Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 288 pp. $15.99.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert are both pastors. They preach on a weekly basis in towns with universities and passionate young people who don’t want to waste their life but want to be on mission. And there’s the elusive word: mission. Slick like water in our hands, the word gives way to countless definitions and usages, agendas and abuses, leaving many Christians and churches confused about their mission. Answering the question of what the church ought to be doing is controversial. Enter DeYoung and Gilbert.
Careful Work of Definition
DeYoung and Gilbert do the difficult work of defining the mission of the church, supporting their view by answering objections with reasonable responses to difficult social and economic concerns. They argue that the mission of the church can be found in the Great Commission passages: “[T]o go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”
However, the authors do not say the church should ignore social justice. Rather, they are concerned that the newfound missional zeal can put hard and fast oughts on churches where there should be “an inviting can.”
Finishing the definitional spadework, the authors spend a good portion of the book pinning the discussion of the church’s mission in the context of the (1) entire narrative of the Bible, (2) definition of the gospel, and (3) an “already/not yet” understanding of the kingdom. None of these chapters give any surprises.
However, the chapter on the definition of the gospel does make some helpful clarifications. The casual observer of debates over the gospel’s definition may assume that Gilbert, based on his book What Is the Gospel?, defines the gospel in terms of the question, “What is the message a person must believe in order to be saved?” (what the authors call a “zoom lens perspective”). But they also explain in this new volume what they call a “wide-angle” perspective of the gospel that includes the entire good news of Christianity, which is about “all the great blessings that flow from that, including God’s purpose to remake the world.” All the great news of Christianity (wide lens), according to DeYoung and Gilbert, flow from the message of repentance and faith in the atoning cross of Christ (zoom lens). That center must hold. Without it, the greater blessings of the new creation are not ours to have.
Now to Everything Controversial
Throughout the book, the authors are very careful to make their conclusions from the Bible. But after several chapters of groundwork, they come to the classic “social justice” texts and give them the ol’ “they don’t say what you think they say” treatment.
It’s important to point out that the authors are working in an historical-redemptive framework, based upon their chapter on the narrative of the Bible. When these texts are understood in their canonical place, application for forced redistribution programs or disparaging the disparity between rich and poor seem superficial.
For example, Leviticus 25 (the Year of Jubilee) is a popular passage for social-justice advocates. When we understand the passage in redemptive history and the closer context of Leviticus, a few things caution us against using the text for radical social applications: (1) We are not in an agrarian society. (2) Our property is not allocated by God, particularly assigned for specific tribes of Israel. (3) Our economy is not a fixed pie of wealth where the rich get rich on the backs of the poor, but rather in our modern economy, wealth can be created. (4) We are not under the Mosaic Law and aren’t promised a miraculous harvest on the sixth year. And finally, (5) most of us our not Jews, and the distinction of foreigner and Israelite was very important to Leviticus 25.
Even so, the authors do not want us to undersell what the Bible says about the poor and social justice. Put very aptly, they write, “To be a Christian, then, is to receive God’s good gifts and enjoy them the most, need them the least, and give them away most freely.”
DeYoung and Gilbert's treatment of the new heavens and new earth offers a particularly important caution. They are concerned that “there are a number of people who have argued that we as Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and new earth—that we partner with God in his mission to restore the cosmos.” This is at best confusing and at worst dangerous. The new heavens and new earth is God’s gift, through the gospel, and we simply receive it. It is “in all its parts . . . for us, and not in the least by us.”
An Important Proposal
DeYoung and Gilbert make some significant and practical proposals for the local church and their social involvement. I’ll mention one of them. They propose a “moral proximity” principle, which helps churches understand who we are not only in obligation to help by way of proximity, but also who are we morally obligated to help. The key word, of course, is obligated. While AIDS work is good, is a church a “gospel-less” church if it does not engage in it? The authors are right to say no, but the principle is not meant to “make us more cavalier to the poor. [I]t should free us from unnecessary guilt and make us more caring toward those who count on us most.”
This may be one of the more helpful portions of the book for local churches concerned not only with global troubles but also their community concerns. How they decide to use their resources can be difficult, and this principle is a good one to help them decide.
But What About Discipleship?
In these rough-and-tumble debates over the mission of the church, DeYoung and Gilbert are on the side of the angels, I believe. They make clear but not simplistic conclusions about difficult issues while keeping their fingers in the biblical text. Their conclusions will not be popular with everyone, but those who want to refute them must be as biblically and theologically sophisticated. That won’t be an easy task.
But with some caution, I’d suggest we not make such a sharp distinction between acts of public justice and the mission of the church. DeYoung and Gilbert are very clear that works of justice are not somehow sub-Christian, but “tasks like disciple making, proclamation, church planting, and church establishment constitute the mission of the church.” And they go on to emphasize, “We as Christians should be marked by a posture of love and generosity toward our neighbors, and that includes everyone, according to Jesus, from our best friends to our worst enemies.”
So if having a posture of generosity for all people and a desire for justice in our communities (though never perfect until Christ returns) are marks of being a born-again Christian, then shouldn’t equipping believers to demonstrate these marks with wisdom and care be a part of our discipleship and, therefore, within our larger understanding of the church’s mission?
Yes, with bold font and yellow highlighter, I agree with DeYoung and Gilbert that central to the church’s mission is the Great Commission. And we need to keep the main thing the main thing. But just as the authors argue for a zoom and wide lens understanding of the gospel, can we not do the same thing with the mission of the church? With the proclamation of God’s Word the center of the church's mission, can we not say the wide lens mission includes equipping Christians to have wisdom and understanding when laboring for justice?
Nevertheless, I want to put both arms around DeYoung and Gilbert’s thesis and hug it. It’s the most clearly biblical treatment on the subject I know of. They are clear and gracious towards their opponents, putting them in the best light possible and sympathizing with difficult questions. I hope they get the widest of hearings and that more people think they’re right than wrong.