Missional Perspectives 04, Missio Dei Observations

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Missional Perspectives for Church Leaders 04 – MISSIO DEI Observations, Pt 1

Part of the following Ministry Resource Guides: Missional Resources and Church Leadership, Philosophical Foundations. It discusses perspectives that were important to the first edition of the site, and is now part of the site archive that is not updated past 2012.

Missional / Missio Dei is one of several Philosophies of Church Leadership and Renewal, which also include Church Growth, Emergent/Evaluating-Emergent, and other Missionally Responsive Trajectories.

This is part of a larger article on Missional Perspectives. See the index at the bottom of the page for all the articles in the series.


The Life and Leadership.com Ministry Resource Guide enthusiastically recommends several Missio Dei titles. Many of them are helpful in discussing the biblical theology of mission and the implications this has for God’s people in our day and time. When reading Missio Dei resources, a few guiding observations are helpful. This and the next article offer seven interpretive principles.

  1. Keep Missio Dei in perspective
  2. Maintain theological and moral integrity
  3. Stress the importance of the church in God’s economy
  4. Affirm individual salvation
  5. Acknowledge the full wealth of Scripture relative to the atonement
  6. Honor the breadth of Christian mission (in separate article Missional Perspectives 05)
  7. Use Missio Dei to encourage mission (in separate article Missional Perspectives 05)

The first five of these are addressed below. The next article, Missional Perspectives 05, discusses the last two.

First, keep Missio Dei in perspective. it would be easy for those new to this discussion to think it is the first time Missio Dei has factored into the church’s conception of its mission, that all credible scholar-practitioners embrace it whole-heartedly, and that those who oppose it do so from a culturally entrenched modernistic nostalgia. This is not the case. Not all who are sensitive to the postmodern context embrace missio Dei, and not all who embrace it do so uncritically. An excellent scholarly review and dialogue on the subject may be found in David Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer, MissionShift. A volume like this exposes the plethora of issues involved in defining mission in the new era.

Second, maintain theological and moral integrity. If one’s orientation, missional or otherwise, compromises core biblical doctrines, embraces religious pluralism that dishonors the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the way to salvation, practices a kind of inclusiveness that soft-pedals God’s call to holiness, stops short of evangelistic proclamation and conversion, etc., it is indeed troubling.

Third, stress the importance of the church in God’s economy. Certainly, God’s cosmic (universal) work “to reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20) and to “put all things together on heaven and earth under one head — Christ” (Eph. 1:10) is larger than the church. But a central scripture text that discusses how God fulfills his mission says “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph. 3:10-11) This elevates the church as part of God’s eternal purpose to make himself known. Paul reemphasizes this in the ending to his prayer that God’s power will work mightily so that he is glorified “in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” (Eph. 3:20-21)

We must emphasize that the mission is God’s, and that he has chosen the church to be his agents in that mission. We must also affirm a Christocentric, not ecclesiocentric, view of God’s mission, i.e. God’s actions in Christ are at the center. Yet there is sufficient biblical warrant to uphold the church, even with its foibles and failures, as the fundamental instrument through which God wants us to participate in his work. To denigrate the church, or to somehow place political and cultural entities other than the church at the center of God’s work, violates this. For further discussion of this principle, see Ott, Tennent, and Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission, chapter 8, “The Church and Mission.”

Fourth, affirm individual salvation. In his address to the Athenians, Paul affirms God’s larger work in the world, and he does so in a context that is marked by religious and philosophical pluralism. He says God has chosen to mediate his accessibility to humanity by “commanding all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:24-31) Luke records the response to this evangelistic confrontation. Some simply wanted to hear more, but others “became followers of Paul and believed” (17:34), which points to their personal salvation. If we use this and other Acts accounts as a base, the fundamental embrace of the gospel was through individual faith response. This emphasis is upheld in all three recordings of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49; Matthew 28:12-20). This does not minimize the equal emphasis in the Great Commission on making disciples. Nor does it make light of biblical community, the witness of doing good, etc. It simply means that the inauguration of new life in Christ always includes a personal response of faith. To play this down is to compromise an essential piece of the Gospel.

Certainly the scope of salvation is broader than personal redemption. Salvation goes as far as the effects of the fall. It includes not only the restoration of humanity in both soul and body (Romans 8:23), but includes the whole creation “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20) The promise of the “new heavens and the new earth” assures us of a restored creation that will be purified and renewed to its original goodness. (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4) Nevertheless, we do not find biblical evidence of God the Father, Son, or Spirit, working in people’s lives in a salvific way apart from the personal redemption that comes through obedience to Christ. Bosch, commenting on the World Council of Churches’ document on Missions and Evangelism (ME), expresses it well:

Evangelism does aim at a response. …Jesus summons his listeners, ‘Repent, and believe the gospel.’ ‘The calling is to specific changes, to renounce evidences of the domination of sin in our lives and to accept responsibilities in terms of God’s love for our neighbor’ (ME 11); after all, metanoia [repentance] involves the ‘total transformation of our attitudes and styles of life.’ (ME 12, cf. Costas 1989:112-130). To dispense with the centrality of repentance and faith is to divest the gospel of its significance. Conversion involves a turning from and a turning tofrom a life characterized by sin, separation from God, submission to evil and the unfulfilled potential of God’s image, to a new life characterized by the forgiveness of sins, obedience…renewed fellowship with God in Trinity.’ (ME, 12 as quoted in Bosch, Transforming Mission)”

Fifth, acknowledge the full wealth of Scripture relative to the atonement. For a quick overview of the various theories of the atonement, see this series of articles.

This discussion is important, as there is an inseparable link between one’s view of the atonement and the understanding and engagement of Christian mission. To be fair, adherents to the Penal Substitution perspective tend to concentrate so extremely on individual salvation that they discount God’s purpose to create a new humanity marked by sacrificial love and justice for the poor (see S. R. Driver, Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church.  In reaction, many gravitate toward the Christus Victor view of the atonement, which focuses on Christ having overcome evil and the power of Satan in all its various forms. Yet an overemphasis on this aspect may result in a missional drift away from conversionist evangelism (see Thomas P. Johnston,  especially section  6 “Linking Theology and Practice”). This concern has spawned volumes such as Atonement, Justice, and Peace) Charts for a Theology of Evangelism, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.

My own view is more in line with J. I. Packer:

“The various biblical understandings of the atonement need not conflict. Penal substitution is the mainstream, historic view of the church and the essential meaning of the atonement. Yet with penal substitution at the center, Christus Victor and other Scriptural views of atonement can work together to present a fully orbed picture of Christ’s work. To omit any part of this story is to distort and damage the gospel.” (Madison Trammell, “Cross Purposes,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/july/7.15, accessed 02-04-2012).

The same viewpoint is beautifully articulated in Scot McKnight’s irenic work, A Community Called Atonement. McKnight uses a golf bag analogy, summarized in a Christianity Today review:

Each “theory” of the Atonement is like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. (McKnight, “Your Atonement Is Too Small,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/may/27.69, accessed 02-04-2012)

A similar idea is upheld in a volume edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views. Select authors take three views (Christus Victor, penal substitution, and healing) and claim that their theory should have priority over the others. This is followed by a “kaleidoscopic” view that argues each of them is necessary to understand the plethora of biblical images regarding Christ’s work.

See the next article for further observations on Missio Dei, as well as the list below for resources on several related areas.

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