What Is the Mission of the Church?

A misguided attempt to define the main work of Christianity.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s new book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, might better be titled What the Mission of the Church Isn’t. Their main contention throughout the book is that the church’s mission is strictly limited to the following:

... to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship and obey Jesus Christ now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.

Clearly a reaction to the renewal of concern for justice among evangelicals, this book contends that the “main tension” of the biblical story line is this: "How can hopelessly rebellious, sinful people live in the presence of a perfectly just and righteous God?"

Therefore, they argue, the main work of the Church is to proclaim “the way for human beings to be reconciled to God [...] by being forgiven of sin and declared to be righteous instead of guilty.”

Certainly, that’s not an aim most evangelicals would disagree with. But whereas Jesus Himself proclaims that the Father has sent Him “to proclaim good news to the poor”—and whereas most of the New Testament authors seem convinced that following Jesus “cannot be separated from caring for the poor,”* Gilbert and DeYoung are certain that by this, Jesus mainly means those who are spiritually poor. They write:

"It simply was not Jesus’s driving ambition to heal the sick and meet the needs of the poor, as much as he cared for them. He was sent into the world to save people from condemnation." (Although, as my friend Chris* points out, Jesus talks more about money than about forgiveness of sins, heals more people than He pronounces forgiven and that eternal condemnation is what waits for those who, um, neglect the poor.)

Throughout the book, the authors offer readings of Scripture that cast God’s word as not so concerned with poverty and justice after all, at least, not in the way that Jim Wallis is. They use references to Hebrew and Greek, their own “exegesis” and citations from numerous commentaries to demonstrate that every social justice passage in Scripture can be easily explained as not so revolutionary after all.

Micah 6:8? It’s about not siding with the rich in judicial matters.

Matthew 25:31-46 (“whatever you do for the least of these...”)? Actually about supporting traveling ministers.

The epistle of James? Not about the disparity between rich and poor, but that the rich had hired help and then refused to pay them. (I don’t suppose that Luke 12:33, 1 John 3:17 or James 2:15-16 are really about providing for the poor, either? Or that Boaz, in the book of Ruth, cared that Ruth and Naomi were poor when he shared his grain? Probably he just wanted to "court" her.)

According to DeYoung and Gilbert, throughout the Bible, "‘Doing justice’ means not showing partiality, not stealing, not swindling, not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you. We dare say that most Christians in America are not guilty of these sorts of injustices, nor should they be made to feel that they are."

Did you catch that? Most of us are already doing justice and don’t need to worry about a thing.

After all, "It’s too easy to wield 'social justice' like a two-by-four to whack every middle-class Christian who tithes, prays, works hard, deals fairly with others, and serves faithfully in the local church but doesn’t have time to give to or be involved in every cause."

Throughout the book, the authors repeat something to the effect of “we’re not trying to discourage people from doing justice!” But for every one of these there are 10 reasons why various ministries of mercy (or calls to action) are theologically or economically misguided.

Fair-trade coffee?

To them it, it “artificially distort[s] market prices, making farmers dependent on the good will of others for their livelihood.”

Minimum wage laws?

They don’t really help the working poor, but instead “make employers less likely to create new entry-level positions.” (This one could’ve only been written by people who’ve never known anyone who had to live on anything close to minimum wage.)

And even the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy is nothing to get upset about, since those purchases are "providing jobs for the yacht maker, the high-end clothing designer, and the Hummer dealership, not to mention the builder, the landscaper, and the pool maintenance man."

As you might’ve already guessed, the authors spend a good bit of time singing the praises of free market capitalism—“common grace [is] afforded to all in a market system,” “the economic reality is that wealth can be created ... [you don’t run out of pie, the] pie gets bigger”—and casting doubt on the whole charitable enterprise—“Bill Gates and Microsoft have done more to alleviate poverty in India than Mother Teresa.” It’s kind of the Christian version of George W. Bush’s famous advice to Americans to boost the Iraq war economy by going shopping. Don’t worry about sacrificial giving—you’ll take care of the poor better just by buying yourself a new computer.

Meanwhile, they say, God’s people are “passive” in the coming of Christ’s kingdom. We are not “culture makers,” taking up Adam’s task—because all of that is taken up by Jesus. (“We simply share in the fruits of his victory.”) And anyway, the authors want us to be aware that anything we do might well be done away with at the end of time, "therefore we should not be so bold as to insist that our efforts at cultural renewal [including justice seeking] will have an impact on the renewed earth."

I certainly agree with the authors that churches working for social justice without talking about the salvation made possible by Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection have lost the Way. But these authors, intent on limiting the mission of the Church to the verbal declaration of a Gospel that’s understood to say very little about justice for the poor, are equally misguided.

[*Thanks to my friend Christopher Hays, a New Testament wealth ethicist with a Ph.D. from Oxford who offered his expert insights on this piece andalso let me peek at his paper, "Provision for the Poor and the Missionof the Church: Ancient Appeals and Contemporary Viability," presented at the 2011 Prestige FOCUS Conference on Mission and Ethics at theUniversity of Pretoria, South Africa.]

Rachel Stone is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s women’s blog, her.meneutics and maintains a daily blog devoted to food, faith and justice. She has written for Books and Culture, Christianity Today, Creation Care Magazine, Flourish Online, The Progressive Christian and Catapult Magazine.