Christopher J.H. Wright on “False Dichotomies of Mission”

Christopher J.H. Wright, author of numerous books although most notably The Mission of God, was recently asked (here and here) on Koinonia (Zondervan Academic blog) the question,

“In what way have we as evangelical Christians failed to grasp or live out the fullness of God’s missional intent? How (if at all) has our theology of evangelism been weak?”

Summarily speaking, Wright believes evangelicals have created false dichotomies and separated things that ought to be kept together because the Bible keeps them together; furthermore, evangelicals have given priority of one over the other.  The five specific areas are noted below, including what Wright sees as “regrettable bad results.”

1. We have tended to separate the individual from the cosmic and corporate impact of the gospel, and to prioritize the first. That is, we put personal salvation and individual evangelism at the centre of all our efforts, (and of course individual evangelism is an essential part of our commitment).

The church is not just a container for souls till they get to heaven, but the living demonstration of the unity that is God’s intention for creation, in itself a ‘preaching’ to the principalities and powers because of what God has accomplished and proved in the creation of ‘one new humanity’ in Christ. . . . The bad result of this weakened theology is that Christians evangelized by such a truncated version of the biblical gospel have little interest in the world, the public square, God’s plan for society and the nations, and even less understanding of God’s intention for creation itself. The scale of our mission efforts therefore is in danger of being a lot less than the scope of the mission of God.

2. We have tended to separate believing from living the gospel, and to prioritize the first.  That is, we seem to think that there can be a belief of faith separate from the life of faith, that people can be saved by something that goes on in their heads, without worrying too much about what happens in their lives. So long as they have prayed the right prayer and believed the right doctrine, nothing else ultimately matters, or at least, whatever happens next is secondary and distinct.

The bad result of this dichotomy is that we have people called believers and evangelicals, whose actual lives are indistinguishable from the culture around them – whether in terms of moral standards, or social and political attitudes and actual behaviour.

3. We have tended to separate evangelism and discipleship, and to prioritize the first. . . . It has been said, the New Testament is written by disciples, for disciples, to make disciples. Yet our emphasis has often been on getting decisions and converts, making Christians. Actually the word Christian occurs 3 times in the New Testament, whereas the word ‘disciple’ occurs 269 times.

The bad result of separating them and prioritizing the first is shallowness and immaturity and vulnerability to false teaching, church growth without depth, and rapid withering away (as Jesus warned in the parable of the sower).

4. We have tended to separate word and deed, or proclamation and demonstration, and to prioritize the first. But again, both are essential and integral to the presentation of the gospel, and to bringing about the obedience of faith among all nations.

The bad result of this separation is that our evangelistic efforts are sometimes derided by the world, because people discern the hypocrisy of those who talk a lot but whose lives don’t support what they say. Lack of integrity in this area has been identified by various researches as the major obstacle to the acceptance of the message of the gospel.

5. We have tended to separate evangelism from ecclesiology, and to prioritize the first.  That is, when we talk about “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world”, we see the church only as a delivery mechanism, a postman delivering a letter.

The bad result of this is that the church itself can be riddled with sin, idolatry, abuses, and disunity, but we don’t care very much, so long as evangelism carries on. . . . If we are to be good news and to preach good news, we must seek a greater humility, repentance and return to the Lord. If we are to introduce Christ to the world we must look like the Christ we represent. So the call for integrity, Christlikeness, unity, etc., within the church, as part of a more robust understanding of what the church is meant to be, is an essential part of our missional task.

I appreciate the careful critique by Wright on evangelical mission, and while I agree with him on much of what he has said, at the same time some of his comments do make me feel uncomfortable.  Should we place an emphasis or give priority to something like the proclamation of the gospel message when compared to doing good deeds, knowing that good deeds cannot alone be a sufficient means to bring about the salvation of a sinner?  Furthermore, it is possible in the conflation of the gospel messages and the implications therein to make them indistinguishable?  Certainly there is a distinction between the ethical outworking of the gospel and the effectual inbreaking of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work of opening eyes and causing hearts to believe.

When it comes to the most blatant errors of evangelical mission, I agree with Wright on the unhelpful dichotomies that have been created.  On the other hand, the subtle errors of evangelical mission could be even more damning if, for instance, the corporate impact of the gospel minimizes or diminishes the absolute necessity of personal and individual responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.

A charitable look at Wright’s analysis is simply to have a healthy and robust mission that is not governed by the contours of Western idealogy or conservatism idealism but a relentlessly biblical approach to mission.  The gospel has been truncated in our day, and the mission of God has been often times been misunderstood because of an unsuspecting cultural consciousness imposed on the authority of biblical revelation.  More discussion and probing examination to what we believe and how we live out the mission is certainly needed, and I’m grateful for Wright’s contributions.

