World Evangelism or World Change?
A Call to Revive the Biblical Understanding of Missions
Tübingen – Pentecost 2013
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you:
and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
On 1 and 2 March 2013 a symposium was held in Gomaringen near Tübingen. It was dedicated to the memory of Prelate Rolf Scheffbuch, a promoter of the Missions Movement, who had been called home on 10 November 2012. The following mission-theological declaration was issued. Now, at Pentecost, we address ourselves to all Christians who are committed to Mission and Evangelism.
Ever since the beginning of Church History, Pentecost has meant world Evangelism. The ascended Lord, having received the Holy Spirit from the Father, sent Him as promised to His disciples (Luke 24:47-48; Acts 1:8) to equip them for the Great Commission – to take the Gospel to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), so that the pagans, too, should receive salvation from sin, death and the devil which Christ accomplished at the Cross and by His resurrection.
We welcome the increasing world-wide search for new ways of mission for our time. We rejoice at reports from all parts of the world which mark an awakening of evangelistic responsibility in winning the hitherto unreached for Christ as their Lord and Redeemer. We especially think of the Martyrs who gave their lives for their courageous testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and still do so today.
At the same time, we are concerned that the Evangelical Theology of Missions is beginning to neglect its Biblical roots. Step by step it is aligning itself with the view of Missions held by the World Council of Churches. Ever since New Delhi, 1961, this has been based on secular ecumenical and political theologies. The history of Redemption and the history of the world, both seeking to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, have been inadmissibly intertwined. Since, in the past two decades, the WCC has used language more in line with the Biblical one of the evangelicals, parts of the evangelical movement have also followed this new trend, both worldwide and in the German realm. With this public declaration we now raise a warning voice against this, as we did during previous Mission crises through the Frankfurt Declaration of 1970 and the Lausanne Commitment of 1974.
“Transformation” as the New Topic of Evangelical Mission Theology
Ever since the World Council of Churches’ Third General Assembly in New Delhi, 1961, a modern understanding of Missions has developed within the WCC through the influence of secular ecumenical and political theologies. Due to the influence of “radical evangelicals” originally from Latin America, this is increasingly being adopted also by the evangelical side.
The contemporary theological thinking of Evangelicals ranges between the proclamation of salvation in Christ on the one hand, and the changing of society on the other. The latter understanding of Mission is called “ganzheitlich”, “holistic”, incarnatory.” Many missiologists now serve in terms of a “missional theology.” This is based on the view that all functions of the Church, including its social and political responsibilities, plus dialogue with other religions, are determined by its total mission in the world which is to establish the promised “Kingdom of God”.
In this connection the word “transformation” is a key concept which was hitherto unknown to many Christians. Today it is a leading idea not only in the WCC but also in the world wide evangelical Mission movement. Because of its increasing prevalence it needs to be urgently clarified. The word “transformation” as such comes from the Latin ‘transformare’ (remodel, recast, redesign). “Transformation” in the sense of changing social and political structures is not a Biblical concept. Its Biblical meaning most closely corresponds to the Greek metamorphóo (change) (Matthew 17:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). It signifies the change brought about by the Holy Spirit through rebirth and sanctification, but not a change of earthly social conditions.
In recent times the Biblical and early Church concept of “transformation” was taken up again and willfully reinterpreted by the New Age Movement in an evolutionary sense. In a New Age, mankind is to be developed into a higher race, and a New World Order is to be established. This development, they claim, will take place automatically; but enlightened people can and should accelerate it by helping to bring about the “transformation” of all areas of life, i.e. of society, politics, culture, psychology, marketing and medicine.
It is deemed important to have a world-wide network of individuals and groups who will work for transformation through a meditative “extension of consciousness.” At the end of this universal transformation a world government would be established, which would bring universal peace on earth. Hence, the concept of “transformation” which was first adopted by the neo-evangelical movement in North America, is dangerously loaded.
