Category Archives: Mission

Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel

In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission held a missiological consultation at Iguassu, Brazil.  This was one of the statements issued:

In a world increasingly controlled by global economic forces, Christians need to be aware of the corrosive effects of affluence and the destructive effects of poverty.  We must be aware of ethnocentrism in our view of economic forces.  We commit ourselves to address the realities of world poverty and oppose policies that serve the powerful rather than the powerless…We call all Christians to commit themselves to reflect God’s concern for the justice and welfare of all peoples.

Note the attention to affluence versus poverty and the powerful versus the powerless.  Setting up these kinds of oppositions is typical of thought influenced by liberation theology.

When you hear the term “liberation theology,” you might be inclined to think of the Liberation of 1944, an important event from our Dutch church history.  But you’d be quite wrong.  Liberation theology is quite removed from any Reformed theology.  The latter is biblical and God-honouring, the former not so much.

Liberation theology has had quite an influence on the way some Christians think about mission.  Whereas biblical mission is about the proclamation of the gospel to save sinners from the wrath of God, liberation theology holds that God’s mission in this world is to deal with injustice and oppression.  Biblical mission is about a gospel of salvation – liberation theology is about the social gospel, a pseudo-gospel.

Liberation theology originated in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s.  This was a time of radical social upheaval in that region.  Social revolutions were fuelled by Marxist and socialist ideology.  That way of thinking also forms the background to liberation theology.

If we’re looking for a succinct definition, Millard Erickson’s is on the money:

Liberation theology is a collection of theological movements which put more emphasis on deliverance of human beings from various types of temporal bondage – economic, political, and social – than on personal redemption from sin.  It tends to draw upon social sciences rather than biblical and theological bases. (Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology)

I would note especially that last statement.  What the Bible says is not a high priority for liberation theologians and those influenced by them.  When they do consider what the Bible says, more often than not, they read their theology back into the text.

History and Influence

Not surprisingly, given its Latin American roots, the term “liberation theology” was coined in Roman Catholic circles.  It first appeared around 1968, in the context of Roman Catholic discussions about how to address political oppression, poverty, and sickness in Latin America.  In 1973, a Roman Catholic theologian from Peru, Gustavo Gutierrez, published “A Theology of Liberation.”  In the early 60s, faced with rampant violence and social upheaval, Gutierrez had embraced Marxist social analysis.  That led him to break with traditional Roman Catholic theology and develop his new theology of liberation.

While liberation theology was especially in vogue in the 70s and 80s, its influence remains to this day.  Emphases of liberation theology can often be heard in evangelical missiology.  Evangelical authors such as Ronald Sider are well known as having drunk from the fountain of Gutierrez and others.  Liberation theology terms like “preferential option for the poor” are oftentimes heard in evangelical discussions in the area of mission.

Main Features

The most important feature of liberation theology is that it starts from below with the situation of the oppressed and poor.  It doesn’t begin with the Bible as an authoritative source.  Instead, it uses the human situation as its text.

That human situation is fundamentally seen as a matter of class conflict.  This is how Marxist and socialist ideology is at the roots.  Liberation theologians such as Gutierrez follow the idea that there are tensions in society, there are exploited social classes, and a new world order will result when these exploited social classes engage in revolution.  In their way of thinking, the major issue in life is about who has the power.  It’s about a class struggle.

Theologically, liberation theologians assert that God is on the side of the oppressed and the poor.  This is where we encounter the language of God’s “preferential option for the poor.”  Liberation theologians maintain that God prefers to work with the poor and oppressed.

As far as Christ goes, he is but an example.  He struggled for the poor and the outcast, and so we must do likewise.  He became totally involved in a historical situation of conflict and oppression.  The cross has nothing to do with reconciliation with God.  Instead, it’s a picture of the suffering experienced by God when people are downtrodden.

What becomes of mission?  It’s sharing with people the fact that God also suffers when they are oppressed.  God wants them to be free of poverty and oppression.  The gospel is purely social – it’s something happening on a horizontal level.  Sin is no longer about offending God.  It’s purely about human oppression and suffering.  The mission of the church is simply to follow the example of Jesus and show God’s commitment to the poor.

