I’m a week behind in the series now, but I hope to catch up. I really do have good intentions. Anyway, last week in the Missional Prelude series, the gang was talking about how God is at work outside of the church. As is the pattern, Ed Stetzer opened things up on Monday with the question: “How and Why is God at Work Outside the Church?” He then started namedropping, opening with “J.C. Hoekendijk,” who some may remember has been discussed in a prior series. Ed writes, “For Hoekendijk, the concept of shalom (a Hebrew word meaning peace, completeness, and welfare) was a more all-inclusive notion than salvation…. Salvation was broadened and, in some ways, redefined.”
He describes the conference of the Commission for World Mission and Evangelism of the WCC in Bangkok in 1973, where an attempt to ascertain what salvation was. “In the end, the WCC defined salvation primarily (some would say exclusively) in ‘this-worldly’ terms.” Their report included four dimensions to salvation: economic justice against exploitation, human dignity against oppression, solidarity against alienation, and hope against despair in one’s personal life. These four dimensions, they said, must be related one to another.
Were I to look at the list and shorten it to something like “hope in place of exploitation, oppression, and alienation,” we might come out with something sounding much like a partial definition of basic human rights. But let’s come back to that… for now, we’ll just note that the question of what constitutes salvation will need to be answered in order to properly come back at this one. So far, we can see something of what has been called the “social gospel” when used in establishing a dichotomy between that an the “real” or “spiritual” gospel which includes the proclamation and acceptance of Christ. Perhaps we can also see a conception of salvation which is broad enough to include both. Ed continues,
Yet, it is important to note that salvation was then defined as more than individuals being redeemed. As such, it does not always require the church’s involvement. God is saving in many ways– not just from sin, death and hell– but also economic, etc. And, soon that theological view led some to believe that God was at work outside of the church– something most would agree. But, others took the message further, teaching that God is working in saving ways outside of the proclamation of the gospel and belief in Christ.
This last phrase is the crux of the question. I suspect that up until then, we get hung up on the semantics involved, a sport in which I am usually an eager participant (even in this post). For example, if asked whether God is at work savingly outside the church, I might argue that once salvation (in the spiritual sense) occurs, the subject is by definition inside the church — defined in a global spiritual sense… but not before then. To define the church otherwise is to leave the question of who’s in and who’s out in the hands of men and not in the determination of God. By this definition, outside the church is the only place where God needs to act savingly. I may then be sorely tempted to leave another question hanging in the air: “Is God at work savingly within the church?” (Answer that with semantics or cynicism, whichever you prefer.)
In his explanation that the church is still needed even if God works outside of it, David Fitch rephrases the question: “In other words, are believers (or “the church”) the only instrument for proclaiming the Gospel and bringing individuals, through the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit, into the Kingdom of God or are there other means? Or perhaps more broadly, how, then, is God at work outside the church?” He distances himself from a yes/no answer to suggest that “the church is the epistemological foundation from which we can see together the Kingdom coming into being ahead of time.” He then tosses in names like Yoder and Hauerwas.
David then seeks to avoid any separation between God’s work and his grace “because all things are in the process of being reconciled to this one end. Personal and social salvation cannot be separated. …God is at work in the world in multitudinous ways that we must always discern so as to truly particpate [sic] in the remaking of all things.” I appreciate the portrait he then paints of God’s people seeking to discern where God is at work and participate in what God is already doing.
Jeff whose-last-name-I-didn’t-catch chimes in nicely here, explaining that God “was already on mission and invited Abram to join Him.” He also restates and then answers the question, making his negative response an affirmative to Ed’s question.
“Are believers (or “the church”) the only instrument for proclaiming the Gospel and bringing individuals, through the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit, into the Kingdom of God or are there other means?”
No. God’s mission is not dependent on believers participation. If it was it would have ended long ago. God will do what God wants to do. Illogically He has asked us to join Him on the journey.
I like this version, as it serves to not limit God’s work to the obedience of the church… which it must be admitted has had a rather tenuous grip on success for countless centuries now. In this vein, Jared Wilson says that
God is at work outside the church because he is God and his power and reach cannot be contained or limited. That he chooses to use the Church as the witness to his love and as the new humanity of his Son is an enduring testament to his incomprehensible grace, but to say the Church is the locus of God’s saving activity in the world is not to say the Church is the limit of his saving activity.
The discussion around these posts was of course varied, from the first response of a flat “no” to indicate that God did not work outside the church at all, to a theological reference to common grace and general revelation and an experiential reference to support the opposite response. The latter cites a report of Isa (Jesus) appearing to a Muslim man in a dream to prompt his search for Christ.
It seems to me a dubious suggestion to envision a place within our grasp in which God is not at work in some fashion or other… but is such work sufficient for salvation? Perhaps not in any of the examples provided thus far in the discussion, but it seems such a small leap for God to have given a complete explanation in a dream and the Holy Spirit to have drawn an awakened response in the report just cited that we ought not issue a categorical no. We might perhaps say that the type of salvation envisioned in the work of God outside the church has to do with the re-ordering of creation and spread of social justice, which although a part of the broadly-defined salvation in which we hope, it nevertheless represents an incomplete version — temporal salvation, if you will — and appears to lack the necessary individual trust in Christ for eternal salvation. On this basis, it seems that our participation in the work God is already doing outside the church is designed to gently introduce this missing element in order to meet the spiritual hunger which God’s work is intended to spark. Only the work of the Holy Spirit enables us to connect the two in situ.
The contributions from this discussion are important to the missional question overall, but unfortunately it seems we may need larger or more specific definitions of “the church” and of salvation itself, upon which we have already touched. Anticipating another looming difficulty, we may have to decide what it is people are being saved from — in other words, we will yet need to come to grips with the definition of sin, and to what extent a common understanding is necessary in the context of the missional question.