Worldview and mission

Suggestions for a mission theology

Juan Carlos Viera is director of the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland.

In the 1970s, a new theology of mission erupted in Latin America: liberation theology. Many considered it basically a political movement, as evidenced by violent riots led by priests and pastors, yet behind the scene there were theologians—both Catholic and Protestant— working out a new theology of mission resulting in a nonbiblical worldview.

The liberation theology movement is a prime example of how certain contemporary worldviews are able to distort a Christian view of mission. Involved in the Latin American theology was the formation of an unscriptural theology of mission. To avoid similar pitfalls in our own mission theology, the Seventh-day Adventist Church must have a biblical, Christ-centered worldview. Establishing and maintaining this worldview and thus preserving our global mission is the subject of this analysis.

To set the stage for this analysis, let us take a deeper look at what happened to the worldview and mission of the liberation theology movement. Before the actual reshaping of ecclesiastical mission came the undermining influence of an ill-founded theology. The doctrines most affected were ecclesiology— the doctrine of the church, Christology—the doctrine of Christ, and hermeneutics—the interpretation of the Scriptures. We examine each in turn.

Aberrations of liberation theology

Ecclesiological claims. One liberation theologian asserted: "A radical review of what the church has been, and presently is, becomes necessary." 1 The church was condemned as too rich, too hierarchical, and too silent. The object was for the church to share its riches with the poor, abandon its high position, and come closer to the people. Beyond that, liberation theologians challenged the church to be a "prophetic" church, denouncing, as the prophets of the Old Testament did, the injustices against the poor and the oppressed. They even questioned the concept of the church as "the people of God," rather considering all humanity as "God's people."

Christological claims. Liberation theology purported to bring back the Christ of the Gospels; the Christ walking among the people; healing and feeding them. In reality, it undermined both of the biblical images of Christ, namely, the suffering Christ on the cross and the conquering Christ coming on the clouds. It challenged the first one for its connotations of failure and defeat and the second one for its closeness to the earthly kings and governing powers. We all realize this is political language following a political agenda. The point here is to illustrate how the liberation theology movement needed to challenge the message of the church to reach its goal.

New hermeneutics. For liberation theologians, Bible study is useless unless it starts with the comprehension of the reality that surrounds us. In other words, the starting point for doing hermeneutics is not the sacred text it self, but the situation in which the majority of humanity lives, that is, in poverty and oppression. Only then—the liberation theologians say—can the history of the Exodus, or Israel's return from the Babylonian captivity, have new meaning for the people who are now in similar situations.

A Christ-centered mission theology

The case study of liberation theology is one of many new theologies of mission that have burst onto the scene. Some of them challenge proselytism as one of the evils of Christianity. Others advocate Christian presence instead of Christian churches. Still others consider the social responsibility of the church as more important than the spiritual service the church may offer to the world.

In all of this, the only safe path to a sound theology of mission is a biblical, Christ-centered approach. Both modern missiologists and the prophetic writings agree that Christ's mission is the model for the mission of the church.

"In both these sentences [John 17:18; 20:21] Jesus did more than draw a vague parallel between His mission and ours. Deliberately and precisely He made His mission the model of ours, saying 'as the Father sent me, so I send you.' Therefore our understanding of the church's mission must be deduced from our understanding of the Son's."2

"The followers of Christ are to do the same work that Christ did when He was in the world."3

Cosmological dimensions

Christ's view of the world makes that world the object of divine love. This principle of love for the world was fundamental for the mission of Christ (see John 3:16) and is basic for the mission of the church. True, there seems to be a theological tension between "God so loved the world" and "love not the world" (1 John 2:15), but it is clearly improper to conclude that God would have us disassociate ourselves from the world in terms of our mission. In God's worldview, the world is a place to save, not to condemn, for the judgment of God upon the world has the ultimate goal of salvation, not condemnation (see John 3:17-19).

Depending on our worldview, we will see the world "as a garbage heap of Satan or the recyclable of God."4 Christians with a skewed worldview find it easier to condemn the world than to do something for its salvation.

Beyond making this planet an object of His love, Christ's own worldview made it the place for Him to be incarnated. The incarnation principle is the single most important principle for the formulation of a mission theology.

