Mission and the Bible

People are forever making claims about doing mission in a biblical way. The problem is that the Bible offers us lots of different examples of how to do mission and some of them are not altogether positive. There is a case to be made that says that Jonah is the first cross-cultural missionary in the Bible, but I don’t think many people would recommend his methods or his attitudes. In this post, I’m going to compare a couple of examples from the early Church to see what we can learn for our current context.

For the first thirty or more years of the Christian era, Jerusalem was the centre of the life of the church. It was there that Jesus had taught, died and risen again. The apostles were, for the most part, based there and it was to Jerusalem that the growing church looked for advice and guidance on issues of belief and practice. The Jerusalem church was the mother church, the mature church, the place to go for sound theology and good church practice. Away from Jerusalem in Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe the church was expanding rapidly and as it expanded, people started trying new things and breaking with the established traditions.

For example, in Acts 11:20 Christians in Antioch start to preach to Gentiles, not just to Jews. Up until this point, Christianity had essentially been a Jewish faith. The only Gentiles who had come to Christ were special cases such as the Ethiopian eunuch or Cornelius. It just wasn’t done to preach willy-nilly to any old Gentiles – but that’s what the Christians in Antioch did. So, the mother church sent out a missionary to check out what was going on:

 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.  He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:22-24)

Barnabas went out to Antioch, he saw the way in which people were breaking with tradition, realised that God was with them and got stuck in! He didn’t come over all heavy handed and explain to them how things were done in Jerusalem, he didn’t insist that people do things in the time-honoured fashion and he didn’t claim any sort of authority over the local believers. He worked along side them and God blessed them all. Within a short while, the Church in Antioch even took up a collection to help the believers in Jerusalem.

Compare Barnabas’ attitude with that of the men who came from James (in Jerusalem) that we read about in Galatians 2:

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

These guys came from Jerusalem, found that Gentile Christians in the Galatian church were not being circumcised in traditional way, and immediately started to throw their weight about. They came from Jerusalem, they knew how things aught to be done and all Christian males had to be circumcised. They didn’t ask about the local situation, they didn’t seek to understand Paul’s point of view, they just insisted that their way was the right way and that everyone should follow them. They were so insistent that even Peter and Barnabas were swayed by their arguments; but they were wrong!

Today, the Church in Europe and North America has a long history, we have a strong sense of who we are, we have a brilliant theological and doctrinal heritage and we send out missionaries to the rest of the world. But, it is in the majority world that the Church is growing the quickest. How do we go about doing mission in this context. Do we in the Western church use our heritage, our sense of authority or our financial muscle to impose our views and programmes on the rest of the world? Or do we, like Barnabas, see God at work and humbly join in alongside our more creative and adventurous brothers and sisters?

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7 replies on “Mission and the Bible”

In your post, you asked “Do we in the Western church use our heritage, our sense of authority or our financial muscle to impose our views and programmes on the rest of the world? Or do we, like Barnabas, see God at work and humbly join in alongside our more creative and adventurous brothers and sisters?”

But your question does not address the real issues being discussed in missions today. Few, if any, are suggesting that we impose our western heritage, culture, or programs on our brothers and sisters abroad. The real question is “do we abandon the heart of the Gospel?” Accepting the validity of a faith that denies a belief in the divinity of Christ, or our absolute need for his atoning work on the cross, or the power of his resurrection is not humbly joining alongside our more creative and adventurous brothers and sisters, it is propagating heresy. Yes, we need to understand that the church abroad will look very different from the church in the west, but the universal church should always be united on the essential truths of the Gospel and much of what is being promoted as “creative and adventurous” is really a denial of what has historically been understood, by both the eastern and western church in every age, as the heart of the Gospel.

I’m sorry, but I have to flatly disagree with you. You write: “But your question does not address the real issues being discussed in missions today.” In years of attending mission meetings and conferences across the world the question that is always returned to is the issue of western dominance and hegemony in the mission movement. The fact that people aren’t talking about this in your corner of the US doesn’t mean that it isn’t being talked about across the world. It could be correct that “few are suggesting that we impose our western heritage etc on others”, but that doesn’t mean for one moment that it isn’t happening. An imposition of western values on others is no less real for being unintentional.

