Missional Ethic – Part 3

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June 18, 2013 by cbbeard

Every parent seems to want to have “good” kids.  If we have offspring that obey without talking back, respect their elders, stay out of trouble in school, and don’t do drugs or get arrested we feel pretty satisfied.  God, however, wants more than just “good kids” in his family.  As children of the Creator through Jesus Christ, God certainly expects obedience and lives that are characterized by love.  But God doesn’t think that just “being good” is good enough.  God doesn’t want good kids…he wants missionaries.

In Part 1 of this post, we laid the groundwork for the case of inseparability of ethics and mission.  In Part 2, we discussed the characteristics of Christian Ethics as we know it; that Jesus is central, that it’s all about the Kingdom of God, that love is primary, and that it’s not always about what we do.  In today’s conclusion, we bring it all together and end up with a missional ethic.  And so without further ado, consider this evidence for a missional ethic[1]:

The Bible is all about mission.

The question of biblical interpretation is central to the philosophy of ethics for the church and the Christians from whom the church is composed.  If the community of faith is to use the Bible to develop an ethical framework (as it rightly should), then vital to that framework is an accurate understanding of biblical ethical expectations.

While the theological topic of mission has been a victim of “terminological imprecision” (Barram, 2007, p. 45) in that there is vast diversity in the definition and application of mission, recent scholarship has developed a broader understanding of mission which places it holistically and centrally within the understanding of the Bible which informs theology and practice.  It has been proposed that Scripture contains a discernible metanarrative, and central to that metanarrative is missio Dei, or the mission of God.  The presence of this metanarrative thus leads to an interpretation of the Bible using a “missional hermeneutic.”

While the depth and defense of the “missional hermeneutic” cannot be fully discussed in this space, consider the following:

A missional hermeneutic proceeds from the assumption that the whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s word for the sake of the whole of God’s creation. – Christopher J.H. Wright (2006, p. 51)

In attempting to flesh out the missio Dei concept, the following could be said: In the new image mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. – David Bosch (2011, Chapter 12, “Mission as Missio Dei”, para. 4)

These two purposes (rescuing his people, completing creation) are intimately connected, as is seen in a thousand passages from Genesis to Revelation. – N.T. Wright (2011, p.33)

This theme of God’s saving purposes reaching the ends of the earth forms a grand envelope that contains the entire story of Scripture. Kostenberger & O’Brien (2001, p. 26)

The missional hermeneutic affects how Christians understand the teachings of God and his expectations for his followers, placing it in the context of the overarching theme of mission.  Simply defined, “mission” is the accomplishing of God’s purposes by God, in and through his people. Therefore, the various accounts in the Bible fit together to comprise the story of God’s blessing for all humanity, and the simple truth of the missional narrative of Scripture is that God is working to restore creation to its intended pre-sin state.

Therefore, no part of Scripture can be truly understood apart from the underlying theme of mission.  Each story and teaching must be considered in the overarching context of God fulfilling his purposes.  Examining Scripture through the lens of the missional hermeneutic places the theme of mission where it belongs; as a foundational piece of our interpretation.

Mission, then, is central to the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God as taught and exemplified by Jesus in the New Testament (discussed in Part 2) is understood in the greater context of the metanarrative of God.  The kingdom of God was not a new idea that was birthed in the New Testament, but an important step in God’s salvific plan for humanity.  This continuity of Scripture must not be ignored, and the continuity with the kingdom of God with the salvation history of humanity cannot be separated from the missio Dei.  As it pertains to Christian ethics, the connection of the centrality of the kingdom of God with the whole of Scripture helps identify not only the ethics of the kingdom as normative for Christians, but also the mission.

How, then, can we talk of the kingdom of God without talking of the mission of God?  Knitter (2005) stated that “The kingdom of God represents a vision of human society in which all will be well; and all will be well because all will care for each other as they are cared for by God” (p. 201).  That vision certainly fits with the previous definition of Christian ethics, but how can that vision come to fruition without proclamation?  Furthermore, once the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, how can that vision come to fruition if new citizens are not taught the teachings and example of Christ?  As Newbigin (1995) argued, “The confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ implies a commitment to make good that confession in relation to the whole life of the world – its philosophy, its culture, and its politics no less than the personal lives of its people” (Chapter 2, para. 17).  Therefore the kingdom of God is both a product of the missio Dei, as well as a “work-in-progress” for God in the “consummation” movement of salvation history.

Jesus both taught and exemplified mission.