Brief Evaluation

Any system of theology which has Scripture as an afterthought is obviously flawed from the start.  Liberation theology’s presuppositions rest with Marxist thinking rather than any biblical faith commitment.  With these Marxist presuppositions, humanity’s fundamental problem is the class struggle and social, economic and political oppression.  With biblical presuppositions, humanity’s basic problem is the sin which alienates us from God.

In liberation theology, salvation is all about freedom from oppression.  Sin has been redefined in Marxist terms.  Christ is merely an example of how we can confront economic, social, and political oppression.  He has nothing to do with rescuing fallen humanity from the wrath of God against sin.  When you abandon the Bible as your authoritative source for theology, this is one of the hellacious places you may end up.  It’s a denial of the true gospel.

But Is God on the Side of the Oppressed?

If we take the Bible as our infallible authority, what is the truth about where God stands in regard to the poor and oppressed?  And how does that impact mission?

The justice and love of God surely compel him to frown when there is injustice and oppression.  However, we cannot say this without immediate qualification.  Poverty and oppression are the result of the fall into sin.  Sometimes they can also be God’s judgments upon sin.  The truth is, apart from Christ, everyone deserves poverty, oppression and suffering.  These things exist in the world because of human sinfulness.  They also exist to faintly point to the reality that something far worse awaits those who unrepentantly continue to rebel against God.

There is far more to say.  But let me finish with Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  There are numerous passages in the Pentateuch commanding God’s people to show compassion and love, also to the foreign sojourners dwelling among them.  Likewise, we are commanded to care for those around us who are hurting.  God will use our care and compassion to open doors for the gospel, so that people are brought into fellowship with him through Christ.  That’s the main thing.

There is a limited sense in which God is on the side of the oppressed – and so we should be too.  However, it would be ill-advised to build a theology around that.  Letting this thought define and direct Christian mission would likewise be misguided.  Mission is about proclaiming the gospel of salvation – and Reformed churches ought always to keep this in view.


Pastoral Q & A: Should We Call Unbelievers “Pre-Christians”?

While it’s not overwhelming or huge, there seems to be a bit of a trend to refer to unbelievers as “pre-Christians.”  A parishioner attended another church in our state recently and came across this way of speaking and asked me about it.  Is it acceptable to substitute “pre-Christian” for “non-Christian” or “unbeliever”?

If we turn to Scripture, the word “unbeliever” is used 14 times in the New Testament.  It’s used to translate the Greek word apistos.  Sometimes the word “Gentile” (Gr. ethnos) is used to refer to those who aren’t Christians, extending the Old Testament idea of the pagan nations surrounding Israel.  In Ephesians 2:3, non-Christians are referred to as “children of wrath.”  Later in the same chapter, they are “strangers to the covenants of promise” (2:12) and “aliens” (2:19).  However, the standard word in Scripture is simply “unbeliever.”  The word “pre-Christian” is not used at all.

Nevertheless, there is no issue with using a non-scriptural word if it captures a biblical concept.  The classic example is the word “Trinity” – it’s not used in the Bible, but the concept is definitely there.  So, can a biblical case be made for referring to unbelievers as “pre-Christians”?

I can appreciate the positive attitude this term is meant to convey.  When we give a Christian witness to someone, we certainly hope that the Holy Spirit will use our witness to bring someone to faith in Christ.  We pray in that way and perhaps we should pray more expectantly than we often do.

Yet the fact of the matter is that we don’t know God’s plans for the salvation of any given person.  Scripture reveals a doctrine of election:  God has chosen some to eternal life before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).  But we don’t know who they are and neither should we presume to know.   Instead, we address each person with the thought that only God knows whether or not that person is going to be a Christian.  Our calling is not to guess or assume an outcome, but simply to present the gospel.

There is another aspect to this.  From the point of view of a non-Christian, adopting the language “pre-Christian” could also be offensive.  When I was in seminary, I attended a book club once or twice.  Some of the other attendees were Reformed Baptists.  One of them jokingly referred to me as a “Reformed-Baptist-in-training.”  I knew he was just kidding around and so it didn’t bother me.  Friends can banter like that.  But couldn’t this language of “pre-Christian” be unnecessarily offensive to an unbeliever just off the street?  If I put myself in those shoes, I would think:  “What arrogance!  They think they’re definitely going to make me a Christian.”  The gospel is offensive enough on its own; we don’t need to add offense with unnecessary and presumptuous terminology.

