A Response to Ed Stetzer’s Review of “What Is the Mission of the Church?”
Greg and I would like to respond to Ed Stetzer’s thoughtful review of our book. It will be helpful to read his review along with our response. More importantly, we encourage you to read the book for yourself and not assume you have the book pegged apart from reading it.
When we first began to write What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission (WTS), we figured it would kick up some dust. This question of what the church is sent into the world to accomplish is not only enormously complex, but it is also deeply felt. People have strong emotions about it, and rightly so. We’ve already taken time to address the “nagging questions” posed by our friend Trevin Wax. We know that others have posted reviews of the book (sometimes multi-part, often critical). Unfortunately, we can’t respond to every critique that may arise.
We think it is important, however, to post a substantive response to Ed Stetzer’s lengthy review in the latest issue of Themelios. Neither of us knows Stetzer well (though we have met him), but we’ve both read his materials and heard him speak over the years. We rejoice that we are on the same team, proclaiming the same gospel, loving the same Church. He is one of the good guys.
Areas of Agreement
We sincerely appreciate Stetzer’s encouragement about the careful exegetical work we tried to do throughout the book. We understand that he doesn’t agree with all our conclusions. But it’s our conviction that a careful look at particular texts is one of the things most grievously missing in this conversation about mission. Much of the conversation seems to float above exegesis, focusing on themes and trajectories of Scripture rather than the details of the actual text. So we are glad that Stetzer is affirming our call for more of that kind of work.
We also are glad that Stetzer perceived our heart for establishing a better footing for the church’s life in the world. Both of us love the church deeply. Like Stetzer, we’ve given our lives to vocational ministry, and we are glad to be engaged with him in this work. There’s a lot at stake in this conversation, and it’s good when brothers in Christ can engage in serious discussion about serious issues.
As a quick side-note, we also appreciate Stetzer’s commendation of our chapter on the Gospel. In particular, Stetzer cites the wide-angle/zoom lens we advocate in this book, and applauds the “development” that framework represents from Greg’s What Is the Gospel? One minor quibble though: Greg actually published those ideas in the Together for the Gospel book from 2008 (published 2009), and before that in a series of blog posts at 9Marks—a good year-and-a-half before What Is the Gospel? was published. In fact, though What Is the Gospel? focuses on the zoom lens, if you read it with the fuller picture in mind, you’ll see all those ideas underlying that book, too. Stetzer implies that there has been some development or refinement or improvement in our explanation of the gospel—but in fact, we aren’t saying anything here that we haven’t already laid out.
Besides that, there are a few other things in Stetzer’s review to which we wanted to respond as well. At times we disagree with his arguments. On other points we agree entirely and are not sure why Stetzer seems to think we don’t. And then, most importantly, we also wonder if Stetzer hasn’t missed the main problem we’re aiming at in the book.
Love and Good Deeds and the Mission of the Church
Stetzer’s main criticism of What Is the Mission of the Church? is his contention that we “underplay” the importance of good works. He says that we “equate ‘making disciples’ with evangelism,” and that we “do not adequately acknowledge the role of love and good deeds in commending the gospel to unbelievers.” Then he makes a strong case that making disciples includes teaching everything Jesus commanded, that the life of disciples will issue in good deeds, and that good deeds extol and commend the gospel.
Conversations about whether something is “underplayed” or not emphasized enough—or acknowledged but not acknowledged adequately—are difficult conversations to have. The fact is, we agree with most everything Stetzer says about how good deeds function in the Christian life and in the commendation of the gospel, and we say so repeatedly in the book. For example, Stetzer says that we “underplay” the role of what he calls “secondary ministries” that are not immediately didactic and explicitly gospel-revealing. But we have an entire section in Chapter 9 explaining how such mercy ministries can function to show God’s love to the community and how they function to further the church’s pursuit of its mission (see also our responses here and here to Trevin’s nagging questions). In another place he says that we don’t “adequately acknowledge” the role of love and good deeds in commending the gospel to unbelievers, but that’s only after saying that we “acknowledge” in a whole section of the book that doing good works will help us win a hearing for the gospel among unbelievers.
We’re not trying to be pedantic here. But it’s not clear to us what might be the difference between acknowledging something and adequately acknowledging it. The fact is, we agree with Stetzer that good works play a confirming and extoling role with reference to the gospel. When Jesus says that the world should see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16), or when Peter says we should watch our conduct so that the world may see our good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (1 Peter 2:12), we understand the weight of what they are saying, and nothing we say should be understood as trying to avoid or de-emphasize this important biblical teaching.
