If you want to cause a ruckus at Thanksgiving dinner, bring up politics. If you want to cause a ruckus at a church get together, bring up social justice. There’s so much confusion and debate over the church’s role in social justice issues that it doesn’t seem like more discussion is going to help resolve the tension. Nevertheless, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert enter the fray with What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. In this book, readers will find a careful, albeit almost too cautious, look at the mission of the church how to approach social justice faithfully.
Distinguishing Between Missions
DeYoung and Gilbert took a lot of heat over this book largely because of an important distinction they make in the book—that there is a difference between the work of God and the work of the Church. These missions are connected, obviously, but they’re not identical. The work of “salvation, restoration and re-creation” is the work of God alone—they are “divine gifts to which we bear witness, rather than works in which we collaborate” (p. 42). As they write elsewhere, “The story [of Scripture] is not about us working with God to make the world right again. It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with Him again” (p. 89).
Over and over again, the distinction appears and informs everything else in the book. God’s work and God’s people’s work are related, but different. We are not God’s partners in redeeming the world—we are witness to His redeeming work. God is the primary agent—He is building His kingdom; He is seeking and saving the lost; He will finally restore creation when Christ returns in glory. We are to proclaim the good news of what God is doing.
We are not called to bring a broken planet back to its created glory. But we are to call broken people back to their Creator. (p. 248)
This distinction leads to another necessary one, this time between individual Christians and the local church. Because there is a difference between the two, one cannot simply “say that whatever we see commanded of the individual Christian is also commanded of the local church” (p. 233). The mission of the church is far narrower than that of the individual believer (although, again, there is crossover). “[B]earing witness to Christ is the church’s unique responsibility in a way that film making or auto repair or tree planting is not, though all of these may be examples of ways in which an individual Christian follows Jesus.” It’s not that an individual’s calling is illegitimate by any means—it’s just not the mission of the church. The church’s mission is to proclaim, witness and make disciples (who are taught to obey all that Jesus has commanded).
Context Prevents Pretext
Where the book is really shines is in its careful biblical exposition. The authors handle the Scriptures with great care and reverence, and they provide much-needed depth to many of the more simplistic arguments made by some who would hold a different view than the one they advocate. One example comes from their explanation of the Greek word used in Luke 4:18 for “poor.” This word, they explain, almost certainly has reference to material poverty, but “has broader connotations and significance” (p. 38). Because the word is used in both figurative and literal terms, we have to be careful in evaluating the context.
For example, if “the poor” in Luke 4:18 “are literally the financially poor, then ‘the captives,’ ‘the blind,’ and ‘the oppressed’ should be taken literally as well. And yet there is no instance in the Gospels of Jesus setting a literal prisoner free. . . . Quite naturally, we understand captivity and oppression to include spiritual bondage. It is not inappropriate, then, to see a fundamental spiritual aspect to ‘the poor’ in Luke 4” (p. 39).
If this is the case (and I would certainly be in agreement with the authors on this point), then it means we must be very careful how we use passages like Luke 4, Isaiah 61 or even the oft-used (and sometimes abused) Isaiah 58 in rallying people to poverty-alleviation efforts. We have to examine the context; we need to take into account the truth that even when the Bible does speak of material need, it’s not divorced from the spiritual realities that surround it. This is a much needed corrective and one that I was greatly encouraged by.
Caveating and Clutter
One of the greatest strengths of What Is the Mission of the Church is also its greatest weakness. Because the authors are striving to be very cautious and careful in addressing some of the more creative approaches to the Church’s mission that have cropped up in recent years, there is a great deal of caveating. In one sense it makes sense. They don’t want to be misunderstood as merely paying lip service to good works or doing anything that would discourage “radical love and generosity for hurting people” (p. 24). Nowhere in this book do they advocate a view that suggests that it’s okay for Christians to be indifferent to the suffering around them, or to place evangelism in a privileged position, to retreat into holy huddles or to stop looking for ways to creatively love their neighbors. And yet this desire at times risks getting lost because of the repeated refrain of “here’s what we don’t mean.” I get the need to do this, but I can’t help but wonder if they were all necessary.
As a reader, I greatly appreciated the work done in What Is the Mission of the Church. DeYoung and Gilbert work hard to faithfully examine the Scriptures and come to a biblically grounded conclusion, one that doesn’t rely on the false hope of triumphalism, but the hope that is yet to come when Jesus brings about the new creation. As an author who has weighed in on this subject, I was encouraged to find DeYoung and Gilbert’s work to be a compliment to my own; I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but because it’s nice to know I’m not completely off my rocker. Finally, as one always trying to help others better understand this touchy subject, I’m grateful to have a book I can recommend that is biblically faithful, Christ exalting and appropriately motivational.
Title: What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission
Authors: Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
Publisher: Crossway (2011)
A complimentary copy was provided for review purposes by the publisher.