So in the interests of humble modesty about God’s plans, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary offense in our witness, it’s best just to use the standard biblical terminology.  If someone isn’t a Christian, then we ought to just say they’re an unbeliever or a non-Christian.  Keep it simple.


Angels and Mission

When it comes to angels, there are two extremes.  One is to treat angels like little gods.  Roman Catholicism does this by encouraging prayers to angels.  Another extreme is to neglect angels altogether.  Neither extreme is biblical.

Historically, the Reformed churches have neither ignored the angels nor given them excessive attention.  If you look at the index of Calvin’s Institutes, two-thirds of a page are filled with references to angels.  This soundly reflects the emphasis found in the Scriptures.  Similarly, article 12 of the Belgic Confession has a paragraph devoted to the Scriptural teaching about the creation and purpose of angels.  However, I don’t think many people have considered how the biblical teaching on angels bears on how we think about the missionary task of the church.

Belgic Confession Article 12

Says our Confession, “He also created the angels good, to be his messengers and serve the elect.”  The angels were also part of God’s created work, though we do not know at what point they came into being.  Regardless, their purpose is clear:  they exist to serve God and his people.  Though they were created good, some of the angels have fallen – these we call the devils and evil spirits.   These hounds of hell “are so depraved that they are enemies of God and of all that is good.  With all their might, they lie in wait like murderers to ruin the Church and all its members and to destroy everything by their wicked devices.”  This means that when we consider our missionary task, there is a formidable array of opponents waiting to destroy everything we try to do.  But, on the other hand, the reverse is also true:  we have a redoubtable heavenly host allied with us as, by the power and grace of God, we break ground for his kingdom.  The good angels serve to build and establish the church.  They are there to facilitate our missionary task.

The missionary task was given to the church by our Lord Jesus in such passages as Matthew 28:18-20.  The Scriptures are clear that the angels must always be considered in connection with him.  They exist to serve the church and its task because they first exist to serve our Lord Jesus Christ.  In popular portrayals, angels tend to be individualistic.  They stand on their own.  However, in the Scriptures, angels are first the servants of God, sent out by Christ and therefore under his authority.   This is clear in a passage such as Mark 1:13 where, following the temptations of Satan, our Lord Jesus was served by the angels.

The Service of the Angels

This service of the angels is a feature of the ongoing spiritual battle with Satan and his minions.  In the Old Testament this is most vividly seen in Numbers 22-24.  Dr. J. DeJong describes quite accurately the scene:  “Particularly the first chapter describes the intensity of the struggle with Balaam first being commanded not to go, and then going, and finally a messenger is sent to meet him, an adversary.  We have here an adversary against the Adversary, an opponent opposing the opponent.”[1]  And, of course, in the New Testament we see this battle with Satan and his angels in the Revelation of Christ to John.  The whole Bible makes it clear that we live in a time of spiritual conflict.  One of the preeminent ways our Lord Jesus fights this conflict is through his angelic armies.  These armies continue to serve Christ as he daily gathers his church from the four corners of the earth.

These angels are therefore an integral part of the mission of the church.  Their involvement is not dispassionate.  Rather, the Scriptures make clear that they are emotionally involved with what is going on.  They share in the disappointments and the joys as lost sinners are brought to their master, King Jesus.   Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  When there is joy within the bride of Christ, there is also joy with his servants the angels.   But why?

It’s because, as Christ’s servants, the angels are also participating with the church in the gathering of lost sinners.  Here we can think of their supporting role in the book of Acts.  Angels appear in the very first chapter to comfort and encourage the apostles after the ascent of our Saviour.  In chapter 5, an angel appears to release the apostles from prison so that the intense growth of the church could continue unabated.  He encouraged the apostles to continue preaching to that end.  In chapter 8, an angel goes to Philip and sends him down the desert road to Gaza where he providentially meets the Ethiopian eunuch – thus the gospel begins its journey into Africa.   In chapter 12, Peter is released from prison again by an angel.   Then, in chapter 27, an angel appears to Paul and assures him he will provide a witness before Caesar.

What About Today?

