I recently re-skimmed Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Although I was looking for a later chapter, “The Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel,” I was most struck by the chapter “The Logic of Mission.” What follows is a summary and personal interpretation.
Law: Not the Logic of Mission
Newbigin begins by dismissing the notion that Christians ought to prioritize “evangelism,” in the modern sense of pursuing adherents of other faiths and persuading them to live differently:
It has been customary to speak of “the missionary mandate.” This way of putting the matter is certainly not without justification, and yet it seems to me that it misses the point. It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence on gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy… One searches in vain through the letters of St. Paul to find any suggestion that he anywhere lays it on the conscience of his readers that they ought to be active in mission. For himself it is inconceivable that he should keep silent. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). But nowhere do we find him telling his readers that they have a duty to do so.
It is a striking fact, moreover, that almost all the proclamations of the gospel which are described in Acts are in response to questions asked by those outside the Church. This is so in the case of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, of the testimonies given by the apostles and by Stephen under interrogation, of the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian, of Peter’s meeting with the household of Cornelius, and of the preaching of Paul in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. In every case there is something present, a new reality, which calls for explanation and so prompts the question to which the preaching of the gospel is the answer.
Newbigin points out a lack of New Testament evidence for the approach of “Have you heard of the good news of our Lord and Savior…?”:
- Paul’s letters are full of moral instruction, but they don’t point to that kind of mission
- Acts is full of examples of preaching, but outside of synagogues, they often come as the answer to questions, not as unprovoked pronouncements.
Paul’s Mission to the Gentiles
First, Newbigin reframes “missions”:
By “missions” I mean those specific activities which are undertaken by human decision to bring the gospel to places or situations where it is not heard, to create a Christian presence in a place or situation where there is no such presence or no effective presence.
Then, he highlights an odd fact about Paul’s own criteria for the “success” of missions:
By contrast St. Paul’s criterion [of the success of missions] seems to be different. He can tell the Christians in Rome that he has completed his work in the whole vast region from Jerusalem to the Adriatic and has “no longer any room for work in these regions” (Rom. 15:23). What, exactly, has he done? Certainly not converted all the populations of these regions. Certainly not solved their social and economic problems. He has, in his own words, “fully preached the gospel” and left behind communities of men and women who believe the gospel and live by it. So his work as a missionary is done. It is striking, for a modern reader, that he does not agonize about all the multitudes in those regions who have not yet heard the gospel or who have not accepted it… These communities are, as he says to the Corinthians, composed mostly of people whom the world despises. They do not look like the wave of the future. They are ignored by contemporary historians. They do not pretend to take control of the destiny of the Roman Empire, let alone of the whole world.
The Logic of Mission
Newbigin enters a discussion of how Church is a foretaste of the ultimate unity of humanity:
The fulfillment of the mission of the Church thus requires that the Church itself be changed and learn new things. very clearly the Church had to learn something new as a result of the conversion of Cornelius and his household… In that story we see Peter’s extreme reluctance to mix with the household of a pagan Roman officer. He tells the story of Jesus in that Roman house because he is directly questioned. The fruit of the telling is an action of the Spirit which takes matters out of Peter’s hands. He can only confess with astonishment that these uncircumcised pagans have been made a part of God’s household. So the church is moved one step on the road toward becoming a home for people of all nations and a sign of the unity of all.
So the logic of mission is this: the true meaning of the human story has been disclosed. Because it is the truth, it must be shared universally. It cannot be private opinion. When we share it with all peoples, we give them the opportunity to know the truth about themselves, to know who they are because they can know the true story of which their lives are a part.
Backtracking in the chapter a bit:
In discussions about the contemporary mission of the Church it is often said that the Church ought to address itself to the real questions which people are asking. That is to misunderstand the mission of Jesus and the mission of the Church. The world’s questions are not the questions which lead to live. What really needs to be said is that where the Church is faithful to its Lord, there the powers of the kingdom are present and people begin to ask the question to which the gospel is the answer. And that, I suppose, is why the letters of St. Paul contain so many exhortations to faithfulness but no exhortations to be active in mission.
This is what was huge for me: “missions” is the same as Jesus’s command to love one another.
But What about the Great Commission?
Newbigin doesn’t address this in his book, but I’ll offer an explanation I heard somewhere. Matthew describes Jesus’s last words like this:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This has been interpreted as a general call to, well, go. How can this be reconciled with Newbigin’s claim that being “active in mission” is not a requirement or a command for a follower of Jesus?
Luke describes his last words differently:
“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Note the difference in voice: Matthew uses an active voice (“go and make”), Luke uses a passive voice (“will be preached”). According to Luke, Jesus’s instruction is to stay; it’s a given that his followers are witnesses of these things.
Luke continues the narrative in Acts, including the remarkable events of Pentecost:
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound [(of Christians speaking in other languages)], a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Peter answers by retelling the story of Jesus, and the hearers respond:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
It seems possible to me that the Great Commission of Matthew was accomplished on Pentecost. Disciples were made of all nations, baptized, and instructed to follow all that Jesus commanded. Presumably, they took that promise home to their children, and to all who were “far off.”
Newbigin doesn’t address this, though, as I recall.
I am happy to think of dismissing the obligation to “go.” Rather, to stay excites me (because I’m a homebody – that’s all) and it entails “missions” in Newbigin’s definition (“human decision to bring the gospel to places or situations where it is not heard”). This work is a joy to me, to the degree that I can participate in it. Newbigin’s proposal is an encouragement and a challenge in continuing to lean into it.