The Mission of the Church: An Ecclesiological Question

We were pleased to host Christopher J.H. Wright at Southeastern Seminary last week as he delivered the annual Page Lectures. His theme for the lectures was “The Bible and the Mission of God,” which is an important and somewhat controversial topic among evangelicals. His two lectures were titled “Reading the Whole Bible for Mission: What Happens When We do?” and “God, Israel, and the Nations: The Old Testament and Christian Mission.” Both of his excellent lectures can be viewed on the multimedia page of the SEBTS website.

Wright is a prolific Old Testament scholar and missional theologian. He is the author of a couple of very important books on mission titled The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006) and The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Zondervan, 2010). In those books, Wright lays out a holistic understanding of mission that is rooted in the Bible’s grand narrative and that results in the final redemption of the cosmos. The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation in Christ through word and deed in every sphere of life. In many ways, this view of mission is a continuation of the position advocated by John Stott in his classic book Christian Mission in the Modern World (IVP, 1975) and articulated by the Lausanne movement through the Lausanne Covenant (1974), Manila Manifesto (1989), and Cape Town Commitment (2011). (Stott was the principle author of the Lausanne Covenant, while Wright was the principle author of the Cape Town Commitment.)

Recently, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have offered a friendly critique of this understanding of mission in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (Crossway, 2011). DeYoung and Gilbert are hesitant to define mission too broadly, preferring to focus on verbal proclamation of the gospel. They argue that Christians can and should engage in social justice ministries, but they don’t necessarily see this as being as crucial as evangelism. I may be misreading them, but I think they’re arguing that deeds complement gospel proclamation, but deeds aren’t mission in and of themselves in the same way as proclamation. While affirming a grand narrative reading of Scripture, DeYoung and Gilbert want to be clear that we not confuse what God and God alone does in his mission and what the church has been tasked with in her mission.

I’m going to go ahead and say what everyone already knows, but in my circles is mostly whispered in hushed tones. The aforementioned books (and many others I haven’t referenced) represent a massive debate among evangelicals that has simmered below the surface for several years and is just now coming to light, in part because of the publication and responses to What is the Mission of the Church? It is, for the most part, a friendly debate among substantially like-minded brothers-that’s the good part. But when it comes to the question of mission, there are at least two different tendencies present among inerrantist, non-Arminian, complementarian evangelicals, and these tendencies have the potential to become out-and-out factions. All you have to do is read Ed Stetzer’s review of What is the Mission of the Church?, the responses to Stetzer’s review, and the responses to those responses to see that there is at least the potential for significant controversy.

For my part, I’m not interested in offering a substantive review of the relevant books; plenty of folks have already done so, and from a variety of perspectives. Rather, I want to raise an ecclesiological question that I’ve been mulling over since I read What is the Mission of the Church? a couple of months ago (I’ve previously read Stott, Wright, and several of the other authors whom DeYoung and Gilbert critique). To what degree are representatives of the different tendencies talking past each other because they mean different things when they use the word church? To say it another way, to what degree is this a debate between folks who prioritize the church universal versus those who prioritize local churches?

Many representative voices of the “holistic mission” tendency are either Anglican (Stott, Wright) or intentionally non-denominational (the Lausanne movement). This stands in contrast to DeYoung and Gilbert, who are Reformed and Southern Baptist, respectively. As a general rule, Anglicans and interdenominational and/or parachurch evangelicals are referring to the wider body of Christ when they use the word church, whereas Baptists and at least some Reformed Christians are typically speaking of particular congregations when they use the term. Both believe in both the church universal and local churches, of course, but the primary emphasis tends to be on one or the other.

One reason I think this ecclesiological difference might factor into the mission debate is because, to my understanding at least, both tendencies are in about 95% agreement about what Christians ought to be doing. Both affirm, unequivocally, verbal proclamation of the gospel as the center of mission. Both agree that Christians should do justice and love mercy. Both advocate Christian cultural engagement. In other words, everybody agrees that both word and deed is part and parcel of faithful Christian living. And yet, we have this disagreement. Is it at least possible that Wright (to name just one example) is arguing that Christians in general-the church-should be about X & Y, while DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing that local congregations-the church-may engage in X & Y in different ways and to varying degrees? This seems to be the case to me.

By raising this question, I’m by no means minimizing real differences that are present within the various positions. It’s clear that there is a spectrum of evangelical opinions regarding the church’s mission, though again, I think the differences might seem at least somewhat wider than is really the case. But if we are to work toward any sort of consensus-and avoid factionalism-then we need to understand why different folks land where they do on this issue. I’m convinced ecclesiology has been under-discussed in reviews and other discussions of the key books on the topic. Perhaps as we ask what the church’s mission is, we would do well to be clear what we mean by the word church.

(Update: I’ve just learned that Collin Hansen wrote on a related topic yesterday for The Gospel Coalition.)

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  2. cb scott   •  

    It was said by someone that the doctrines of Christology, the Trinity, and Soteriology have all had their special centuries of debate and attention. Yet ecclesiology has hardly passed through its “pretheological phase.” Obviously, that being the case, it is high time to bring light upon the doctrine of the church.

    Thank you. Look forward to reading more.

