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False Dichotomies in Mission pt. 1 of 2 by Christopher J.H. Wright

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Wright-christopher In June, the Lausanne Biennial Leadership Meeting took place, with about 200 leaders of the Lausanne Movement from around the world meeting in Seoul, Korea. Most of the work was to do with planning for Lausanne III, Cape Town 2010 (http://www.lausanne.org/cape-town-2010)

At one panel discussion that I participated in (as Chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group), I was asked a question about evangelicals and mission, and whether our theology of evangelism had weaknesses. Here is the question, and the response I made to it. (I should add that I had warning of the question some days before, in case it might appear that I am capable of such instant analysis on the spot!). I would be interested to know if others share these concerns.

Question: In what way have we as evangelical Christians failed to grasp or live out the fullness of God’s missional intent? How (if at all) has our theology of evangelism been weak?

Answer: First of all, I agree with what Esme Bowers said about how the terrible evil of apartheid in South Africa was given theological justification, and I want to emphasize that theology, therefore, is not just playing mind games. Theology has practical effects, because what people believe determines how they act. Bad theology has bad results – and can cost lives, millions of lives. Weak theology weakens our mission.

I do not want to be only negative, or to stigmatize our whole evangelical movement, but I was asked the question, and here is an honest answer! I think that as evangelicals we have tended to make some false dichotomies, or to separate things that ought to be kept together (because the Bible holds them together), and then to give one priority over the other. And this unbiblical separation has had some regrettable bad results.

1. We have tended to separate the individual from the cosmic and corporate impact of the gospel, and to prioritize the first. That is, we put personal salvation and individual evangelism at the centre of all our efforts, (and of course individual evangelism is an essential part of our commitment.). But Paul’s order of the gospel message in Ephesians, and Colossians 1:15-26, is Creation (all things in heaven and earth, created by Christ, sustained by Christ and redeemed by Christ), then:, church (with Christ as head), and then individual Gentile believers: ‘and you also’. All of this, says Paul, is ‘reconciled through the blood of Christ shed on the cross’. So we are not saved out of creation, but as part of creation that God has redeemed through Christ. The church is not just a container for souls till they get to heaven, but the living demonstration of the unity that is God’s intention for creation, in itself a ‘preaching’ to the principalities and powers because of what God has accomplished and proved in the creation of ‘one new humanity’ in Christ. All this we learn from Ephesians and Colossians, but we still tend to put all our emphasis on getting individuals saved.

The bad result of this weakened theology is that Christians evangelized by such a truncated version of the biblical gospel have little interest in the world, the public square, God’s plan for society and the nations, and even less understanding of God’s intention for creation itself. The scale of our mission efforts therefore is in danger of being a lot less than the scope of the mission of God.

2. We have tended to separate believing from living the gospel, and to prioritize the first. That is, we seem to think that there can be a belief of faith separate from the life of faith, that people can be saved by something that goes on in their heads, without worrying too much about what happens in their lives. So long as they have prayed the right prayer and believed the right doctrine, nothing else ultimately matters, or at least, whatever happens next is secondary and distinct.

Yet in the Bible faith and obedience are inseparable. Paul actually defines his missionary life’s work as bringing about "the obedience of faith among all nations" (Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 16:26). That is a combination that echoes Abraham, Jesus, Paul, and James. You can’t obey God’s word unless you believe it. But you can’t claim to believe God’s word unless you are obeying it. Faith without works is dead.

This is seen also in the way we tend to divide Paul’s letters into "doctrine" and "ethics", or "Gospel" and "implications", when Paul probably would not have made that kind of distinction. For example, the phrase ‘new humanity’ in Eph. 2 is exactly the same as ‘the new self’ in 4:24. What God has done in the Christ is to be fleshed out in the life of believers. The language of ‘unity’, ‘integrity’ runs through the whole letter. Faith and life are inseparable. Ethics is not something added to the gospel, but integral to it.

The bad result of this dichotomy is that we have people called believers and evangelicals, whose actual lives are indistinguishable from the culture around them – whether in terms of moral standards, or social and political attitudes and actual behaviour (as various surveys have shown, including the recent Pew survey that showed evangelicals were the largest religious group in the USA who approved of the use of torture).

More to come from Chris Wright tomorrow! False dichotomies 3, 4, and 5!

-AR for Z Academic

GIDU Dr. Chris Wright is International Director of the Langham Partnership International. He also serves as chair of the Lausanne Committee’s Theology Working Group and chair of the Theological Resource Panel of TEAR Fund, a leading Christian relief and development charity. He has written several books, including The God I Don't Understand, The Mission of God and a forthcoming volume The Mission of God's People. Chris and his wife, Liz, have four adult children and six grandchildren.

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