Category Archives: Mission

Another Nail in the Coffin of Some Wrong History

Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.

It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission.  The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out.  I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation.  Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission.  This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.

Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland.  Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary.  He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents.  Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins.  He has written extensively on missions and mission history. 

As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical.  The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement.  Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted.  Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.”  Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.        

The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission.  Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice.  Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour.  It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).

My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation.  Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make.  I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin.  Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.

Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy.  I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation.  I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church.  Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.


Herman Bavinck on Women in the Church

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) stands with John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper as one of the greatest Reformed theologians.  He’s renowned for being biblical, confessional, and incisive.  It’s been especially the publication of his Reformed Dogmatics in English that’s brought him to prominence in our day.  Biographies by Ron Gleason and, more recently James Eglinton, have certainly helped as well.  However, most of Bavinck’s corpus remains in Dutch.  Eric Bristley’s Guide to the Writings of Herman Bavinck illustrates the vastness of this corpus, listing hundreds of his articles and books. 

I want to introduce to you one of these untranslated works, one that was controversial in its day, and still bears some relevance for today.  In 1918, Bavinck published his book De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij (Women in Contemporary Society).   It’s a comprehensive look at questions Dutch society was wrestling with in the early 20th century, particularly under the influence of first-wave feminism.  It deals with what Scripture teaches about women and how biblical teaching applies today, but also surveys church history – Bavinck’s typical approach.  In what follows, I’ll summarize what he says in his chapter about women in the church.  I’ll be simply reporting what he writes.  In other words, this is only descriptive and not analytical/critical.

“Women in the Church” is the title of chapter 10 of De vrouw in de hedendaagsche maatschaapij, the second-last chapter of the book.  It begins with the pre-Reformation church, noting the role of nuns in Christian philanthropy.  During the Reformation, some efforts were made to reorient this kind of diaconal service among women, but these efforts were hardly successful.  In some areas, efforts were made to have deaconesses, but the Synod of Middelburg in 1581 decided that it was not advisable to reintroduce the office of deaconess in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands.  In exceptional circumstances such as a time of plague, however, the work of deacons could be done by their wives or other women.  According to Bavinck, this happened in places like Middelburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and Emden.

Bavinck then turns his attention to a historical overview of women as pastors/preachers.  He notes that the Salvation Army was among the first to give a prominent role to women as church leaders.  This was owing especially to Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William.  Catherine Booth argued for the right for women to be preachers alongside men.  Others who pioneered women’s ordination were the Quakers, Congregationalists, Universalists, Unitarians, Methodists and, in the Netherlands the Mennonites and the Remonstrants.

Bavinck evaluates all these developments as being unbiblical.  He notes that Christ entrusted the ministry of the word to men, first to the apostles, and then to pastors and teachers.  The apostolic church never had any official ministry of the word and sacrament by women, nor any government of the church by women.  The apostle Paul said that women are to be silent in the congregation because to do otherwise would violate the natural order grounded in creation.             

Bavinck has a more positive evaluation of women serving in a general diaconal role.  In fact he says, the church “cannot do without women in this work.”  This includes things like Sunday school, care for the poor and the sick, care for the elderly, the support of pregnant women, and more.  He doesn’t think these activities need to be directly under the oversight of the church as an institution, but the church does have the calling to promote this kind of work where women use their gifts.

That leads into a discussion of the active role that women can play in missions.  He notes some figures for women serving on the mission field.  According to his figures, 160 women from America were serving as missionary doctors, and 2458 as “sisters in the mission” (zendingszusters).  Canada had 23 and 220, while Australia and New Zealand 2 and 94.  He also draws attention to the role that “missionary women’s associations” play on the home front, promoting and supporting the work of missions around the world.  Bavinck presents all of this in a positive light. 

Finally Bavinck comes to the controversial topic of women voting for office bearers in the church.  He begins this discussion with an overview of where things stand:  he notes that there are many churches in America, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland where women vote.  He points out that it was discussed and defended in the Netherlands as early as 1898 by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by pastors A.D.C Kok and C. Lindeboom.

Bavinck notes that the issue did not seem to be a pressing one in the Netherlands of his day.  Unlike in other countries, men were actively involved in Dutch church life and there didn’t seem to be any desire to have women voting for office bearers.  He writes that, with such indifference, it would be foolish to press the issue.