The fact that the Neo-Evangelicals found the concept of a societal transformation useful is because, since the last quarter of the 20th century, “Kingdom Theology” asserted itself in major parts of the American mission movement, while the Missions Theology which focussed on personal conversion and the planting of churches was pushed aside. One facet of this “Kingdom of God Theology” is Dominion Theology. It arose from the older tradition of Post-Millennialism, i.e. the conviction that the messianic Kingdom of peace which Jesus proclaimed and initiated, the Millennium of Revelation 20:1-6, would be established on earth before His return.
These ideas have now been taken over by German speaking authors of the Transformation Theology and are being spread through their publications and teachings at evangelical mission seminaries and colleges. Organisations such as the German “Micha-Initiative” are putting them into practice and making them into a new mission programme. This is what Rolf Scheffbuch protested against, supported by a few other Pietistic theologians, among them Helmut Engelkraut. For here mission would be linked, he felt, to political aims of a utopian nature (e.g. halving world poverty by the year 2015!), which would overtax the missionaries in terms of work and financial resources to the detriment of more urgent evangelism.
Representatives of the “Transformation Movement” have attracted attention through an impressive series of publications and conferences, such as the youth conference “Mission-Net” of the European Evangelical Alliance (Motto: “Transforming Our World”) and have become widely known. That makes a theological critique of Transformation Theology imperative. For it actually affects missionary practice. Economic and social projects supplant evangelistic proclamation. Most of the Transformation theologians, though, do affirm the latter in principle.
In spite of this we observe with concern that in their publications, next to the proclamation of the Gospel, social and possibly political action is presented as equally important, if not preferred as an expression of the Gospel and the kingly rule of God. Through this widening of the concept of mission, the soteriological, i.e. the dimension of the Gospel which is focussed on eternal life, namely the salvation brought by Jesus through His atoning death, does not remain unaffected. On the contrary, in theory as well as in missionary practice the salvation of the soul takes second place to the creation of better social and economic conditions.
Transformation Theology – Its Understanding of Scripture
Transformation theologians do affirm in principle the trustworthiness and reliability of the Holy Scriptures. Nevertheless, a dangerous change of course concerning the exposition of Scripture can be observed. It is the “contextual hermeneutic” which seeks to understand a text from its context (the context in which people find themselves), in this case the social and political situation. The problem is that Biblical texts are then read using such contextual methods of interpretation, as we have seen them from Liberation and Feminist Theologies. The social and political situation of the readers of the Biblical texts thus provides the key to interpretation.
Part of this is a certain use of the Old and New Testaments. Arbitrarily chosen historic events of the Old Testament, especially the liberation of Israel from Egypt and the prophetic sermons against misuse of power and injustice are regarded as “paradigm” models to be imposed upon today’s mission of the Church.
With this, the basis of classical Evangelical Scripture interpretation is abandoned. As we know, Jesus Christ and His salvation are at the centre of the Holy Scriptures. He Himself provides the key as to how the Old Testament should be understood in relation to Him (Luke 24:27,45; see Acts 13:47; 2 Corinthians 1:20).
The consequence of a contextual understanding of Holy Scripture among transformation theologians is that Man with his problems and wishes becomes the centre, not God who in the Scriptures reveals His actions in judgment and mercy. When the Biblical text is read only in terms of today’s context, then it can no longer show what it really intended to say.
The Image of Jesus in Transformation Theology
Contextual Bible interpretation has major consequences for Christology, i.e. the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus the Christ. The presentation of the central content of the Christian faith determines the total understanding of the Church and its “missional” existence.
Christological viewpoints are at times expressed by all authors of the Transformation Theology. But what interests them most, is the humanity of Jesus and His devoted service in the social needs of this world. At the same time His Divinity, as emphasized particularly in the Gospel of John (John 1:1-14; 2:28) and formulated by the Early Church in its foundation Creeds of Nicea 325 and Chalcedon 451 is largely obliterated. According to these the Son of God is of one nature with God the Father and in His Person both natures, the Divine and the human, are inseparably united.