Part of the problem, as we’ve mentioned before, is that many Christians do not distinguish between the church as organization and the church as organism (to use Bavinck’s terminology). We tend to think that “church” is basically plural for Christians. But the church as an institution with ordained officers and a ministry of word and sacrament is not equivalent to the individual church members who scatter each week and fulfill their various callings and vocations. Christians may work for fair housing or for better public schools, just as non-Christians may work for the exact same things, but the Church bears the unique responsibility to preach Christ and him crucified. As Michael Horton points out in a recent blog we highly recommend: “If we can distinguish between the church as organization (place) and the church as organism (people), rather than setting them in opposition, then we can avoid the dangers both of ecclesial mission creep and of ignoring our worldly callings.”
Evangelism and “Making Disciples” and “Teaching Everything”
Stetzer (and other critics) point out that the mission of the church includes disciple-making, and that disciple-making is done by “teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.” We agree. But strangely, Stetzer says that we “equate ‘making disciples’ with evangelism.” That’s simply not the case. We are as appalled as anyone by the mechanical decisionism that has marked many evangelical churches over the past few decades. Over and over in the book, in fact, we say that the mission of the church is “proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.” At the end of the chapter on the Great Commission, we sum things up by saying that the task of the church is to win people to Christ and build them up in Christ (63). We also say that the word “teaching” in Matthew 28 “makes clear that Jesus has more in mind than initial evangelism and response. He wants obedient, mature disciples, not just immediate decisions” (46). We never suggest that disciple-making can be reduced to initial evangelism. We are surprised Stetzer charges us with an error we explicitly disavow.
However, we should probably say something here about the common idea that the church’s work of “making disciples,” that is, “teaching them to obey everything I commanded,” necessarily means that the church itself, as an institution, must provide an example of or model all those things. Sometimes, of course, that’s true. As the church loves one another and cares for one another, we are certainly modeling to one another what it means to love and care for others—our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, the needy, and others. But sometimes the case is made that the command to “teach everything” implies that the church is to be “exampling everything.” So, the argument runs, if we want Christians to care for the poor, the church as a whole needs to care for the poor. If we want Christians to feed the hungry, the church needs to feed the hungry in order to provide a model for its members. But surely that’s too easy a solution. If you’re talking about a clothes closet or a soup kitchen, that solution works just fine. It makes sense in that particular case. But considered as a driving principle, the idea that the church “teaching” necessarily includes the church “exampling” just doesn’t work. You have to ask how far that goes.
For example, must the church, as an institution, be modeling to its members how to make good Christian films? Must it be providing an example of how to do good Christian art? How about good Christian cooking or marathon-running? We are not trying to be snarky with these questions. We believe there is a legitimate point to be raised. Must the church as an institution be actively engaged in politics so as to model what Christian civic engagement looks like? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that the church as an institution is to teach Christians what Jesus commanded, and teach his disciples that they are to obey him in every area of their lives, rather than to say that it must provide an example or model obedience in every particular instance?
The Main Thing We Are Seeking to Correct
Put that aside, though. On the larger point we agree with Stetzer whole-heartedly that love and good deeds play a crucial role in confirming, extolling, and promoting the gospel. We abhor cheap grace. God forbid we should ever be guilty of giving it aid and comfort in any Christian’s heart. As we state in the first chapter of our book, we do not want Christians to be indifferent toward suffering. We do not want Christians to think evangelism is the only thing that matters. We do not want Christians retreating into holy huddles. We do not want Christians “who risk their lives and sacrifice for the poor and the disadvantaged” to feel like their work only matters if it results in conversion (22). As we say again at the end of the book, “Any book that comes across as suggesting that loving our neighbors is somehow sub-Christian is a very poor book indeed” (231). We believe we are being misunderstood in this regard. Perhaps we were unclear. Perhaps some reviewers are assuming a position we don’t espouse. Perhaps we are misreading our critics’ critiques. In any event, please know that we believe in the indispensability of good deeds and the essential requirement to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But the point of What Is the Mission of the Church? was never to question whether love and good deeds are necessary for Christian obedience or even to question whether they confirm and extol the gospel we preach, and are therefore vitally connected to the mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. Clearly they are. Good works of every kind—personal, social, economic, artistic, athletic, cultural—do that kind of work. That’s not in question for a moment.
The question we are addressing in the book is whether the mission of the church—the thing it is organized and sent into the world to do—is to do those good deeds to the end of making the world a better place. Is it the church’s mission to do city renewal, to do neighborhood revitalization, to eradicate poverty, to eliminate hunger, to raise the global standard of living? Of course, we all want to see this happen. But should we always expect to see this happen? Is this why God gathers weak and weary sinners into churches? Is the presence of social problems in a community a sign that the church has been unfaithful to its mission? That’s the direction this discussion of mission often runs. We’ve seen well-meaning evangelical Christians explain church planting initiatives with the language of pulling “the whole community together [to] make a measurable difference.” The expressed desire is to be “agents in improving graduation rates, increasing literacy or lowering unemployment.” They ask, “What if together we could provide tutoring in every school, support services for every fire station, or orientation for every immigrant?” (We’re not making up these quotes.) Obviously, these are fine causes, ones Christians may pursue—and some will be called to pursue—out of love for others. But then again, is this the sort of work we see Jesus engaged in during his ministry? Is it the ministry we see pursued in the book of Acts? It sounds good to say mission is “both-and,” that the church should do these things while still making the gospel central. But churches do not have infinite resources, people, or time. The church cannot do every good thing that could be done. There must be priorities. We argue that the church’s priority—and the grid through which mission endeavors should be evaluated—is teaching others about Christ to the end that they may worship him now and forever.