"He [Christ] did not touch down like a visitor from outer space, or arrive like an alien bringing His own alien culture with Him. He took to Himself our humanity, our flesh and blood, our culture. ... It is surely one of the most characteristic failures of us Christians, not the least of us who are called evangelical Christians, that we seldom seem to take seriously this principle of the Incarnation.... It comes more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance  than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and their problems, and to feel with them in their pains."5

As we follow the example of Christ, the world also becomes the place of our own incarnation. The impact of this upon mission theology is basic and fundamental: Christ's commission is not only going to the world, but being in the world (see John 17:15-17). Any at tempt to separate the church from the world is against the incarnation principle set by Christ for His church.

Anthropological dimensions

Christ's view of the human person fosters a holistic approach to the human being. His mission was oriented to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of people, as well as the social needs of the community, and all of that surrounded by compassion (see Matt. 9:35, 36). In performing His acts of mercy, Christ was "doing hermeneutics"—living out the right interpretation of the gospel.

"Constantly He [Christ] went about doing good, sympathizing with the weary, the heavy laden, the oppressed, feeding the hungry and healing the sick. By His loving words and kindly deeds, He interpreted the gospel.... The gospel is the power of God unto salvation when it is interwoven with the practical life, when it is lived and practiced. The union of Christlike work for the body and Christlike work for the soul is the true interpretation of the gospel."6

This statement confirms that hermeneutics, the interpretation of the gospel, is done not only in theological and academic circles—essential as that is—but in the daily lives of simple Christians sharing compassion in every day situations.

Theological and ecclesiological dimensions

With His presence and His compassion, Christ brought the kingdom of God closer to the people. He expects His fol lowers to do the same in ministering to the sick, the hungry, and in comforting the weak (see Matt. 10:7, 8; Luke 10:9). As Seventh-day Adventists, we place a strong emphasis on the eschatological dimension of the kingdom of God, and that is good. In regards to forming a mission theology, limiting our view of the kingdom to the eschatological may be faulty. In Christ's view, the kingdom of heaven was present and real among the people. The theological tension between the "already" and the "not yet" seems to fit into the concept of the kingdom. Without abandoning the preaching and the teaching of the Second Coming, we can enrich the lives of people with the present blessings of God's kingdom.

In the illustrations Christ used to clarify the mission of the church, we may find important missiological connotations. For example, He spoke of light, salt, and leaven. It is true that to illuminate the world the church needs to stand on a higher-plane, "on a hill" (Matt. 5:14-16). To avoid any misunderstanding, the wise Lord accompanied this illustration with the concept of being "salt" (verse 13). In being the "salt" of the earth, or the "leaven" in the loaf (see Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:21), the church has to descend from the hill and mix itself with the "dough" to produce the transformation from within. Once again we find the in carnation principle at work.

A church on the move

Recently our church had a paradigm shift when it moved from a geographical worldview of mission to a more anthropological approach. Until 1985 the church reported its world advance using a territorial chart. The number of countries entered was the standard by which we evaluated how far we were from a finished mission. At the 1986 Annual Council in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the church moved to a new focus: specific segments of population within those countries. This, of course, is more in tune with the biblical worldview of mission, which represents the message going not only to nations, but also to every "kindred, and tongue, and people" (Rev. 14:6).

"Go," the first word of the Great Commission, is considered by many missiologists to be one of the most important missiological breakthroughs of all times. It was the starting point of a new concept of mission. Jesus envisioned a church on the move, from the center out to the borders. His church ever moving farther and farther. He saw it as a community that never settles down, never satisfied with what has so far been reached. It is a church that always has new goals, new territories to enter, and new population groups to reach. This is in line with Christ's own worldview and mission.

Adapted from a presentation at the 1995
Annual Council.

1 Gustavo Gutierrez, Liberation Theology.
Perspectives, p. 322.

2 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modem
World (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press,
1975), p. 23.

3 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald,
Mar. 27, 1894.

4 Harvie Conn, Evangelism: Doing Justice
and Preaching Grace (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Pres
byterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1992), p. 107.

5 Stott, p. 25.

6 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald,
Mar. 4, 1902.

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Juan Carlos Viera is director of the Ellen G. White Estate, Silver Spring, Maryland.

December 1995

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