Friday, July 4, 2008

Response to Chris Little's "What Makes Missions Christian?"

This is my abbreviated response to Chris Little over his article "What Makes Mission Christian?" in the most recent issue of International Journal of Frontier Missions (

First, it does sound like you were “set up” in this issue and that is not right. At the same time I was taken aback by much of your language aimed at the opposition. You warned of the “horizontalization in mission” (67) and urged “recovering the doxological theme in mission” (69), reminding us that “mission is not undertaken for the welfare and glory of man” (70). Are you really willing to assert that “there is nothing particularly Christian about humanitarian work” (68)? That Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates are indistinguishable from Compassion and World Vision? Furthermore you drew several hard, fast lines between holism and a host of evangelical boogey-men: liberalism, Liberation Theology, annihilationism, inclusivism, and rice Christianity. I’m sure you could point to holistic ministries in each camp but to resort to over-generalized name calling is unfair, unhelpful, and will certainly break down lines of communication.

Second, and more to the point of the actual argument, I am uncomfortable about your portraits of Jesus and Paul. What do you really make of the nature of Jesus’ work? We cannot get around the fact that his miracles are almost entirely centered on restoring bodies. To try and distance him from that central, prophecy-fulfilling work is in danger of making his miracles into arbitrary magic tricks exclusively meant to draw crowds to hear his words – as if pulling a rabbit from his kippah would have worked just as well. As a side note, that brought out two interesting comments in your article. The first is that Jesus never did a miracle which did not lead to words. In reality, wherever you find a couple of paragraphs of black print together in the Gospels it’s usually Jesus doing without saying. The second statement was that ‘poor’ is not “simply a socio-economic term” (69). Granted poor, deaf, blind, dumb can all have spiritual meanings, they also have very literal, very powerful meanings as well including the Isaiah prophecy you referenced (Lk 4:18-19) which was literally being fulfilled by Jesus (Lk 7:21-23). We can safely assume literal poverty was what their money bag was for. I am not trying to play Jesus’ works off his words but simply saying the picture is far more complex than either side has a tendency of painting it.

Briefly on Paul, it is not true that he “seems purposefully to have avoided…personal charity” (67). He made much of his humanitarian aid to Jerusalem (Ac 24:17; Rom 15:25ff; 1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 8:1-4; 9:1-2, 12). Very interestingly, when he goes to compare his gospel with the apostles the thing James, Peter, and John challenge him on is not Romans Road but to “remember the poor”, which he is quick to assert is the “very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10). Of course, Paul’s calling and gifting distinguished him from the Stephen, Cornelius, Lydia, James, and Lukes of the NT but we cannot make the case that he did not capture God’s concern for the poor nor consider it fundamental to his mission – he did.

Third, (and I hate to use an over-played word you are probably exhausted of hearing) I am afraid that this might lead to a reductionistic view of mission (at least I didn’t say Platonic, Gnostic, or post-Enlightenment). True mission has always been more but certainly never less than answering the question of how one gets saved. At its best, mission must entail the full council of Christ, the message of resurrection and reconciliation, and planting communities who live as a powerful, subversive force here and now in light of the resurrection. It should come as a shock to our over-programmed senses that the only two formal offices in an institution bent on reaching the world are elders and deacons. How can we make mission any less than that?

Honestly I think prioritism is a bad question that has generated a hopeless debate. I would liken it to asking, Which is more important, evangelism or holiness? Or evangelism or theological education for that matter? You might be able to make a great case for one or the other but you are not going to be happy with the results. True, giving someone a loaf of bread is not the same as sharing the gospel (as George Verwer reportedly said), but sharing the gospel is not the same as giving a loaf of bread. Both neglectful Christians are disobedient.

At the end of the day I don’t have a problem with a clarion call to include the gospel at the forefront of all endeavors. It’s our lifeblood. But the way there cannot be through denigrating something so dear and so oft-repeated throughout the Scriptures.


Paul-David Young said...

amen and amen.

After reading that article I was shocked that that passed for scholarly academic writing. And yes it is, platonic, gnostic, and enlightenmentish... But you can't win in these discussions because you end up arguing against "the Gospel".

I also think it would be interesting to look at speech-act theory in relation to missiology.

david said...

The arguing against the gospel is exactly where this discussion always seems to go. The argument has been so entrenched into the question of which is more important that no one can say both are clear commands without being hijacked from either side.

I'm looking forward to your speech-act missiology.

joshua said...

I am not sure where to begin with this article by Chris Little. To be completely honest, while I have a few thoughts on the theological side of things, I am primarily saddened that this type of stuff is being taught at Columbia. I am even more shocked that it is endorsed by someone as influential (at least at CIU) as McQuilkin. My stomach hurt as I read the article.

Besides the rather large issues that you have already addressed (i.e. his selective and clearly questionable use of scripture, his poorly employed straw-man arguments, the overall quality of scholarship, etc) I have a few thoughts that are going through my head about this that I would like to send your way. Before I do though I also want to finish reading the replies and his final reply.

Lord, have mercy on us all.