The Church 11: Christian Mission to the Post-Christian West
Early Christian mission was far more than a theological challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman belief systems. Our understanding of mission in terms of presenting a message about Jesus Christ and a challenge to believe that message to some extent accurately reflects the kind of missional preaching we find in the book of Acts. Yet Acts also tells us that early Christian mission was not merely about what one believed; it was also about repentance and the transformation of one’s life. Peter concludes the first missionary discourse in Acts by telling his audience what the expected response is to the Gospel message about Jesus Christ that he has just preached:
Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."
Indeed, early Christian mission was also a direct personal and social challenge to Jewish and Graeco-Roman society. Such challenges do not come without a hostile reaction from society.
In our day in Western society, there is a turning from what people have believed about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a rejection of the Christian way of life, and a hostility to orthodox Christians. In this context, Christian missionary efforts are hampered from some within the Church. Unbelievers are confused about what a Christian really is when persons (including scholars and ministers) teach against the Church’s long-held teaching and practices that are Biblically founded. At the same time, society at large has an increasing antagonism towards Christians themselves. The early Church, however, was able to advance the Church—its beliefs and ethics—in the context of antagonism and persecution.
The question for missions today is the one that the early Church had as well: ‘How should Christians engage in the Christian mission as they (1) present the message of the Gospel, (2) challenge social and ethical aspects of the culture, and (3) negotiate the Church’s own status in a somewhat hostile and post-Christian culture?’ This essay will address these questions in reverse order. The fact that the early Church was facing the same questions in its day should lead us back to the writings of the Church Fathers (to about the early 500s).
Proclaiming God’s Word in a Hostile Context
John the Baptist and Jesus
Proclamation of the Kingdom of God began during a time of foaming political and social unrest in Israel. The alternative ‘Kingdom of God’ was welcomed by average people as much as it was deemed insurrectionist by political rulers. John the Baptist and Jesus were both executed by the government—by Herod Agrippa and Pontius Pilate, respectively. John the Baptist met his death because his moral message (‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ Mark 1.4), when applied to King Herod Agrippa, was offensive. Herod had married his brother’s wife (Mark 6.18). He had actually divorced his first wife in the process, and so the wording in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ teaching on divorce could especially apply to Herod: ‘And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery’ (Matthew 19.9). Jesus’ death came at the hands of Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, and so it was a political matter. His message involved proclaiming the coming of God’s rule through him, and so he called people to believe this message and to believe in him. Yet his proclamation of the reign of God was also to a great extent a moral preaching, as John’s was. Jesus proclaimed, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1.15).
Faithful Jews and the Prophets of God of Whom the World Was Not Worthy
John the Baptist and Jesus were continuing a pattern set much earlier by Israel’s righteous martyrs and the prophets of God. 1 and 2 Maccabees tells the story of faithful Jews martyred for their faith in the 2nd c. BC. Books like Esther and Daniel tell of persecution during the earlier time of the exile. Still earlier, Isaiah understood his prophetic ministry to be one of constant opposition from the Jews themselves (Isaiah 6.9-10). Hebrews 11.35-38 summarizes the history of faithful Jews, persecuted for their faith, and it in particular has the prophets in view.
Hebrews 11:35-38 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Isaiah, for example, was said to have been arrested by King Manasseh and sawn in two while false prophets and leaders exulted (Martyrdom of Isaiah 5 and Lives of the Prophets, both from c. AD 100). The Lives of the Prophets also tells of the deaths of other prophets, several of whom were martyred:
· Jeremiah was stoned to death in Egypt by Jews
· Ezekiel was killed by Jewish leaders in Babylonian exile because he accused them of idolatry
· Micah was thrown from a cliff by King Joram because he accused him of following in the wicked ways of his father King Ahab
· Amos was often beaten by Amaziah, priest of Bethel, and finally delivered a deadly blow with a cudgel by Amaziah’s son
· Zechariah son of the priest, Jehoidah (cf. 2 Chronicles 24.20), was killed (stoned) beside the altar by King Joash because he said, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you’ (2 Chron. 24.20)
The Early Church
Persecuted Christians found themselves picking up the narrative of the persecuted righteous, of whom the world was not worthy. Contrary to Christians with a Christendom narrative, they did not see themselves as a majority maintaining control of a culture, or as a group that needs to try to regain recently lost authority. They saw themselves as a moral, persecuted minority.