Just to reiterate, our book is not about whether good deeds commend the preaching of the gospel, and whether therefore they are vitally important to the mission. It’s a question of whether it’s the church’s mission—its Christ-given orders—to improve the world and make it more livable. That’s what large numbers of evangelicals seem to think these days. They talk as if Jesus expects them to improve housing options and sanitation in their cities. They adopt church slogans that call their people to “Change the City and Change the World.” They publish brochures that say that their churches exist to make their cities livable for all people, that their Sunday morning services happen so that all people—Christian or not—can share their Christ-given gifts with the city, and they invite all people, regardless of faith, to join them in the great work of revitalizing the downtown area. That’s what too many young Christians today think the church is about. And therefore that’s the main thing we are questioning in What Is the Mission of the Church? and pleading with people to reconsider.
Other Areas of Disagreement
That’s the biggest issue we are trying to address and the biggest disagreement we have with Stetzer’s review. But there are a number of smaller issues too.
Christopher Wright and Humanity and Creation
Stetzer takes issue with our critique of Christopher Wright, arguing that we “misread” Wright when we say that “Wright’s view is that humanity derives our value from being a part of creation” (Stetzer’s words). Wright may have written less than precisely on page 399 of his book, but he says quite clearly that “our own value as human beings begins from the fact that we ourselves are part of the whole creation that God already values and declares to be good. We will have more to say about human life in a moment, but the starting point is that we take our value from the creation of which we are part, not vice versa” [emphasis ours]. As he promises there, Wright does go on to affirm strongly that humanity has unique value in God’s good creation. But surely it’s not illegitimate to raise concern about the idea that our value as human beings derives from the whole creation of which we are a part. Some Christians talk as if individual human redemption is a smaller subset of larger cosmic renewal, when in fact Scripture teaches that the whole creation longs to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21). Salvation is universal only because it is first personal.
Is it Our Job or Jesus’ to Do What Adam Failed to Do?
We also disagree with Stetzer’s charge that “creation for [DeYoung and Gilbert] does not serve as a theological starting place for understanding the telos for all of history.” The basis for that statement seems to be that we don’t connect the creation mandate with the great commission. In other words, “we do not consider” that “Jesus sends the church to accomplish what Adam, Noah, and Israel failed to do . . .” But it’s not that we don’t consider that connection, or “miss” it. It’s that we disagree with it. We don’t think the church is sent to accomplish what Adam failed to accomplish. We think Jesus did that, and will do it fully and finally at the last day. Fulfilling Adam’s failed task is not our mission; it’s the mission given and accomplished by Jesus. We won’t rehash that argument here; we detail it in chapter 8 of our book.
Distilling Theological Building Blocks and Clarifying Categories
At the end of his review, Stetzer dings us for doing missiology in the wrong way. He argues that missiology can’t be done by “distilling theological building blocks,” but is best served by “theological vision.” We’re not sure what “distilling theological building blocks” means, but we assume it means something like “clarifying theological categories” (as Stetzer puts it). It’s not clear to us how this is much different from Stetzer’s desired approach: a “theological vision of how and why God sends his people into the world on mission for his glory and the good of people of the earth.” This is precisely what we were trying to accomplish in the book. We believe, from our biblical-theological analysis, that God sends his people into the world to be ambassadors of reconciliation that the nations may be called out of darkness into his marvelous light. As a philosophy of missions, this may an incomplete theological vision for Stetzer, but it is a vision nonetheless.
Social Justice and Economics
At the beginning of his review Stetzer offers this assessment of our work: “Nearly every conclusion they draw is based on exegesis, except for their treatment of social justice, where after defining justice biblically, they depend on certain economic theories and the practical principle of ‘moral proximity’ to construct how we should think about this topic.” We are thankful for his initial conclusion, but would like to quibble with a couple other points. For starters, we believe the principle of “moral proximity” is a biblical principle. According to the New Testament we must do good “especially” to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). We have an even higher responsibility to care for members of our own household (1 Tim. 5:8). In the Old Testament it was never the case that God’s people were equally responsible to meet the needs of everyone.
