Holiness and Mission

Here’s a hodge-podge of thoughts on holiness and mission as a follow-up and expansion of the last post and a response to several of the comments.  If I had time to organize these into a cohesive, flowing argument, I would try.  But late-July is not the time for a TMC Student-Lifer to be writing treatises.  I know this is an issue that many of us are thinking long and hard about, so I appreciate the insightful discussion.

  1. My goal in the last post was not mainly to identify and address the contemporary emphasis on mission but the hot topics of culture, relevance, and contextualization.  I don’t equate mission with these three concepts.  They are related, but they are not identical.  Living missionally certainly forces us to understand and interact with cultural norms and values, to pursue relevance in appropriate ways, and to communicate the truth with words that unbelievers can comprehend.  But biblical mission is fundamental and foundational whereas cultural connectedness, contemporary relevance, and the better forms of contextualization are expressions of mission.  They are ways that we can apply God’s call to love people in our world and point them to Christ in word and deed.  I say this only because several of the comments make good points about the relationship between holiness and mission, but my intent was to say something about a different pair of themes (though certainly related themes).  And I don’t think we’re just splitting hairs here.
  2. Christopher Wright has defined biblical mission as “our committed participation as God’s people, at God’s invitation and command, in God’s own mission within the history of God’s world for the redemption of God’s creation.”¹  However you might nuance that, it’s helpful to put a definition on the table.  God’s ultimate mission is not to connect with a culture but to recreate one, not to pursue relevance in the blind eyes of sinful humanity but to open our eyes to see his eternal relevance, not to contextualize but to transform the context.  Getting confused between the goal (God’s mission) and some of the popular contemporary means (cultural engagement, pursuing relevance, contextualization) is harmful to our understanding and blurs the ideas themselves.  Even if some of these contemporary emphases are helpful and balancing, putting secondary pursuits on a par with the primary end that they’re meant to serve will always send us spinning.
  3. The pendulum metaphor accurately portrays what happens in history as movements swing to and fro, often as reactions to other movements.  It also reflects the fact that because we are sinners living in a fallen world, we often wrestle to find the biblical balance.  We start swinging toward one principle and slowly find that other important principles are fading in the rearview mirror.  That’s the point of the metaphor.  But like any metaphor, if you examine it from more than the few angles from which it was intended to be viewed, it fails.  For instance, the pendulum picture doesn’t give us a good picture of what ought to be, and the very picture of a pendulum swinging in only one direction at a time introduces false dichotomies and deceiving antitheses that are more than a little dangerous.  The pendulum analogy can make it sound like if you’re headed toward cultural understanding and ministerial relevance, you can’t (or won’t) simultaneously emphasize holiness.  Or that if you’re pursuing holiness you’re automatically swinging full-speed away from the culture and undercutting your ability to communicate truth meaningfully to the people around you.  This is not necessarily true.  It’s certainly true that these one-sided swings often happen and that correction is needed when they do, but that doesn’t mean that they always happen or that they have to happen or that they should happen.  At the same time, don’t miss the point of the metaphor.  If we ran from all metaphors out of fear that someone somewhere could find a chink in the argument, we’d have all propositions and no pictures.  I’m not willing to do that.
  4. Holiness and mission are not antithetical.  They are inextricably interwoven.  Eric’s comment is worth reproducing in full here: “Why must the pendulum swing between holy and separatistic, or missional and worldly?  As soon as we start thinking that the way to be missional is to be a little less holy, or that it is possible to be holy without being missional, we have missed the biblical boat entirely.  It is pretty clear again and again in Scripture that God’s transforming work of salvation should produce ethical conduct that is increasingly holy, and that that holiness is not a deterrent to mission but is the actual vehicle for mission. I think this is the point of Mat. 5:16 (and on a certain level, the whole Sermon on the Mount): “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words: you do good works (let your light shine), and something about that causes other to give glory to your father in heaven. Cf. Jn. 17:22-23, cf. 1 Pet. 2:12, cf. Gen. 18:19.  So I think the point is not just to find the point on the spectrum where we are acceptably holy and acceptably missional, nor to say it is possible for them to coexist with each other like oil and water, but that they depend on each other.  Holiness w/o mission is not holiness. Mission without holiness is not mission.  I wholeheartedly agree.
  5. Scott, another close friend who I admire like Eric for his pursuit of this balance, wrote: “If I were to maybe nuance your call for holiness I would say that what the church needs (apart from any corrective pendulum swings) is tried and proven holiness… Milton wrote in Areopagitica that he ‘could not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.'”  I completely agree.  But I think it’s important to ask ourselves why we don’t feel exhorted to mission when we hear a call to holiness.  Does the word “holiness” by definition exclude mission?  How does the word “holiness” mean anything other than “tried and proven holiness”?  I think we should choose another word for “untried and unproven holiness.”  Something like “hermetry” or maybe “hypocrisy” if it’s bad enough.  I want to reclaim the word “holiness” so that it inherently excludes “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” and includes mission.  This may be what Scott’s getting at, but I want to highlight it and amplify it.  If holiness for God’s people means being like God, and if God’s character expresses itself comprehensively in his mission to reach and redeem his people and his world through Christ, then God’s very character includes mission as a central pursuit.  So biblical holiness is missional to its very foundations.  Don’t let the Pharisees define what it means to be holy.  Let Jesus.  Because in Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God, we see God’s holy and missional character most clearly.