However, he notes that if we discuss it in principle, “there is little ground to condemn it.”  Bavinck argues that women are equal members of the church with men.  They have just as much an interest in having good office bearers as the men do.  Because of their nature as women, they tend to actually have quite a great deal of interest in religious matters.  Moreover, there are large numbers of widows, women married to “religiously indifferent men,” or women married to men who belong to another church.  Without being able to vote, such women are all stripped of the opportunity to have an influence on church life. 

Bavinck strengthens his argument by noting that while women under the authority of their husbands in the home, as church members they receive the same benefits and should receive the same rights.  He notes that young male communicant members who still live with their parents are subordinate to those parents, but yet they have the right to vote.  This is unfair.  Bavinck says the injustice becomes worse because women are allowed to raise objections to the election of an office bearer – yet they cannot vote.  Then he notes that the vote in the church is not an exercise of power.  The congregation only points out its preferences for office bearers; the consistory is responsible to call and appoint.

He maintains that there is only objection with any weight:  if women can vote in the church, it will not be long before the church will be forced to have women standing as candidates.  In other words, women’s voting will lead to women’s ordination. 

But Bavinck notes that this is an argument from fear.  It is an argument that often persuades fearful minds concerned about novelties in the church.  However, he points out, if the Scriptures are so strong that women may not serve as office bearers, then we have nothing to fear.  The clarity of the Bible should prevent any such development.

He then points out that it’s not unusual for people to be able to vote and not be able to stand as a candidate.  One does not follow from the other.  The requirements for eligibility to vote are often different from the eligibility requirements to stand as a candidate.  In the Dutch situation of his time, a public servant, clergyman or teacher was not allowed to be a candidate in a city council election.  Writes Bavinck, “Thus eligibility to any office in Scripture is bound by certain requirements, 1 Timothy 3; but no such limits are placed on the power to vote.”

Finally, Bavinck comes to a brief discussion of Scripture.  In Acts 1:15, in the meeting of the 120 people to replace Judas as apostle, women were certainly there (Acts 1:14).  True, Peter addresses the gathering as “Men and Brothers.”  That was common practice and it still was in the church of Bavinck’s day.  Even though they were present the sisters were never mentioned.  It’s therefore uncertain as to whether or not the women present participated in the process.  Other passages like Acts 13:3 and Acts 14:23 likewise do not shed any light.  Bavinck concludes that while Scripture limits the offices of the church to men, there is no definite and clear statement about who may vote.

Indeed, it seems to Bavinck, in the ancient church women were not excluded from choosing bishops or making contributions to other ecclesiastical matters.  He points out that, in his day, in Germany there were Roman Catholic congregations where independent women had long been allowed to vote on the choice of a pastor.  Similar situations occur in the Netherlands, he says, proving that women have not always been excluded from the voting process in the congregation just because they are women. 

In his biography, Ron Gleason describes the reception of this book (pp.415-416).  It was especially the matter of women voting in the church that led to some negative evaluations by men such as Dammes Fabius and Seakle Greijdanus.  Gleason relates that Abraham Kuyper wrote his last letter to Bavinck about this book and indicated that the two of them had significant differences on the subject.  However, a footnote surmises that these differences may have been about women’s suffrage in civil society.  Given how Bavinck asserts that Kuyper defended women’s voting in the church, Gleason may be correct.

(Note: I haven’t yet read James Eglinton’s biography and what he may have to offer on this – it’s on my list of must-reads for 2021.)            


Book Review: Fill the Earth

Fill the Earth: The Creation Mandate and the Church’s Call to Missions, Matthew Newkirk.  Eugene:  Pickwick Publications, 2020.  Softcover, 328 pages.

When it comes to what the Bible says about mission, where do your thoughts immediately go?  If you’re like most Christians, it’d probably be the Great Commission, especially the version found at the end of Matthew 28.  We’re accustomed to thinking almost entirely in terms of Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations.  However, the Bible’s teaching about mission reaches far beyond the Great Commission.  In fact, as Matthew Newkirk persuasively argues, it stretches back to Genesis and forward to Revelation.

Matt Newkirk has his ordination credentials in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He serves in Japan, teaching Old Testament at Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya.  He received his seminary training at Reformed Theological Seminary and also holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Wheaton College.

