Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert labor in What Is the Mission of the Church to bring some much needed balance to the “missional church” craze. It should be said that this book is framed within a large context of “missional church” books, and this book can be understood in many ways as reactionary. This is not a bad thing. The ideas they they combat against need to be combatted against. Churches who plant community gardens aren’t “ushering in the Kingdom” with their green thumbs. Social justice isn’t evangelism. Making art isn’t gospel advancement. The kind of thing that DeYoung and Gilbert are responding to is the kind of thing that turns the gospel into the good news of communal living, or the good news of social reform, or the good news of making your own clothing in such a way that it is obvious to everyone that your shirt is made out of denim and burlap (I’m still trying to figure that one out, maybe Shane Claiborne can explain it to me some day). DeYoung and Gilbert are trying to bring some sanity to a courtyard of crazy; so they set out to write a pretty ambitious book on the topic. At the end of section one, they develope this answer to the question asked by the title of the book:
The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father. (pg. 62)
Now, since answering the question “do you agree with this statement?” would make this paper way too short (the answer would be a “yes,” by the way), I’m going to share some specific concerns I have about this book. This paper might seem highly critical of DeYoung and Gilbert’s work, but that’s only because it takes more time to explain little disagreements than it does to largely agree. So in an ocean of “yes,” I found an island of “yeah…but” which is where I’ll hang out for a bit.
Keeping First Things First
DeYoung and Gilbert are primarily concerned with what Churches are supposed to do in this book; they are asking and answering questions regarding obedience and disobedience. The mission of the church is to make disciples, not restore social order or alleviate global hunger or even alleviate the hunger of the neighbor down the street. Good works, they will argue, may contribute to this mission of making disciples, but they aren’t the essence of the Church’s prerogative. Chapters 3-7 and 9-10 are really the strength of the book; it is here that DeYoung and Gilbert really bring exegetical calibration to topics like “social justice” and “God’s redemptive plan.” When it comes to asking questions about what the Church exists to accomplish (and, for that matter, what is within the realm of possibility for her to accomplish), they pretty much say everything that needs to be said, and they say so unambiguously and exegetically. Their conclusion in all of this is that our relief efforts and mercy ministry efforts don’t necessarily fulfill the Church’s mission, and they aren’t bringing in some eschatological reality. These good works may contribute to the Church’s mission, but only insofar as they validate and bolster the Church’s gospel witness. To be obedient, we must preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and make disciples, teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus (which is to say, to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth and make disciples). The Church can benefit greatly from the work that they do in these chapters.
I’m sure you’ve noticed, my dear astute reader, that one chapter is conveniently missing from the string of chapters listed above. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike chapter 8; in fact, I agree with most of what they say in it. My aim is not to argue for what they argue against; namely, that the mission of the church is the cultural mandate. But I do think that DeYoung and Gilbert, in an effort to make clear their argument, overreach their description of the the Christian’s relationship to the cultural mandate. This overreach begins, I believe, with a hermeneutical leap. In describing the effects of the fall, they write:
With that tragic story in mind, how should we think about Adam’s original mandate with relation to us as Christians? For one thing, it seems clear from Scripture that Adam’s original mandate does not remain unaffected by the fall. Every command included in it subjected to severe frustration by the curse of God pronounces in Genesis 3. (pg. 210)
Yes and amen there. But then they go on to say, “And instead of the earth being subdued before him, now Adam will be subdued before it.” (pg. 210-211) First the mandate is severely frustrated, and now they seem to be saying that, in this case at least, the mandate is reversed. I don’t think that this assertion is justifiable. You can certainly observe from scripture that the cultural mandate is seriously hindered by the fall, but to say that it was altogether obliterated is a bit of a stretch. The famous scene at the Tower of Babel gives us strong reason to believe that the cultural mandate still resided on the shoulders of mankind in general, since the people of Babel were judged for their disobedience of it. Related to this point, DeYoung and Gilbert write:
Perhaps most significantly, the words “and subdue it” are conspicuously absent from the whole thing: the goal of the original mandate is no longer attainable. Unlike the Adamic mandate, this Noahic version is not a matter of progression to paradise, but rather of preservation in a fallen world. (pg. 212)
This is nothing more than an argument from silence. Whether or not mankind can successfully progress the natural world to a point of paradise doesn’t determine whether or not the mandate to “subdue it” still stands. I think it would be appropriate for DeYoung and Gilbert to adhere to their own principle in this instance: “If we want to use such language, we should frame it in terms of a possible implication, not as a definitive certainty, being careful not to go beyond what is written.” (pg. 218)
The most potent point that DeYoung and Gilbert make is their observation of Romans 5; namely, that Jesus is the antitype of Adam–the second Adam who succeeds where Adam failed. This is undoubtedly true, and it has serious implications that DeYoung and Gilbert seem to neglect. Jesus is the second Adam who will fulfill the cultural mandate at the consummation of history; however, are Christians not to be imitators of Christ? Sure, we will never be able to build paradise like Christ will, but does that follow that we should not build? In other words, should we not do great work in society; should we not manipulate creation to create new things? I know that DeYoung and Gilbert would reply, “Of course we should build!” But when we ask for the reason, they will list love for neighbors, demonstration of God’s character, exemplification of the fruit of the Spirit, and winning a hearing for the gospel as motivations (chapter 9); all of which are true, and are probably the most important motivations for building. But there is so much more that can be said here; we do these things because by doing them, we imitate God (Eph. 5:1).
