The Physics of the Missio Dei: a Leadership Series (P2B)
The Mass & Acceleration of the Missio Dei (New Testament)
Some characterize God’s mission in the Old Testament as only one of gathering and see God’s mission in the New Testament as only one of scattering. But there are elements of both mass and acceleration in God’s plan for His people and the nations of the world in both testaments that need to be seen. As Wright points out about the Old Testament, there are things that go out to the nations: “the law goes forth to the islands who wait for it; the Servant will bring justice to the nations; God’s salvation is to go to the ends of the earth; God will send emissaries to the nations to proclaim God’s glory”(523). And in the New Testament,“the purpose of the going out is so that the nations might be gathered into God’s kingdom, in fulfillment of Scriptural vision”(523; his emphasis).
Nor has the original mandate given to Adam and Eve been forgotten, for the disciples are told in not so many words to be spiritually fruitful and multiply discipleship offspring – something that ought to sound familiar to the Genesis Commission (Matt. 28:19; Acts 6:7). If the Old Testament really is a shadow of the New then it should not surprise us that many physical realties for Israel are transformed into spiritual realties for the Church. After all, in the OT the physical people of God descended from Abraham, in the NT Gentiles who have no genealogical claim to Abraham are still considered his offspring by faith (Rom. 4:16). In the OT a Jew was one who entered into covenant with God and bore the sign of circumcision. In the NT a real Jew, explains Paul, is one inwardly, whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit (Rom. 2:28-29). And far from the oft heard claim that the sacrificial system has been done away with the New Testament tells us that we continue to make spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:5; Rom. 12:1) in the spiritual Temple of the Church (1 Cor. 3:16-17), through a spiritual Priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:4-7), for Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it it’s true spiritual reality (Matt. 5:17-20).
The Church of Jerusalem As Exemplar of Both Centripetal & Centrifugal Forces
As part of His final instructions Jesus commands His apostles to gather in His holy city admonishing them to wait (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4) so that He could pour out the full weight of His glory through the Holy Spirit upon them and those from other nations (Acts 2; i.e. centripetal force). David W. Weade (see pdf at the end of this article) notes that the first half of Acts connects to the OT centripetal philosophy of mission: “The prophets clearly state that the nations from afar shall be drawn to the Holy City, where they will be instructed in the Word of God which shall flow from Jerusalem.”
But there is movement outward too. The church, the new people of God, continued to gain authority and increase in their reputation in the book of Acts until God struck them with persecution sending all these new disciples out with a divine momentum henceforth unseen (Acts 6-8; John 20:21; i.e. centrifugal force). Some believe this is indicative of the failure of the centripetal philosophy and the need for it to be replaced by the superior centrifugal system that so came to characterize the NT church. But Weade contends that only a twofold expectation of what we have termed the gathering of mass and the acceleration outwards does justice to the book of Acts. He sees a special link between the nations listed in Acts 2 and the prophecy of sending many missionaries given in Isaiah 66:18-19 that helps explains why the Apostles stayed behind (emphasis added):
The close parallel seems to show that to the early Christians the miracle of Pentecost was not only that each man heard in his own language but that this event was also understood as the beginning of the Gentile missions it appeared in the prophecy of the Old Testament…
They believed that it was God's will that his message should be spread to the lands of the world by natives from those lands who came to Jerusalem, were taught, and then returned. Thus the leaders of the Church were in a sense forced to remain within the city so that they might be there to instruct those who came to the city and there received the word.
This goes a long way toward an explanation as to why the apostles felt the need to leave their homeland, Galilee, to make the center of their activity Jerusalem when Jesus had spent so little time in that city. They chose Jerusalem because the prophecies of the Old Testament directed them to that city. The nations of the world would come there for instruction. It also shows why the Scripture should note that they remained there even in time of persecution (Acts 8:3). For the centripetal philosophy of mission, Jerusalem was the key. This also explains to a certain extent why churches established later looked to Jerusalem as their mother church and gave her reverence as the source of their instruction and turned to her in time of trouble.