Now the miracle of the Incarnation of God is called “incarnatory” and plays an important role in the contemporary understanding of the New Evangelical Movement. However, what is meant is not so much the singular miracle of the Incarnation of the eternal Logos in the Person of the Christ. Rather, in what could be called an “Example-Christology” it is emphasised that the Incarnate Jesus Christ has made Himself a servant and led a life of service in the needs of mankind.
Certainly, Jesus of Nazareth called on men to follow Him, and in His sermons and teachings he did lay the foundations of a Christian ethic. However, we need to understand that the matchless Incarnation of the eternal Word of God (John 1:14), His once for all sacrificial death, and His Ascension to the throne of God set up a barrier against an “imitatio Christi”. His atoning sacrifice on the Cross to take away our guilt cannot be imitated. In the sense of a Biblical-Reformed understanding of salvation it is inadmissible to change the “Christ for us” to a one-sided “We for Christ”, for then the Gospel would become a new Law. (Could this last sentence be rephrased to make it clearer?)
Today the Christian Mission Movement is in danger, through such contextualisation, to be led to follow a false Jesus. That is why we warn in the words of the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11:3-4): “But I fear… your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.”
Church for the World
As in the case of Christology, the doctrine of the nature and work of God’s Son Jesus Christ also directly affects Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. Where Jesus Christ is primarily regarded as the servant of the world in its needs, there the Church is also regarded only in terms of its service to world transformation. That means that the function of the Church becomes more important than its nature.
As we know from the New Testament, the nature of the Church consists in its intimate relationship with the ascended Christ, like members of a body to their head (1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). Through a new birth believers become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and escape the corruptions of the world.
Through God the Son the Church is also in close communion with the two other persons of God. She is the people of God and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
In Transformation Theology, on the other hand, the Church is seen and valued in another perspective. Here she is called to devote herself totally to service in the world and to strive for economic, social and political change, so that in this way the Kingdom of God might be made manifest step by step.
Among the Neo-Evangelicals of the USA there has been a similar development. There the Dominion Theology claims that Churches and Christians are tasked to build the Kingdom of God even in this dispensation. This idea is also held by the “Emergent Church.” It is seen as the new “Paradigm” of a “missional Church” for the post-modern 21st century. In this the Church regards itself as God’s instrument of His Kingdom plan. However, He could just as well use other instruments for this, such as non-Christian religions and political-social movements whose members might be atheists!
Transformation Theologians formally hold to the threefold basic tasks of the Church: Leiturgia, Diakonia and Martyria (worship, welfare and witness). But one notices that even in this the worship of the Church is being redefined to mean involvement in changing the world to bring about the Kingdom of God. Likewise, Mission is not so much the offer to heathens to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal life through conversion and faith in the atoning work of Christ at the Cross. Instead, it becomes a call to aid the building of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
How differently do the New Testament Scriptures describe the nature and task of the Church: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
God’s Visibly Growing Kingly Rule
Within the context of Transformation Theology the concept of the Kingdom of God has central place, albeit in almost exclusively this-worldly dimensions. God’s Kingly rule, it claims, would be extended here and now, in this world, through the “social transformatory task” of Missions. The Kingdom of God could be seen wherever the “values of the Kingdom” asserted themselves and overcame injustice, oppression, exploitation, and structures hostile to life. This applied even to non- and extra-Christian processes. With such claims the “eschatological realism” of the Bible is being overlooked, i.e. the prophecies about end times events: the maturation of evil, the empire of Antichrist, the world’s end and the Last Judgment. If all this is changed into this-worldly programmes, then the Church is deprived of its chief Mission task, the proclamation of the Gospel to those who are far from Christ.