Paul went so far as to say, ‘Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Timothy 3.12). The emphasis for Paul is not on what one believes but how one lives (eusebōs) in this passage, although it would be wrong to make too much of a distinction between theology and ethics. The early Church faced waves of local and universal persecution until the Emperor Constantine in AD 312. Nearly 300 years of persecution gave rise to an ‘apologetic’ literature that sought to explain Christianity to the larger society. Learning to articulate the faith in a hostile context is something that the Church in our day needs to practice because nothing can still be assumed on the part of the larger culture. That is, the Church is increasingly at odds with Western culture, and we need to learn how to dialogue intelligently with the newly emerged, post-Christian culture.
Teaching God’s Righteousness in an Amoral or Immoral Culture
Where Christianity is coming into conflict with Western culture most is in the area of social and personal ethics. Beliefs are, peculiarly, often considered private and independent from behaviour, and so the focus is more on Christian social and personal ethics by Western culture. The early Church found particular opposition to its sexual ethics, refusal to abort or kill children, distancing itself from the gods of the age and social practices associated with them (socially correct worship in a given city and religious engagement in festivities), and Christians’ refusal to serve in the military. Oddly, in my view, the last of these is not on the agenda of many American Christians. Yet in many of the issues facing the Church, Christians today are once again finding themselves having to proclaim a message of righteousness that cuts right into the social and personal morality of contemporary culture. Mission in Western countries, then, needs to be understood more and more as a message about a transformed life. In a culture that values tolerance of any view (allegedly!—we know this is not really so) and that reductionistically determines most every ethical issue in terms of a single value—freedom or right—does not want to tell people that their choices are wrong or that they can and should change.
In the early Church, however, teaching a new morality was part of mission. Jesus’ Great Commission focussed on preaching the morality of the Kingdom of God. He said to his disciples that they were to teach the nations everything that he had commanded them (Matthew 28.20). Such a concept of a moral mission was much earlier seen as the role of Israel, to whom, one day, the nations would stream to learn righteousness (Is. 2.1-4). Peace was not conceived as learning to live and let live, to allow various ethical beliefs to coexist. Unity was not found in the tolerance of plurality but in teaching the One God’s commandments. Turning to God was not merely a belief system but also a new righteousness according to God’s Law. Israel’s failure at the time of the early Church was a general failure to live up to the Law of God that it acknowledged—the problem was not a work’s righteousness but a sinfulness despite acknowledging the Law. Non-Jews, who did not know God’s Law, needed to be taught to live righteously.
So it is not at all surprising to learn that Paul’s missionary proclamation of the Good News was followed by teaching about God’s righteousness. We see this approach to ministry through a study of Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians. According to Acts, Paul was only in the city of Thessalonica for three Sabbaths (Acts 17.1-2). Having left the city in haste and under hostility, Paul wrote two letters to the young Christians. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul admonishes them to abide by the teaching that he had given them in the short time that he was with them. He begins with these words,
1 Thessalonians 4:1-2 Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
We see, then, that Paul had incorporated moral instruction in his evangelistic ministry in the city. Moreover, the following verses give us clues as to what the content of that teaching was:
· Sexual ethics (4.2-8)
· Community ethics (love, 4.9-10)
· Social ethics (how to live as believers in the larger society, 4.11-12)
In a post-Christian culture in particular, the Church’s evangelistic mission needs to be followed by ethical teaching. Elsewhere Paul states that Christians should not judge the non-Christian world for its ethics but should judge those who claim to be fellow-Christians. He says,
1 Corinthians 5:12-13 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13 God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you.
Binding oneself to a Christian Church is not merely a matter of beliefs and community. It is also a matter of following a Christian way of life, of pursuing a life of righteousness and walking in the ways of the Lord. Mission does not end with proclamation of Good News but with transformed lives.
To be sure, Paul found that he could, to some extent, find agreement with non-Christians. One example is the issue of homosexuality, which Paul saw as a fundamental disregard of God’s intentions in creation. This view, that there was natural sex between a man and a woman and unnatural sex between two persons of the same sex, could also be found in Stoicism (see Musonius Rufus and Epictetus). Paul’s agreement with Stoicism extends to the view that what is natural is so precisely because God made it that way. Thus his comments on homosexuality in Rom. 1.24-28 have a strongly creational focus that began in v. 18 with reference to unnatural worship (idolatry). A second example is in Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17.22-31). In this speech, Paul is able to find connections to the beliefs of Athenians, to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in particular. However, any agreement found in the overlap of general teaching is soon lost when he introduces particular teaching about Jesus Christ—specifically his resurrection from the dead. The Church did not and will not find itself opposed to all non-Christian teaching and moral behaviour, but such overlap is limited. Christian teaching about God’s righteousness begins from an entirely different basis, for it is a teaching of what Scripture says about living in a way that pleases God. It is not a reasoning from general principles but a very particular teaching about how we should live.