In short, persecution was actually part of accomplishing the promise of expanding God’s mission rather than punishment for doing anything wrong (or, within our continued analogy we might say that persecution was not meant as friction it was meant as force). From this point onward begins the acceleration of God’s kingdom plan through the church to truly“be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”(Acts 1:8). Each church planted then becomes in the book of Acts the gravity of the glory of Christ in their respective city, attracting the nations to Christ who promised, “…when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself…” (Jn. 12:32-33). Christ, like the Sun, effects the hearts and minds of His people as they carry Him through the church to “every tribe, and language, and nation” (Rev. 7:9).
The Church Of Antioch As Exemplar Of Both Modality & Sodality
If the church of Jerusalem represents the head of a larger movement of the church fulfilling OT prophesy by pulling a diverse people unto itself in order to push them out into the surrounding nations (macro mission level), then the church of Antioch later on in the book of Acts represents these same dualities but on the smaller, local level within just one church where members stay, but others are sent out to continue Christ’s mission.
American missiologist Ralph Winter and founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission (now Frontier Ventures) wanted to awaken a million evangelicals and mobilize them to reach unreached people groups around the world. He believed the modern church needed to understand the historical patterns of the church and work within them rather than war with one another and consume valuable time and resources in the process. This twofold structure he described using the anthropological terms of “modality”and “sodality.” He defines the terms accordingly:
…a modality is a structured fellowship in which there is no distinction of sex or age, while a sodality is a structured fellowship in which membership involves an adult second decision beyond modality membership, and is limited by either age or sex or marital status (Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission: 224).
He is especially thinking here of Paul and Barnabas who become members of the church at Antioch (so, for memory’s sake, members = modality), and from this group they rise up to make a second commitment to take the Gospel beyond the boarders of the local church and its immediate geographical reach (think send = sodality). In this way of thinking both the local church and a network of churches brought together under the umbrella of a denomination are modalities because they are all members of one group, and things like the Paul/Barnabas missionary teams, later the monastic movement, and in modern times missions organizations, are all sodalities because they are sent out of the core member group. He considers both as “two structures of God’s redemptive mission,” that are necessary for the furthering of the Gospel in the world. They not only need each other, he argues, but when done well they fuel each other for more extensive Gospel transformation. A. Scott Moreau offers this helpful graph to make sense of the terms:
While the terms may seem overly technical, many find the distinctions beneficial for at least three reasons:
A. These categories show that the church has always existed in two forms or has functioned to some degree with two organizational philosophies and this is part of the design of God’s church because it is in fact part of the missio dei.
B. Both forms of church, it’s universal expression and local expression, represent the body of Christ. The largest organ on the body is the skin and it does a great job of keeping our insides in and protecting from things on the outside (local church). The skeleton excels at mobility (parachurch). Both are needed for life.
C. Since sodalities (e.g. large-scale revival movements) refresh modalities (the local church) and modalities support sodalities (e.g. churches sending money to the mission field) it relieves the scathing criticism that the local church is “not doing enough”, or excited enough, because it is too filled with trepid believers. Rather, the modality of the local church will always be a mixed bag and the sodality of creating other organizations to aid the local church in specific areas (e.g. foster care, Bible translation, missions agencies, etc.) will always appeal to the more sold out members and give them a place to spread their wings.
An important counter point needs to be raised however: Winter wrongly mischaracterizes the Reformation (as do many missiologists like him). After lauding the praises of the monastic movement, he laments that Martin Luther ever “abandoned the sodality (in which, nevertheless, he was introduced to the Bible, to the Pauline epistles and to teaching on “justification by faith,”).” Luther and his followers did away with Roman Catholic diocesan structure as well, but did not form their own sodalities like the Catholics had in place. “This omission,” Winter decries, “in my evaluation, represents the greatest error of the Reformation and the greatest weakness of the resulting Protestant Reformation.”