For human beings, the cultural mandate is closer to home than a mere command. Image bearers of God are makers; part of what it means to be a human is to imitate God in creating things. There’s an indicative behind the imperative; the cultural mandate was for Adam to do what he was made to do. Even if the Fall disqualified Adam from ushering in an eschatological Kingdom through his creation-subduing, it did not eradicate his propensity to subdue creation as an image-bearing man. In other words, subduing creation and building into culture as postlapsarian image-bearers is not wrong; in fact, it is pleasing to God, even if it is not the fulfillment of the Church’s mission. What we’re talking about here is not a matter of obedience or disobedience; it’s a matter of privileged, God-glorifying enjoyment. Some incredibly helpful insights on this topic have been given by Joe Rigney in his book, The Things of Earth. Rigney writes:
The call to subdue the earth means that the earth, as originally given to man, was unsubdued, undomesticated. This implies that creation has unrealized potential, latent dimensions that lie beneath the surface. In the words of one author, God has embedded within creation “a rich array of potentialities,” qualities and characteristics that he intends for man to discover and activate. Solomon refers to this process of discovery when he says, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov. 25:2). (pg. 138-139)
Again, we’re talking about intrinsic realities; the relationship between creation and man is ontological. Shaping creation is what human beings do. Rigney again:
…a good creation is not enough. We need a “made holy” creation, a hallowed creation, a glorified creation. God’s goal is that this very good creation would be sanctified and that this sanctification would happen through the activity of human beings…God-exalting, Scripture-guided, prayerful culture is the appointed consummation of God’s very good creation. We gladly receive what God gives and thankfully return it to him, sanctified by his Word and prayer. Just as “delight is incomplete until it is expressed,” so creation is incomplete until it is faithfully subdued, cultivated, and sanctified by thankful people. (pg. 141)
This earth was created to be subdued by human beings, and the Fall has not eradicated this intrinsic purpose. Certainly there has been a reorientation of priorities; the glorification of God is still the chief end of man, but his primary means of doing this has been shifted since the Fall, and more significantly, since the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Now, our primary means of glorifying God is through the advancement of the gospel in the great commission. But does that mean that image-bearing, culture-making is lost as a means of glorifying God? In the end, I think it’s possible to avoid weird theology without disparaging the efforts of Christians to make culture. There is value in cultural influence. Since this is something that human beings–as image bearers of God–are actually built to do, it should follow that Christians, as part of the new humanity, do this consciously and excellently.
So how does this relate to the mission of the Church? Well, directly, it doesn’t. You can’t say, unequivocally, that building culture is fulfilling the mission of the Church. But does it relate to the mission of the Church indirectly? Absolutely. An often neglected aspect of the great commission is that last part, “teaching them to obey.” If this notion of intrinsic creation-shaping reflection is truly part of the Imago Dei (and, it is), it needs to be taught in discipleship and from behind the pulpit. What happens when a politician becomes a Christian? What happens when an influential musician, or novelist, or screenwriter, or federal attorney becomes a Christian? In other words, what should happen when the people who build culture become Christians? What should they do as Christians who used to build culture? The answer: they should continue to build culture.