“Contemporary non-evangelical theologians are increasingly interested in the theology of missions.… Evangelicals are strangely silent.”

Missions as a theological concept and a definite field in theology is no ancient phenomenon. When, in 1951, Dr. C. Stanley Smith sought material on the theology of missions in the Yale Divinity School library, that notable library yielded him only two books on the subject. He concluded for those for whom he was writing his study: “It would seem, therefore, that in attempting to define the theological basis of the Church’s missionary obligation our Commission has practically a clear field without much precedent” (Missionary Obligation Studies, 1952).

Although an evangelical might wish to take issue with this negative conclusion, the vacuum was as evident within evangelical literature as elsewhere. Aside from popular presentations of missions, like R. H. Glover’s The Bible Basis of Missions, one would have had to look long and hard fifteen years ago to find evangelical material dealing with missions as a theological concept. The systematic theologies of Hodge, Strong, and Chafer, endorsed by many evangelicals, left no room for missions in their structure. What was true outside the evangelical camp was equally true within it: missions was considered a practical task, to which theology was related only in the rather vague and indirect way in which it was related to all other practical aspects of Christianity.

The situation has changed radically—at least outside evangelical circles. Beginning especially with the International Missionary Council’s conference at Willingen, Germany, in 1952, contemporary theologians have actively and fully involved themselves with missions as a part of the theological task. Two recent books demonstrate this. Gerald Anderson’s The Theology of the Christian Mission, published in 1961, includes essays on theology and missions written by such well-known contemporaries as Cullmann, Barth, Blauw, Newbigin, Lindsell, and Tillich. Equally significant is the publication of The Missionary Nature of the Church, by Johannes Blauw. This work is a concise study of the theological basis of missions as seen in the writings of contemporary theologians. Among the more important authors Blauw cites are Jeremias, Ridderbos, Von Rad, Stauffer, Rowley, and Cullmann.

But this acceptance of missions as a legitimate theological subject has not yet deeply penetrated evangelical thought. One searches vainly through most of the evangelical periodicals for essays on missions from a theological vantage point. The theological journals yield only a polemical sortie or two. And with a few notable exceptions, the book lists of evangelical publishers for the past fifteen years reflect the same situation. Recent studies in systematic theology have usually followed the pattern of their predecessors in omitting missions from their theological framework. A survey of the content of theological courses in most evangelical schools confirms the thesis. It seems odd that, sitting through a class in systematic theology for two years at an evangelical school noted for its missionary emphasis, I never once heard missions related to theology. Equally baffling in this respect was a course in ecclesiology in a reputable evangelical institution: missions was brought in only as a sub-subpoint under church function, and required no more than five minutes of class time. These are by no means exceptional cases. Evangelical theology appears almost oblivious to missions as a topic for interest, study, or discussion.

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For evangelicalism this is most awkward, because one of its hallmarks has been its fervent missionary concern and activity. Missionary magazines, books, films, and conferences abound everywhere. No evangelical church today would deny missions a place, small though it may be, in its budget. In recent years the number of missionaries from North America sent out by evangelical groups has increased notably, a trend not matched by the numerically larger non-evangelical groups.

The silence of evangelical theology is especially awkward in view of the high-sounding theological assertions made in the promotion of evangelical missions. Thus we read:

The enterprise known as world-wide missions, then, is simply the carrying into effect of the divine purpose and project from the foundation of the world. Its accomplishment is the one sublime event toward which the whole creation moves forward, and which will constitute the consummation and crown of all God’s dealings with the human race [The Bible Basis of Missions, by R. H. Glover, Los Angeles, 1946, p. 14].

Such vast claims for missions are by no means infrequent in popular missionary presentations.

Thus we are confronted with a serious problem. On the one side, contemporary non-evangelical theologians are increasingly interested in the theology of missions. On the other side, evangelicalism, thoroughly committed to missions and, on the more popular level, making bold theological claims for missions, is strangely silent about the theology of missions.

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One is tempted to ask why. But there is a far more basic question to be asked. Since evangelical theology does not take its cue from the trends of the times or from popular assertions, the real question is: Does missions actually have a place in theology? What do the Scriptures say? These are the questions evangelical theology must answer in the light of current trends and assertions.

The New Testament writers are not silent on missions and theology. In First Peter, for instance, the apostle finds proclamation of the saving acts of God as the purpose of the redeemed community. The chosen race, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, exists, Peter says (2:9, 10), to proclaim the glorious deeds of God. Already the readers had been reminded that they were recipients of God’s saving action in Christ, effectively proclaimed through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and men (1 Pet. 1:11, 12). Now Peter informs them that the recipients are to become the agents. The Church’s function is gospel proclamation. Peter makes no common cause with those who say the Church is mission, who find the Church’s distinctiveness solely in its function. He says that service to God is rooted in proper relation to God. This is clear from the context, both in the preceding appellations for the Church and in the relative clause that follows: “Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God.” The redeemed community is certainly called to be God’s instrument, but it is the redeemed community that is called.