Regarding “certain economic theories” we do not mean to suggest that Christianity demands support for free market principles, let alone specific views on free trade coffee, socialized medicine, or international aid. In fact, that’s just the point we were trying to make. Many missional Christians passionate about social justice assume that genuine Christian compassion means we ought to favor higher taxes on the rich, government engineered redistribution, and a general disdain for democratic capitalism. We merely wanted to suggest other alternatives that are not incompatible with Christian principles and care for the poor.
Can Ordinary Pastors Do Missiology?
At the risk of sounding defensive, we can’t help but express our disappointment that Stetzer sounded so dismissive of our arguments at times; indeed, even dismissive of our right to make them. For example, Stetzer says that Chris Wright is “one of the few people that they cite, along with Stott and Lyons.” We’re not sure whether he’s talking there about that one particular chapter on the Bible’s storyline or about our whole book. If it’s that chapter, we don’t cite Stott in it at all. If he’s talking about the whole book, we don’t want the impression to be left that we cite a total of three people in the entire thing. A quick check of the General Index shows that we cite dozens of writers, including David Bosch, Victor Hamilton, James Davison Hunter, Tim Keller, Andreas Kӧstenberger, Christopher Little, Reggie McNeal, Peter O’Brien, Eckhard Schnabel, David Sills. We reference many more in the footnotes.
One of the recurring themes in criticism of our book is that we don’t really engage missional thinking. It’s been suggested that we are insular, only talking with and listening to people who think just like us. We set up straw men, are ignorant of what missional Christians think, and may even demonize those who disagree with us. We readily admit it’s possible we have misread the authors we cite. It’s possible we may not have our pulse on the best of missional thinking. But we hope anyone who reads the book carefully will be able to see that we honestly try to interact with people like McNeal, Wright, Bosch, and Stott. We certainly read from many more and, contrary to the assumption of some, we have talked with many people who do not see things the way we do. It’s also worth pointing out that we explicitly state in the introduction that we are not anti-missional, let alone are we trying to condemn what everyone means by the term missional. Our concern is not with a term, but with determining a biblical view of the church’s mission.
If it turns out that we are tilting against windmills and no one believes the things we are arguing against, no one will be happier than the two of us. Whatever embarrassment may come from finding out that no holds the positions we combat will be overcome by delight in discovering that more people agree with us than we thought. But we do not think our concerns are phantom concerns. There are voices calling for the church to work for the redemption of creation, for the shalom of the world, and for the restoration of the cosmos, to the end that we may “[turn] back the hands of time to give the world a glimpse of what the world looked like before sin entered the picture” (The Next Christians, 59).
At times, especially toward the end, Stetzer suggests that we may be out of our depth in tackling this subject. He claims we are going against “the prevailing approach in evangelical missiology” and that “the truth is the reins of the missiological conversation and that task of mission will not be pulled back by the arguments in this book.” He chides us elsewhere with the assertion that “reading a couple dozen books is simply not adequate (or appropriate) to prepare themselves to stand against the careful theological thinking that has contributed to the widening of our understanding of mission.” In his final paragraph Stetzer concludes that our book “will not succeed at its task” because those inclined to like the book will be “the theologically minded who think deeply but engage weakly” and those on the other end of the spectrum “who could benefit from the book will not read it because the authors lack the background and engagement to make the case to the missional and missiological community.”
We’re not sure what to make of this last sentence (the final one of the review). We are both pastors, and both our churches meet right next to university campuses. We talk to real people—on both sides—for whom the matters in our book are seriously important. Perhaps our thinking on the mission of the church has been “not adequate,” and perhaps it is even “not appropriate” for us to think that we as non-scholars are prepared to make a contribution to this discussion. But we would hope that kind of judgment would be handed down on the basis of showing our arguments from the Bible to be wrong, rather than on the basis of pointing out that we are pastors and not missiologists or by implying that we don’t have street cred in missional circles. We pastor churches that engage in significant “missional” efforts in the community from supporting crisis pregnancy centers to providing ESL classes to working with the local Rescue Mission. While we may understand this work differently than some in the missional conversation and we may vet the opportunities through a different grid, our congregations also care about the poor and are devoted to good deeds as Scripture commands.
In the end, we want to thank Ed Stetzer again for honoring our work by providing a lengthy review of our arguments. We have learned from him in the past and we expect to benefit from his expertise for years to come. We actually agree with many of his critiques, because we think they do not fully describe our concerns or positions. Where we disagree on exegetical conclusions or theological distinctions we look forward to continuing to search the Scriptures together. Our hope is that our friends and foes, our sympathizers and those suspicious about us, our associations, or our missional credentials, will still give the book a careful reading and test everything against the pattern and prescriptions laid down in the word of God. We remain convinced that the Great Commission–with its call to proclamation and discple-making–is and must remain the task for which Jesus sends his church into the world.