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Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Mission Practice as Moral Craft

Engaging the Bible in Mission Theology Scholarship: Mission Practice as Moral Craft


Following Aristotle (Nichomachian Ethics), ethics might be thought of in terms of a craft (te,cnh) practised by a guild.  This notion highlights the roles of ends, virtues, tradition, community, friendship, apprenticeship, and practices in ethics.  To this idea of moral craft has been added (particularly starting in the 1970s through Stanley Hauerwas’s work) the important notion in ethics of ‘narrative’—the story-formed identity of a community.  This brief essay offers an application of these ideas to mission practice in an outline form for further discussion and reflection.  By seeing mission practice through the lenses of ‘moral craft’, the hope is that the field of ethics will contribute something to mission studies.  Some suggestions for discussion are offered for each of the points briefly introduced in the following essay.

1. Ends.  We need ends or goals (te,loj) to guide our actions.  (Craftsmen need to remember that, e.g., they are making cheese, not yoghurt.)  For ethics, the end needs to be the highest good, for it must give meaning to all other ends.  Aristotle spoke of this highest good as 'pleasure'; the Westminster Catechism as 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever'.  A narrative ethic might phrase the chief end in terms of 'faithful living within the narrative by which we live' (as opposed to effectiveness, e.g.).  Jesus' answer to the question of the highest good was in terms of 'love of God and neighbour' (Mt. 22.37-40).  One way of expanding the idea of 'end' in ethics is to speak of 'moral vision' (so Richard Hays)--the way we see the world through our unique, story-formed community and tradition.

*If development work has the end of 'caring', or 'self-empowerment to meet basic needs', how will this relate to an ethic for development work?  Will a 'highest end' (to glorify God?) guide these ends as well, or will development work not include spiritual life?
*What assumed moral ends operate in development work?  (Often Western development work assumes these are human rights, freedom, self-determination, equality.)

2. Virtues.  A craft involves certain virtues.  'avreth,' (virtue) means 'that quality of a thing which helps it accomplish its purpose (end) well.'  If we are making knives, the virtues of the knife might be: sharpness, a good weight, good grip, the right blade for the right task (serrated or not), price.  Aristotle defines a virtue as the mean between two extremes (deficiency and excess, which are vices).  These virtues define a thing's character (h;qoj).  The practice of the craft also involves certain virtues: virtues associated with a business ethic and work ethic.

*How do our Christian stories and overall narrative define the virtues of our mission practice (e.g., the cross of Jesus Christ defines Paul’s understanding of his own suffering and service).
*What 'common virtues' apply to all involved in a certain practice?  (E.g., Communication practice: accuracy, truthfulness, clarity, conciseness, balance, relevance, interesting, etc.)  What about Development practices?  Evangelistic practices?
*What 'specific virtues' apply to Christian mission practice?  Development work?
*How will ethics understood as development of character within a given tradition and community be different from ethics understood in terms of making decisions?  (Decisionism: Deontological, Teleological/ Consequentialist, Situationist ethics)
*What individual virtues apply to Christians?  Paul speaks of 'gifts' rather than virtues, implying (a) human fallenness requires God's grace and (b) human virtue requires God's grace.
*How should we rank the virtues (which are primary and which secondary; e.g., in 1 Corinthians, Paul explains what a difference it makes if we prioritize freedom over love)?

3. Tradition.  Different crafts have different ends, values, virtues, obligations, rules, actions, etc.  There are even secrets kept by craftsmen for how they make their craft (hence the title 'mister' [mystery] for a craftsman).  Similarly, many ethicists argue, ethics is not universal but from within a certain tradition (cf. Alisdair MacIntyre).  Ethics is not first a question of what we should do but of who we should be as members of this community, with these determinative stories and authorities, practices, etc.  This different way of doing ethics opens up new ways to speak about the use of Biblical authority for Christian tradition: emphasis is placed not simply on rules for what we should do but on how Scripture defines our tradition and community (uses of Scripture: rules, principles, paradigms and narratives, and worldview).  E.g., narrative ethics emphasises the relation between the story-formed tradition and the ethic that derives from within that tradition.  E.g., debates about 'abortion' in America involve women's rights, since the American narrative is one about freedom and equality.  In communist countries, individual rights were eclipsed by community needs, and so abortion has to do with what will contribute to the work force, the community, the country.  In China, abortion also has to do with concerns about over population and the desire to have male children.  Each of these examples leads to a defense of abortion, but for very different reasons based on very different traditions within history and society.  Christian tradition defended the life of the unborn because it viewed life as God-given, and the early Church opposed all forms of killing (soldiering, serving as magistrates who could sentence people to death, abortion, infanticide).