I do, of course, fully agree with you that we should not abandon the Gospel; our belief in the divinity of Christ and his atoning work. That is a given (as I’ve said numerous times in the years I’ve been blogging), not that this is actually anything to do with this blog post.

Eddy, I do want to thank you for taking the time to respond. I really do want to understand your position. I realize that some of my questions may have seemed pointed; please realize that I am not trying to be argumentative, I just want to understand your position. To give you a little background about me: I first became acquainted with the C5 issues a few years ago while sharing office space with Joshua Massey (pen name) and during our discussions he would make statements almost identical to the one you made i.e. “we should not abandon the Gospel; our belief in the divinity of Christ and his atoning work” while also teaching that Muslims should remain Muslims and that they need not acknowledge Christ’s divinity. He has even counseled MBB’s who had converted to Christianity to reconvert back to Islam. Massey has had close ties with SIL and has indicated that his views are strongly supported by some SIL personnel. Over the years since my instruction to the IM movement, the only experiences I have had with people claiming that “westerners” are imposing “western” values on others have been those who were advocating an IM (C5) perspective. They, like Massey, have suggested that teaching that one must believe in the divinity of Christ or that teaching that Christ’s atoning work on the cross is necessary for salvation is imposing “western” values. Until this last year, this issue had been known primarily as the “C4/C5 controversy” because the opposition, for the most part, had been almost exclusively against C5; very few questioned the validity of C4. In the last year, the translation issue has become the central issue of this discussion but it was a much smaller part of the discussion in years past. Given my background, I hope you can understand why alarm bells might ring when I read your question: “do we, like Barnabas, see God at work and humbly join in alongside our more creative and adventurous brothers and sisters?” It sounded very much like the things said to me by those promoting IM. If I have read too much into your words, I apologize.

My questions to you:

When you acknowledge that “we MUST NOT abandon the Gospel; our belief in the divinity of Christ and his atoning work,” do you include our Muslim Background brothers and sisters among those who MUST NOT abandon these truths of the Gospel? If you do include them, can you help me to understand why has SIL remained silent on the IM issue?

Hi Mike,

Yes, given your background I can see why you jumped to the conclusion you did. Though I suspect that had you taken time to look at other stuff I’ve written, you would have realised that (yet again!), I was harping on about post-colonialism. The nature of blogging is that you can’t caveat every statement you make and blog posts have to be read in context.

Just to give you some background; I’ve spent most of my working life in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa, where issues such as C4 and C5 were hardly mentioned. I have worked with groups from Muslim backgrounds, but their church life and theology was not significantly different to those who came from animist backgrounds. This simply isn’t a question I come across in my day to day working life. Out of interest, I’ve read up on the subject from time to time. I’ve come across reports that I find very disturbing and others that I find very exciting and encouraging, but the diversity of what I have read and my own lack of experience in the field mean that I would be very reluctant to express a personal opinion on the issue. I have no personal knowledge of Mr Massey or his involvement with SIL or any other organisation. I wouldn’t want to leap to judgement, but based purely on your two line summary of his views, I don’t think I’d agree with him.

To answer your questions: Yes, believers from all backgrounds need to come to an understanding of the divinity of Christ and his atoning work; there is no question about that. However, I don’t think that anyone, from any background, comes to faith with a fully formed theology and all young churches (the same for young Christians) need to be helped to grow in their understanding. To return to Acts; the model of Priscilla and Aquilla engaging with Apollos and his inadequate theology would seem to be the way forward. Engaging with others does not always imply that we condone their beliefs or their actions. I’ve got no idea how this would work out in practice in the sorts of situation you are referring to – but the principle would seem to be right.