Evangelistic Proclamation and Social Responsibility
in Missions Past and Present
Our criticism of Transformation Theology is not directed against its call to the social responsibility of Missions. We are not against works of love, but well against the massive shift of priority from proclamation to social responsibility; for by this the Gospel threatens to become an ideological programme. We grant Transformation Theologians their justified concern that conversion, change and discipleship have social, ethical and structure changing consequences. But we oppose the projected impression that Man is the “Maker” of the Kingdom of God and that his salvation would be, as it were, made manifest only through his deeds. This would amount to a new “salvation by works”.
Certainly, Christian Mission should let people, who are suffering poverty and other needs, feel God’s mercy and care through kindly deeds of love. Certainly, through tangible Christian social and welfare acts the Kingdom of God can sometimes be a visible sign. However, such positive changes can, in the changing course of world history also disappear again. Alarmingly this is shown in the present rapid decline of values in the Christian occident.
At the beginning of the modern Missions movement, the Lutheran, Pietistic and Evangelical Missions knew how important social and ethical action was. However they held to Luther’s doctrine of God’s two kinds of rule, to the right and to the left, i.e. the Church and the State, as also the Reformed distinction of the two Mandates, the Cultural and the Missionary Mandates. This kept them safely protected from the error of mixing up social well-being and spiritual Redemption, as the revolutionary fanatics did at the time of the Reformation.
Under these requirements Christian missionaries of all denominations have achieved remarkable feats in Afrika and Asia in the fields of education, medicine and economics. They produced fruit also by remarkable social improvements right up to the ordering of state structures. For all of them the desire to call lost people to conversion and faith in the Gospel, and opening for them the way to eternal Life, was their first priority.
That is why we too, in our missionary work, may never neglect the most important thing that we as messengers of Jesus should bring to all men: the offer of reconciliation with God on the basis of the atoning death of Jesus on the Cross and the assurance of eternal life through His Resurrection from the dead.
Thus the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation in Christ remains the primary task of Missions and Evangelisation. Rolf Scheffbuch was once asked: Is the deed as important as the Word? He pointedly replied:
“Good deeds may never become a front for Christians, who hope to be more respected. Rather, let us point men to the ‘work of Christ,’ and let that be the deciding factor. The ‘word’ of the Jesus-message can not be replaced by anything – not even the most loving deed of mercy.”
The Coming of the Kingdom of God in Biblical Perspective
“The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 14:17) – “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope.” (Romans 8:22-24a)
The promised Kingdom of God cannot yet be fully realised under the conditions of fallen creation. To overlook this was the error of the Social-Gospel Movement. Similarly, the ecumenical humanisation programmes later went the wrong way. For in their association with liberal theology and the programme of demythologisation, they did not take seriously the basic affirmations of Biblical Redemption.
This had to lead to a cooling off of evangelistic zeal. Today Evangelical Missions are in the same danger if they embrace programmes which are called “ganzheitlich, holistic, incarnatory” or even transformative Mission, and in which the concerns for the physicial and social wellbeing of man threaten to outshine the eternal salvation of man.
This is no judgment on the good intentions of their advocates. However, we must seriously consider that which the Holy Scriptures say about the sinfulness of the human heart and the residual destructive power of the devil, the prince of this world. That is why a salvation oriented Mission must, in the face of utopian progress ideologies, assert the truth of Biblical prophecy. Only the returning Christ will completely remove the present influence of the remaining demonic “powers and principalities” (2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 19:20).
In Ephesians 6:10-17, Paul describes his mission as a fight in which the Church must take part. That is why our participation in God’s Trinitarian Mission has, apart from a soteriological, salvation promoting task, also a fighting “exorcist” side, in which it declares the victory of Christ over all powers of destruction (Matthew 10:1; Mark 16:17; 2 Corinthians 10:4).
Positively, however, we can rely on the bright promises regarding the Biblical end times. The returning Christ shall, after the destruction of the world domination of Antichrist, establish His Kingdom, and the Father will create the new Heaven and the new earth where all suffering has ceased and justice will reign (Revelation 21:1-8; 22:1-5).
