Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Incarnational ministry?

How are we to minister to the world? Do we present a social gospel, a social and spiritual gospel or a spiritual one. Who should we imitate, Jesus or Paul? Perhaps, I should say should Paul's or Jesus' example of ministry be the basis of ours?

I think that the message we preach is most certainly spiritual over all the other options, despite the fact that it has effects on society. Christ's ministry on earth was not primarily social, for he did not come incarnate to relieve the temporal poverty of the Jews, but to the fulfill the Law and sacrificial acts of the High Priest as explained in Hebrews. His ministry to the poor was for their eternal salvation, as seen in his teachings which emphasized Love of God, obedience, and the danger of hell. He ministered to the poor, because the were humble, knowing they are sinners (Matt. 9;12). His goal was not the alleviation of poverty (Matt. 26;11), but the the proclamation that the kingdom is at hand(Matt 4;17) and proving his authority as messiah through miracles (Jh. 14;11). John's version of the the Great commission does not emphasize a social gospel but rather that we are given authority through the Holy Spirit and are to proclaim the kingdom (Jh. 20;21). We are called to suffer like Christ for the gospel ministry (Matt. 5;11, Jh 15;20, Phil 1;29).

The stated reasons make clear that Jesus ministry to the poor was spiritual. The Jewish context was special in that they had the Law and the promises and the word. He went to the Jew, not the gentile and rejected political involvement. Throughout Acts we see Christ proclaim as savior and the apostles as witnesses. It is Paul that is specifically sent to the gentiles and Paul that says he is all things to all people (1 Cor. 9;19-23). In addition to this it is Paul that sells us to be imitators of him as he is of Christ (1 Cor 4;16-17, 11;1). If then we are to imitate Christ, which we are, then we should imitate him in the way that Paul imitated Christ. We should apply his understanding of what it meant to imitate Christ. By pointing this out, I want to show that instead of looking to Christ as our example of how to minister we should look at Christ through Paul. Where Christ tells us to make disciples of the nations, Paul shows and instructs us in the way that we should do that. So, how did Paul imitate Christ? He suffered and gave up his freedoms, even privileges for effective ministry. While Christ's work with the Jews may be descriptive (an example) of a contextualized ministry, it is Paul that tells us to do that in 1 Cor. 9.

Interpreting missions and ministry through Paul will help us to better understand in what we are to imitate Christ and in what ways his ministry was truly unique. doing the reverse will undoubtedly lead to misapplications of the gospels and how we are to minister. The key to how we are to glorify God in ministry is to imitate Paul as he imitated Christ (1 Cor. 11;1).

Samuel Gantt


Jeff said...

If I understand you correctly, you're basically saying two things: (1) the 'spiritual gospel' supercedes and takes precedent over the 'social gospel', and (2), that deed ministry or the 'social gospel' is just a means to an end for evangelism or the 'spiritual gospel'. I'm going to have to disagree. Am I still allowed to do that on this blog? Seriously, I know I'm not good with conveying tone on comments, I'm really just trying to respectfully disagree.

God created the spiritual and the physical, the spiritual and the physical have fallen under the decay of sin, but both the spiritual and the physical will be redeemed in the new heavens and new earth. If God gives import and worth to both, why shouldn't we? Jesus, after all, was powerful in word and deed (Luke 24:19). When we make the 'spiritual' the primary focus, we start down gnostic paths where nothing in creation, or even creation at all, matters very much and ignore the very real and material eschatological implications of the new heavens and new earth, see Wright. If we focus on the 'social', we ignore the redemptive work of Christ for our justification through faith. Instead, there is but one gospel.

Tim Keller's book Ministries of Mercy was helpful for me understanding these things: "The proper model is not (1) to see mercy as the means to evangelism, or (2) to see mercy and evangelism as independent ends, but (3) to see both word and deed, evangelism and mercy, as means to the single end of the spread of the kingdom of God. To say that social concern could be done independently of evangelism is to cut mercy loose from kingdom endeavor. It must then wither. To say that evangelism can be done without also doing social concern is to forget that our goal is not individual "decisions," but the bringing of all life and creation under the lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God."

Anonymous said...