So, e.g., we might ask if the Christian tradition informs Christian practices in communication:
* Reporting is not only reporting news; it is uncovering a tradition's assumed narrative and understanding how its virtues operate within that narrative and tradition.  Christian reporting will uncover the assumed tradition of society and challenge this with Christian tradition.
*How will being a member of a Christian community guide one to pursue certain stories/information and not others?  Tradition establishes agenda for inquiry.
*How will being a member of a Christian community guide one to communicate material a certain way?

What about Christian development practice?

4. Community. Even the same craft might be practised differently by different guilds.  'This is how we do things here.'  Ethics involves being shaped by and for a given community.  Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (cf. Plato's Republic) prepares people to live within the Greek city state; his virtues are those befitting such a society (they are not ‘absolute’ virtues fit for every society on earth).

*What does it mean to practice Christian development work within a Christian community, and how does development work with its virtues play a role in larger society?
*What does it mean to practice development work as a member of a Christian community while living in larger society?  H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture) spoke of five models for the relation of Church and culture: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ over culture, and Christ transforming culture.  What socio-political and theological factors come into play to direct our Christian involvement in society?
*What does it mean to practice one's craft within a guild/community?  Paul speaks of different gifts within the community, and seeking the good of the church community in practising one's gifts (1 Cor. 12-14).  Stanley Hauerwas says that the Church does not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic.  Many Christian ethicists like to speak of Kingdom ethics to capture the socio-political nature of Christian ethics (over against simply a personal ethic).  In such ways, the conversation about the relationship between community and ethics (including our practices, such as missions) has developed.

5. Friendship.  Aristotle discusses ethics primarily in terms of 'virtues' (books 2 - 7) and 'friendship' (books 8 - 9).  (Friendship is another aspect of life in community, and so it is mentioned here.  As an approach to ethics, it overlaps with a virtue ethic.)  Aristotle discusses three types of friendship: friendship for utility, pleasure, and of good people.  Virtue and friendship are related in the last instance of friendship: 'complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue' (NE, 9.35).  Aristotle also discusses friendship in families (cf. the NT's household codes).  Obligation derives from the friendships (relationships) we have.
Components of friendship (Aristotle): (1) doing things for the other's good (goodwill, concord, active and unselfish benevolence, self-love [loving a friend who is most a friend, a basis for making costly sacrifices for others]; (2) wishing the friend to be and live for his/her own sake; (3) spending time together; (4) making the same choices; (5) sharing in each other's distress and enjoyment (NE, 11.11).  Cf. Rom. 12.1-18; John 13-17.

*Some cultures emphasise friendship as a basis for relationships of all sorts: political leaders are 'benefactors' and parent figures; contracts are more oral than written and friendship is the basis of the relationship more than legal documents; tipping and bribery are aspects of relationships (gone wrong!) rather than legality.
*How does mission practice relate to 'friendship' and 'community' with respect to the church and society as a whole?
*What significance did Paul’s team approach to missions play in early Christian missions—and what role should it play today (often individuals are sent out as missionaries on their own; often the focus is on a task or project—what difference would it make to focus the emphasis on developing Christian friendship in the practice of missions and as the result of missions (=planting healthy church communities)?

6. Apprenticeship.  Those being initiated into a craft undergo an apprenticeship.  There is a need for a teacher or mentor.  Apprentices need models of good craftsmen and crafstmenship.  Apprentices learn to order their desires, develop the character befitting the task, practices that lead to high quality, etc.  The shaping of one's character (h;qoj) entails developing the right virtues for this guild (community) doing these particular things (practices).  Character is shaped by a certain collection of virtues, hierarchically arranged, and virtues are gained through habits ((e;qoj), which, in turn, are acquired through repeated actions (Aristotle, NE, 2.1).  In addition, there is also an artistic feel, gained over time, for a given trade.  So, there is a difference between mere practices and good performances of those practices.  Virtues of character are acquired through early habituation of one's desires, feelings, pleasures and pains (NE, 1104b11, 1179b24).  To a large extent, ethics is like a craft in requiring these features of an apprenticeship.  So, too, mission practices can be discussed with these same categories (in italics).