Do the angels continue to form an integral part of the mission of the church?  Though their presence may not be visible to the same degree, we have no reason to believe the angels have withdrawn themselves from the church-gathering work of Christ in this present day.  They serve Jesus Christ and have not stopped doing so.  In fact, the Olivet discourse shows that they will have a role in the last days of this earth:  “And then he will send his angels, and gather together his elect from the four winds, from the furthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven.” (Mark 13:27).  In their facilitating and guiding the missionary task of the church today, they are preparing for the great last day of our Lord Jesus.

There is an interesting story that has circulated for many years in Reformed churches about a certain preacher in the Netherlands.  If I am correct, the story took place in the 1800s.  This preacher held an evangelistic service in a certain town and then made his way safely home through the dark streets.  A number of years later, a man came to him and told him that he’d become a Christian because of the preacher’s ministry.  He asked if he remembered that dark evening so many years ago.  He did.  He then asked who the other two men were who had been walking with him.  He and a friend were lying in wait to kill the preacher (who had irked them with his message and presence), but the other two had scared them away.  The preacher replied that he had been all alone that evening.  Suddenly, he realized that he had not been alone after all.

Whether or not that story is totally accurate, we can be sure the Scriptural teaching on angels means that missionaries are never alone.  Certainly, we have the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and guides us with the Word.  But we also have the angelic host who protect us.  In so doing, they serve Jesus as he gathers his church through us.  They not only protect, but in ways unknown, they also engage the enemy in offensive battle.  While we do not want to speculate, we do know that the angels are fighting the spiritual war in the spiritual realm – and their victory is assured.

The biblical teaching on angels gives insight and strength, not only to the missionary (and those who support him), but also to the mission congregation.  New believers can know that their struggles are the concern of their Lord Jesus and he will support them with his angels.  But the mission congregation can also find strength in this teaching when they gather for worship.  Sometimes, especially at the beginning, mission congregations can be small.  Such a congregation does not worship alone.  Our Lord Jesus is there with them (according to his promise in Matt.18:20), but we also learn from such passages as Hebrews 12:22 that his holy angels are present too.   In his Institutes (3.20.23), Calvin writes:  “God willed to appoint the angels to care for our salvation.  Consequently, they attend sacred assemblies, and the church is for them a theater in which they marvel at the varied and manifold wisdom of God [Eph.3:10].” An acute awareness of this fact can be an immense support for young believers who often feel the isolation and loneliness which true faith can bring.

The bottom line is that angelology (the doctrine concerning angels) is a matter of comfort for all of us, and also when it comes to our missionary task.  When faced with our spiritual struggles (not against flesh and blood), we can recall the experience of Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:16-17.   They were surrounded by a heavenly army of angels, prepared to fight the Lord’s battle.  Angels continue to do battle today; they continue to serve our Lord Jesus.  A heavenly host is warring together with us.  We know that the power of God is on their side and ours and thus we can have both courage and optimism in our work of proclaiming the gospel to lost sinners.

In different ways, Jesus Christ continues to gather his church:  He sends his Spirit.  He sends men.  He also sends angels.  Thus, the glory belongs not to the angels, nor to us, but to our faithful Saviour, the Shepherd who gathers his sheep.

[1] “Angels and their Role in Pastoral Care,” by Dr. J. DeJong, in Koinonia 19.1 (Spring 2002), p.11.


Attending a Babine Funeral

I often still think about my few years as a missionary in Fort Babine, British Columbia.  It was an incredible experience, one that has left a mark on me.  To give you an idea of some of what we saw and heard, the following is an excerpt from my 2011 book, The Gospel Under the Northern Lights: A Missionary Memoir.  The events described here took place just a couple of months after we arrived in Fort Babine in October 2000.

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Attending a Funeral

Another interesting person we came to know and love was William Duncan.  He was an older single man who lived by himself in an immaculate house.  He had been a fishing guide and still had a passion for fishing, although his health didn’t always allow him to indulge.  When I first met him, he was 67.  He was comfortable talking about the fact that he was a hereditary chief from the Caribou clan.  His hereditary name was We Heh.  He had a lot of insight to give into the culture and history of the area.  He told me Fort Babine used to have one feast hall for each of the four clans, but they slowly deteriorated and disappeared.  Eventually, all the potlatch feasts would be held only in Burns Lake.  As a hereditary chief, Willie tried to attend all the feasts he could and he invited me to join him sometime.  One day I did.

