The Link Between Theology and Mission

March 26, 2012

I left off last time listing, but not expanding upon, the implication of the MCC Report involving the creation of new presbyteries: Create provisional presbyteries around specific missional purposes.  

Right out the chute, the language in the Report is very careful about the formation of non-geographic presbyteries. Those congregations that need a way out of their current presbyteries because of theological incompatibility have a particular challenge because of two conditions given in the report, that 1) these new presbyteries achieve specific missional purposes, and 2) they some how reflect the “rich diversity” of God’s people.

In practice over the last few months, pastors have reported to me “the word from above” (i.e. Louisville) mediated by their presbytery officials is that transfer from one presbytery to another would not be allowed merely to enable a congregation to align with theologically like-minded souls. Presumably, this injunction reflects a view that theological diversity in a presbytery is a good thing that must be preserved. If congregations could justify a transfer on grounds of mission compatibility, the process could proceed. This condition raises at least two concerns:

1. the seeming denial that the church has experienced a serious internal split along theological lines. Some have described this as two churches under one roof. My experience navigating the hallways in a divided presbytery would substantiate this claim. The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is whether one views the theological divide as a blessing or a curse; but it is a divide, not mere nuance. I expanded on that idea in my “asymptote” post awhile back. With a very few exceptions, I do not believe my liberal colleagues really need or want an evangelical point of view expressed and honored in our presbytery. We are there for show, or more accurately, to be an audience against which others make their arguments. This is not “rich diversity” nor is it “mission-minded.” It is conflict at a most basic level, and mission is suffering as a result.

2. the unfortunate accommodation which started at least ninety years ago, when the church decided it was not necessary for us to agree upon theology, in order for us to do mission together. In other words, if we can’t agree on theology, at least we can agree on mission. That was easy for Presbyterians to say then, when theological differences were a matter of very fine distinctions within a classic orthodox framework. But that situation has devolved into mutually exclusive theologies, with chasms between a conservative and liberal view of Scripture, the atonement, the nature of the gospel, and in fact what “mission” is.

How is it that the church has separated mission from theology? Our mission comes out of our theology; the two cannot be divorced. Paul was emphatic about the connection between the two: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). What we believe (the content of our faith) and therefore what we teach and for what reason is intrinsic to the practice of mission: “ . . . if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Even the unique claim of Christianity, that salvation and eternal life is found only in Jesus Christ, is under dispute within our tribe, despite Jesus’ claim in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”; and Peter’s ringing proclamation after Pentecost, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). These are the theological essentials for evangelicals, and dissent from this clear teaching of our Savior and our forbears in the faith undermines mission at a fundamental level.

What is the purpose of “mission,” if it is not to introduce people to the saving work of Jesus Christ, give them the opportunity to align their lives with him, and trust him for their salvation? [Yes of course, we proclaim and embody the Kingdom of God, but this demonstration of God’s reign is never divorced from a true proclamation of the gospel!] Presbyterians must be very careful what kind of diversity they promote and require within newly formed presbyteries. And evangelical/conservative congregation that desire to get on with mission, based on an orthodox Christology, must find a way to articulate this so that “the powers that be” understand the connection between theology and effective mission.


7 Responses to “The Link Between Theology and Mission”

  1. Bob H Says:

    It seems to me that the tactical course for congregations displeased with recent GA votes would be to shift to other presbyteries until majorities are achieved in a majority of presbyteries. This would allow getting the voting result desired in presbyteries showing great diversity. Retreating to “like-minded” presbyteries, non-geographical or otherwise, only increases the margin of defeat.

  2. I will always remember a breakout discussion group in my missions class at a Presbyterian seminary, that in my naivete I was astonished that out of the 20 or so people present, only two of us could affirm that sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ was a necessary (let alone indispensable) component of mission activity.

    • jubalante Says:

      Amen. I remember a like discussion in one of our classes when the mission of an Atlanta area church was being presented. We were being told that we were to respect the “clients” and not witness about Jesus. I had the audacity to speak up and comment that it seemed the church being described was nothing more than a glorified Rotary Club. For that I was asked to leave the class by the instructor who later became one of the major national players in the PCUSA. While she chastised me in front of the class, the next day she took me into the hall and apologized and invited me back into the class.

      • Jodie Says:

        Or perhaps the instructor was trying to teach you something you were not ready to learn?

        I know nothing of the person you heard speak, but there is a need for cultural sensitivity when being a guest in other people’s homes. There are lots of jaded people out there who are sick and tired of having the Four Spiritual Laws crammed down their throats as if that had anything to do with sharing the Gospel. For example. And there are lots of people out there who are weary of “ugly Americans” trying to tell them what is best for them, as if THAT was sharing the Gospel. Or being told they are “lost” by someone who can’t even speak their language or shop for food in the local market. A lot of sharing the Gospel has had the opposite effect due to poor presentation skills on the part of the one trying to share.

        Sometimes sharing the Gospel requires listening (to a “client”?) in absolute silence.

  3. Renee Guth Says:

    How true…

  4. Ron Says:

    A couple of years ago in our study group reading Romans, I made it a point to memorize Rom 1:16-17. One of the most important statements in the Bible.

    Today’s Cultural Version (TCV) begins the translation this way: “I am so ashamed of the gospel….”

  5. Jodie Says:


    When my parents and grandparents joined the mission field, it was a life long commitment. When we arrived in country, they were given burial plots, as a seal of that commitment.

    Presbyterians in those days were profoundly committed the totality of the Gospel. They were devoted to church planting and guiding people to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ as their personal and corporate savior, making disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of His ethics and teachings, teaching them to pray, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They distributed food and clothing to the hungry and poorly clothed, built and staffed schools, provided health care and built hospitals, all in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

    Not just preach the Gospel, but Be the Gospel.

    And then the conservative Evangelicals went on the warpath against Mission. The Evangelical churches in the US stopped giving to Mission as a result of some silly nonsense involving Angela Davis. They killed Mission almost overnight.

    All those Evangelical missionaries, thousands of them, were effectively laid off in the 70s, and sent back to the US to fend for themselves. (How many churches are willing to hire an ex missionary from nowhere Africa, or no place South America, as their pastor?)

    I don’t think the Evangelicals are ready for true mission work again. They are too conflicted and insecure to be effective. The moment someone somewhere did something the least bit questionable, the whole process would implode. There is no risk taking. No vulnerability left.

    And that is what mission work requires more than anything. Fearless risk taking and personal vulnerability right down to the core of your soul, with unwavering trust in Jesus Christ that if you loose your self for His sake, He is right there to find you.

    The necessary link between theology and mission is relationship. Evangelization requires relationship, relationship requires trust, trust requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires love. That is why Jesus commanded us to love one another. That is where it all starts. It takes practice.

    With all due respect, a denomination made up of people who flee relationships that do not suit them (how many Evangelicals are divorced?), and refuse to trust and be vulnerable and love each other more than their own theologies will not find mission work to their liking.

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