Fill the Earth can aptly be described as an exercise in biblical theology.  By “biblical theology,” I don’t mean “orthodox theology” (although it is).  “Biblical theology” is a field of study often regarded as having been pioneered by Geerhardus Vos.  Vos described biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”  God’s revelation is embedded in history and involves a historical progression.  Biblical theology describes that, often by taking a topic or concept and tracing its development through the Scriptures.  In this case, it’s mission.    

There have been previous attempts to wed biblical theology and mission, Greg Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission being one of the most well-known.  Newkirk builds on the work of Beale and others.  He convincingly demonstrates that not only is mission bound up with the story line of the Bible, but it’s also intrinsic to the church founded in Genesis and which continues through and past the book of Revelation.

One of the notable features of this book is its detailed exegesis of numerous Scripture passages.  While he’s tracing out the big picture, Newkirk also has the exegete’s penchant for detail.  Some of the detail gets technical, but most readers without advanced theological training should still be able to follow his arguments.  Not unexpectedly, the level of detail also means that, at times, other students of Scripture are going to disagree.  For example, Newkirk argues that the book of Jonah is only missional “insofar as it exhorts Israel to repent from their hardened and disobedient posture towards God’s Word and respond to him faithfully” (141).  I can fully agree that it is missional in that regard, but I find it difficult to ignore the fact that Jonah is sent out by God to a foreign nation with a call to repentance.  There appears to be an incipient form of centrifugal mission here pointing ahead to what will unfold in the New Testament.  Aside from some of these debatable points of detail, I find Newkirk’s overall trajectory to be cogent, namely that Scripture teaches our mission to be “to fill the earth as God’s representatives and thereby demonstrate that his kingship extends over the entire earth” (18).

Most of Fill the Earth is taken up with making that case.  However, Newkirk concludes with a chapter explaining how his argument bears on the work of mission today.  Let me share some of the questions addressed (without giving away the answers):

  • Is mission merely a reactive response to the presence of sin in the world? 
  • Is non-expansionistic ministry legitimately classified as “missions”? 
  • Is missions fundamentally cross-cultural?
  • In light of what Scripture teaches, how should we evaluate the trend towards seeing the nations coming to us and therefore concluding that we need not send out missionaries to places without a sufficient indigenous gospel witness? 

The cumulative argument made in this book has a bearing on how each of those questions (and more) are answered.     

This book is thought-provoking – Newkirk helpfully challenged some of my previously held notions of what the Bible teaches about mission.  If you’ve done any reading in the field of missiology, you’ll know how difficult it is to find books which not only take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but also go in for the deep dive.  But to advance the field of missiology in a God-honouring way, that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what Matt Newkirk has provided


Motorcycle Evangelism

I was in Grade 2 and it was my first effort at evangelism, or at least to try and invite someone to church.  Our family was living in the Arctic town of Inuvik and we were attending the local Baptist church.  My Sunday School teacher was outward looking and tried to teach us church kids to be the same.  She encouraged us to invite our friends to come to church so they could hear the gospel.

Nicky lived on the same street as us, a few doors down.  Like me, his father was an RCMP officer — he was a street cop, my Dad a pilot.  Nicky was also in my class at the Sir Alexander Mackenzie School.  Unlike me, he was a Newfie; he had this quirky Newfoundland accent.  He and his family were also not church-going folk.

One day I was hanging out over at Nicky’s place.  What my Sunday School teacher said was weighing on my mind.  So I said to Nicky, “Hey, do you want go to church with me on Sunday?”  Nicky replied, “Nah, I don’t go to church and I don’t wanna.”  I stopped for a moment and thought.  Nicky needed an incentive.  So I said, “If you come, you’ll get one of these really neat pencils.”  I showed him the pencil I got at Sunday school.  It had all these colours associated with Jesus and the gospel and then Bible verses in tiny print to explain what each meant.  Nicky wasn’t impressed:  “I don’t need a stupid pencil.  Nah, I told you, I don’t wanna go to church.”

He was stubborn.  I had to up the ante.  Clearly he needed a bigger incentive than a pencil.  I thought of something Nicky would regard as irresistibly cool.  With the most persuasion I could muster, I told him, “If you come, they’ll give you a motorbike!”  I don’t how I came up with that whopper, but it certainly didn’t work.  Nicky just said, “No way, I don’t believe you.  No church would give away a motorbike.  Nope, not comin’.”  Nicky never did come to church with me.