Ted Lowley was a resident of the Lake Babine Nation reserve in Burns Lake and had recently passed away.  His funeral and the associated potlatch were held on December 9, 2000.  Willie was ready when I stopped by at his place at 8:00 in the morning and, together with Fred William, we set off for Burns Lake, via Smithers.  Along the way, we chatted and I discovered from Fred that the current population of Fort Babine was about ninety people living in twenty-six houses.  I also learned there was a lot of animosity between the people of Fort Babine and those of Burns Lake.  There was a strong feeling of alienation and that had to do with the history and the amalgamation process back in 1957.

We arrived in Smithers in good time, filled up with gas, and then headed over to the “Babine Bus Depot.”  That was what a lot of people called the Super Valu grocery store and its tiny mall.  There we had some breakfast together and met up with Adam George, who decided to come with us to Burns Lake.  We were in Burns by noon and went straight to the Roman Catholic Church there for the funeral service.  Approximately five or six hundred people were there for that, mostly native.

After the funeral mass, the coffin was taken to the cemetery.  After a few words from the priest and some sprinkling of “holy” water, the body was lowered into the grave.  As was typical for First Nations funerals, the family was expressive in their grief.  It’s certainly not what someone growing up in a Dutch immigrant community is used to.  It’s not bad; it’s just different and that’s fine.  Later on, all the immediate family members took a turn shovelling dirt onto the coffin.

From the cemetery we went over to the Woyenne feast hall.  Willie had been told that the funeral feast would start right away.  However, there was no one there.  By this time we were getting hungry, so Willie took us out for lunch to a local Chinese restaurant.  Afterwards, we headed back to the feast hall, but there was still hardly anybody there.  We took a tour around the Woyenne Lake Babine Nation reserve, including a look at the local Taj Mahal – the LBN band office.  There were a lot of new houses on the reserve, paved roads, good water and sewer, and a nearby hospital.

Finally, at around 4:00 we went back to the hall and more people were beginning to arrive.  There was lots of standing and sitting around and socializing.  The feast itself didn’t get started until around 7:00.  It began with prayer and then food was served.  We had bannock, soup, and platefuls of all kinds of other good stuff.   While we ate, people were busy making contributions to pay for the cost of the funeral.  There is some reciprocity involved with this aspect of the potlatch – in other words, a person would make a contribution knowing that eventually it would somehow get paid back.  But there were also many instances where people would make contributions with “no-return,” meaning they didn’t want to get paid back.  That was motivated more by generosity than by reciprocity.  The giving of gifts would go on for several hours, but we had to leave early because I wanted to be home by midnight.  The next day was Sunday and we would be up early to make the trip back into Smithers to attend church.  So that was the second time I attended a potlatch.  It helped me to understand more about First Nations culture in this part of BC.

A few days later, we traded in the big blue Suburban for a smaller vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe.  Our days of providing bus service between Smithers and Fort Babine were over.  With our family of four in the vehicle, there was only room for one more person.  The Tahoe was great to drive, although like with every vehicle we had up there, we ended up stuck in the snow and ice more times than I care to remember.  I also became an expert in changing flat tires – in short order I was able to do it in well under 15 minutes.

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Interested in reading more?  The Gospel Under the Northern Lights is available here.


Pastoral Q & A: Is It Necessary to Read the Liturgical Forms Exactly as Written?

When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language.  Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching.  Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church.  Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process.  Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms.  Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility.  With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms.  This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory.  We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English.  The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith.  In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism.  In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.

But what about with an instituted church?  Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order.  In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56).  But what does that mean exactly?  Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?

Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish.  Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation.  The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort.  The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms.  Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.”  About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.”  From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.

Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place?  It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.  Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another.  It was confusing and chaotic.  So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.

In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written.  Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will.  Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations.  For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer.  There I’m simply substituting the full name for the pronoun “he (or she).”  That’s not a substantial change.

Let me make two concluding points.

First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary.  In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so.  When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem.  If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances.  Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes.  Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process.  The forms are not ours to change.

Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19).  I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written.  But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order.  In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis.  If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion.  At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon.  This is part of what it means to live together in a federation.  We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.