model advocates.
The problem lies in the fact that the doctrine of the incarnation is not necessarily related to the nature of the Son’s mission. Rather, it centers on the nature of the union of the divine Son with our humanity. The theological term is the hypostatic union. It emphasizes that Jesus identified with the Father as much as he identified with us. Therefore, the incarnation is fundamentally about mediation, rather than the manner in which Jesus carried himself and interacted with others during his earthly ministry.
With this distinction in mind, we run into several problems when we use the term as it relates to Christ to characterize the mission of the church and Christians in general. Two of them stand out as particularly significant:
1. We lose the sense of the incarnation’s relation to the doctrine of God.
I realize that the word incarnation is not used in Scripture, so some may respond that I don’t have biblical warrant to canonize the term only for the mysterious union of the divine and human nature of Christ. But I would suggest that using the term as it relates to Christ for a model for ministry is novel and Christians, since our early history, have used it to explain the nature of the hypostatic union. When we center it on Jesus’ engagement with sinners, then we are changing its meaning. If the incarnation is used to explain the mission of Christ and not his personhood, then we are left without the language that the battles for Christian orthodoxy have depended upon.
The language of incarnation is precious to the solidarity of Christians throughout history in holding up the glories of the person of Christ and maintaining the truthfulness of his gospel. This is a good reason to avoid using the term as it relates to Christ, even adjectivally, to characterize our mission.
2. It confuses the incarnation of Jesus as merely being humble or modeling a certain kind of engagement.
The danger in equating incarnational with service or acting humble is that humility and service become central to what Christ did in the incarnation. While it’s certainly true that Christ humbled himself, the word incarnation does not mean humility. We can be humble and have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5), but we can’t incarnate. In order to make the incarnation something we can emulate or model our ministries after, we must abandon or minimize the fundamental core of the doctrine, namely the hypostatic union.
As noted above, our ministry doesn’t pattern after the hypostatic union, nor does it give us guidelines for ministry involvement. The best we can do is point others to Christ and his gospel and relieve momentary suffering. And we have good words that describe these things: humble, merciful, compassionate, or even evangelistic.
We can learn several things from the earthly ministry of Jesus: we should be humble, we should value the human body, and we should love others as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. But these are not what it means to incarnate, nor does doing these things mean we have become incarnate.
Further, calling our ministry incarnational undermines the very kind of humility the model wants to promote. Let’s suppose for a moment that we ought to pattern our ministry after the mission of Christ. Since Christ assumed flesh and condescended to become poor for us, we are to do the same. But doesn’t this assume a loftier vision of ourselves than is actually the case? As Christians we aren’t condescending to anyone, whether it is the poor, the social and cultural elites, or even our own children. The distance in which God condescends to us is not something we can emulate. Rather, as Don Carson has put it, we are all just beggars showing other beggars where bread is.
Language About the Doctrine of Christ Matters
If church history teaches us anything, it’s that we are never in the clear of the threat of heresy. Therefore, we should be careful with our language as it relates to the person of Christ. My fear is that when we center our doctrine of Christ’s incarnation on his mission and therefore something we can emulate, the doctrine of Christ’s two natures will become optional and consequentially easily abandoned. The last step may not yet be apparent, but if we assume the deity and humanity of Christ without making it central to his incarnation, then we are only one step away from losing it.
In an email referring to the work I was doing on this article, Hirsch encouraged me to “respect the doctrine itself as well as those who are seeking to be missionally inspired by the model Christ gave us.” I hope I’ve done that. The work many of these pastors and Christian workers are doing is commendable, and their ministries are bearing solid fruit in very difficult places. We should honor such men. But I want to honor the doctrine of the incarnation, as Hirsch encouraged me to do, as well as Christ himself in pressing for language that clearly represents his person and work. In doing so, I think we have good reason to avoid describing our ministries with the term incarnational.