Witnessing of the Gospel to a Postmodern Culture
Peter famously directed believers ‘Always [to] be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3.15). He continues with a word about how to do this: ‘yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame’ (1 Peter 3.16). The disciplinary and confrontational approach to sin within the Church noted above in Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5 is not to be the approach to outsiders. The difference is one of dealing with hypocrites (people claiming to be Christians and wanting to associate with the Christian community but living contrary to Christian teaching) versus dealing with people living consistently according to their non-Christian beliefs. In the latter case, says Peter, gentle and reverential discourse is appropriate. This is no matter of tolerance of non-Christian views in the postmodern sense—that is, an acceptance of all views as equally valid and acceptable, of seeing truth as constructed and therefore diverse and localized (different groups having their own ‘truth’). It is, rather, a matter of appreciating that people behave certain ways because they have certain beliefs. Christian mission entails an invitation (not coercion) to change one’s core beliefs and, consequently, one’s ethics.
When Christians attempt to gain control of society’s beliefs and behaviours, they operate from a Modernist understanding that expects to obtain uniformity through the use of power (such as laws passed by the legislature or interpreted by the courts). Christians can witness to others through sharing their beliefs and living a different life, but this witnessing approach to evangelism is not a controlling approach. The early Church teaches us how to live as a minority in society—through witness, not entitlement or coercive power. This is not to say we should not exercise our vote for what we believe is right. If democracy invites us to vote, then we should vote our consciences. Yet the early Church was able to change society in radical ways through its witness and without any voting rights. It was able to do so in the context of persecution. The quotations from Peter given above continue in the next verse with his expectation that Christians will suffer as they put forward an explanation of their faith: ‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17).
One of the great ironies of contemporary, Western society is its schizophrenic affirmation of both a tolerance for diversity and an intolerance of Christianity. This makes some sense, since Christians are rightly seen to affirm ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4.4-6). This, from a postmodern perspective, amounts to a ‘totalizing narrative’ that excludes the conflicting diversity that it wants to celebrate. Of course, by ejecting Christian faith from the public square, postmodernity also reduces its claim of diversity to absurdity. Its attempt to affirm diversity simply dissolves into an ultra-Modernist, totalizing agenda, a political correctness that leads to persecution of Christians—as we already see.
How, then, do Christians explain the hope they have in such a context? This great missional challenge to Western Christians has been answered in a variety of ways, to be sure. Increasingly, old mainline denominations have sought to do so by adopting the agenda of the culture itself. Jettisoning Biblical authority and the Church’s teaching through the centuries, they have taken on the causes of liberal culture. They become communities that can advocate for and practice a script handed them by the culture. Another approach has been for some conservative Christians, as has been said already, to try to regain the reins of power. This explains a blanket support of any military action that the government takes, seeing the best way to bring about change as through the legislature, trying to get prayer back in schools when most students do not pray, and so forth. This power approach to social transformation will not work, but it should not in any case. What we can learn from the early Church is a better way to engage our postmodern culture: through witness. We do need to learn to express the faith clearly and unreservedly in a hostile context, even in the context of persecution. And we need to learn how to live in such a way—personally and communally—that our lives are a gentle and respectful challenge to the world. Ultimately, of course, Christianity is not successful because of its growth in numbers and control of culture but because of the integrity of its witness.
Contemporary mission to the West has similarities to the early Christian mission. For a long time, Christians used the term ‘mission’ to refer mostly to foreign missions. That was because believers saw themselves as a ‘Christian’ society that sent missionaries to non-Christian lands. Now, however, the West is post-Christian. It finds itself in the situation of the early Church, with its mission to a pre-Christian world. This essay has explored the mission to the West in broad strokes with some comparison to the early Church—so much more could be said. It has done so by looking at proclamation of the Gospel in a hostile context, teaching righteousness in an amoral or immoral context, and witnessing the Gospel rather than using power and coercion.