The NT barely uses the word 'virtue'.  Paul speaks of 'righteousness' or the 'fruit of the Spirit'.  Perhaps 'virtues' that one gains by oneself take too much emphasis off of what God accomplishes by his grace in us through Christ and the Spirit.  Jonathan Edwards spoke of this work of God in terms of an 'awakening'.  And yet 'righteousness' is not immediate: there is progressive sanctification as well as an 'already/not yet' aspect to Christian living between the first and second coming of Christ (cf. Phl. 3.12ff).  So, how do Christians 'train in godliness' (1 Tim. 4.7--here: teaching, example, Scripture reading, use of a gift for the church; cf. the 'theological virtues' of faith, love, and hope--e.g., 1 Th. 5.8)?  How do they develop 'holy or religious affections' (Jonathan Edwards: 'If we take the Scriptures for our rule, then the greater and higher our exercises of love to God, delight and complacency in him, desires and longings after him, delight in his children, love to mankind, brokenness of heart, abhorrence of sin, and self-abhorrence for it; the more we have of the peace of God which passeth all understanding, and joy in the Holy Ghost, unspeakable and full of glory; the higher our admiring thoughts of God, exulting and glorying in him; so much the higher is Christ’s religion, or that virtue which he and his apostles taught, raised in the soul' (Thoughts on the Revival I.II.I))?
Narrative ethics emphasises the importance of living in community to be able to visualise the embodiment of that narrative.  Role morality notes the importance of taking on a role within a community in order to learn, improve, and be shaped by the community's expectations and needs from one in that role.  Paul struggles with misunderstandings by others about how to define his apostolic role, preferring to understand this not in terms of 'leadership' but 'service', because the model for his ethic is the crucified Lord, Jesus Christ.

            *What sort of apprenticeship is required for mission practice?
*What sort of education in virtue is needed for our children so that they develop as apprentices in mission?  What action steps will we need to take to train children and youth in Christian virtues over against an increasingly hostile world to Christians that also entices us its own attractions?
*How do we learn to practice (as in craftsmanship) love, forgiveness, reconciliation?  How does mission practice place us in the role of apprenticeship in these virtues (or put us at odds with them!)?

7. Practices.  Craftsmanship is about the practice of a trade, with the understanding that there is an art to each trade.  When speaking of a Christian interest in 'reconciliation,' e.g., we may be concerned about troubled spots on the globe or broken marriages and relationships.  Yet there is more than an interest in the same product at stake in ethics: much of ethics is about the way in which this particular people practices what occupies them.  Narrative ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas are concerned to describe the practices of those in the peaceable kingdom of God.  As Christians concern themselves with reconciliation, how will Christian practice of this differ from what others mean by the same term?  One example, whether lauded or derided today, is that of the medieval Catholic penitentials laying out a way to practice reconciliation to God and the church.  This involved sorrow and repentance, acts of contrition, forgiveness, absolution, restoration--more than just saying 'sorry.'  A Pauline understanding of reconciliation involves one's relationship with God: he did not expect those outside Christ to practice it (e.g., Tit. 3.3-7; Eph. 2.1-10).  Ethics has to do with understanding not only how a community's narrative outlines a unique virtue ethic but also how a community's practices help develop and demonstrate these virtues (e.g., love and the practice of forgiveness, reconciliation, hospitality, humility).

*Mission practice is an ethic: what sort of people are we becoming in the practice of our mission?  (An extreme example might be the workaholic missionary who has little time for his family!)  How does this practice relate to the narrative and virtues of our Christian community?


Aquinas, Thomas.  Summa Theologica.
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.
Birch, Bruce and Larry Rasmussen.  Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life. Rev. ed.
Grenz, Stanley, J.  The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics.
Hays, Richard.  The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics.
Hauerwas, Stanley.  A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic.
Hauerwas, Stanley.  The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics.
MacIntyre, Alisdair.  Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.

Wilson, Jonathan R. Wilson.  Gospel Virtues: Practicing Faith, Hope and Love in Uncertain Times.