Acts/Community Disciplines: Missio Dei

Missio Dei (pronounced Missio Day) is Latin for either “the mission of God” or “the sending of God.” It’s something that theologians have been discussing for the last several decades, but the idea has only recently really caught on as a common theme in evangelical conversations. And, as you might expect, Acts is at the center of the discussion.

Acts demonstrates that the church’s mission is an element of God’s mission. We Americans tend to be secret Deists, that is, we have trouble believing that God remains powerfully active in the world. Therefore, we tend to figure God’s mission is 100% up to us because, well, God has retired. We’d never say that, but we certainly act that way.

Here’s the idea that “Missio Dei” tries to capture —

During the past half a century or so there has been a subtle but nevertheless decisive shift toward understanding mission as God’s mission. During preceding centuries mission was understood in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was interpreted primarily in soteriological terms: as saving individuals from eternal damnation. Or it was understood in cultural terms: as introducing people from East and the South to the blessings and privileges of the Christian West. Often it was perceived in ecclesiastical categories: as the expansion of the church (or of a specific denomination). Sometimes it was defined salvation-historically: as the process by which the world—evolutionary or by means of a cataclysmic event—would be transformed into the kingdom of God. In all these instances, and in various, frequently conflicting ways, the intrinsic interrelationship between christology, soteriology, and the doctrine of the Trinity, so important for the early church, was gradually displaced by one of several versions of the doctrine of grace …

Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation …

Our mission has not life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission. Not least since the missionary initiative comes from God alone … Mission is thereby seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for that mission. There is church because there is mission, not vice versa. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (1991), 389–390. See also the thoughtful essay by Christopher Ducker, “Explain the thinking behind mission as missio Dei. Bosch says that in the light of this understanding, ‘The mission of the church needs constantly to be renewed and reconceived.’ (1991, 519) What new thinking is therefore necessary in order to do mission in the 21st century?

This is obviously true in Acts. God, through Jesus, commissions the apostle. God, through the Spirit, empowers the apostles to preach the gospel. God sends. God directs. It’s plainly God’s mission, and the church participates in it.

But is it true today? Is God still on mission? Is he still moving in the world — both ahead of his church and through his church? Or did he leave us as orphans, guided only by the Bible and by nothing else?

If it is true today, how do we see God’s direction and movement?

Now, if we’re not careful, we can go too far in either of two directions.

First, we can define whatever seems wise to us as God’s leading. We can simply dress up human wisdom in church language. Rather than “I think it best,” we say, “I feel led.” It even sounds humble, but it can fact be supremely arrogant to claim that your heart is the truest of all guides to God’s will. Indeed, we all know people who’ve “felt led” into disastrous circumstances and even devastating sin.

Even after God poured out his Spirit on Cornelius, the Jerusalem council was convened to consider whether Gentiles should be circumcised (Acts 15). The elders and apostles deliberated at great length (“after much debate” Acts 15:7), very prayerfully, over the events. They didn’t take the lazy, easy way out by following whomever claimed to have a leading. They examined the evidence, God’s work as seen in his church, and God’s word. And they made their decision in community.

Even Peter and Paul didn’t impose their own interpretation. Rather, they let the leadership sort it out together. It took time and energy. But that’s the price you pay not to manipulate the community by claiming unique knowledge of God’s will. Discernment is a group discipline.

Second, we can insist on more leading than God is willing to do. “I just don’t feel led” is a familiar protest. Well, I’m not sure that you always get a fuzzy feeling. Indeed, that’s clearly not the only way God can and does lead. Peter didn’t feel led to preach to Cornelius. He felt reluctant. He felt tradition-bound. Indeed, many of God’s greatest leaders don’t feel the call: Moses, Gideon, and Jonah, for example, were led but didn’t feel it.

Sometimes God’s leading is a still, quiet voice, but sometimes it’s your fellow elders or committee members. Sometimes it’s circumstances. Sometimes it’s the Bible. But we don’t get to pick whether or how God guides us.