Sam great set of questions. We should look at the gospels through the lenses of the epistles. Jeff, I would argue, for now I will just state, that Wright too many times interprets the epistles through the lenses of the Gospels. I have read a number of Wrights work and I think that is a problem that he has. I read the Surprised by Hope book very quickly a few months back, so I have forgotten a lot of it. However I remember thinking that he holds a somewhat near materialist view. I would like to go back and read it again.

The point should be made that Jesus did not have a social gospel, at least not in the way the term is used. When he came he did not seek to overthrow Roman rule or a number of other social ills like slavery. He did not encourage the building of roads or hospitals. It is true that Jesus cared for the sick and that he encouraged giving money to the poor but these were secondary to the main event: His death and resurrection. Also, as we look at the Acts of the Apostles, while helping widows and orphans was important, the main job of the church was the preaching. Because word and spirit are the means that God uses to save individuals. Notice that Paul's missionary journey's were not focused on hospitals. He may have built them. However, Acts of the apostles does not record that because the primary mission was to see individuals be saved.

I think Luther's, somewhat inconsistently held, two kingdoms theology is helpful here. However I would not push it two far because I do not fully agree with it.

Jeff said...

Steven - what do you mean Wright holds a "somewhat near materialist view"? I don't understand, could you elaborate?

In response to your second paragraph, my point is that Jesus had one gospel, not two, and that there are different aspects to that gospel (word and deed), but that it's all working toward the same end, the same gospel, namely the real physical kingdom of God restored in the new heavens and new earth. The tendency to separate them as 'two gospels' pits them against each other, when they really function together. Pitting them against each other causes the more evangelical minded into downplaying the need to minister mercy, and the more socially minded into downplaying evangelism, when in fact they are "two wings of the same plane." Planes need two wings to fly.

I think that holding evangelism over everything else, over our everyday physical lives, over ministering mercy, has the inevitable consequence that the physical things we do day to day don't matter (which I absolutely disagree with) and that the everyday jobs and services of lay people extending grace to the world and deeds of mercy really don't matter that much except maybe as a means to an end. I think that's a dangerous path to travel. But I'm not expecting to change either of your minds. When's the last time some blog comment made you change your mind? And really what hope do I have changing the minds of two Baptists going to seminary on the interdependence and importance of both evangelism and service ministry?

Anonymous said...

Materialism, which Wright, for the record does not support, is the thesis that all that exist is material. This philosophical position is the mainstay of contemporary secularism. Now why I said what I said is that Wright places a special importance on the need for physical bodies. If I am right about wright, personal identity can only be had with a physical body. I would agree with the idea that we need physical bodies to interact with external stimuli, but I do see the body as necessary for personal identity. I question whether we will always have the same physical body in the afterlife. I see an immediate transportation to paradise and the uniting with a different body. That seems to comport with Jesus statement on the cross. I don't currently own the book so I am not up on it. Anyhow I am not sure that this matters all that much but I think that is how he makes his case and attempts to connect the dots.
What is even more telling, concerning Wright, is that Wright has a different conception of the gospel than we evangelicals have. Wrights gospel is more along the lines of covenant nominism following Sanders ideas. Thus I think for him to stay in the covenant he has to be the social activist that he is (joke with truth).
I too believe that there is not two gospels. I believe that there is one gospel. However that Gospel is not about social reform in the fleshly sense but about the forgiveness of sins and the forensic declaration that we are accounted as righteous covenant keeping members of his kingdom through the gift of faith.
With all that said, I do believe that civic justice is good, noble and righteous. As God sanctifies his people you will see his people promoting social concerns. For instance, for many years now Baptist and many other denominations have been building hospitals. However that is not the gospel. The gospel is fundamentally good news about what happened 2000 years ago. I don't live the gospel I believe in the gospel.

Jeff, I appreciate your interest in our blog. Thanks for your post.

SS&SG said...

Thanks for the comments I really appreciate them. whether I am convinced or not your comments help me to think through a lot of these things. It is a great opportunity.

