Missio Dei: Journey of the Elect
IN581: Theology of Mission & Evangelism
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary
April 14, 2008
Missio Dei… a term that has been selfishly abused, a term that is robustly debated, a term that holds great hope. From Latin, missio Dei simply means “mission of God”. However, not so simple is Christianity’s responsibility – both as a corporate body and as individual believers – to discern how this term is to be lived out, to map out how to follow the mission of God. This paper shall strive to define the missio Dei as the journey embarked upon by the elect of the Triune God of Christianity, in which these believers seek to follow God’s movement for the purpose of its creation’s ultimate reconciliation to Him. Important factors in this definition are the elect, the Trinity, and the action of following. As each component plays a crucial role in the missio Dei, this paper will explain its thesis by giving special attention to these topics.
Responsibility to further the missio Dei rests squarely on the shoulders of the elect. Christian scripture contains many references to and an informative description of this group of people. If missio Dei sees God as a missionary God, then the participating elect must be significantly informed by the example of Jesus Christ. Mark tells us in his Gospel account how Jesus responded when asked by James and John to give them heavenly seats of honor: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Humility is essential to any viable framework for discussing election. The elect must serve in the struggle to maintain humility. The elect may not lounge in the arrogance of self-assured divine privilege. The words of Lesslie Newbigin echo this mandate: “To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom, which is for all.” (Newbigin, Gospel, pp. 86-87) The elect must act, and election primarily embraced as privilege instead of responsibility surely does not lead people to actively embark on the journey the missio Dei journey.
Whom are the elect to follow in this journey? Almost too simple to carry credibility, there exists in the very words “missio Dei” a clue addressing the Trinitarian balance involved. Forgive this author’s imprecise grasp of Latin, but let the reader notice that missio Dei is not missio Patri, nor is it missio Fili, nor is it missio Spiritus Sancti. On the face of it, placing at the center of missio Dei a theological concept not explicitly outlined in scripture (i.e., the Trinity) may seem like an unwise strategy for establishing a firm definition of this process. However, Luke displays in his Gospel and in Acts a thoroughly Trinitarian model of mission. That Jesus Christ was the sent Son of God the Father is a relatively undisputed claim in Christianity. Yet regular references to the Holy Spirit seem to be a practice primarily restricted to the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. Luke’s accounts stand in contrast to the current practices of the Church as a whole. Stan Nussbaum comments on the common nature of all human groups preoccupy themselves with boundary maintenance. (Nussbaum, Reader’s, p. 29) A major role played in scripture by the Holy Spirit – and embraced by Luke – is that of the boundary-breaker. Luke’s Jesus repeatedly engages with and offers salvation for those spread across the various economic strata of his day. Also, among Jesus’ post-Resurrection instructions are references to being “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49 NIV) and an insistence to “wait for gift my Father promised” to “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on” them (Acts 1:4-8 NIV). And of course, no discussion of human involvement in missio Dei is complete without addressing Luke’s Pentecost account, which is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promises to the disciples. As Nussbaum says, “Nothing can be clearer from Pentecost that the fact that God was on a mission to make his message known to people of all ethnic groups.” (Nussbaum, Reader’s, p. 28 ) To embrace a Trinitarian approach in the missio Dei journey, the Church must take seriously Luke’s model of mission; and She must wait for the Spirit to reveal where to go next.
Following God’s movement is the process within missio Dei in which Christians are most dependent on God. In his keynote address at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast, Paul Hewson (stage name: Bono) commented on the importance of this type of following: “This wise man asked me to stop. He said, ‘Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Get involved in what God is doing — because it’s already blessed.’ Well, let’s get involved in what God is doing.” (Hewson, “Keynote”) As we see in Luke’s Trinitarian model of mission, the Holy Spirit plays an essential role in this discernment of just how to come along behind God’s activity. Christians providing an excellent example of this following are the Bible translators working in Africa. Their decision to employ the indigenous names for God in their scripture translations proved to be an act of following where God had already been moving. The Apostle Paul speaks of God’s movement among his people in Romans 1:
“what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 NIV)
Clearly, Paul would say that God is capable of showcasing himself without human assistance. It is through embracing missio Dei that men and women accept God’s invitation to join him in these places. Lamin Sanneh cites translators’ employment of indigenous names for God as a key element in the widespread conversion that took place in Africa. He contends that the African religions as conveyors of the names of God were in relevant aspects anticipations of Christianity.” (Sanneh, Whose, p. 32) It takes no huge stretch of the imagination to picture God saying “I’m already here. Come and name me!” Paul’s naming of God before the Areopagus bears much resemblance to the work of the translators in Africa. What those in Athens worshipped as something unknown, Paul proclaimed as God. When the translators did the same, they tapped into a deep pulsing vein of God’s movement on that continent. Imagine missionary work in Africa as something moving along at the speed of a bicycle. The bicyclist encounters a train-track, which is the path of God’s movement among his creation. The bicyclist hears a train coming when she learns about an indigenous name for God. As the train passes, the bicyclist grabs hold of it by employing this native name for God in her translation. Instantly, she is yanked off her bike, and before she can do anything, he’s thundering along at 150mph. In the case of widespread African conversion described by Sanneh, the translator essentially latched on to God’s movement among his creation, and He took them for a wild ride.
Sensitivity on the part of God’s elect his movement among peoples and history (and the corresponding willingness to follow God into these places) plays a crucial role in the living out of missio Dei. However, attention must be paid to certain legitimate concerns related to human involvement in God’s action. A definite cause for wariness is the humanity of the elect. The necessity of valuing responsibility over privilege hints at the selfishness and/or laziness in the behavior of the elect in the past. Jonah, the stubborn and rebellious prophet to the ultimately repentant city of Nineveh is a prime example of the elects’ penchant for failing to behave as such. An additional obstacle to robust engagement with the missio Dei lies in the cumulative junk pile left behind by wealthy but careless Western missionaries. Jonathan Bonk outlines several lessons from scripture (i.e., neglected instructions that have been available from the very beginning) that could have given non-Christian populations fewer reasons to be suspicious of mission work. The “righteous rich” must differentiate themselves from the “unrighteous rich” by adhering to a number of biblical economic principles: be a critic of culture who examines the relationship (or lack thereof) between the rich and poor; live in a state of repentance according to God’s laws instead of those of the State; be proactive and chose not to rely on an invisible hand or other sundry economic theories in ensuring the welfare of the poor; center one’s hopes and desires not in wealth but in God; and exercise intentionality, compassion and creativity in working for the poor. (Bonk, “Missions”, p.173) When God’s elect exercise diligence in the areas of their responsibility both as the elect and as righteous rich (when appropriate), the missio Dei will take shape in human form just, similar to when it first walked among us 2,000 years ago.
Bonk, Jonathan J. “Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem… Revisited.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research Vol. 31 No. 4 (October 2007) 171-174.
Hewson, Paul (Bono), “Keynote Address at the 54th National Prayer Breakfast,” 2 February 2006, at The Hilton Washington Hotel.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.
Nussbaum, Stan. A Reader’s Guide to Transforming Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005.
Sanneh, Lamin. Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003.