Monday, November 08, 2010

The Church, Its Mission, and Doing Other Stuff

Last month, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a conference that delved into the relationship between the Church, the Kingdom, and the Church's mission. Having listened now to all the general sessions and panel discussion, I thought it might be interesting (and perhaps helpful) to consider some questions it left me weighing.

Let me say first that I agree with Dave Doran's argument that the mission of the Church is not identical to the mission of God or the mission of Christ. Though I think we would disagree a bit over the present nature of the Kingdom, I don't see that as the watershed issue in the debate. For example, Doran seems to share a high level of agreement on this particular issue with Greg Gilbert and Kevin DeYoung. Both of those two pastor-authors would have radically different Kingdom views from Doran, but are much closer to him on the Church's mission than some who seem much closer to Doran on the Kingdom.

So here's my summary of some preliminary issues, which I think is consistent with Doran's conclusions:

1. Some aspects of Jesus' mission are not part of the church's mission (making atonement, destroying the wicked).

2. The church's mission is to display God's wisdom by making disciples.

3. Part of making disciples is shepherding individuals to obey the 2nd great commandment, "Love your neighbor . . ."

4. Loving one's neighbor necessarily involves proclaiming the gospel, but it also involves caring for their this-world needs, even if a "gospel opportunity" is not immediately present or created. It's unthinkable that loving my neighbor requires nothing more of me than sharing the gospel with him, even if sharing the gospel is the most important way for me to show love to him.

But those convictions lead me to some questions: How must the church pursue that obligation to disciple members to love their neighbors? And perhaps the more difficult question, how may the church do so? Here are some more specific ways to consider these issues:

1. Would a church be acting outside its mission if it encouraged/discipled members to love their neighbors by caring for the non-Christian poor, adopting schools, volunteering at homeless shelters, and engaging in other forms of "social action?

2. Would a church be acting outside its mission if it designated a particular individual in the church to coordinate members to do the things listed above?

3. If it designated a deacon to coordinate members?

4. If it paid a staff member to coordinate members?

5. Finally (if the answers of any of those questions are "yes"), does a church have freedom to act outside its mission?


Stephen said...


You ask some good questions. There seems to be a rampant dualism which separates individual and corporate obligations to show mercy in “You go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). I know there are separate spheres of responsibility in areas delineated in Scripture. But I wonder if part of the dualism is connected to other discontinuities – between Israel and the Church, between a present and future kingdom, between word and deed ministry, and between going to church and being the church.

I also wonder if the individualism of American Christianity has something to do with what I think are skewed perspectives. I fail to see how in making disciples we can fulfill “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus] commanded” (Matt. 28:20) without the compassion and action toward the needy and marginalized which Jesus demonstrated. Is it to be left to the individual to do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8) or was that only for Israel? Or is “to visit the widows and orphans in their affliction” limited to the believing community (as in I Tim. 5:3)? To me it seems like some are asking “Who is my neighbor?” while Jesus asked “Who proved to be a neighbor?” I’m glad for the ongoing discussion. Thanks for your insights.

Steve Davis

Jim Peet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Peet said...

Sorry ... I don't need my church to coordinate my social concern.

Ben doing it and will continue.

Don't need an extra layer of hierarchy / bureaucracy between me and my community's need

Scott Aniol said...


For me the issue really revolves around the Regulative Principle. Church leadership does not have a right to constrain the consciences of its members to engage in an official church activity that has not been explicitly commanded in the NT. Whether it has been commanded is the debate, but if it's not, I don't see how the Church as a body can do these things.

Ben said...

Steve, I agree that at least three of the discontinuities you allude to are problematic. I'm unconvinced that they're issues at the core of this debate. (Word/deed discontinuity is more complex than we're likely to flesh out thoroughly in blog comments.)

As to your second paragraph, I'm not sure where we disagree. I'm arguing that individuals need to show unconditional love to their neighbors. Churches need to disciple believers to that end. I'm not sure anyone disagrees with that. I'm raising the question as to what degree the Church is 1) obligated and (if not obligated) 2) free to organize "mercy ministries."

IOW, is the Church as a Church body obligated (or free) to organize/facilitate/fund, or is the Church merely obligated to disciple?

And would it be safe to infer that your answer to the first four questions would be "no"?

Ben said...

Steve, one more thing . . . I'm sympathetic to the missional impulse for churches to move from "come-see" to equipping the congregation to "go-tell." But that's what makes church-organized mercy ministries so odd to me. Why wouldn't the go-tell missional mindset prefer to encourage and equip members to get out in the community to engage in mercy ministries in existing secular structures?

Just curious.

Ben said...

Scott, I'll take every chance I get to use the regulative principle to cut out extraneous activities in order to focus on the mission. I'm not sure that approach works here, but I've been thinking it through.

For clarity's sake, how would you answer questions 1-4? I'm assuming that your answer to #5 would be "no."

Shayne McAllister said...


