Labels are a curse. One of the staff articles we read recently (every week at our staff meeting we read and discuss an article together) was “Churches with Adjectives” by Richard Floyd (http://richardlfloyd.com). This is the very best argument against labels, especially for churches and Christians, that I have ever come across. And yet, labels and adjectives seem unavoidable – I’ve read that our brains just naturally categorize and sort – we can’t help ourselves! And so, if you are going to label me, label me “generously orthodox.” This is a label that gets lots of play these days, the origin of which is cloudy. I first came across it in something I read by Bruce Metzger, the late Princeton New Testament scholar. If he didn’t coin the term, he certainly embodied it. Perhaps the best explanation of the term is the one that Fleming Rutledge offers on her web page that’s actually called “Generous Orthodoxy” –
We cannot do without orthodoxy, for everything else must be tested against it, but that orthodox (traditional, classical) Christian faith should by definition always be generous as our God is generous; lavish in his creation, binding himself in an unconditional covenant, revealing himself in the calling of a people, self-sacrificing in the death of his Son, prodigal in the gifts of the Spirit, justifying the ungodly and indeed, offending the “righteous” by the indiscriminate nature of his favor. True Christian orthodoxy therefore cannot be narrow, pinched, or defensive but always spacious, adventurous and unafraid. (www.generousorthodoxy.org)
On Monday evening we had our most recent “Faiths in Conversation” gathering, and our topic was “Conversion, Proselytizing and Salvation Outside the Faith.” This was the most challenging conversation for me yet with my interfaith partners, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger of Jerusalem and Imam Zia Sheik of the Irving Islamic Association. Gandhi said that it’s hard to be fraternal when you believe that you have an absolute truth, and as a Christian I believe that Jesus Christ is just that – an absolute truth (John 14:6). And so here is what I said in my attempt to be “generously orthodox.” DBS+
Psalm 24:1 confidently proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” And as a Christian, it is with this emphatic affirmation of God’s universal intentions – how everyone, everywhere falls within the scope of God’s claim – that I must start any conversation about conversion, proselytizing and the salvation of non-Christians.
I believe that it is the whole world and not just my own particular family of faith that is the object of God’s special attention and activity, and this goes all the way back to the inaugural story of redemption in my Bible as a Christian, not the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem’s manger, nor the story of Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross and His resurrection from the Garden Tomb three days later, but rather the story of the call of our common father Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 12:1-3).
Dr. Gardner Taylor, the great African American Baptist preacher who is said to have a voice like God’s, “only deeper,” was once asked what the Bible was about. He answered simply and directly, “God is out to get back what belongs to Him.” As a Christian, this is what I believe that Christ’s birth, and life, and death, and resurrection are all about – I believe that this is where the story of how “God gets back what belongs to Him” comes to its zenith. But this isn’t a story that begins with Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. No, this is a story that goes all the way back to Genesis chapter 12, all the way back to the story of God’s call of our father Abram.
The God we meet in Genesis chapter 12 is a Missionary God, a God who is “out to get back what belongs to Him.” In-between the stories of God’s purposeful and personal Creation in Genesis chapters 1 & 2, and the story of Abram’s call in Genesis chapter 12, there are a whole series of other stories, painful stories that describe how we as human beings have rebelled against God and made a perfect mess of things. We have spoiled the Shalom of Creation, shattering the web of blessing and well-being for which we were designed and into which we were placed. But instead of just walking away from us at that point as a failed experiment, God drew even closer. The God who made us began His plan to “get back what belonged to Him.”
“I will bless you, and make your name great” God told Abram (Genesis 12:2). Now, this call of Abram by God can, “at first glance seem to be a narrowing of the interests of the God of the whole earth to the private history of just one family and tribe,” observed the Dutch theologian Johannes Verkuyl. But “nothing could be further from the truth.”
“God’s election of Abram and Israel concerns the whole world. …In choosing them as a segment of all humanity, God never took His eye off the other nations… God deals so intensely with them precisely because he is maintaining his personal claim on the whole world. …God chose Israel in preparation for the complete unwrapping and disclosure of his universal intentions.” (Verkuyl)
“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). That’s the “purpose clause” in God’s call of Abram. God was going to bless Abram and Israel so that in them and through them “all the families of the earth might be blessed.” God’s purpose in Genesis chapter 12 was “universal in scope” and “global in audience” (Walter Kaiser). The God of Abraham was a missionary God, and the people of Israel were constituted to be a missionary people.
At the base of Mt. Sinai, when God cut His covenant with Abraham’s sons and daughters after miraculously bringing them out of Egypt (Exodus 19) – “bearing them on eagles’ wings and bringing them to Himself” (4) – God told them that they were going to be His “own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a Kingdom of priests” (6). Walter Kaiser observes that – “It is here that Israel’s missionary role became explicit if any doubt remained. The whole nation was to function on behalf of the Kingdom of God as mediators between God and the nations.” Israel was the bridge that God built to bring the world back to Himself.
One of my favorite images in the whole Bible is the Prophet Zechariah’s vision of the minyans of Gentiles clinging to the hems of the coats of the Jews and being drug to Jerusalem, up to the Temple. “Let us go with you,” the men from all the nations cry out, “for we have heard that God is with you” (8:23). This was the purpose of God’s call of Abram; for Israel to be the vehicle by which all the families of the earth would be brought back into a right relationship with God.