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8 Comments on “Christopher J.H. Wright on “False Dichotomies of Mission””

  1. Bryant King Says:

    I am going to break my self imposed rule of not revealing my ignorance on blogs and respond to this one.

    I think the strength of Wright’s 4th point, is his 5th point, and I think discomfort with his 4th point will be resolved with a resolve to see his 5th point fulfilled.

    I strongly wonder if we aren’t reading into Scripture so much of our American(?) autonomous “Army of One” mentality when it comes to preparing disciples. If we are looking to raise up single person, fully autonomous, completely self-contained evangelobots I think we are typically going to come up short. Depending on how individuals are gifted, they will play different roles in the body. I am thinking of Ephesians 4: 1-16

    To take the analogy of the body perhaps one step too far I think sometimes the mouth of the body looks at the hands and wonders why they aren’t speaking more, and it wishes the hands would quit slapping it and telling it to help out more. Meanwhile, the hands of the body is angered that the mouth doesn’t help out more and is tired of the mouth gnawing on the hands and telling them to speak more. My illustration may be silly, but I think it plays out in American Christianity. I am becoming increasingly convinced that the answer is not just better prioritized and trained individuals, but a more cohesive, cooperative body. I think this is what Wright is suggesting.

    In my mind, Ephesians 4:16 solidifies it for me: “from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

    Of course, I could just be reading my biases and misunderstandings into his essay.

    Bryant King

  2. Todd Benkert Says:

    “In the Church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary. World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.”
    — Luasanne Covenant, Paragraph 6 —

    “Seldom if ever should we have to choose between satisfying physical hunger and spiritual hunger, or between healing bodies and saving souls, since an authentic love for our neighbour will lead us to serve him or her as a whole person. Nevertheless, if we must choose, then we have to say that the supreme and ultimate need of all humankind is the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and that therefore a person’s eternal, spiritual salvation is of greater importance than his or her temporal and material well-being.”
    — Lausanne Occasional Papers #21, Part 4, D —

  3. Stuart Says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Wright views election in a more corporate sense similar, I think, to Newbigin. The working out of that view is probably where we who hold to a “Reformed” faith might get uncomfortable with Wright, when so much of else of what he says would normally resonate.

    Personally, I’ll err on the side of the “charitable” look at Wright, as I’m more than a little bit grateful for his body of work.

  4. Alan Cross Says:

    Our uncomfortableness with Wright might come from exactly what he is opposing: a false dichotomy between word and deed. Everytime someone starts talking about good works, we get scared that they are diminishing the preaching and believing of the gospel as necessary for salvation. We continue to react to the liberal social gospel to our own harm. I like Chris Wright a lot and have read a couple of his books. He presents a positive approach to God’s saving work and the implications of the gospel (never confusing the two but also not making the implications optional). He presents a very positive both/and scenario and I think that he should be listened to from what I have read (I haven’t read all that he has written – just parts, but his thesis seems appropriate).

    Thanks for linking to this.

  5. Chris Says:

    Thanks for this. I found both Wright’s material and your interaction profitable.

  6. I think to come to the proper conclusion on the issues that Wright has taken up, we have to look at ultimate purposes for this creation. Vos and Edwards both did a good job at this in the past. Ephesians 3 says that everything was created so that the church could display the manifold wisdom of God. So if we start with anything other than rescuing people from this fallen world and delivering them to the age to come, then we’ll go astray. We’re on a rescue mission plain and simple. Discipleship is the ongoing process of getting delivered from this age to the next.

    I like to illustrate this using the Titanic. Once the ship hit the iceberg, that was it – life was unalterably interrupted. The main mission from that point on was getting people off the ship (personal salvation). However, if someone was running around freezing on deck while the lifeboats were being filled, surely he should be given a blanket (act of loving service). And if while the lifeboats were being loaded, an evil man tried to take advantage of the situation by trying to violate another person, then he should be restrained or punished (order and justice). Neither helping others with practical needs, nor maintaining order and justice replaces the rescue mission in priority.

  7. […] a comment » An interesting couple of posts (highlighted by Timmy Brister) in which Christopher Wright (author of The Mission of God and The God I Don’t Understand) […]

  8. Jack Horton Says:

    I believe Wright was at his best when he addressed the ongoing (30 years) debate over the primacy of evangelism in his book, Mission of God. He takes the discussion to a whole new level with his preference for the term “ultimacy” over “primacy”. I believe a reveiw of this section of his book will address your concerns.

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