On the other hand, Christian theology has often been content to discuss the Church only as redeemed, with too little attention to its nature and purpose as instrument. It has read only the main clause of First Peter 2:9, 10, reveling in the titles of the Church without going on to the important purpose clause. Peter at least placed missions squarely in the middle of his ecclesiology.

One major treatment of missions as a theological concept occurs in the Gospel of John. Yet it is distressing how few commentaries on John, or biblical theologies based on Johannine thought, allude to this. The awareness of mission in John’s Gospel centers in its frequent reference to Christ as having been sent by God. The Greek words pempo and apostello appear forty-two times in John alone, out of fifty-seven occurrences in the whole New Testament. Since the concept of the mission of Christ is intrinsic to Johannine Christology, the Gospel might well be called the Gospel of the Christ-mission. A careful exegetical study of the book will demonstrate this. Our brief summary, all that is possible here, will show the progressive development of the Christ-mission concept through the book.

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The mission of Christ is often and pointedly asserted in the opening twelve chapters. Even a cursory reading indicates this. This mission of Christ is said to be to the whole world. “For God sent the Son into the world … that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17, 18, RSV). Therefore Karl Heinrich Rengstorf points out: “His mission acquires its ultimate meaning and pathos in its demand for the decision and division of men” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, 1964, I, 406).

In the second half of the Book of John is an additional and sometimes overlooked disclosure concerning the Christ-mission. Christ says to his disciples (13:20): “He who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” There is something new here. That God sent Christ is repeated. But for the first time a reference is made to another sending, a sending different from Christ’s but intimately related to it. Not only is Christ sent: he also sends, and the reception of the sent servant is equated with the reception of Christ himself as the Sent One.

In John 17 Christ prays that his own who have believed may be kept from evil as they remain in the world after his departure. Then he says: “As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” His will for the disciples includes more than remaining in the world and being kept from evil. The very mission of God in Christ is now said to become God’s mission in Christ through them. Even as in the Christ-mission men were called upon to believe unto eternal life, so it will be through his disciples when he is no longer present: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (17:20).

After the resurrection, Christ appears to the disciples and says: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21b). Familiarity has dulled the impact of this pregnant sentence. Seen against the whole background of Johannine thought, it confronts us with the staggering assertion that the mission of God in Christ to the world is now extended through his disciples. Their mission is the Christ-mission. For John, Christology and missions were of the same piece.

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Paul also accords missions an integral place in his theological thought. He writes: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). The “all this” refers to the total re-creative work of God in redemption. From the previous verse, “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation …,” and from verse 21, “for our sake he made him to be sin … that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” we can infer that the “we” of verse 21 is not an editorial “we” of Paul, nor the “we” of Paul and his associates, but the “we” of those who are new creations in Christ, the ones who were the objects of God’s reconciling act in Christ.

Paul says God’s action is twofold: he has reconciled “us” to himself through Christ, and he has given to “us” the service of reconciliation. “Such is the mystery of all God’s doings,” says J. H. Bavinck, “that God transforms every object into a fellow-subject, a co-worker” (An Introduction to the Science of Missions, Philadelphia, 1961, p. 43). Therefore Paul boldly declares that the “we” who have been reconciled are the very “ambassadors” of Christ.

Paul does not speak simply of the mission of the Church, or of the mission of Christ. The whole assertion centers in God, who initiates the action and retains the position of Initiator, so that any appeal we make is in fact the appeal of God through us in his mission of reconciliation: “God making his appeal through us.” Missions for Paul is the mission of God himself.

These summaries have been brief. But they suggest that missions is more deeply grounded in New Testament theology than evangelical students of theology generally acknowledge. In fact, a careful study of the New Testament may show that missions is so intimately interwoven with the great truths of the New Testament that any failure of theology to relate itself to missions is really a failure to represent New Testament teaching correctly. If so, evangelical theology must bring missions in from the fringes of its interests to a central position. Failure to do so will surely belie its claim of commitment to biblical truth.

We may be getting so “fair-minded,” so “dialectical,” so anxious to present all the negative sides of the issues, so anxious to preach our question marks and our critical and intellectual doubts, that we have failed to preach and teach our people the great positive doctrinal truths. In fact, we may be in danger of developing what one professor called an intellectual but “doctrinally illiterate” membership.
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When there is strong doctrinal preaching, there is usually a healthy and virile church. The sermons in the New Testament (largely evangelistic) were fraught with great doctrines; the fact of Christ, the death of Christ, the return of Christ, the redemptive power of Christ, the sinfulness of man, man’s need of a Saviour, and an urgent appeal in invitation to commit oneself to him as Saviour and Lord.
There is a need for evangelistic preaching that has the depth and force of great doctrinal content in it. The Holy Ghost will use it to convict of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Perhaps he will use it to bring revival in our land.—Newman R. McLarry, Division of Evangelism, Home Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, in Capital Baptist.

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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