The Mission of the Church: Thompson’s Conclusions

Eucharist-Mission1Thompson reaches a conclusion very different from Christopher Wright’s —

For Paul the missio Dei is the transformation of a people into the image of Christ. The church is the new humanity, which is now being transformed. Paul’s mission is to proclaim Christ and invite the people into this community. He writes letters and visits the churches he established to address obstacles in community formation and to encourage his converts. The converts demonstrate corporate formation as they share the destiny of Christ, deny themselves, and love others. Their mission is to grow up and to work together to complete the building that is under construction. Through this ethical behavior, they are a light to the world around them. Although they have no organized program of missions, they demonstrate a concern for evangelism as they communicate their faith to family and friends.

As the heir of Israel, the church’s continuing task is to be the “children of light” (1 Thess. 5: 5) who “shine like stars in the world” (Phil. 2: 15). The church will fulfill this mission only when it distinguishes itself sharply from other communities and from its culture. Only when the church provides a sharp alternative to the values of its culture can it be a light shining in the darkness.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (p. 247). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Notice the Thompson finds the mission of God in the spiritual formation of the Christian church. This assumes, of course, the spiritual formation of the individual members, but it is as a community of believers that the church becomes “a light shining in the darkness.”

When Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world,” “you” is plural. “Light” is singular. We are not individually lights. We are light in part because we are together. The church reveals “the new humanity” created by the Spirit in Jesus because of how we relate to each other, by how well we get along, by what God does through us as a community.

In the early church, there were no sermons on evangelism, no door-knocking campaigns, and no passing out tracts. Rather, the focus was on transformed lives in community — and the appeal of a new way to be and to live together changed the world.

The Pauline model does not guarantee that the church will regain its prominent place in our culture or appear relevant to the majority population. …

While Paul undoubtedly wanted the churches to grow, he gives primary attention in his letters to the transformation of communities into the image of Christ (Rom. 8: 29). Legitimate growth occurs when the transformation of the believers is a light to people in darkness. If God can work through Paul’s weakness, God can also empower his struggling churches to be faithful witnesses who are shaped by the story of the one who denied himself for the sake of others. Even communities of the marginalized can be a light to the larger society.

Thompson, James W.. The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (pp. 247-248). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Jay’s Commentary on Thompson

The goal, therefore, is not to change the secular culture. It’s to change individuals as they are incorporated into the Christian community. The change is “into the image of Christ” to be “shaped by the story of the one who denied himself for the sake of others.” That is, the church must become cross-shaped or Jesus-shaped.

Now, it bears careful thought to see what this means. Some would want this to mean that we have the right “acts of worship” and only the right acts of worship, but that is not what it means to be in the image of Christ. Nor does having the right church organizational structure necessarily make the church Jesus-shaped — although a bad structure can certainly get in the way. (Thompson has a chapter on this topic.)

But neither is it entirely about morality, although being cross-shaped certainly requires moral living. But there are moral people who know nothing of Jesus. It’s not morality for the sake of obeying certain moral precepts or even to please God. It’s morality that comes from being like Jesus. It’s a relational morality based on whom we follow.

Ray Vander Laan likes to describe a rabbi’s disciple as a student who wants to become just like his rabbi — more than anything else in the world. And so our morality becomes Jesus-shaped morality — not mere rule keeping. It’s Messiah emulating.

And this takes us to the highly important chapter 7 of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus.

[T]here is no general concept of living like Jesus in the New Testament. According to universal tradition, Jesus was not married; yet when the apostle Paul, advocate par excellence of the life “in Christ,” argues at length for celibacy or for a widow’s not remarrying (1 Cor. 7), it never occurs to him to appeal to Jesus’ example, even as one of many arguments. … [T]here have been efforts to imitate [Jesus’] prayer life or his forty days in the desert: but never in the New Testament.

There is thus but one realm in which the concept of imitation holds – but there it holds in every strand of the New Testament literature and all the more strikingly by virtue of the absence of parallels in other realms. This is at the point of the concrete social meaning of the cross in its relation to enmity and power. Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility. Thus – and only thus – are we bound by New Testament thought to “be like Jesus.”

pp. 130-131 (emphasis added.) This is big. And it’s right. Yoder quotes numerous passages each of which urges us to be like Jesus in his suffering, servanthood, and submission. None urges us to exercise authority or power as Jesus does. None urges us to judge as Jesus does.