He is right that Reformation theology brought monastic sodalities crumbling to the ground which subsequently slowed the monks from traveling across sea and land to make a single proselyte who would only end up becoming “twice as much a child of hell”(Matt. 23:15) anyway! The Gospel had been lost, distorted, and corrupted, for at least 1,500 years. The Reformation had to tear down before it could build up. This building up took time as this small band of Protestants stood against the likes of Roman Catholic superpowers like Portugal and Spain who controlled trade routes and the seas.
The Reformation also had to restore the true church to a biblical form and function. As I explained in Theological Fragmentation Part 3 - Excursus B (What? You didn’t see that?):
Calvin commissioned four church planters to preach the Gospel to Indians in Brazil. In 1555 Calvin planted 5 house churches in France. Four years later there were 100 churches. Three years after that 2,000 churches! They did not all remain house churches, many grew into their own buildings reporting 4,000-5,000 on a Sunday morning, with some pastors preaching three times on Sunday to accommodate 5,000-6,000, another says 8,000-9,000 attended. Calving personally trained dozens of pastors and missionaries himself and Geneva would later send out 1300 Gospel herald/church planters. It was Calvin who said, “A good missionary is a good theologian.” Contrary to Mulholland’s oft heard critique that “William Carey did not launch the modern Protestant missionary movement until 275 years after the Reformation began. Virtually no Protestant missionary activity took place between 1517 and 1792,” the Reformation was a church planting missionary movement (it just happened to focus mainly in Europe rather than foreign nations, but then again Europe needed it!).
Historian Scott Hendrix gets this right, Protestants aspired to “re-Christianize” all of Europe with the Gospel (full article; which, as it happens, took about the same amount of time as when it first went out actively from the Apostle Paul to about Constantine the Great). More than that the Reformation did this in the midst of great persecution and by empowering Christ’s church to fulfill His mission. They brought “mass and acceleration” together to create a Gospel force that fundamentally altered history within a single generation. The Reformation was not perfect, there are many blemishes we must own, but the myth of no missions needs to be discarded.
Winter’s claim that Luther did away with all sodality is also overstated. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia reports that at the University of Wittenberg the German Reformation “resulted in the development of a sodality of professors in the arts and theology faculties…” who set out to make long term change. Calvin’s Geneva Academy, a sodal institution, did the same.
[Note to BILD readers: Hear me out BILD advocates and take heed – almost every article in the Antioch School of Church Planting & Leadership Development curriculum that takes potshots at the Reformation omits key background information. Get your facts straight before laying all modern church problems at the feet of the Reformation!]
Since the church of Antioch is paradigmatic of what so many Evangelical churches aspire to be let us take note of the following:
1. Antioch was the third largest city in Rome, with some estimates pushing as high as 500,000 people. It was a strategic epicenter for Gospel impact.
2. The church of Antioch was planted through the preaching of Christ by non-apostles, non-professionals we might say, who were first scattered by the hand of God working through persecution (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19-26).
3. The church of Jerusalem sent Barnabas, a leader (11:22-23), which added substance which then produced momentum of growth and more “mass” was added to the church (11:24).
4. Barnabas in turn gathered Paul (v 25) and both of them added to the mass of theological knowledge through their yearlong teaching ministry.
5. More mass was added from Jerusalem in the form of other prophets and teachers (v 27; 13:1), yet this resulted in the acceleration of sending leaders out to plant more churches (vv 2-3 of Paul and Barnabas commissioned by the congregation).
a. [Side note on Winter’s concept of apostolic teams: Winter makes a good but dangerous point, “Paul was “sent off” not “sent out” by the Antioch congregation. He may have reported back to it but did not take orders from it. His mission band (sodality) had all the autonomy and authority of a “traveling congregation” (224). This model is also claimed by many apostolic leaders and teams today in order to escape accountability. Yet, Paul’s Apostolic team appears to have remained tethered to some degree of accountability with the church in Jerusalem and under its ruling council of elders (Acts 15). A purely autonomous apostolic sodality that does not start under or at least seek the church’s blessing would be dangerous otherwise. Winter suggests modalities can regulate, but not administer the sodalities. Anecdotally, the Sovereign Grace Churches were founded by apostolic teams, and one wonders if the lack of accountability at the higher “apostolic” levels was a contributing factor for C.J. Mahaney’s abuse of power.
