Missional Boundaries and Entangling Alliances

by David Rogers on June 5, 2013 · 18 comments

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about missional Christianity. Without delving into the technical issues involved in defining the term, or attempting to say exactly what or who qualifies as truly missional, I would like to think out loud with you about some of the practical issues that sometimes come along with being missional. As I understand it, a big part of being missional has to do with getting involved in the community. It means, even though your church or ministry may be located geographically in the very same town in which you grew up, viewing this ministry with “missionary eyes.” It means not placing so much emphasis on activities organized on church premises by church people in order to further the interests of the church but rather on sending people out from the church into the community in order to meet felt needs and make a difference in the lives of unchurched people. It is less about “come” and more about “go.”

Some of the implications of this involve crossing boundaries—boundaries the church may not have been in the habit of crossing before. For some, it implies networking and forming partnerships with various initiatives and organizations that may not share all of the same core values and doctrinal beliefs as the church. In some instances, it involves taking initiatives like sending teams of people to do community service projects in needy neighborhoods or public schools. For example, when I was a missionary in Spain, the evangelical sociocultural association we formed co-sponsored a community drug awareness program with the local chapter of the Red Cross. We distributed Red Cross food to needy families. We also helped to organize international student exchanges with local public high schools. For local churches, it sometimes includes opening up their facilities for the use of community organizations and events such as Boy Scout chapters, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, high school graduation ceremonies, etc.

All of this is fine and well. As Christians, we are called to serve—and not just to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we are not called to isolate ourselves, but to make a difference in the world.

The problem comes when the values of some of these organizations and initiatives come into conflict in one way or another with our values as Christians. And if we are honest, we must recognize that, unless an initiative or organization is specifically Christian, their core values, though perhaps similar in this or that, will never be totally compatible with ours.

Even though they may espouse “morally straight,” or positive, or all-American values, a group that is not specifically Christian does not, by definition, share the church’s most important value of all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is because of this, I believe, in our missional endeavors to bless the communities in which we live, we must at the same time be on guard to not fall into the trap of entering into entangling alliances. We are called to be in the world, but not of it. As disciples of Jesus, we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. No one can serve two masters. And there are occasions when we must be perfectly clear where our true allegiances lie.

Does this mean we must steer clear of any and all forms of partnering with groups that are not specifically Christian? Not necessarily. As missionaries—whether in a foreign land or in our own neighborhood—one of the most strategic things we can do is to build redemptive relationships with the people that surround us. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to live life together with the people we are trying to reach. To the extent we are able to do so without at the same time compromising our convictions, it is good missionary strategy to go to the same places they go, do the same things they do, eat the same food they eat, and appreciate the same cultural artifacts they appreciate (see Jeremy Parks’ helpful post about this here).

At the same time, though, it means we must be tentative and maintain relatively loose ties with these groups with whom we partner. When we, as individual Christians, or as a local church, participate in activities sponsored by non-Christian entities, we place ourselves under the authority, as it were, of these entities. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are commanded in Scripture to submit to the authority of secular governments. Even when we eat in a restaurant, to some degree we come under the authority of the management. When we send a group of church youth to a local sports event, we go in submission, as it were, to the rules and values of the organization hosting the event. Sometimes, however, there are potential conflicts of interest. When we send a church group to the movie theater to watch a Christian movie, for example, we go, realizing, at the same time, that the movie theater also shows morally objectionable movies. We may choose to go anyway, but we are free to decide not to whenever it is deemed to not be in the interest of the values and mission of the church to send a group to a particular establishment.

This does not necessarily imply that we ought to throw rocks at them when we make this decision, though. We must be attentive and ready to recognize whenever there is a conflict of interest and withdraw from participation in a joint initiative as soon as such a conflict becomes evident. Whenever we are not able to partner in this or that, or whenever circumstances call for us to dissolve partnerships in which we have previously been involved, to the degree possible, I believe we ought to seek to do so gracefully. It is not the time to publicly turn on and get revenge on our former partner. It is not the time to behave like a spurned lover.

Let me be clear. I am not saying there is never a time for legitimate boycotts. There are certain activities and entities which, as Christians, whether we formally announce it or not, we systematically boycott—at least in a de facto sense. If we are consistent in our Christian testimony, we do not, for example, frequent topless bars, crack houses, or KKK rallies, nor do we partner with environmentally destructive industries, or factories that exploit the poor.

