Transforming Mission. 1st of 4. Mission in the New Testament and Early Church

The importance of David Bosch’s book Transforming Mission cannot be overstated. “It was received with critical acclaim, recognized as a magisterial work and a superb teaching tool.”[1] Bosch’s breadth of knowledge and his familiarity with mission literature is profound.

The New Testament is about Christian Missions. Introductions to missiology tend to begin with a section called something like “Biblical Foundations for Mission.” Once these “foundations” have been established—so the argument seems to go—the author can proceed by developing his or her exegetical findings into a systematic “theory” or “theology” of mission. I wish to proceed in a different way.

The mission primacy of the New Testament has not always been appreciated. For a very long time it was customary, says Fiorenza (1976:1), to consider the New Testament writings primarily as “documents of an inner-Christian doctrinal struggle.” Early Christian history is, then “confessional” history, “a struggle between different Christian parties and theologians.” I submit that this approach is, at least to some extent, misguided. I suggest, with Martin Hengel, that the history and the theology of early Christianity are, first of all, “mission history” and “mission theology” (Hengel 1983b:53).[2] The beginnings of a missionary theology are therefore also the beginnings of Christian theology.” Theology is “there” in the New Testament, but second in importance to the apostles who are writing it. They were not scholars who had the leisure to research the evidence before they put pen to paper. Rather, they wrote in the context of an “emergency situation,” of a church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize. The gospels, in particular, are to be viewed as writings produced for the purpose of commending Jesus Christ to the Mediterranean world (Fiorenza 1976:20). Pesch (1982:14-16) lists no less than ninety-five “missionary texts” that we may not think of as such: “You are the salt of the earth,” “the light of the world,” “a city on a hill,” and the like.[3]

Jesus and the Reign of God. The expression “reign of God” (malkuth Yahweh) does not appear in the Old Testament (Bright 1953:18). (It is first encountered in late Judaism, though the idea itself is older.) But the mission to restore the reign of God (basileia tou Theou) is central to Jesus’ entire ministry. It enters the pages of the gospels with the sense that it is already full of meaning for in Israel. The new idea in the gospels is that the reign of God is both future and present. We today can hardly grasp the truly revolutionary dimension in Jesus’ announcement that the reign of God has drawn near and is, in fact, “upon” his listeners, “in their very midst” (Luke 17:21). God’s authority over all of life is claimed, and an all-out attack on the forces of evil begins.[4] On a future day Satan will be crushed under our feet.

Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Paul offered a “Torah-free zone” for Gentiles who were coming to faith. “It became increasingly difficult to remain both a practicing Jew and a Christian. Around 85 AD it was made impossible. The Eighteen Benedictions,[5] promulgated by the Pharisees at their new center in Jamnia, included a clause which anathematized Christians (“Nazarenes”) and heretics (“minim”) and excluded them from the synagogues.[6]

The Missionary Achievement Jesus and the Early Church. It was a movement without analogy, indeed the outreach by Jews to the Roman and Persian world was a “sociological impossibility.” Where it succeeded, there was a “new creation” for the first time in history: new relationships came into being in the community. Jew and Roman, Greek and barbarian, free and slave, rich and poor, woman and man, accepted one another as brothers and sisters.[7]

Where the Early Church Failed: Three Weaknesses. “I shall not say much about these general shortcomings in early Christianity. Yet I do wish to attend, very briefly, to some more specific weaknesses of the first Christians in the area of mission—weaknesses which threatened, in different degrees, to undo the integral nature of the first paradigm shift.

  1. The Church Came to Serve Its Own Members. I have suggested that Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion. Those who followed him were given no name to distinguish them from other groups, no creed of their own, no rite which revealed their distinctive group character, no geographical center from which they would operate (Schweizer 1971:42; Goppelt 1981:208). The twelve were to be the vanguard of all Israel and, beyond Israel, by implication, of the whole ecumene. The community around Jesus was to function as a kind of pars pro toto (an example), a community for the sake of all others, a model for others to emulate and be challenged by. Never, however, was this community to sever itself from the others. This high level of calling was, however, not maintained for long. Already at a very early stage, Christians tended to be more aware of what distinguished them from others than of their calling and responsibility toward those others. Their survival as a separate religious group, rather than their commitment to the reign of God, began to preoccupy them. In the words of Alfred Loisy (1976:166), “Jesus foretold the kingdom and [but] it was the Church that came.” In the course of time the Jesus community simply became a new religion, Christianity, a new principle of division among humankind. It has remained so to this day.
  2. The Early Movement Became an Institution. Intimately linked to this first failure of the early church is a second: it ceased to be a movement and turned into an institution. There are essential differences between an institution and a movement, says H. R. Niebuhr (following Bergson): the one is conservative, the other progressive; the one is more or less passive, yielding to influences from outside, the other is active, influencing rather than being influenced; the one looks to the past, the other to the future (Niebuhr 1959:11f). In addition, we might add, the one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them. We perceive something of this difference between an institution and a movement if we compare the Christian community in Jerusalem with that of Antioch in the forties of the first century AD. The Antioch church’s pioneering spirit precipitated an inspection by Jerusalem. It was clear that the Jerusalem party’s concern was not mission, but consolidation; not grace, but law; not crossing frontiers, but fixing them; not life, but doctrine; not movement, but institution. The tension between these two self-understandings led, as we have seen, to the convening of the “Apostolic Council” in AD 47 or 48. According to Luke’s report in Acts 15 and also according to Paul in Galatians 2, the Gentile point of view prevailed at that juncture. The situation remained volatile, however, and the tendency in early Christianity to become an institution appeared, in the long run, to be irresistible—not only in Jewish Christian communities but certainly also in Gentile ones.
  3. The Gentiles Churches Did Not Find a Way for Jews to Be Messianic Jews. Instead, the Jews were condemned, along with circumcision and food prohibitions. Ironically, the Gentiles did Unto the Jews What the Jewish Believers Had Done oo Them.