Consider Jesus’ most overt teachings of mission:

  • Make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20) – Claiming all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus commissions his followers to proclaim the kingdom of God by making disciples, baptizing them and teaching those new disciples the way of the kingdom as taught by Jesus’ words and example.
  • Preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15) – Jesus followers are to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God that is available to them through faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Proclaim to all the nations the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-49) – This command includes the proclamation of the messiah, through whom reconciliation with God and citizenship to the kingdom of heaven is gained.
  • Receive the Holy Spirit and be sent like Christ (John 20:21-22) – This commission focuses on the sentness of Christ which then becomes the sentness of his followers as they partner with the Holy Spirit for the glory of God and his kingdom.
  • Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) – Jesus gives this final teaching to his disciples just prior to his ascension back to heaven and prior to the explosion of the church in Jerusalem at Pentecost.

These five commissions of Jesus embody the truth of God’s salvific plan for humanity: the kingdom was ushered in by the sending of Christ and his death and resurrection, then God sent the Holy Spirit to continue the work of the kingdom in and through his people.

Jesus not only taught and commanded mission, but he also embodied that mission.  Jesus exemplified the expansion of God’s kingdom as seen in the five commissions above, and his life and ministry revealed him to be a prototypical disciple-maker.  Hirsch (2010) explained, “During his earthly life, Jesus himself worked to embed his life and gospel within the lives of his disciples, and if he had not accomplished this task, there would be no Christianity today” (p. 8).   In other words, the mission Jesus exemplified not only provided for the birth of Christianity and the church, it provides for its continued sustenance and growth.

Jesus was equally concerned with teaching and modeling mission as he was with teaching and modeling the ethics of the kingdom.  This is not because the two topics were equally important to Jesus, it is because the two topics were inseparable to Jesus. Jesus anticipated that the ethics of the kingdom would work for the purpose of spreading the news of the kingdom:

  • You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16) – Through obedience and loving others, people will give glory to God and take note of his kingdom.
  • By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35) – Jesus said that the primary command of the kingdom of God will also identify those in the kingdom as followers of Christ.
  • My prayer…that all of them may be one…Then the world will know you have sent me. (John 17:20-23) – Unity, which is born out of humility and love, will show the world that God has sent Jesus Christ to usher in the kingdom.

Simply put, the expectations of the kingdom of God not only show how to live under the rule of the King, but also serve to make the world aware of the presence of the kingdom.

The call for a missional ethic.

The understanding of Christian ethics in modern scholarship is largely founded on the ethical teaching and example of Jesus.  The focus, therefore, largely centers on the kingdom of God.  A Christian ethic built on the understanding of Jesus’ teaching and exemplification of the kingdom of God, however, is incomplete without mission.  For Jesus, the kingdom was an inseparable combination of mission and ethic, both of which inform and serve the other.

Therefore, if Christians are to construct an ethical framework that is consistent with the ethic of Jesus, both mission and ethic must be combined to create a missional ethic.  Christ calls his followers beyond good lives by moral standards, and instead to live all aspects of life for the glory of God and his kingdom.   No longer is the concept of mission acceptably pigeonholed as a duty of Christians and the church, and no longer can moral behavior alone qualify for a Christian ethic.  Instead, heart and behavior of the Christian are to be aligned with the expectations revealed in Scripture both for God’s glory and for God’s purposes, the missio Dei.  This is a significant paradigm shift for the church as it pursues the heart of God.  This does not mean that what is traditionally understood as “mission activity” should cease or be traded for a missional ethic; the mission of God is fulfilled in many different ways in many different contexts.  Instead, as Christians live under the reign of God in his kingdom, they understand that being a citizen of the kingdom also makes them partners in the missio Dei, and that life in the kingdom is simultaneously about ethics and mission for the glory of God.

So what do you think? Is there a biblical basis for a “missional ethic?”  What does the church need to do to apply the missional ethic to our lives?

References
Barram, M. (2007). The Bible, mission, and social location: Toward a missional hermeneutic. Interpretation, 61(1), 42-58.
Bosch, D. J. (2011). Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission (20th Anniversary Ed. ed.). [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com
Hirsch, A. (2010). Reawakening a potent missional ethos in the twenty-first century church. Missiology: An International Review, 38(1), 5-12.
Knitter, P. F. (2005). Mission and dialogue. Missiology: An International Review, 33(2), 200-210.
Kostenberger, A. J., & O’Brien, P. T. (2001). Salvation to the ends of the earth: A biblical theology of mission. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Newbigin, L. (1995). The open secret: An introduction to the theolgoy of mission (Rev. ed.). [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com
Wright, C. J. H. (2006). The mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
Wright, N. T. (2011). Scripture and the authority of God: How to read the Bible today. [Kindle Edition]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com


[1] Once again, this is a brief summary of a more detailed consideration of the missional ethic.  If you would like further information, feel free to contact me.

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