May we learn to read the times —

(Mat 16:1-4 ESV) And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven.  2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.  4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

Sometimes we need to sit back and think about our church, our community, even our planet, and read the signs of the times. Where is God taking his church? Is he pushing it toward X or wishing the church would flee X? It’s easy to get caught up in routine and today’s problems and miss the big picture.

Or maybe we look to see where God is taking the church — and see if maybe that’s where we need to be. Is the field especially white in India or China or the Sudan? Then why aren’t we recruiting and raising up missionaries to go there? Do those trapped in poverty in the US have a desperate need for the gospel? Then why aren’t we thinking of ways to get the gospel to them? Is God already blessing works there that perhaps lack publicity? Can we ask around? Where is the Spirit moving?

These are unfamiliar ways of thinking in the Churches of Christ — which have a very strong tendency toward Deism, that is, a rejection of any notion that God is active other than through the Bible. That’s a very unbiblical way to think about the Bible, you know. But because of our Deistic roots, we have to discipline ourselves to think in God terms — not just to use God words but to actually look for God wherever he might be working.

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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6 Responses to Acts/Community Disciplines: Missio Dei

  1. Jerry says:

    Even Peter and Paul didn’t impose their own interpretation. Rather, they let the leadership sort it out together. It took time and energy. But that’s the price you pay not to manipulate the community by claiming unique knowledge of God’s will. Discernment is a group discipline.

    I think I may agree with you, but am not sure.

    What if the group is set in a traditional “group-think” and will not consider alternatives?

  2. Jay Guin says:


    Group interpretation and discernment is hardly infallible, but I’d far rather a church be led by leaders who seek God’s will in community than who look to one dominant personality.

    Just so, I do better theology in a classroom or on a blog than working by myself. It helps to know my work will be checked by people willing and able to check it. The readers may not always agree with me, but they are always willing to check me against the scriptures and logic. And the exchange of ideas pushes me deeper and helps me see things I could never see on my own.

    At church, I can’t imagine trying to lead without my fellow elders, the ministers, and other leaders and friends to exchange ideas and perspectives. Why let a church be led by a 5-talent man when it could be lead by a 15-talent team?

  3. Jerry says:


    I agree with this comment 100%. However, my question related to churches so set in their traditional ways that they will not even consider better ways – or even that their traditions may be sinful.

    This is a long way from seeking God’s will in community. I’ve seen the dominant personality model of leadership – and it isn’t pretty.

    But what if the “dominant personality” is that of the group when the group is not seeking God so much as seeking to maintain itself and its traditions? Of course, such groups will identify their traditions as the way of God just as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.


  4. Charles McLean says:

    Six small children are looking at one of those “Where’s Waldo?” pictures. Teacher asks if anyone can tell her where Waldo is sitting in the picture. One kid sees him first, and says he sees Waldo sitting on a carousel. The teacher could then use that to confirm her own conclusion that Waldo is riding the carousel. Or she could wait a bit for more hands to rise. Or she could offer information like, “Look near the lemonade stand.” She might wait until everyone sees Waldo, or she might wait until all but one child sees Waldo before announcing his location.

    The analogy is this: even when there are certain things which are clear to us in the Spirit, it is wise and helpful to the Body to have a process of seeking that guidance together. Not to find out IF Waldo is sitting on the carousel, but to have the Body share the vision. This does not mean waiting until everyone is convinced or dies, but does lean away from the dominant decision-maker.

  5. Doug says:

    Uh, I might have this wrong, having only learned enough Latin to be able to sing it, but I think Missio Dei is pronounced Mees-see-oh Deh-ee.

    I think that I can see God’s leading in my life and if He leads me, then He leads us and if He leads us, He leads His Church. We usually get in trouble when we decide to lead.

  6. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. My Latin training is nil. I scoured the Internet and based my pronunciation on two sites, and yet I think you’re likely right. I suspect some of these terms take on an informal pronunciation far removed from the original — rather like the way lawyers pronounce habeas corpus — which is not close to the Latin, but if you say it right, you sound ignorant.

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