I realise that the title of this post might seem a little controversial. Perhaps, some people assume that a “not” has crept in there by mistake. I do make a fair few typos, after all. No, I mean what I say and stick with me and I’l explain it.
The problem lies with the term “missionary”. As Mike Stroope explains in his excellent book Transcending Mission: The Eclipse Of A Modern Tradition (my review here) mission and missionary are essentially modern terms; they are not found in the Bible. The modern usage of these terms arose with the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. Over the intervening years, the meanings of the terms have been filed out on the basis of the lived experience of the church. Not only that, but these modern definitions have been read back into the past. It is very common for Paul to be described as a missionary, though he never used that term for himself. The problem with this approach that it is next to impossible to avoid reading our contemporary views of what a missionary is and what a missionary does back onto Paul. This then leads us to imposing our understanding of mission onto Paul, rather than reading him on his own terms.
Calling God a missionary God is even more problematical. When we use a term like this for God, we are describing him in terms of a modern, human activity. It is not unusual to hear people say something along the lines of “God is a missionary God, therefore we should be missionaries”. At first glance, this seems to make sense. However, when you stop to think about it, it becomes a circular argument. Saying that God is a missionary God describes him in terms of our understanding of mission and missionaries. To say that because God is a missionary God, we should be missionaries is basically saying that we should be get involved with mission as we already understand it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of people being involved in “mission”, however, I have a hard time with a theological view which starts with human activity and which seeks to define God on that basis. Our descriptions and understanding of God need to come from his revelation to us (which will always be viewed according to our experience) rather than starting with an essentially human (if well motivated) construct.
Our description and understanding of God needs to come from the Bible, both in terms of the clear statements that are made about God (God is love, holy, just, merciful etc) and in the way that his character is revealed across the whole narrative of Scripture. Now, it is undoubtedly true that as we look at how the Bible describes God, we will find much of what we think of as “missionary” in there. However, there is much more to God than this and I think that this is important.
I regularly come across people saying that because God is a missionary God and reaches out to people, then we should do the same; we should cross frontiers with the gospel. I’ve undoubtedly said similar things myself. However, the problem with this sort of statement is that it plays into our cultural understanding of mission, which in our society means that it is all about action. Go and do something. If we start where the Bible starts, we won’t begin with action, but with character. The Bible calls us to be holy, just, loving and so on before it calls us to do stuff. Not only that, but the stuff we do has do be done within a framework that is holy, just loving …
On balance, I think that there are bigger issues facing us than calling God a “missionary God”. However, if we are ever to get to grips with some of the issues that face the mission movement, we are going to need to step away from things that push us to value pragmatism and activity over and above character and holiness. Rather than saying God is a missionary God and therefore we should do mission, we might be better saying that God is holy and that we should be holy. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do mission – but it shapes the way we go about it.