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Can We Really Be Like Christ?

Rethinking the incarnational ministry model

Jesus is the example par excellence of obedience and self-sacrifice held up to the church, but Paul also uses his experiences, and those of his coworker Timothy and his friend Epaphroditus, as examples of selfless service. In recent years, an attempt to connect the Christ hymn with the modern church’s responsibility toward missions has given rise to a movement known as “incarnational ministry.” As with any movement, there is a range of views, but essentially this approach to evangelism, pastoral work, and cross-cultural ministry focuses on being incarnate to the group to which you are called to minister. By this is meant learning the language and customs of the new group’s culture in order to represent the gospel to them.

The Christ hymn becomes paradigmatic for missions in the following way: just as Jesus lived among to the Jewish people and learned Aramaic and their customs, so too missionaries today must live among the people they are called to serve. Alan Hirsch, a proponent of incarnational ministry explains, “The Incarnation not only qualifies God’s acts in the world, but must also qualify ours. If God's central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational.”

The incarnational approach is right to critique patterns of missionary behavior that sequestered the missionary from the wider culture, sheltering their mission station with greater privileges than those to whom they taught the gospel. It is important that missionaries acculturate themselves into their new surroundings. Again, the approach rightly stresses relationships above programs. Much of the movement’s strengths come from its belief that the gospel must touch people where they live. Thus no single culture or language is privileged, for every communication of the gospel is expressed from a culture and in a culture.

But is the best descriptor for this concept “incarnational ministry”? Several problems surface with this terminology. To begin with the theological issues, union with Christ does not make a human divine in the same way Jesus Christ is divine, because even “in Christ” the human remains a creature utterly distinct from his or her Creator. The creeds declare Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, fully divine and fully human. The incarnate Christ is the same subject as the preexistent Son. Humanity has but one nature, even when united with Christ (1 Tim 2:5).

Schnabel suggests that “the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work.” He puts forward “inculturation” or “contextualization” as better options. Another recent term that expresses the idea of the church being in and for the world is “missional.” Ross Hastings offers a definition: “a theology of the church that is, in a nutshell, participational, that its missional identity is an organic consequence of union in and participation with the missional God, who is bidirectional in His missional nature. He both sends and brings.”

The theological point I’m driving at this: as humans, we cannot repeat the incarnation of Christ, for we are not preexistent and we are not both fully human and fully divine. However, Christ’s acts of emptying and serving—these can be imitated and emulated in relinquishing our own rights and serving others. We can emulate the act of foregoing the rights granted us by our position (e.g., apostle) or social standing (e.g., patron), so that we might serve. Paul does as much in 1 Corinthians when he declares that he has not made use of his apostolic rights for financial support (1 Cor 9:15). He releases his claims on his rights so that he might better serve: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (9:19). Paul’s attitude of being all things to all people, both Jews and non-Jews, is not claiming a similarity to the unique event of the Word becoming flesh, but is better understood as reflecting the call to obedience and total surrender to God’s service (9:19-23).

On a more practical level I also suggest the incarnational ministry approach runs into problems. Is it possible for one person to become fully a member of another’s culture? One is what one is, culturally speaking. Every culture has both laudable and shameful qualities, and every person carries with them their culture, their mother tongue, and their instincts and reflexes, which from birth have helped them sort out culture and society. A related question follows: Should the missionary aim to become as closely aligned to the new culture as possible? Potentially, this focus could lead to unwelcome entailments.

For example, missionaries do not bring a “pure” gospel, but their own inculturated gospel. That is, a missionary has heard and knows a gospel that is peculiarly related to their own cultural setting. It works like this: (1) the missionary thinks about the gospel and forms an opinion about what it means; then (2) moves into the new culture and attempts to become incarnate in that culture, as well as translate his or her inculturated gospel into the new host culture, and thereby (3) can elevate an ethnocentric definition of the gospel to the status of divine Word.

Ironically, the acquisition of the language or cultural practices may serve as a way for the missionary to retain a sense of control or power over the host culture or people whom they serve. During my three years in rural Kenya, this was brought home to me in one incident that illustrates my point. I was visiting with a few Kenyan women from the surrounding areas when another white missionary came on the porch. She spoke in Kikuyu (the mother tongue of the villages around us), but the women did not understand what she was saying. After several more failed attempts, with exasperation she spoke in Kiswahili, “It’s cold this evening!” and all the Kenyan women nodded in understanding and agreement. But the missionary went on her way with a parting comment in Kiswahili, “See, I know.” It suddenly hit me—she uses language to maintain control; ironically, learning the language keeps her from the very women she professes to serve.

Additionally, the Christ hymn does not present Jesus, the preexistent one, as having a culture prior to being born of the Virgin Mary. Said another way, the Trinity does not have a culture, for cultures are human constructions. Thus, Jesus did not leave one culture to learn a new one. Jesus Christ never forsook his deity; he never was merely human. He was always the second person of the Trinity, God’s Son. The incarnation is a unique event unrepeated in history and unrepeatable because there is only one Son. That is why our redemption is secure in his work alone. Though many men (and a few women) died on crosses down through the centuries, only Jesus’ death on the cross was efficacious for humanity’s sins and offered forgiveness and eternal life in resurrected, glorified bodies for those who are in Christ.

Excerpted from The Story of God Bible Commentary: Philippians. Copyright © 2013 by Lynn H. Cohick. Used by permission of Zondervan.

June29, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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