Perhaps I did not make it clear in the post, but I do think that social justice is good and that it can be supported in missions. Still, I have made a case that that is not the thrust of the gospel, nor is it equal to the spiritual mission of the church. I do think that the spiritual message takes priority over the social.The social is not unimportant though.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is he stated two commandments. But in doing so he makes it unequivocally clear the the 1st is greater than the second. The first deals with loving God, the spiritual; the second deals with the Christian life as it relates to others, it is social. Jesus and Paul downplay the social aspects in favor of the spiritual. It is clear that loving God leads to the love of neighbor, and social change is effected. But a right knowledge of God causes our actions to conform to a Christian lifestyle and concerns. conformity without knowledge is ultimately vain. The importance of the soul concerns God more than societies conformity to the ideal social order. Is God more concerned with the economic state of the unbeliever or their physical health? Would he rather them suffer torments eternally that are far greater than all earthly suffering? Instead, as an expression of our love for God and his (as well as ours) for others we love our neighbors and help them. James makes it clear how important this is. But loving and honoring God is what the final judgment is about. The poor will be with us always (until the judgment). So, if we love God we will love our neighbor, this is light years from gnosticism, and explains how we can put the spiritual before the social without neglecting it.
I hope that clears up my position.
Jeff, you put a link to your blog about the day to day life of Christians being important. I just wanted to say that I interested in how we glorify God in our daily work. It is important and is neglected which is odd in a culture that demands application I think. I have enjoyed learning from Os Guinness, Luther, Kent Hughes and(I forgot his first name) Sheridan. Sheridan wrote a book called, "Your Work Matters To God" that is nice, and Lyland Ryken has come out with one on work and leisure that looks interesting. For the Lay person especially I think that these (everyday life) topics are very important. Anyways, maybe you'll like some of the above authors works.

Sam Gantt

Jeff said...

Steven - "The gospel is fundamentally good news about what happened 2000 years ago." It is that, of course, but I believe it's also more. I believe it includes the creation-fall-redemption-restoration narrative as well as the the traditional evangelic God-man-Christ-faith formulation, and that the creation-fall-redemption-restoration has implications beyond (not instead of) individual conversion that elevates seeking-justice or ministry-mercy or deed-service over it being just an after though or simply a "noble" deed.

Sam - "I hope that clears up my position." It is clear. I understand that you both think social justice is 'good and all', but that it's really just secondary. I still disagree, and we could comment back and forth for a long time I think. I think the major point I want to get across is that there's always this tendency to separate the spiritual and the physical, as if they're opposites in tension, but God created both and will redeem both, and I think the implications of that are too often overlooked.

Here's one more link, to an article called The Gospel in All its Forms, which I found as a result of our discussion and thought you guys might like to take a look.

Also, Sam, when can you drink again? Christmas break? Because I'm making some homebrew I thought you might like to try.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the discussion. I agree with everything you wrote in response to me. I think that your hit is on the head when you said,
"the creation-fall-redemption-restoration has implications beyond (not instead of) individual conversion that elevates seeking-justice or ministry-mercy or deed-service over it being just an after though or simply a "noble" deed."
This is true, but we must recognize that these implications are not the gospel. I agree that our serving others is important. I do not think that leading others to faith and repentance in Christ is an equally important act as building hospitals or social justice. If you heal the sick they can become sick again. If someone becomes saved they will have eternal life. The two are hardly equal. If you give a man relief from suffering they can suffer again, however if a man dies without faith they will suffer eternal torment. I am not sure how much we disagree. If you equate the importance of evangelism to the importance of social justice then I think we have a real disagreement.
Thanks for participating in the conversation.

Anonymous said...

cool subject

What does Incarnation mean? except that the spiritual is expressed through the physical?

If anyone considers himself religious(spiritual) and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
Religion(Spiritualness) that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?

"I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions"

Put another way you can not just do whatever you want and be incarnational just because your a spiritual person. The spiritual communicates through the physical

Anonymous said...

Thanks, whoever you are for your post on our blog. Next time feel free to sign your name at the end of the post. When you place your name next to your statement you are assuming the responsibility of your words. We prefer you do this.
About your statement, "What does Incarnation mean? except that the spiritual is expressed through the physical?" I think I know what you meant. However I think that your statement can be interpreted in a way that Jeff was warning about. It might lead to a kind of Gnosticism.
Certainly with Christ incarnation it was not merely the spiritual expressed through physical. Jesus a human, is God. Christ divinity and humanity are not two sides of the same coin. Neither are they a divisible. Christ sits at the right hand of the father 100 percent Divine and 100 percent man.
Anyhow with that said, I do not think that you intended to deny this. I just wanted to bring this to the conversation.

Spiritual thinking said...

wow! I so appreciate this. thank you.

Laws of thinking