(John 13:3 ESV) Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”

8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

Notice how the story begins. Jesus washed the apostles’ feet because he knew God had given all things to him. This knowledge led to the sort of service only a slave would perform. Peter saw it as an embarrassment, unworthy of the Messiah, but Jesus said,

(John 13:12 ESV) When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”

If Jesus is compelled to wash feet because of his position, we who are in far lower positions must surely be compelled to do the same. Nothing else is to be like Jesus.

Conclusion

As Paul says in Phil 2, the essence of being like Jesus is self-emptying, that is, kenosis. We see it stated in different words and different ways many times, but over and over, we see that Christian ethics are based on being Christ-like, and to be Christ-like is to pick up  a cross and follow Jesus, because if you don’t have a cross, you aren’t following him.

Some may object that Jesus was sometimes not so humble. Sometimes he took a whip and cleared the temple courts or pronounced judgment against the Pharisees in the most severe terms. But we are not called to be like Jesus in every respect — only in his self-emptying. Unlike Jesus, we are not the judges of the world (that comes later), and God does not exercise his vengeance through us. Rather, God has a very clear plan. He wants those who see the church to see the kenosis of Jesus lived in us — and so be drawn to it.

It’s not nearly enough to be right on doctrine or worship. It’s not nearly enough to be organized correctly. Rather, it won’t be until we look like the Suffering Servant who gave himself for the sins of the world that we’ll truly be Christ-like — and that is the real mark of the church of the Christ.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Thompson’s Conclusions

  1. eddodds says:

    Hebrews’ emphasis on Jesus as High Priest is helpful here, too. We are a community (a kingdom) of priests. Jesus had to suffer in order for the Godhead to learn|know|experience existence from a finite creature point of view. Jesus is empathetic|sympathetic to our weaknesses and temptations (and our legitimate fear of our demonic and unclean spirit enemies and their willing disciples — as well as those who have become ensorcled|deceived|obsessed|possessed {where are the Churches of Christ exorcists, anyway, true Bible Believers?}) and Jesus has given us his Holy Spirit to sustain us thru the suffering we will necessarily endure in order to minister (pray and serve) to our families, neighbors, friends, enemies, strangers in the land, and sometimes those in other lands. I believe I perceive that right now God is “shaking the nations” so that refugees are coming into America ready to hear the good news — a message they were unlikely to encounter in their home situation. Most US cities have become cosmopolitan, speaking 100 or so more languages while Churches of Christ have yet to desegregate; thus, rendering us inauthentic to model the poly-ethnic congregational communities of NT times (Book of Acts).

  2. David Himes says:

    Here is a relevant comment, courtesy of Chuck Colson (founder of Prison Fellowship), Jan 1981:

    We do what we do, not because it works, but because we are commanded to by our LORD. And we should be mindful of the opportunity of a Sovereign God has given us. “Nothing else works;” but the Gospel being faithfully lived out behind prison walls and in our communities. And that witness can profoundly impact all of our society.

  3. Nick Gill says:

    Thompson reaches a conclusion very different from Christopher Wright’s —

    What was Wright’s conclusion? I’m not sure you’ve actually shared it so we can compare.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Nick,

    I presented C. Wright’s summary of his own conclusions at http://oneinjesus.info/2016/06/the-mission-of-the-church-wrights-outline/. He says nothing about personal or corporation spiritual formation or the like in that presentation.

    In his book, he certainly speaks to personal transformation, but he sees it as a means toward mission, not mission itself. At least, that’s my reading of Chapter 6. Nothing to disagree with in particular, but broadly, Thompson sees transformation into the image of Christ as mission — not all of mission but the first and most important part — whereas Wright sees mission deriving from our changed natures. Which is true as well, but not as comprehensive a vision.

    That is, if a staff were to ask whether its church is truly missional, a Thompson led church would ask whether they live the SOTM, Rom 12-15, 1 Cor 13 – first and foremost — and if not, address that issue. A C. Wright-led church would value those things as well, but would likely actually test misionality by looking at social justice, care for the need, creation care, evangelism, etc.

    That is, when Wright gives the condensed version of his teaching, transformation doesn’t appear at all. It’s not “mission” in his mind. Thompson disagrees, and I think Thompson makes the stronger case.

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