Now, as a Christian, I believe that the story of God’s redemption of the world that began with the missionary God’s call of Abram in Genesis chapter 12 inexorably leads Jesus Christ. This is how I believe that God actually goes about “getting back what belongs to Him.” And when I embrace Jesus Christ by faith as my Lord and Savior, then I am enlisted in the great missionary cause of God that goes all the way back to Abram in Genesis chapter 12.
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:9-10)
These are not words from the Hebrew Scriptures spoken to Israel; no, these are words from the New Testament that are spoken to me as a Christian. Clearly they echo the missionary identity and mandate that Israel was given in Exodus, but here they get extended to me as a Christian as well. Because the God of the Bible is a missionary God, we who belong to Him are a missionary people. As the late mission theologian David Bosch put it, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.” And this means that for me as a Christian not to tell you about Jesus Christ and what it is that I believe that He has done for us is not only a failure of my obedience to a divine command, it is a denial of who it is that I believe God to be, a Missionary God whose greatest desire is to see every one of us to be brought back into a right relationship with Himself. But it’s how I tell you about this that is either going to build a bridge or erect a wall.
My first professor of Christian Mission liked to talk about the difference between how Christianity was first introduced in Mexico, and how Christianity was first introduced in China. He said that Christianity came to Mexico by way of military conquest. The first missionaries to Mexico travelled with the army, and the church got planted on the rubble of a vanquished culture. Nothing from the previous faith traditions of the people was affirmed, nothing from how they understood God, or the world and their place in it was carried forward. It was only when what had been there before had been completely levelled and cleared that the church began to preach the Gospel and attempted to spiritually start again from scratch.
This is the way of “total rejection” and “radical displacement.” And because it is the way that the church has operated at times, Christian Mission has often been viewed as a kind of spiritual genocide, as an activity that has as its goals the complete denial of the insights of other faith traditions, and the eventual elimination of all those faith traditions. And against the backdrop of this history, I completely understand how the Great Commission that I have been given as a Christian by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel could be experienced by you who are Jews as the ultimate expression of anti-Semitism, and how it could be experienced by you who are Muslims as the ultimate expression of anti-Islamism.
If the way that Christianity was first introduced to Mexico was the only way that the church had ever engaged in mission, or could engage in mission, then this would be a very different kind of gathering here this evening. It would be a debate and not a dialogue, and the goal would be for me to try to destroy what it is that you believe and not to try to understand it. But as a Christian I have another model for mission. In Acts 14:17 the Apostle Paul, one of the very first missionaries of Christianity, noted that God has not left Himself without witness anywhere on earth. And then when Paul’s missionary work brought him to the ancient city of Athens the book of Acts tells us that the very first thing he did was to find an altar “to an Unknown God” on Mars Hill and to use that existing religious category as a way to talk with his audience about Jesus Christ. And according to my first professor of Christian mission, this was how the first Christian missionaries to China actually operated.
Rather than starting by putting up a wall, telling people that nothing from what they previously believed or practiced in their genuine devotion to God was of any value whatsoever, the first Christian missionaries to China began by building choosing to build bridges instead. They learned the name for the highest God in the Chinese pantheon, and then they used it. They identified the highest spiritual aspirations and the deepest spiritual needs of the Chinese people, and then they looked for the ways that Christianity paralleled them. Instead of thinking that it was their job to destroy what people already believed, the first Christian missionaries to China began by learning everything they could about the traditional Chinese religions in order that that they might be better able to recognize and respect the ways that the God was already at work there, and to cooperate with it.
Of course, as Christians they believed that God had done something decisive in Jesus Christ, something the Chinese people really needed to know about, but because they also believed that what God had done in Jesus Christ was for everyone, everywhere, they engaged in that mission humbly, respectfully and sensitively, believing that where Christianity would connect most deeply in the hearts of the Chinese people was at the point of what was true, and what was noble, and what was right, and what was pure, and what was lovely in their existing spiritual and religious traditions. Rather than a club that we who are Christians wield to clobber you, the Gospel, the message of what God has done for all of us in Jesus Christ, can be offered as a gift that builds on what you already know to be true and already hold to be precious.
I have long admired E. Stanley Jones and the missionary work that he did as a Christian in India early in the 20th century. “I was not particularly interested in the victory of one religious system over another” (10) he explained, “the long-distance shelling of each other’s positions, or what we thought were each other’s positions” (15). “The crusaders conquered Jerusalem and found in the end that Christ was not there,” he observed. “They lost Him through the very spirit and methods by which they sought to serve Him,” and “mere proselytizing,” he said, “partakes of these same methods and shares the same barrenness of results” (11). And so he stopped trying to make Christians of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in India, and he gave himself instead to the task of just trying to introduce them to Christ. He wasn’t trying to get anybody to change religions. What he was trying to do was to figure out what he believed in his heart that God had done for the whole world in Jesus Christ might mean to people whose religious perspectives and experiences were so very different from his own. And so he found effective ways to tell them about the Jesus Christ he knew, and then he said that he was perfectly content to trust whatever it was that God might do with them and in them as a result. And so am I.
Anderson, Gerald H. The Theology of the Christian Mission. Abingdon. 1961.
Jones, E. Stanley. Christ at the Round Table. Abingdon. 1928.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. “Israel’s’ Missionary Call.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. William Carey Library.
Stott, John R.W. “The Living God is a Missionary God.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. William Carey Library.
Verkuyl, Johannes. “The Biblical Foundation for the Worldwide Mission Mandate.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. William Carey Library.