b. In today’s climate where the New Apostolic Reformation, and Independent Network Charismatic groups (INC), use similar terms identifying one another as “apostles” and “prophets” and often merging false doctrine and emotionalism together all while they claim autonomous authority (a problem recognized even from within their own camp), we may wonder if these are the best terms to use – or, if more precise definitions are needed.
c. For our purposes Newton’s Second Law is versatile enough to describe the force of the movement of the church big scale (Jerusalem to the nations) and smaller scale (Antioch as a local congregation) putting the emphasis on the desire for the church to be a spiritual force for the good of the Gospel in either case. This has the advantage of not separating out “two redemptive structures” as Winter does without giving priority to one over the other when the teaching of the New Testament places the weight upon the local church modality which commissioned the Paul/Barnabas sodality in the first place. In other words, the local church must be central to all missionary endeavors and take priority over other sodalities.]
In all of this God brought the growth, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (11:21). Or, we might say, through Him the church became a gravitational force for the Gospel in Antioch. It is important not to overlook the significance that the disciples were first known as “Christians” here in this city.
How the Term “Christian” Connects to the Missio Dei
There are a few theories as to the original meaning of the term “Christian,” with some seeing it as carrying connotations of “sedition and crime” (like the Christ they followed; so Taylor 74-95; Macarthur 305), and others arguing for a more positive tone in the context (vv 20-26) so that the implication really concerns how this young church lived out their faith in front of a watching world. This seems to fit best given the high praise the church is given in the early portion of Acts. This would mean that from the beginning the term “Christian” symbolized not only the movement of the Gospel outward, but also the breaking down of barriers and inclusion of Gentiles (11:19-20) so that this group was seen as something ‘other’.
It is easy to say, “Christian” just means “Christ follower,” or “belonging to the party of Christ,” and leave it at that. But Bickermann offers two needed observations (109-124):
A. These disciples were named after “Christ” not “Jesus”. The Greek term “Christ” translates the Hebrew term “Messiah” or Anointed One. Thus, “They were not his “school,” similar to “Bet Hillel” or “Bet Shammai,” which flourished in Jerusalem in the days of the Apostles…For they were not disciples of a rabbi from Nazareth, but followers of the Scion of David” (p. 116). Or as he describes later, they saw themselves as“ministri regis” (ministers of the King).Theophilus of Antioch (circa 170 A.D.) would latter pick up on the Greek word for oil, chrism, and describe Christ followers as those “anointed with the Spirit...because we are anointed with the unction of God” (Deeper Experiences 53).
B. If there is a king, then he must have subjects. Therefore, in historical context Bickermann argues, “All these Greek terms, formed with the Latin suffix -ianus…express the idea that men or things referred to, belong to the person to whose name the suffix is added”(p. 118). By “belong” Bickermann means something far stronger than as a member of a group but most notably and explicitly as a slave (see also the devotional blog post Slaves of Christ; or Johnny Mac’s book on the topic).
How devoted were these believers in Antioch that the surrounding population did not simply associate them with just another rabbinical school, but understood they were living as slaves of the Anointed King - doing what He said to do, going where He said to go, living how He said to live? Indeed, some in the early church thought this so significant it was the fulfillment of Isaiah 65:15,“…he shall call his servants by a new name.”
The words of an online meme make a point, “Tetris taught me that when you try to fit in you’ll disappear.” Early slaves of Christ did not disappear into culture but stood out. For Christians it is not just about being different, but being holy in Christ.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones captures all of this when he admonishes his readers,
We [Christians] are to live in such a way that people coming into contact with us will not understand us, will be puzzled by us, will feel that we are some sort of an enigma, and will be driven to say, ‘Well, they are as they are because they belong to that Christ of whom they speak; they are different, they are a new people’….The life of the Head is flowing through us, so that as men and women look at us they should be compelled to think of Christ. We are followers of Him, we are imitators of Him, we are to be like Him (Darkness & Light p. 23 sample).