I am the deacon of mercy at a church plant. We have several constraints on what we can do to take care of physical needs as the institutional church even within our own congregation.

What the church MUST do is different from what it is GOOD for the church to do. The church MUST take care of destitute widows and other legitimately needy groups within the congregation. I don't think any Bible believing Christian could disagree with that.

However I think that effort may best be done within the church institutionally, while reaching out to the physical needs of our community should be done organically. We look for ways our congregation's individuals could help in our community. So we took a field trip one Wednesday night to our local Christian pregnancy counseling center and learned how we could help. Importantly, we learned how to help as individual Christians. Our church isn't interested in exerting oversight of this organization. I think the best role for the church is in an advisory role to its members.

I don't think anyone would object to a deacon overseeing the discipleing of believers if it were discipleship in almost any other sense. However, it should be up to each church to determine the best allocation of individual resources. If you have tons of help with children's ministries, administration, ect and someone seems to have gifts in this area, then why not?

As for question 5, if all of life is in some way worship, individuals in the church should feel freedom to equip other individuals in most any area of life. For example, we have a member who is a financial counselor who has offered free financial counseling to any member. Our leadership promotes that offering to members. I don't see harm in that. But if the pastors were led away from divoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word so they could teach that financial class, then I would say there is an imbalance. Even then, I wouldn't say the Bible commands the pastor not to hold such a class. He should be spirit-led to help his congregation as long as he keeps priorities straight.

Shayne McAllister said...

One other point. I don't think we always have to choose between the core mission of the church, and helping people in need. Sometimes we can do both at the same time, and actually accomplish more in each area.

For example, a Christian social worker in our city informed our church that there was a semi-homeless guy who needed help, and the city couldn't provide it. My pastor asked me to look into it. I took a struggling young man in our church, and took the guy out to breakfast, talked, found he was struggling Christian. Then we went to Target and bought him some supplies. He later came to church but has since moved out of state.

Now during that effort, I was actually discipling two people: both the homeless guy, and the young struggling Christian in our church.

Ben said...

Scott, as I'm thinking through this more I'm more convinced it's not a regulative principle issue. Loving our neighbors is something believers are commanded to do. Organizing or facilitating that sort of work isn't imposing something on church members that Scripture doesn't command. It would be imposing a particular application that isn't explicitly commanded.

So in that sense, I could see it as a form or a circumstance, but certainly not an extra-biblical element. Maybe somewhere in the range of a church choir, a church library/bookstore, or a 4th of July picnic.

But I'm just not sure the regulative principle is germane. It seems like apples and oranges to me.

Ben said...

So Shayne, are you arguing that a "deacon of community outreach" is in compatible with the mission of the Church because it's something of a discipleship role for the members, or incompatible with the mission because it's more than an advisory role?

Shayne McAllister said...

I'm saying that the validity of such a deacon should be determined by the elders, depending on how the congregation is being served at the time given available resources.

Let's say there were a lot of volunteers ready to serve the community in a given church, but they just needed a little organization. This may not be the mission of the institutional church, but because it's a good thing for Christians to do, and they all happen to need some coordination, I don't think it would be a bad thing for the church to appoint a deacon to coordinate the efforts of these Christians. It's not the primary mission of the church institutionally, so I wouldn't say that such activity is required, but then organization isn't forbidden either.

In other words, I too am quite skeptical of the regulative principle here as well. When I'm worshiping God corporately on Sunday I have a lot more to consider about how I may worship God. He tells me how I may worship him, but tells me to love my neighbor as myself.

The rest of the week, I have a lot more liberty and creative license to do good to my neighbor.

Ben said...

It seems that you already answered your first question by #’s 3 and 4 of your preliminary considerations. If what you’ve said there is true, then obviously the church would not be acting outside of its mission if it was acting to fulfill its mission :)

Regarding the regulative principle, I think it really comes into play with your fifth question. If the church is not acting outside of its mission to do something, then the regulative principle doesn’t really come into play. If, however, the church would be acting outside of its mission, then the regulative principle would seem to preclude a church from doing something outside of its mission.

So, I think the crux of the matter is whether or not the church believes that what it is doing is directly (or maybe indirectly) tied to its mission of honoring God by making and maturing disciples who are becoming like Jesus Christ. The particular methods for doing that could be decided by the leadership of the church. Using your example, a church may decide that having a library will help it in its mission to make disciples, while another church believes it would not be helpful (or at least not be the best way to use the church’s limited resource). But both should be considering that based upon its benefit in fulfilling the mission of the church.

I touched on this issue briefly in my workshop on the Gospel and the Poor, in considering whether ministry to the poor should be done through the local church or through para-church organizations (a 3rd option that I didn’t touch on would be to argue for no organization or only using secular organizations.) I think it is an important issue to try to work through, but I think the answer will vary depending upon the individual church’s circumstances. In my mind, the main issue is that anything the local church does should be tied to its distinct mission in the world.

Ben Edwards