Two Separate Types of Ministry with an Uneasy Relationship: Settled and Mobile. At an early stage there were indications of two separate types of ministry developing: the settled ministry of bishops (or elders) and deacons, and the mobile ministry of apostles, prophets, and evangelists. The first tended to push early Christianity toward becoming an institution, the second retained the dynamic of a movement. In the early years in Antioch there was still a creative tension between these two types. Paul and Barnabas were leaders in the local church and, at the same time, itinerant missionaries. It seems they resumed their congregational duties as a matter of course whenever they returned to Antioch. Elsewhere, however (and certainly at a later stage also in Antioch, by the time of Ignatius [108-140 AD]), churches became ever more institutionalized and less concerned with the world outside their walls. Soon they had to design rules for guaranteeing the decorum of their worship meetings (cf. 1 Cor 11:2-33; 1 Tim 2:1-15), for establishing criteria for the ideal clergyman and his wife (1 Tim 2:1-13), and for addressing cases of inhospitality to church emissaries and of hunger for power (3 Jn; cf. Malherbe 1983:92-112). As time went by, doctrinal arguments and the struggle for survival as a separate religious group consumed more and more of the energy of Christians (See letters from Ignatius of Antioch).[8]

In addition, Platonic philosophy all but destroyed primitive Christian eschatology. The New Testament hope that the Day of the Lord would come soon was replaced by a timeless religion. Taking their cue from theologians such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, from the moment of his rebirth the believer was on an upward, ascent, through stages of knowledge, up to the final point where he or she sees God.[9]

Costly Discipleship for the Apostolic band. For the “we” of 2 Corinthians, I (Bob Blincoe) take the life of sufferings to be normative for the apostolic band, not the Corinthian church. It is in the section where Paul presents his credentials to the doubting church at Corinth:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Lesslie Newbigin suggests that nowhere in the New Testament is the essential character of the church’s mission (Bob: I would say the essential character of the apostolic mission) set out more clearly than I the passage quoted above. “It ought to be seen,” he says, “as the classic definition of mission.”[10]

Bosch: Let us consider two men who showed a keen interest in Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. “We may criticize them for their hesitancy and blame their slowness to rally openly to Jesus on their sense of respectability, but would it be fair to do that? After all, they both did make a move before Easter, without knowing that Jesus would rise from the dead. Should they (and other landed aristocracy) have left wife, children and position to follow Jesus as he visited the hamlets of Galilee? The point is that very few people can be both at the periphery and at the center at the same time. If they do manage that, they usually do so for only a short while.[11]

Paul. First a Missionary, then a Theologian. The missionary dimension of Paul’s theology has not always been recognized as dominant. For many years he was primarily regarded as the created of a dogmatic system. With the rise of the history-of-religion school he was viewed preeminently as a mystic. Later the emphasis shifted to the “ecclesiastical” Paul. Only very gradually did biblical scholars discover (what missionaries have always known!) that Paul was first and foremost to be understood, also in his letters, as an apostolic missionary. [12] “I am the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11: “We have received grace and apostleship in order to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles” (Romans 1:5). Bosch: “Paul knew that God had sent him into the world to proclaim the gospel, not to contemplate and speculate.” [Bob: The theology of Romans and Galatians in all in the Old Testament; what Paul saw was that the entirety of promises made to the patriarchs was confirmed by Jesus Christ “so that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.”

