On Tuesday, Trevin Wax put forth “five nagging questions” about our book What Is the Mission of the Church? Greg and I both know and like Trevin. He is a friend. We are glad he has gently raised some concerns with our book; we’d like to gently answer and correct his concerns. We hope to provide a lengthier response to some of the critical reviews out there in the coming weeks. But for now Greg and I want to provide a brief response to each of Trevin’s nagging questions. The following is from both of us.
1. “Can we reduce ‘making disciples’ and ‘teaching Christ’s commands’ to the delivery of information?” Trevin argues that disciple making is more than verbal teaching. It also involves modeling and mentoring. So doesn’t the Great Commission implicitly include loving our neighbor and our work in the world? Of course, Trevin is right that people learn by watching and partnering, not just by listening. We fully support Christian lawyers (or artists or politicians or computer programmers) coming alongside Christian lawyers to teach, model, and mentor what it looks like to be a Christian lawyer. Some congregations may even facilitate such opportunities, and rightly so. And yet, in the Great Commission texts the disciple making work is described as teaching, testifying, or bearing witness. And in Acts we see the mission of the church described not as Christians faithfully living out their vocations but as the word being verbally proclaimed. When Jesus sent his disciples into the world it was to speak. This proclamation was never thought to be the mere “delivery of information.” It was a saving, powerful message to be delivered on God’s behalf with Christ’s authority.
2. “If we agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the gospel, can we also agree that there is a zoom-lens and wide-lens view of the mission?” Trevin encourages us to view missions (as we view the gospel) as having a central focus and a wider focus. “Evangelism is central (zoom lens),” Trevin writes, “and yet evangelism is corroborated by any number of activities (wide lens) that demonstrate the reality of our gospel proclamation.” We have no problem with this formulation. This sound like the section in our book “We Do Good Works to Win a Hearing for the Gospel” (227-229). We passionately believe that the church should proclaim the gospel with words and promote the gospel with good works. But this is different from suggesting the mission of the church is to rebuild communities or build the kingdom. We hear Trevin asking, “Aren’t good works necessary to corroborate the message we are proclaiming?” Yes and Amen.
3. “Isn’t there a sense in which worship is expressed through our life in the world, not just our corporate worship services?” We agree that worship includes all of life lived to the glory of God and teach that often in our churches. This is why we wrote, “All of life must be lived to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). And we ought to do good to all people (Gal. 6:10). No apologies necessary for caring about our cities, loving our neighbors, or working hard at our vocations. These too are ‘musts'” (245).
And yet we disagree when Trevin suggests that we want “to separate worship from our deeds of justice.” He worries that we have forgotten that our good works in the world are part of being obedient to God. But again, we have a section entitled “We Do Good Works to Obey God, Whom We Love.” We tried as hard as we could in the book to stress that good works and loving others matter, that they are essential, they are not optional, and they glorify God. The confusion may be that Trevin hears us saying worship is the mission of the church and then wonders why we don’t include all-of-life-worship in our definition. But we are careful to say mission is what we are sent into the world to accomplish. Therefore, we speak of worship as the goal of missions. Christian mission aims at making, sustaining, and establishing worshipers (247).
4. Even if we recognize that the verbs related to the kingdom are passive (receiving, bearing witness to, etc.), does this necessarily preclude us from speaking of ‘work for the kingdom’?” We have no desire to prop up an “unbendable category” that “might suppress kingdom work rather than inspire it.” If people say “work for the kingdom” and all they mean is that they are working “on behalf of the kingdom” (as Trevin puts it) we have no problem. What we think Christians should avoid, to be faithful to the New Testament language, is any notion that we build, bring, or establish the kingdom. The phrase “work for the kingdom” is ambiguous; we’ve heard it used in ways we think are misguided, but we’re sure others, like Trevin, use it in positive ways.
5. “Is our representation of Christ not part of the mission?” This final question aptly summarizes the biggest criticism we’ve seen to our book (we”ll say more about this concern tomorrow). Trevin probably speaks for others when he says, “DeYoung and Gilbert believe we must represent Christ, but it seems like they connect this representation so tightly to verbal proclamation of the gospel that little room is left for representing Christ through love and good deeds.” Later he concludes, “Christ-likeness is a part of the mission, and we cannot and should not separate proclamation of Christ from the representation of Christ we offer through our acts of service.” Let us reiterate: we believe with all our hearts and preach it from our pulpits with passion that Christians must live lives of love and good deeds. Holiness (in all its public and private expressions) is irrefutably, indispensably, and irreducibly part of being a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s one of the reasons God chose us and saved us (Eph. 1:4).
But what does it mean to say our good deed “represent” Christ? We aren’t sure if Trevin is saying: we demonstrate what it means to have Christ in us, or that we re-present Christ in the world, or both. We agree with the first option, but don’t see in the New Testament that we are supposed to be incarnations of Christ’s presence in the world (again, we aren’t sure that’s what Trevin is suggesting). More to the point, we wonder what it means that “Christ-likeness is a part of the [church’s] mission.” If this means our good works adorn the gospel and win a hearing for the gospel then we totally agree. But we do not think Jesus sends the church as church into the world to adopt schools, remedy unemployment, make a contribution to the arts, or plant trees (which is not what Trevin says here, but what we have heard others say and are arguing against in our book). We have many good things to do as Christians and many good things we could do, but everything good does not equal the mission of the church.