Antioch In Early Church History
While the NT remains silent about the fate of the Antioch church, church history fills in some needed gaps. Continuing our list we learn:
6. The city of Antioch was religiously pluralistic and yet this is where the church of Jesus thrived (churches in America take note!).
7. By the AD 300s Chrysostom estimates the Christian population in Antioch was half the total population (exact numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down so Schaff p. 17 par. 7)!
8. The influential force of the church appears to be a result of Spirit filled momentum pushing the Gospel house to house, and with each movement forward it gathered more mass as it reached more and more people for Christ.
a. [Side note for the science nerds only: If mass is how many molecules in an object of matter then space is how close or far away they are from one another. Changing the space between the molecules would not effect the mass of the object. Consequently, contrary to popular Marvel superhero movies, enlarge a Thomas the Train engine to the size of a bus and it would weigh the same as the toy and be no threat whatsoever. Shrink a building, and it would still weigh 17 million tons! For our purpose we might say that both the church gathered and the church scattered, spread out as it were, contain the mass of the glories of Christ and the might of His love equally in both situations despite any space in between. Both are necessary.]
9. Reaching 50% of the population was not enough for this dynamic church, it also went on to found an influential school of biblical interpretation called the Antiochean School which added doctrinal gravitas to the movement, strengthened the church, and rightly stood in contrast to the more popular allegorical approach of the Alexandrian school (Schaff p. 507 par. 195). It was this school that the Reformers reached back to in order to recover the meaning of sola scripturaas rightly dividing the Word of Truth according to its plain sense. And, it is the approach most similar to the Evangelical hermeneutic today.
a. [Side note for church history/theology buffs: Following Adolf Von Harnack most think that Arius, of heresy fame, was a disciple of Lucian of Antioch whom Arius credited for originating the heresy. The Arian claim cannot be substantiated as there are conflicting reports about the reputation of Lucian. Philip Schaff is insightful here: “The contradictory reports are easily reconciled by the assumption that Lucian was a critical scholar with some peculiar views on the Trinity and Christology which were not in harmony with the later Nicene orthodoxy, but that he wiped out all stains by his heroic confession and martyrdom” (p. 506, par. 194). Modern Arians in the form of Jehovah’s Witness still make that claim but so don’t many encyclopedias as well. Interestingly, (side, side note): JWs did officially promote the worship of Jesus up to 1954with the publication of the New World Translation, thereby committing the very sin they charge Trinitarians with (namely, idolatry). They have since swept their polytheistic ways under the rug to be more consistent Arians (for more see the History of Arianism Ancient and Modern). As it concerns our essay, it should be noted that many conclude that the most famous Arian of all was Isaac Newton himself (so JW.org)!
Personally, I’ve seen no actual evidence of trinitarian denial only inference and arguments from silence put forth. Mitch Stokes makes the point in his biography on Newton that the great scientist did believe in the divinity of Jesus, the eternality of the son (contra Arianism), and the oneness of God the Father and Jesus Christ (pp. 85-86). What he denied then was the Nicene concept of consubstantiality which he believed was founded upon faulty exegesis of corrupted texts (he wasn’t wrong as it relates to 1 Jn. 5:7; 1 Tim. 3:16 – something modern translations correct). He also thought such terms introduced Greek philosophy and he wanted doctrine to come from Scripture itself because,“…the true faith was in the text”(p. 86). In this regard, it would be more accurate to call Newton anti-Athanasian rather than anti-trinitarian. Or, as Thomas Pfizenmaier answers the question in Was Isaac Newton an Arian?, “Newton may still be considered heterodox, but in light of the evidence of his theological development he may no longer be considered an Arian, that is to say, a heretic”(p. 24). Perhaps my Arian readers will at least consider wrestling a bit with N.T. Wright on this issue before making any firm conclusions].