I was in Grade 2.  So perhaps you can forgive me for being an evangelist whose honesty didn’t match his zeal.  In my desire to achieve the goal, I tried to appeal to the greed naturally resident in human hearts.  But, in aiming so high, my pitch was transparently unbelievable, even to a kid in Grade 2.

Sadly, some of what passes for evangelism doesn’t get much beyond my Grade 2 efforts.  The human heart isn’t naturally drawn to the gospel message of rescue for sinners through the cross of Christ.  In their natural condition, human hearts don’t find that message attractive or persuasive.  Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  Yet some try to share the good news in a way that promises things the Bible doesn’t.  Maybe not motorbikes, but certainly health, wealth, and prosperity:  “If you come to Christ, you’ll be blessed materially.  Your health will be better.  Your relationships will improve.”  Such incentives are really no different to a Grade 2 kid telling his friend to come to church so he can get a motorbike.

I often think of the memorable words of C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock:

As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

Lewis was right.  Becoming a Christian is going to mean struggle and difficulty.  It means bearing a cross, dying to yourself, killing sin.  From a this-world perspective, there isn’t much (if anything) to commend it.

So, how do we make the gospel persuasive?  Or:  how do we even just make a case for someone to join us for Sunday worship at a church service?  Here’s the thing:  the power of persuasion ultimately isn’t in us.  Our calling is simply to speak the truth in love.  We’re called to share the gospel with whomever we can.  Now 1 Peter 3:15 says you should be prepared to give an answer if someone asks you, “Why?”  Why should someone believe the gospel?  Because it’s the way to be rescued from the judgment we deserve and it’s the way back to the way things should be in terms of how we relate to our Creator.  Why should someone come to church?  Because, we tell them, there they’re going to hear the best news available to humanity.  In a world of bad news and worse news, a faithful Christian church is going to herald the good news of who Jesus is and what he’s done.

When we say true things like that, God may be at work in that person’s heart with his Holy Spirit.  The words we speak may be God’s instrument to persuade and draw that person in to Christ.  Or perhaps not.  Ultimately the persuasion isn’t in our power.  God persuades when he chooses to do so.  We just have to speak the truth.


The Southgate Fellowship Affirmations and Denials

While our Reformed churches haven’t been lax in doing mission, we certainly haven’t been prolific in writing about it.  Our work in the area of missiology (the study of mission) has been notoriously miniscule.  This is a shame for two reasons.  First, Reformed theology has a lot to offer the field of missiology in general.  Second, in the last half-century there have been some deeply concerning developments in this field which Reformed theology is well-equipped to address.  These developments are not just theoretical, but have an immense practical bearing.  Not only would our churches and their missionary activities benefit from more Reformed missiological reflection, so would many other Christians.

To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a document developed by The Southgate Fellowship (TSF).  As they describe themselves,

TSF is a fellowship of theologians, missiologists, and reflective practitioners fully committed to the visible church and her Christ-appointed mission.  In obedience to Christ and his Word, TSF exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission, as captured in the solas of reformational theology.

TSF started meeting in 2016 and participants hailed from Canada, the United States, and Europe.  The TSF Council consists of several men, three of whom are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, two are (Reformed) Baptists, one is an Anglican, and one is from the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

This year, TSF published its “Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission.”  This document was published in the journal ThemeliosIt’s also readily available on the TSF website.  This document (hereafter AD) contains 100 sets of affirmations and denials on a host of contemporary missiological issues.  Some of those issues include:  the authority and nature of the Bible as revelation from God, extra-biblical revelation (such as dreams), contextualization, whether salvation is possible apart from Jesus Christ, and the relationship between word and deed ministry.

Appreciation

I have great appreciation and approval for almost all of AD.  What I appreciate most is that it begins with a high view of the authority of Scripture:

We affirm that Scripture authoritatively and uniquely reveals and explains the meaning of the redemptive work of God in history, centering in and accomplished by Jesus Christ, and provides authoritative and sufficient instruction for faith and obedience, including authoritative and sufficient instruction for faithful dissemination of that unique message. (1e)

AD presents a view of Scripture which every Reformed believer ought to affirm – one which is in full agreement with what we confess in the Belgic Confession.  This is solid rock on which to build the rest of the affirmations and denials.

