One More Time on Good Works and the Mission of the Church
The final point in yesterday’s blog is hugely important. Greg and I thought it was worth elaborating on. So we wrote the following:
Maybe it will head off a bit of confusion if we bang the drum a bit more on this crucial issue of good works and their relationship to the mission of the church. The question we are asking in WITMOTC is not whether good works—of whatever kind—flow from, grow from, and then confirm and affirm and adorn the gospel message. Clearly they do. The Bible says so over and over (as does our book we believe). And because they do, those flowing, growing, affirming, confirming, adorning good works are vitally connected to the church’s mission of proclamation and disciple-making. They grow from a life regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the gospel we preach, and therefore they redound to the credit and glory and truth of that gospel.
But that’s not the question we’re asking, and we’re certainly not answering that question in the negative. The question we’re asking is whether our mission, as the church, is to do good deeds to the end of making the world a better place, to the end of making neighborhoods and cities and the world more livable. Is it our mission as the church—is it the thing Jesus sends us, as the church, into the world to accomplish—to eradicate social problems? This is an important questions because many Christians see the church’s mission in just these terms. Pastors and movements and denominations are planting and leading churches with the explicit understanding that their mission—their marching order from King Jesus—is to partner with civic leaders, school teachers, police officers, and firefighters to make their cities more livable, to provide housing and tutoring and sanitation and support services and immigrant orientation and art galleries and photography studios. And they speak as if they think that by doing those things, they’ll be building the Kingdom of God or wrapping their cities in God’s shalom.
That’s the kind of thinking we are addressing in WITMOTC, not the question of whether good works flow from and affirm and adorn the gospel.
We like the way Eckhard Schnabel puts it in his massive work Early Christian Mission. Schnabel argues that “expansive proclamation” is “the centrifugal dimension of mission” and “attractive presence” is the “centripetal dimension” (1:11). Our words ring out; our deeds draw people in. So the “elements of mission” include not only the ministry of the word but also “charity” and “ministry of grace.” But this is not the same as saying missions is charity or that a missionary is anyone who serves others in good deeds. According to Schnabel, “missionaries” are “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news” (1:11-12). Just as important, he clarifies what mission is striving for. “The result of mission is conversion: people accept and adopt the message proclaimed by the missionaries, they are integrated into the new community of faith, and they start to practice a new way of life with new behavioral patterns” (1:12).
So again, the question we’re asking is this: What is the purpose of the good works we do? Is it to confirm and affirm and adorn the message of the gospel? Yes! A thousand times yes! To demonstrate the love of God that we proclaim? Yes! To do all the things we stated in bold letters in chapter 9 of WITMOTC? Yes. To revitalize the downtown area so it’s more livable for everybody and thereby make the West End more like the Kingdom? Not exactly.
The question is the theological purpose of good works, not whether they are important. This is not an issue of mere semantics. The purpose of our good works matters a great deal when churches have to determine what ministries to undertake, what missionaries to support, and what opportunities to encourage. Whether good deeds are a centripetal force drawing people to the proclamation of the gospel or whether they are an effort to revitalize urban centers because that’s what the mission of the church is all about–this distinction will shape what we do with our finite time, finite people, and finite resources. Understanding that crucial point might help some readers zero in more clearly on our main point in the book.