Of course, we could, if we so chose, boycott every organization and entity that does not perfectly conform to every one of our values as Christians. But most of us do not. We buy gas and coffee at gas stations that also sell salacious magazines. We eat at restaurants that also serve alcohol. We watch television on cable outlets that also offer packages with pornographic programming. The values of the world around us are so pervasive it is hard to escape them. Neither do we choose to picket and protest and publicly denounce every organization that in one way or another promotes sin. One of the logical reasons for this is that, if we did, we would not have any time left to do what we are really called to do as the church. Instead of being the church, we would quickly turn into a Westboro-style cult.

It seems, however, that those we make the biggest deal about publicly denouncing are often those who stray, in one way or another, from a position we had previously regarded as more compatible with our own. Why did we as Southern Baptists, for example, vote to boycott Disney instead of the pornographic movie industry? Is it not because we considered them to have started out as a family-friendly organization? Why, for example, is the change of policy at the Boy Scouts such a big deal for us? Is it not because of what we perceive, in many ways, to be a shared cultural heritage and a lot of warm fuzzies in our collective memory?

What is it about certain decisions of certain organizations that tend to grab our attention? Does it have to do with expectations? What is it that we expect, though? Do the Boy Scouts exist in order to make disciples of Jesus? Does Disney? Do any of the political parties? What about the US military? Do we hope to somehow Christianize these organizations and convert them into Christian entities? The only way to do that would be for them, as organizations, to embrace the total package of the gospel, including the exclusivity of the cross of Christ. If they are not, and never have claimed to be, Christian, though, are these expectations warranted? The truth of the matter is that entities that are not specifically Christian will always end up disappointing us in one way or another if we expect something from them that is not a part of their natural DNA. Our expectations for organizations that purport to exist in order to make disciples of Jesus ought to be different than for those that don’t.

If, on the other hand, a church is going to co-sponsor an event with a group that is not specifically Christian, or open up its facilities to groups that are not specifically Christian, it has every right to expect that the church’s core values will not be attacked, undermined, or compromised as a result. We must weigh whether our participation in this event helps us or hinders us with respect to our ultimate objective, which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, not to promote moral therapeutic deism or American civil religion.

Whenever an organization like the Boy Scouts, or Disney, or the public schools, or the US military, or the Republican Party, decides to exchange one set of values which is not in accord with the gospel for another set of values that is even less in accord with the gospel, we are legitimately saddened, but we should not be shocked. And since, ultimately, our horse is not tied to their wagon, and the mission of the church and the power of the gospel are not thereby negatively affected, we should not be overly distraught.

Whenever we have the opportunity to bear testimony to the gospel by appropriately partnering with and serving those in the larger community in which we live, we do well to take advantage of it. But, at the same time, we must always remember who is our true spiritual family, what are the core values that bind us together, and not compromise these values by forming entangling alliances with those who do not truly share them.

1 russell minick June 5, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Studying Daniel’s ways of living in a pagan land have always helped me. The world, including each and every nation-state, is the context in which God’s people are still experiencing exile. It’s all part of the “already but not yet” challenge. Whatever the tactical decisions regarding affiliation with specific organizations, keeping the big picture rightly in focus is vital. I need to be loyal to God and his Kingdom, and I need to display that by conducting myself according to the character of Christ as well as the boldly engaging practices of Jesus, friend of… well… all sorts!

2 David Rogers June 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Good observations, Russell.

3 Joshua T June 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Russell,

I agree that the account of Daniel is helpful here. The early portions of that book seem to be a growing relevance in my everyday life. Thanks for your words.

4 Patrick Johnson June 5, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Thanks for this timely and thoughtful post — I think you’ve distilled a lot about the missional perspective and our current challenges as a church in a missionary setting. I would only add… The kind of witness that you’re talking about only has integrity if the church critiques itself first and foremost. Conversion begins with the household of God. Under the guidance of the Spirit, the church must continually ask about its own conformity to the gospel. Only then may it turn to assess organizations and groups in the wider culture with any integrity.

5 David Rogers June 5, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Good observations, also, Patrick.

6 Mike Day June 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Excellent, insightful, and helpful to me in assessing church response to BSA. Thanks David!!

7 Dave Miller June 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Are you the Mike Day who was in Southside VA in the 80s?