For example, the word “uniquely” implies that no other “sacred text” is in the same category:

We deny that one can pick aspects of the non-biblical sacred texts and declare them in any way to be Holy Spirit-inspired.  (12d)

Furthermore, the Bible alone is God’s ordinary means of salvation.  Then what about dreams or visions?

We affirm that if God were to use extraordinary means today (e.g. miraculous events, dreams or visions), that these occurrences should be interpreted providentially either as pre-evangelistic praeparatio [preparation], uncommon tools in God’s hand for sovereignly drawing people to himself, or as divinely purposed tools for hardening unbelievers in their unbelief.  (15a)

I appreciate how AD seeks to do justice both to the unique nature of the Bible as well as the reports one sometimes reads of how people are drawn in through unusual means.

TSF is also to be commended for their biblical definition of mission.  AD asserts that mission involves the “verbal proclamation of the gospel, by which the Spirit of Christ calls people to turn in repentance and exercise faith, for the glory of God” (66a).  The greatest need of sinful human beings is Jesus Christ.  So where does that leave Christian acts of mercy?  They’re not mission, according to AD.  However, mercy ministry can never be separated from mission (74a); they belong together.  Missionaries who show no compassion for the suffering and needy are not carrying out a faithful ministry (73b).

There are many more positive points I could mention, but I want this brief overview to give you a taste so you’ll go and check it out for yourself.

Concerns

I also want to highlight a couple of areas that could be problematic.  Even though AD is long, it still lacks a lot of context.  There are points where I wish there was further explanation.  This is especially in the section on ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church).  For example, I put a question mark behind this statement:

We affirm the value of working across denominational boundaries (within or without mission agencies), according to biblical principles of ecumenism.  (77a)

My question would be:  what are “biblical principles of ecumenism”?  How are those defined?

Similarly, in the same section, there are affirmations and denials regarding the relationship of churches to mission agencies and parachurch organizations.  Two worth noting:

We affirm that visible churches bear the primary responsibility for the theological, moral, and ministry-method oversight of missionaries. (75a)

We affirm that the visible church has the primary responsibility to recruit, mobilise and send individual church members into mission. (75b)

The qualifier “primary” is what grabs my attention here.  Why not “exclusive” responsibility?  If we’re working from a biblical perspective, isn’t it the church (and only the church) which sends out, supervises, and supports missionaries?  Also, I’m perplexed about the use of the plural ‘churches’ in 75a and the use of the singular ‘church’ in 75b – I’m not sure if there’s a fine theological point being made there.

While I’m generally appreciative of the section on culture, there seems to be an overstatement of its relationship to religion.  Affirmation 87a reads:

We affirm that the word ‘culture’ is used generally to describe the shared set of artefacts, characteristics, meanings, and values that give shape to the total corporate life of a group of people.

That’s a fairly conventional definition for our day.  I would note the mention of “artefacts” – this is referring to things like eating utensils, cooking implements, and musical instruments.  Older definitions of culture by Reformed theologians like Klaas Schilder often ignored this aspect of culture, so I’m glad it’s included here.  But these statements then raise questions:

We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former.  (90a)

We deny that any facet of human culture may truly be a-moral, a-theological, or a-religious. (90b)

I wonder: if chopsticks are a facet of human culture, how are they, in themselves as material artefacts, related to religion?  It seems to me that their use is what ties them to religion, i.e. whether you use them to eat to the glory of the true God.  This could use some clarification.

What’s Missing?

It’s a long document and fairly comprehensive, but there are some things barely mentioned or not at all.  For instance, I’d like to see more about the historic creeds and confessions.  They’re mentioned in the section on the Trinity (22a), as well as in 71a’s affirmation about how local theologians should be accountable to “formulations of the Christian faith.”  This is good, but I wish there was more.  I also wish that AD had statements regarding worship and the place of women in mission.

Overall, AD is as faithful and comprehensive statement on mission as I’ve seen from a biblical perspective.  In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission released its Iguassu Affirmation.  While that statement had some biblical content, it doesn’t really measure up to what the Southgate Fellowship has produced.  Any Reformed believer interested in mission (which should be all of us!) ought to read and study these Affirmations and Denials.  Perhaps it will stimulate the further development and expression of Reformed missiology in our circles and beyond.