  6. As I said at the beginning of the last post, the contemporary emphasis on cultural engagement is a welcomed emphasis.  But I think we need to work harder at defining what we mean when we say “engaging with culture.”  One danger is that in the midst of all our talk about culture, we forget to emphasize people.  I believe that sometimes our fascination with “culture” can turn into a fleshly means of self-protection, another way to keep ourselves insulated from the real-life people around us while feeling like we’re being missional because we’re talking about some aspect of mission.  In the same way that we decry “ivory tower theologians” who are out of touch with people, we ought to decry ourselves when our discussions about cultural engagement only become means to satisfy our intellectual lust and consume our time so that we can avoid opportunities to actually engage with the culture.  Too much talk about culture without a love for people creates a culture-centered mission where we start to think that our end goal is to understand our culture instead of to reach the very people who are the objects of God’s loving mission.  Culture and people are not the same thing.  We are to engage with both, but these engagements are different.  We engage cultural norms and values because we are trying to reach the people in that culture, not just for intellectual and missional kicks.
  7. Another danger is the ambiguity of the exhortation to “engage with culture.”  Obviously some people mean something precise when they use the term, but often it becomes a vague catch-all phrase.  I agree that we should engage the culture, but what does that look like?  Am I engaging with culture when I use YouTube?  Am I engaging with culture when I sign up for Facebook (or not engaging with culture when I abstain)?  Am I engaging with culture when I listen to gangsta rap as a suburban white guy or punk rock as an elderly man or classical music as a high-schooler?  What about when I read Al Mohler’s blog?  When I read Christopher Hitchens, analyze The Matrix, or shop at IKEA?  Am I engaging with culture when I use technology and art creatively at a doctrinally conservative church, when I comment on an atheist blog, when I debate about McCain and Obama?  What about evangelizing at a pub or getting one of those “missional tattoos” or wearing a tie around the big-wigs or subscribing to Rolling Stone or reading World Magazine or starting an informal outreach to an underground subculture?  What does it mean to “engage with culture”?  The problem is not that all of the above could reasonably be considered “engaging the culture” in some way.  The problem is that many people (especially my younger generation that is rightfully excited about this new trend toward mission) seem to assume that all forms of cultural engagement are healthy and inherently missional.  The resulting attitude becomes, “Hey, that’s great, no worries.  You’re engaging the culture, so it’s all good.”
    The potential danger I see is that we can (1) equate “cultural engagement” with missional living and then (2) call every form of “cultural engagement” good on the basis that we’re inherently missional when we “engage with culture” (enter 1 Corinthians 9 and Acts 17).  But then we can easily forget that we’re temptation-laden sinners participating in sin-tainted cultures and that “cultural engagement” must be done with care.  This is why I think it’s important to distinguish between our firm and crystal-clear biblical mission and the more murky idea of cultural engagement.  Don’t get me wrong — we have to think about and interact with culture, because we are in the culture, the culture is in us, and we are called to reach people within the culture.  So it’s part of mission.  But inseparable doesn’t mean identical.
  8. Scott wrote, “I feel the tensions that you describe as I want to cling to and defend with tenacity the doctrine of conservative, Calvinistic Evangelicalism and embrace the missional approach to ministry that seeks to engage and speak to the culture.”  Like many of you, I share Scott’s heart.  And I am sad that the tension between holding sound doctrine and living missionally even exists.  Mission should flow relentlessly from our doctrine, and doctrine should saturate our mission.  But we can’t even leave it there.  We have to go farther: Mission is a doctrine.

To some who are strongly emphasizing cultural engagement, it may sound like I’m against it.  I’m really not.  I just think we need to think very carefully about it and ask the Spirit to guide us through God’s Word, because both of the extreme views regarding cultural engagement are tempting and easy: on the one hand, the isolationistic hermetry that calls everything about culture unclean and avoids the people in it; on the other hand, the thoughtlessly extroverted cultural pursuit that goes beyond cultural engagement and ends up in marriage to it.

I eagerly anticipate the day when the righteousness and love of the reigning King will govern the unified culture of the redeemed; the day when we will look at the glory of Christ and inherently know and feel that he is relevant like a king on his throne is relevant; the day when the darkness will be eradicated and we will no longer feel the need to shine the small and inadequate flashlight of contextualization onto the great truths of God.  That will be a wonderful day.

In the meantime, we have a holy mission.  May the Lord grant us a missional holiness.

¹ Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006), 22-23.


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