8 Steven June 5, 2013 at 5:46 pm

David:

Thanks for the post. I do have a couple of questions for your consideration and response if you (or any other commenters) have time and further thoughts on the subject. First, how do you differentiate between the church and individual Christians in this area of missions? That is, is there a difference between how a covenanted body of believers in a local congregation relates to “the world”, and the way that an individual member of that local congregation relates to “the world”? I think that we have to differentiate between the missional responsibilities of the two. Many local congregations start food banks for the needy, or a clothes closet for the poor, or sponsor a Boy Scout troop, or conduct English as a second language classes for immigrants, or any number of other endeavors that are not primarily related to gospel proclamation and discipleship to the members of the congregation. Should the local congregation be doing these “missional” endeavors, or should the local congregation focus its efforts on fulfilling the Great Commission? I am not trying to set up a dichotomy between these missional endeavors and the Great Commission, but wondering when the local congregation gets to far afield of the Great Commission and too far into purely social endeavors. Should these social endeavors be more the responsibility of the individual Christian?

I promise that I am not trying to be snarky or set a trap to spring on you with this question. Just honestly trying to try to get to some conclusions myself and appreciate any insight.

Steven

9 Jerry Corbaley June 5, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Hi Steven,

I am in process of starting a new church and have been seriously looking at the idea of preparing people to work within “missional” opportunities without any official church involvement at all.

When I worked in a factory I could help my fellow workers and share my faith and the church was not liable (legally), not burdened with making policy, not bothered with turf wars between two members who worked in the factory (“Hey, I was in charge of doing that for them”) and I didn’t have to wait for the church’s permission either. I shared myself and my faith. If I wanted to study the Bible with some folks at lunch, we just did it. The church where I was a member gained a few new Christians a even more visitors.

So how can a church encourage its members to be active in children’s sports, or the local rescue mission, of picking up litter, or changing the neighbor widow’s engine oil, without the church picking up the responsibility like magnet in a bucket of iron filings?

If a church takes an once of responsibility, it will end up with long tons of responsibility. The moment my factory Bible study would be called a Baptist Chruch Bible study, then a landslide of expectations come pounding down.

Steve, am I addressing your question?

I also look forward to David’s response.

10 Frank L. June 5, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Jerry,

I hear your frustrations but don’t think your nose is pointed in the right direction to track down the culprit.

Ministry without the church and all the baggage that is associated with people living in community sounds good, but it is not in any way a biblical idea.

Jesus built his “Church” (argue universal versus local if you want) and every expression of it we see in the Book of Acts (the story of the early church) it was a local expression–even though it had global reach.

What you might be looking for is a “biblical model” that can do all the things you state–and more. I suggest that is a “house church,” or network of house churches.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know and I’m not nitpicking your post. I hear you. Just adding my two cents which admittedly doesn’t buy as much as it used to.

Check out: The Fellowship of the Cross. Our classmate Jay Moore in Tucson. Our church help supports this work.

11 Jerry Corbaley June 6, 2013 at 10:30 am

Frank L,

I am familiar with the house church model and keep in touch with Jay.

Check out my blog, jerrycorbaley.blogspot.com and remenantchurchdaytona.blogspot.com and note the similarities between our geographic locations and prominent logos.

In time, you can see more clearly which direction my nose is pointing, and if your church supports such efforts, well…

I thank God for the churches that are. I thank God for the preaching of Jesus Christ. But I have one good season of life left (Lord willing) and the opportunity to do something with it.

As you know, Frank, there is a sense that the great commission can be seen as, “As you are going…make disciples”. If church members begin to see their whole entire life as a ministry before Jesus Christ, then that is on target. When they are influenced (by default) to see the ministry of the church organization as the predominant ministry to the world, then they tend to rest in anonymity in the “non-sanctioned majority of their life.

As always, Frank, you help me to think, thanks.

12 Frank L. June 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm

Jerry,

I knew you were familiar with the house church model. If my ailing memory serves me, it was the topic of not a few discussions four decades ago.

The key as you point out is “focus.” Focus on ministry and he form takes care of itself. Focus on the form and ministry fends for itself. Some ministry may still get done regardless of form, but not an Acts kind of ministry.

Bless you “as you go!”

13 Frank L. June 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm

PS–I’m working on establishing a house church in my area. These are tough economic times and this has been challenging. I’m hoping to launch sometime in the Fall.

I will continue to pastor my church while I mentor a young team of house pastors.

14 David Rogers June 5, 2013 at 8:19 pm

Steven,

That is actually a very good question, and one that is being debated quite a lot in missiological and theological circles as of late. It is also a question that is challenging for me to answer adequately in a blog comment. But I will give it a try, anyway.