Paul’s Missionary Strategy. During the first decades of the early Christian movement there were three main types of missionary enterprises: 1) the wandering preachers [Bob: wandering preaching bands (havurot)] who moved from place to place in the Jewish land and proclaimed the imminent reign of God; 2) Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who embarked on a mission to the Gentiles, (forced to leave Jerusalem because of persecutions) and then from Antioch; and 3) Judaizing Christian missionaries who, according to 2 Corinthians and Galatians, went to Christian churches to “correct” what they regarded as a false interpretation of the gospel. For his own missionary program, Paul takes over elements from the first two types.[13] Perhaps his own understanding of his mission is best expressed in a passage toward the end of his letter to the Romans (15:15-21):

On some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles might be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from Gentiles by word and deed, by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So, from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not build on someone else’s foundation; as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand.”[14]

The Nations Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Paul asked a large number of Gentile church leaders to accompany to Jerusalem (when he brought a collection of money to the poor Christians in Judea). Bosch: Was this a witness to the Old Testament prophecies that the nations would come from ends of the earth to Jerusalem? See. Page 145-146.

Ekklesia in Paul’s Letters. We should keep in mind that Pauline churches in the fifties of the first century were anything but stable when Paul left them. They were “relatively unorganized, fraught with distress, with only rudimentary instruction in the faith.” These small communities assumed the name ekklesia, commonly used in the Septuagint as translation of the Hebrew kahal. In contemporary Greek, ekklesia normally referred to the town meeting of free male citizens. Perhaps the term was first applied to the Christian communities at Antioch. Paul takes it with him on his missionary travels.[15]

The Spread of Christianity by the Exemplary Conduct of Christians. When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire and persecutions ended, the monk succeeded the martyr as the protest against worldliness. From then on, the most daring and efficient missionaries were the monks. But even the monk needed the official sanction and oversight of the bishop. The missionaries were ambassadors of the bishops, and their task was incorporate converts into the church.[16] But the church’s “world mission” would be completed once it had reached the empire’s borders. In the final analysis, the boundaries of empire, or “orthodoxy” and of language would coincide.[17]

The Eastward Spread of Christianity. There were, however, Christians outside the borders of the Roman Empire; they were often far more actively involved in mission than the increasingly monolithic “main” church. Western Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) tend to give attention little attention to the Nestorians and other groups further to the East. These Christians were Coptic, Syriac, Maronite, Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian and even Chinese.[18] The fundamental difference was that the Eastward churches were always a small minority, and they were suspected of somehow conniving with the “Christian” Roman Empire. “The Armenians live in our territory,” said King Sapor of Persia in the fourth century, “but they share the sentiments of Caesar.”[19]

Above all it was the Nestorians who were to become the major missionary force in non-Roman Asia. When Nestorius was condemned by the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) and banished to Egypt, his followers fled to Persia where a vital monasticism, an eminent theology (the School of Nisibis by the 6th century), and an imposing missionary activity soon testified to the movement’s strength.

New Testament and Early Church: Summary by David Bosch:

I have suggested that Jesus had no intention of founding a new religion… the community around Jesus was to function as a kind of… community for the sake of all others, a model for others to emulate and be challenged by. Never, however, was this community to sever itself from the others. This high level of calling was, however, not maintained for long. Already, at a very early stage, Christians tended to be more aware of what distinguished them from others than of their calling and responsibility toward those others. Their survival as a separate religious group, rather than their commitment to the reign of God [kingdom of God], began to preoccupy them. In the words of Alfred Loisy (1976:166), “Jesus foretold the kingdom, and [but] it was the Church that came.” In the course of time the Jesus community, somewhat and sadly, became a new religion called Christianity.[20]  Its principal teachings were meant to bring down the dividing walls between people; but it became another way to divide humankind. It was not supposed to “be like this,” yet it remains so to this day.

Next: Transformation Mission (2nd of 4). The Hobbled Mission of the Protestant Reformation.

References Cited

Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). p. xiii

[2] Ibid. 15

[3] Ibid. 15-16, a lengthy quote.

[4] Ibid. 32

[5] “Let the Nazarenes and the heretics be destroyed in a moment . . . Let their names be expurgated from the Book of Life and not be entered with those of the just.”

[6] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 46

[7] Ibid. 48

[8] Ibid. 51

[9] Ibid. 213

[10] Ibid. 145

[11] Ibid. 52

[12] Ibid. 124

[13] Ibid. 129

[14] Isaiah 52:15

[15] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 165

[16] Ibid. 202

[17] Ibid. 203

[18] Ibid. 203

[19] Ibid. 203

[20] This problem does not vex the Orthodox Church. The conviction gradually grew that the church was the kingdom of God on earth, and that to be in the church was the same thing as being in the kingdom (Bosch, 207). Unfortunately, Orthodox churches tended to become ingrown, excessively nationalistic, and without a concern for those outside (Bosch, 212).