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  4. David Rogers   •  


    I too have sensed this discussion to be among the most significant in Evangelicalism and potentially an unfortunately divisive one. I wrote a mostly favorable review of DeYoung and Gilbert, have read and listened on various occasions to Wright, and appreciate much of what he has to say and his evident love for the Lord and His Word, and have followed with interest and hopefulness recent developments of the Lausanne Movement.

    I agree that ecclesiology is at the core of some of the differences of perspective, but think that eschatology also plays a major role. The danger to be avoided, from the DeYoung/Gilbert side of the discussion (if I am reading them right) is a drift in Evangelicalism back toward the social gospel emphasis that divided Evangelicalism back around the beginning of the 20th century (with a key moment being Edinburgh 1910) leading to the ecumencial movement and eventually the WCC, and, at the same time, the reactionary Fundamentalist movement.

    I believe a core question at the root of this is: Is it our biblical goal, as Christians, and as the Church (or churches) to “Christianize” the world, especially as regards nation/states, government, and public life in general as expressed through various cultural aspects?

    Though I haven’t heard either DeYoung/Gilbert, et al, or Wright, et al, frame the discussion using these particular terms, it seems to me a consistent premillennnial view tends to avoid an overly ambitious goal of Christianizing society, while SOME amillennialists, and mostly all postmillennialists would place a greater emphasis on the “cultural mandate” and, to one degree or another, “Christianizing” the world.

    Back to ecclesiology, I believe those of us from the anabaptist tradition tend to see more clearly the danger of church-state union and the drift toward Constantinianism. Down through history, when “Christianity,” especially in its more institutional expressions, has gained power and influence over public life and government, the result has rarely been positive.

    Though I disagree with much of what he says on other subjects, I think Greg Boyd has a valid point in The Myth of a Christian Nation about transformation from the inside out and from below, as opposed to from positions of public influence and power.

    I am realizing my thoughts on this are too complex to put them across well in a blog comment. But, for further information, see:

    Beyerhaus, Peter P. J. God’s Kingdom and the Utopian Error. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1992.

    Hesselgrave, David J. “Will We Correct the Edinburgh Error? Future Mission in Historical Perspective.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 49, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 121-49.

    Hoekstra, Harvey T. The World Council of Churches and the Demise of Evangelism. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1979.

    Johnston, Arthur P. The Battle for World Evangelism. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1978.

  5. Wesley Handy   •  


    Great post and I agree that you are on to something.


  6. Pingback: Nathan Finn on the Mission of the Church | a mission-driven life

  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I agree that there are also eschatological ramifications to this debate–absolutely. It may or may not have direct bearing on this topic, but I was talking with a colleague the other day about eschatological trends among evangelicals. We both agree that postmillennialism is poised to make a comeback, in part because of the emphases on global missions and cultural engagement, especially when coupled with the growing interest in the new heavens and new earth over the intermediary state and millennium. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  8. Ed Stetzer   •  

    Helpful post, Nathan.

    Thanks for wading in.


  9. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Thanks, Ed.

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  11. kschaub   •  

    Helpful post. I’ve read both of Wright’s books mentioned above. In many ways, I found him helpful. Although I haven’t read Gilbert and DeYoung yet, I made a similar critique of Wright when I reviewed The Mission of God’s People. I think this is an important debate, and your insight is a helpful angle for the discussion to consider, I think.

  12. Andy Chance   •  

    It may be that those working primarily at the level of theory are speaking past each other.

    But at the level of the pastor and congregation, the general expectation, which I think has trickled down from the “thinkers,” is that the mission of the local church is holistic.

    So, pastors feel the tension (which may be good) between,

    the local church (led by the pastors) MUST allocate and organize for holistic mission,


    the local church CAN allocate and organize for service in the community, but they only MUST allocate and organize for disciplemaking.

    The cash value is, with limited resources, where do we allocate those resources. That is an extremely important question and one that DeYoung and Gilbert offered an answer to (even if you disagree with it).

    In my reading of their books (limited though it may be), people like Stetzer, Hirsch, or McNeal have not give much clarity on this issue (and Stetzer and McNeal are both linked with the SBC).

    I think that would be a good book for Stetzer to write. MUST churches and pastors organize and allocate resources for service in the community (or whatever you want to call it). And if so, HOW do they determine what to do.

  13. Nathan Finn   •     Author


    I agree that a book like that would be helpful. There are a lot of questions we need to work through, especially when it comes to the “take-away” for local churches and groups of churches. Thanks.


  14. Joshua Woo   •  

    Hi Nathan,

    I sympathize with your point that it is about ecclesiology. I came to the same conclusion in an article by locating this missiological discussion from Stephen Neill’s essay (where the famous dictum “If everything is mission, nothing is mission” originated).

    It was Neill’s point that it is a mistake that the deliberation on missiology is done to justify missionary activities. The real concern should be on ecclesiology.

  15. Joshua Woo   •  

    However, I don’t think that they talk pass each other when it comes to ecclesiology. IMHO, DeYoung’s and Gilbert’s distinction between (their words) “church as people” and “church as institution” is still not demonstrably useful to solve their problem in prioritizing verbal evangelism to non-Christians and verbal education to Christians.

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