First off, if you are by any chance interested in a more complete treatment of some of my ideas on this subject, you should read the following two posts:

http://sbcimpact.org/2010/03/15/christ-the-faithful-suffering-servant-in-the-midst-of-culture/

http://sbcimpact.org/2011/09/09/what-is-the-mission-of-the-church/

In summary, I would say that, in general, as Christians, we should do good works for our neighbors in the community as a means of being faithful to the model of servanthood and compassion that Jesus gave us when He came and lived among us. That is an important part of Christian discipleship. And if we are making disciples, we should be modeling what it means to be a disciple.

On the other hand, I agree with the “wide-angle” and “narrow-angle” description of the gospel and the mission of the church that Gilbert and DeYoung give in their book “The Mission of the Church.” Another way to say it, in my opinion, is, the central focus of our mission is the root of the gospel (i.e. the substitutionary atonement of Jesus), though the full expression of the gospel also embraces the fruit of the gospel (i.e. the change in our character, the good works we do, etc. as the truth of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit works in our heart).

As far as these particular aspects are concerned, I don’t see a valid reason for sharply dividing between the mission of the church and the mission of individual believers. In the church, we ought to support each other, and cooperate together in order to be more effective in the particular tasks God calls us to do.

At the same time, I am not all that convinced that the church ought to be involved, as the church, in efforts to “transform culture.” I would especially caution against the church getting involved in controversial political issues on which authentic born again Christians who have a high regard for the authority of the Bible legitimately differ. That does not preclude, however, individual Christians getting involved in politics, or economics, or scientific investigation, or any number of other worthy endeavors, which, as I see it have more to do with the “creation mandate” of Gen. 1:28, which is applicable to all humanity across the board, than with the Great Commission (in all its various versions, Matt. 28:18-20 most noteworthy among them), which is applicable to the church (i.e. Christians as a general category) in particular.

I am generally sympathetic to the Two Kingdom approach to culture, if you happen to be familiar with that.

One other matter I would point out related to all this is that the church, at times, engages in social ministry and cultural activities as a platform for presenting the gospel. I think this is a legitimate, and, especially in the postmodern culture in which we live, very important aspect of missionary and missional gospel proclamation. It lends authenticity to our gospel proclamation and demonstrates in deeds what we proclaim by our words. It is important to not leave the words behind, though. A church that only does social/cultural ministry, and neglects direct gospel proclamation, is surely defective in their faithfulness to God’s calling.

15 Steven June 6, 2013 at 9:38 am

Thanks David, Jerry and Frank for your insights. This is a difficult area. As I have thought on this more, and after reading these comments, I suspect that one reason that local congregations feel compelled to get into these social/cultural ministries is that the members are not doing these things as they should. Maybe the solution is for the leadership of the local congregations to equip its members to do these things by laying the appropriate theological and then practical foundation for the “model[ing] of servanthood and compassion.” If Jerry (for example) is regularly giving support to the homeless man outside the factory, mentoring him and assisting him in obtaining employment as an example of the grace and compassing that Chirst shows us, then the church does not have to. The local congregation can certainly support Jerry, by giving him a network of brothers and sisters in Christ that might be able to assist in his ministry to this man, but the local congrgation is not then running a homeless shelter.

Thanks all for your thoughts. It is nice to participate in a civilized blog conversation!

Steven

16 Jerry Corbaley June 6, 2013 at 10:18 am

Steven,

I think you understand me. If, (in the factory setting) I am not only personally helping the homeless man, but helping him reestablish trust with distant family, old friends, formal organizations that can help, as well as demonstrating God’s love for him, then our Lord’s work is being done and the church and church staff can concentrate on discipleship (personal Christian mentoring).

17 Louis June 6, 2013 at 8:34 am

David:

These are excellent thoughts.

Individual Christians are the ones that should permeate the culture with their presence. The church can, also, but it is hard for the reasons you suggest. I, for example, am a member of the American Bar Association, but I would not want my church to be hooked up with the ABA. I don’t agree with all of the positions of the ABA, but on the whole, it offers programs and contacts that I value.

If an individual is going to exclude themselves from organizations because they are not pure, there are not going to be any to join.

Also, it’s strange how the church can be so careful in forming some alliances, but careless in others.

And often we really do overstate what is an association or partnership. For example, the SBC has never been in association with or an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America, so a call to “disassociate” or “unaffiliate” is not really the right language to use because it applies something that never existed.

If you are in Houston, I hope that I will get to see you.

18 David Rogers June 6, 2013 at 10:52 am

Louis,

Excellent insights and examples of applying the principles I am talking about here.

Unfortunately, I am not going to be able to be at the convention this year. Hopefully sometime else. I do remember meeting you in Orlando.

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