The Mission of the Church: A Response to Peter Leithart

If I could hand out one book at a large gathering of evangelicals, I would strongly consider What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. In this book, the authors argue that the church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and that therefore churches should focus their efforts on Great Commission tasks and avoid the pitfall of spreading their efforts into too many good causes that would distract from what they have been sent in the world to do. It is a book that brings great clarity and focus to a discussion that has too often lacked it. It needs to be read far and wide, and if it is, it will be for the good of the church.

Peter Leithart recently wrote a response to the book in which he makes two major arguments against its main thesis. My aim is to respond to these two arguments.

1. The Great Commission is about discipling the nations as groups with political structures, not about individuals and groups from among the nations.

Leithart writes of the word ethne (“nations”) in Matthew 28:19:

…the word does refer to organized social entities that inevitably take some political form. Jesus commissions the church to disciple (the Greek verb matheteuo) ta ethne—that is, to disciple people groups. Discipling a group is different from worshipers and followers being present in every group. Ta ethne are the object of discipleship; the groups are the object of baptism and teaching. In short, DeYoung and Gilbert de-socialize and de-politicize Jesus’s commission.

By reading Jesus’ command this way, Leithart  essentially argues that Jesus gave the apostles a mandate for Christendom. If you let the other participles in the sentence explicate the meaning of the main verb “disciple” [i.e., “make disciples” in most translations], it becomes clear that baptizing and teaching are the primary means by which the apostles are to make disciples. Leithart’s view, then, entails the practice of imposing baptism on “nations,” which he understands to be organized political structures. In Christendom, this practice often took the form of a king who converted to Christianity imposing Christian baptism on all of his subjects (a practice perpetuated through infant baptism in particular).

But among the numerous problems of this reading, here are a few. First, when we read the rest of the New Testament, we don’t actually see the apostles doing what Leithart says Jesus commanded them to do. In the book of Acts, they disciple the nations by proclaiming the gospel among them, baptizing those who repent and believe, and then organizing those believers into churches that exist among the nations. Second, in Matthew 28:19 the masculine pronoun autous (“them”) does not agree in gender with the neuter noun ethne (“nations”), which implies that those who are to be baptized and taught are individuals and groups from among the nations who repent and believe the gospel, not the nations as politically organized societies. Third, the Christendom reading eviscerates baptism of its New Testament meaning, which is a personal confession of faith on the part of an individual, not a tool to Christianize a society by imposition (see especially Peter’s reference to “the pledge of a good conscience” in 1 Pet. 3:21, which by definition rules out imposing baptism on anyone who does not explicitly express willingness to receive it).

Leithart’s second argument against DeYoung and Gilbert is this:

2. The double mission of the Son and the Spirit implies a double mission for the church.

In a key paragraph, Leithart argues:

They [DeYoung and Gilbert] ask, “what if we are not called to partner with God in all he undertakes? What if the work of salvation, restoration, and re-creation are divine gifts to which we bear witness, rather than works in which we collaborate?” (42). Those questions boil down to: What if there is only one mission (of the Son) to which we bear witness (in the power of the Spirit)? As soon as we factor in the Spirit’s mission, a different logic emerges: As the Spirit inaugurated and guided the mission of Jesus, so the Spirit of Jesus inaugurates and drives the mission of the church. The Father sends the Spirit to unite us to sent Son; the mission of the Spirit is to incorporate us into the mission of the Son. In the Spirit, we are not merely witnesses to the Son’s mission but are swept into the mission of God.

I think this paragraph mischaracterizes the issue at stake. The question is not whether or not the mission of the church is inaugurated and guided by the Holy Spirit. All agree that it is. The real question is what specific role the church has in its Spirit-driven mission. Leithart assumes (likely because of his postmillennial eschatology, which has its own problems) that any involvement of the church in the mission of the Spirit must entail the church as an institution actively partnering in the social and political dimensions of the new creation.

Here I would offer two words of response. First, Leithart’s terminology is a bit confusing. He speaks of a “double mission” of the Son and the Spirit, nevertheless acknowledging that it is a united mission in which the Spirit bears witness to the Son. I would be fine with that terminology except for the fact that, in the paragraph quoted above, Leithart accuses DeYoung and Gilbert of truncating the mission of the Spirit by saying, “What if there is only one mission (of the Son) to which we bear witness (in the power of the Spirit)?” At this point, he is beginning to stretch the “united” aspect of the Son-Spirit mission that he previously affirmed. Perhaps it would be better to say that there is a single divine mission carried out by the Son, who accomplishes redemption, and the Spirit, who applies what the Son has accomplished. The renewal of creation is not the domain of the Spirit to the exclusion of the Son, nor of the Son to the exclusion of the Spirit. The doctrine of inseparable operations should inform us here.

Second, Leithart overlooks a key distinction that DeYoung and Gilbert make when they argue that, often times, individual Christians may be actively devoted to various social/political causes, and they do these good works as an aspect of their discipleship. However, the focus of the book is specifically on the mission of the church as an institution. Jonathan Leeman has written more recently on the distinction between the church acting together (as an institution) vs. the church acting separately (as individuals). DeYoung and Gilbert want to address the question of where the church must put its focus when acting together without denying the importance of the influence it can have in various spheres of life when acting separately.

With that distinction in mind, the mission of the church can be viewed from two angles. On the one hand, the church as institution is narrowly focused on the task of making disciples. No other organization on earth will fulfill that task, and Jesus has sent us into the world specifically for that purpose. On the other hand, the task of making disciples entails shaping hearts that go into their daily vocations with love for neighbors that leads them to seek to influence the world for good, and thus the mission of the church has an indirect bearing on social/political dimensions of life over time. Inevitably, we will disagree on how far we can expect that influence to reach (based on our different eschatologies), but that important distinction can, perhaps, help us find some common ground on this disputed topic.

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