Antioch became a gravitational well for the entire city bringing many sons and daughters to Christ. Roland Allen reminds us that this was Jesus’ intention from the beginning: “The Apostles followed Christ in this, they established a society, a spiritual society on earth.”
Was this prototypical behavior for all New Testament churches? If we are speaking of growing in mass house to house, what the missional church would term, “saturation”, then it certainly appears to be the trajectory Paul was aiming for and expected though how many succeed vs. how many ran aground along the way (e.g. Rev. 2-7) is a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, it is the cry of the Gospel to see Jesus exalted in the heart and on the tongue of everyone we so encounter. C.S. Lewis said it well in Mere Christianity,
In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose (199).
Correcting The Criteria for Winter’s Sodality & Modality
So, must every church form apostolic teams to send out to do church planting? The answer seems to be “no”. Paul never charges or appears to expect such a thing from every individual church. Perhaps this is where Winter’s criteria for sodality and modality could be improved. Jerry M. Ireland points out the lack of biblical warrant for using “age, sex, or marital status” to distinguish between the two (those are after all, anthropological distinctions not biblical ones). Instead he writes,
It seems likely that Paul’s lack of instruction to the churches to send missionaries flowed from the fact that Paul trusted that the sending of missionaries would always happen by divine calling, and not by human prerogative as was the case in his own calling and sending. In fact, John Calvin (1874) made precisely this argument in his Commentary on Acts, when he argued regarding the sending of Saul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2–3) from Antioch, that the selection of apostles (“sent ones”) was of an especially divine nature (6).
In the case of Saul and Barnabas their call was confirmed by the church of Antioch. “Therefore, the sodality operates only within the permission and sanctioning of the modality. It is an outflow of the life of the local church. The modality, or local church, therefore functions as the more normative structure,”comments Ireland incisively (even William Carey, father of modern missions, who is often used as an example of ignoring the modality of the church when they do not listen, eventually published his writings and persuaded his people thus receiving their blessing and support for, as they said, “the propagation of the gospel among the heathen.”).
Correcting A Misunderstanding of Roland Allen
This is all not to imply that there is only one divinely sanctioned method to create such Gospel force through the church. Rather, it is the Spirit of Jesus that moves and motivates the church in each generation to keep pressing forward and it is the church that must so often learn how to get out of His way to allow for the greatest impact. It is not the methods of man, but the mind of God that accomplishes such astonishing tasks. This is a rather obvious point omitted from many (most?) discussions of Roland Allen’s famed work Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? John E. Branner rightly corrects this omission,
“It is my thesis that his methodology must not be divorced from his theology; to do so is an affront to the intentions of this man. His theology, particularly the emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, permeates his methodology and lays an indispensable foundation for it” (p. 5 in Roland Allen: Pioneer in a Spirit-Centered Theology of Mission).
The danger in putting too much stock in a method is that we lose focus on the man, Christ Jesus, and His message. At the end of the day we must always put our full confidence in dependency on Christ through prayer and fasting over against any “methods” we deem infallible whether real or perceived.
In the final analysis we might ask a practical question of our churches: God is on mission, are we? Is the church, is my church, a spiritual force for the good of the Gospel? More convicting we might ask: Is the substance of the Gospel in my church so heavy that it accelerates my community towards Jesus the way the Sun effects the planets in our solar system? This is the true force of the Gospel – the love of Christ compels it.
Select Works Consulted:
Centripetal and “Centrifugal” Mission: Solomon and Jesus by Doug Matacio
The Centripetal Philosophy of Mission by David W. Wead in Scripture, tradition, and interpretation: essays presented to Everett F. Harrison by his students and colleagues in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday Harrison,1978:176-86.
The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission (Sodal and Modal) by Ralph D. Winter
Mission In the Old Testament: Israel As A Light To The Nations by Walter Kaiser
The Mission of God: Unlocking The Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher J.H. Wright
The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of The Church’s Mission by Christopher Wright.
Next: The Physics of The Missio Dei Part 3