In the second Epistle of Peter (chapter 3:11-13) we read: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
We encourage, motivate and call all Christians to renew the classic Biblical salvation-historical view of Missions. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the German Evangelical Missions Theology has tried again and again to fulfill its calling by contributing its salvation based understanding of Missions in critical and constructive ways to the international Missions movement, both ecumenical and – increasingly today – Evangelical.
Since Uppsala 1968 this tradition has continued as regards the general assemblies and Mission conferences of the WCC, as also the three Lausanne Congresses. This was done among other things through submissions made by the Tübingen Institute of Missiology and Ecumenical Theology and the declarations issued by the Theologischer Konvent Bekennender Gemeinschaften (International Christian Network).
These were all based on the salvation oriented understanding of Missions. The aim was always to remind the Church of the basic difference between the “already now” and the “only then,” as opposed to visionary tendencies of trying to preempt the coming Kingdom of God. (I did not know how to fit in the following: the distinction between the three comings of the Christ: formerly in the flesh, today in the Spirit and ultimately with power and glory – D.S.). – Today, too, much that is not clear about the basis, aim and conduct of Missions, has a common theological cause. The “view of the end,” which used to determine the Evangelical Missions movement, has been allowed to be forgotten. That is a great loss.
The strength of the historical view lies in its Biblical understanding of God, the world, and time. It centers in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, and puts the Old and New Testaments into the right relationship to one another observing their respective distinctions. Hence the tension between the “already now” and the “only then.”
Many disputed themes find in this a convincing answer.
This applies firstly and especially to the position of the people of Israel among the nations. According to the testimony of Paul in Romans 11:25-36 the ultimate conversion and acceptance of Israel will take place when the Mission to the nations has been completed, the “fullness of the heathens” has been gathered in, and Christ will return. May the mission to Israel open the hearts of the Jews toward Him.
Secondly, the question of the nature of non-Christian religions in their relationship to the Christian Faith will be answered according to their threefold determination, i.e. through God’s original Revelation (Acts 14:17; John 1:9; Romans 1:19-20), through man’s response in obedience and resistance (Acts 17:27f; Isaiah 53:6a) and through the efficacy of demons (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2).
Thirdly the salvation historical view also proves itself in the present struggle for a future dispensation in line with the Gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ may set signs of the dawning Kingdom through its social and political responsibility, but without giving them too great or too little significance. Rather it trusts in the fulfillment of the Biblical promise of the Kingdom of God at the return of Jesus Christ in power and in glory. In His Kingdom peace and justice will finally be established (Revelation 21:1, 24).
In closing, we want to stress that our criticism of Transformation Theology is not aimed at a single false doctrine and not at single theologians who represent it. Rather, we regard them as brothers in Christ, who unfortunately have been enticed by error. Therefore we want to jointly struggle for Biblical truth.
Simultaneously, we address our urgent warning to the entire Christian Mission movement. May it beware of succumbing to a historical theology which is becoming an ideology. As we can see, this replaces eternal salvation with temporal social well-being and forgets that the Kingly rule of Christ is not of this world (John 18:36).
In His end-times address on the Mount of Olives, Jesus warned his disciples of false prophets and false Christs who would come in the last days and lead many astray (Matthew 24:11). As the ascended One he warns of the “hour of temptation”, which will come upon the whole world [Greek: oikouméne!] (Revelation 3:10). But the ascended Christ promised the church of Philadelphia to keep them from the hour of temptation because they had kept the word of His patience.
We too, may thus firmly trust, that He, the Good Shepherd, will even today help His faithfull flock through all external and internal temptations. He will do this through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit whom He has given to His own as a pledge of the completed salvation in His Kingdom (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14).
Holy Spirit, truth divine,
Dawn upon this soul of mine.
Voice of God and inward light,
Wake my spirit, clear my sight.
Bible version: King James.
Hamburg and Tübingen, Pentecost 2013