As to why SIL have remained silent on the IM issue, I can’t comment as it’s not an issue I’m involved in. I could hazard a guess, but in the current atmosphere that would not be wise. Though Wycliffe and SIL are closely related, we are not the same organisation (and this is increasingly the case). As I mentioned above, I worked in Francophone Africa (with SIL) and could probably explain practices and policies in that part of the world, but that would not qualify me to speak about issues outside of my experience. Sorry, this isn’t dodging the question, it’s an honest answer.

You raise an interesting question about whether insisting on certain aspects of Biblical theology is ‘imposing “western values”‘. I might return to that one at a later date. Though when I do, I’ll do so looking at the situations I know about, rather than trying to deal with ones I don’t.


I have been following your blog for a while now and there is a lot that you have written with which I do agree but there are things, even in this response, that leave a lot of room for questions.It may just be issues of communication but the statement you made beginning with “However” seems to qualify the prior statement “Yes, believers from all backgrounds need to come to an understanding of the divinity of Christ and his atoning work; there is no question about that.” Is that what you meant to communicate?

I think all but a fool would acknowledge that no one comes to Christ with a fully formed theology; I would even say that no one, even after a lifetime of serving Christ, leaves this world with a fully formed theology. However, there are basic truths that should unify all believers in Christ in every sociological/religious context. While the account of Apollos in Acts is a good reminder that we all need to reevaluate our beliefs from time to time and that we all can learn more, I believe it would be a huge mistake to take this too far because we are not even given the details about what additional understanding was communicated to Apollos. If what you were trying to communicate in your response was that true churches may reject these most basic truths of the Gospel for a time then I would ask how does one come into the kingdom of God while denying their need of Christ’s atoning work on the cross or the divine nature of the one who gave his life for them? How is a church that denies these most basic truths a legitimate part of the body of Christ? When missionaries work with churches that deny these most basic truths of the Gospel, do they address these issues or do they allow these churches to continue in these wrong beliefs? If they do address these issues and the truth is rejected, do they still treat these churches as part of the true body of Christ?

Hi Mike,

I don’t have time to give a full answer to you at the moment (Sue just returned home after three weeks away), but I know from experience that if I don’t respond to comments more or less immediately, then I tend to forget them. So I’m going to be brief…

Obviously, I can’t speak for all situations or for all missionaries, but let me say something briefly from my own experience. When we started work among the Kouya, there were very few Christians, and those there were tended to be extremely legalistic. I found it really difficult, they really didn’t seem to have grasped just what Christ had achieved on the cross. But, I couldn’t deny the reality of their faith and the way in which they were willing to turn their back on their animist beliefs (putting themselves under the threat of all sorts of spiritual attack) and stand up for Christ among their families was inspiring. They had a very real and active faith (which put mine to shame, sometimes) but they really hadn’t grasped ‘justification by faith’. I can’t remember who said it, but ‘we are justified by faith, not by believing in justification by faith’.

What did I do? When I was asked to preach, I tended to preach on biblical passages referring to grace and justification by faith, though I fear had very little impact. The most decisive thing that happened for the Kouya in this area was that a young Kouya man trained as a pastor, gained a good grasp of the way in which legalism poisons the Church and came home and addressed it.

The Kouya didn’t ‘deny’ or ‘reject’ justification by faith, they hadn’t understood it in the first place. The amount of factual knowledge required to turn to Christ in faith, can be quite small and first generation churches can be full of faith, but remarkably unschooled. This is why I think the example of Apollos is a good one. He didn’t deny anything, he’d simply never heard of the baptism of Jesus and needed to learn.

First generation Christians in any context will have huge holes in their knowledge and they will tend to address things according to their own concerns. Justification by faith is really important to me, but Christ’s power over evil spirits tended to be higher up the Kouya list of priorities, so they studied and concentrated on that at first. Not yet understanding something is very different to denying or rejecting it. Like you, I find it very hard to countenance a Church which rejects or denies the deity of Christ, but I can imagine a new group of believers who haven’t yet come to an understanding of his full nature.

Mike, I think this is a really important discussion, but I’m probably not going to be looking at the comments section here for a while, so any reply from me might be a little late.

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