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(Part 1 was yesterday. The series will conclude tomorrow with Part 3)

A Weak Foundation

Most significantly, McNeal does not adequately support his own definition of the missional church. He argues that "the missional church is the people of God partnering with God in his redemptive mission in the world" (24). Earlier he explains that this means we set things right in a broken, sinful world, to redeem and restore what God has always intended for the world (21). In other words, our task is to partner with God in rebuilding shalom, in remaking the world so that people can experience the fullness of life as it once was in Eden.

The problem is we are never once told in the New Testament to build the kingdom, restore shalom, or redeem our communities. We are often told that the kingdom is a gift to receive and that Christ has won our inheritance for us. Christ, we are told in Scripture, is reconciling all things to himself and will make all things new. But nowhere are we told that we are "responsible for blessing everyone" (47). I know I probably sound like the guy who is against helping non-Christians. But really I'm not. Our hearts should break for suffering everywhere. Love will compel us to do many things for those outside the church. But you simply can't make a case from the New Testament that transforming our communities or taking our cues from the needs in the community, ala McNeal, is the aim of the church (7).

To his credit, McNeal tries to lay a biblical foundation for his "Missional Manifesto" in chapter 2. He goes through ten specific passages to "illustrate the Scriptural moorings of the missional church" (27). Unfortunately, he mishandles almost every passage.

Genesis 12:1-3 McNeal argues that in this "simple but far-reaching covenant…the people of God are charged with the responsibility and enjoy the privilege to bless everyone" (27). But Abram is not commanded to bless all nations. Rather, God promises that all nations will be blessed through him. And the blessings, according to Galatians 3:9, only comes to those who are of faith. Genesis 12:1-3 does not tell Christians to go and bless everyone. It promises that the nations will be blessed when they respond to Abraham's Offspring in faith.

Exodus 19:5-6 and 1 Peter 2:9 While recognizing that these passages about being "a kingdom of priests" describe the special nature of God's people, McNeal also argues that they mean God "created a people to serve as his ongoing incarnational presence on the earth" (30). I've heard this line of reasoning often: We are priests. Priests mediate God's presence. We are meant to mediate God's presence to people. But "kingdom of priests" is best understood as an example of Hebrew parallelism, meaning the same thing as "holy nation." Indeed, the Lord told the people at the mountain to consecrate themselves (Exod. 19:10), and the context in 1 Peter is about abstaining from the passions of the flesh (2:11-12). The priestly image suggests holiness not incarnational presence.

John 3:16 McNeal makes the strange claim that Nicodemus the Pharisee would have expected Jesus to say "For God so loved the church" instead of the world (30). I'm not sure why Nicodemus would think this since the church wasn't instituted yet (see Matthew 16). But McNeal's larger point is that the kingdom of God is a gift to the world not "a reward intended for the benefit of God's people" (30). And yet Jesus explicitly tells Nicodemus he cannot see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:3). True, God loves the world (in the Johannine since of world), but the whole point of John 3 is that unless you are born again and believe in Christ you stand condemned already. John 3:16 actually bolsters the claim that the kingdom is for the church, for regenerate believers.

Matthew 22:37-40 McNeal argues that "loving one's neighbor ranks right up there with loving God" (31). Agreed.

John 10:10b "Jesus can't describe his mission any plainer than this," states McNeal. "He wants to help people get a life!" (31) Therefore, the missional church helps people have life to the full, which means we work for political, social, economic, cultural, physical, and psychological, and spiritual enhancement (35). Again, this application makes too much command out of a promise. "Abundant life" is first of all being saved for eternal life (John 10:9, 28). And yes, it also entails a blessed life now. But this life is not something we give to others. It is what we receive when we enter through the door (10:9) and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd (10:1-5).

Ephesians 4:15 [which he cites as 4:13] Missional followers, says McNeal, understand that truth and love are important. We work to improve people's lives and to evangelize (32). These are true statements, but not exactly what Paul is talking about. Ephesians 4 envisions loving truth-telling within the body of Christ. It is not a passage about improving people's lives in our communities.

1 Peter 3:15b This is another example of right idea, wrong text. McNeal suggests that when people see how we are blessing them they will ask us to give us a reason for the hope that we have (32-33). But the context in 1 Peter 3 is exactly the opposite. Believers are being slandered and persecuted. But if we have a good conscience, those who revile our good behavior will be put to shame (3:16). We should not be afraid of those who hate us, but always be ready to answer everyone, even those who mean us harm. 1 Peter 3 is not about people being impressed by our good deeds so we have the opportunity to evangelize. It is about people hating us for our good deeds.

Matthew 5:13-15 We are to penetrate, permeate, and act as a preservative in the world, says McNeal (33). By doing good deeds we may help people see God. Very true.

John 20:21b Church people, argues McNeal, are sent people (34). But as Andreas Kostenberger has shown, John's Great Commission does not imply that we have the same incarnational ministry that Jesus had. John does not teach an incarnational model of being in the world, but that we should model the Son's obedience and utter dependence on the Father. We submit to our sender's will and seek his glory.

The case for missional living is largely based on bad exegesis. Promises are made into commands. Key words and phrases are not understood in their proper context. Desired meanings are read into the text instead of rising out of the text after careful interpretative work. It’s not enough to find texts that seem to have the general missional ideas one is looking for. Missional leaders like McNeal must demonstrate that their views on community transformation, a new blessing scorecard, and the nature of the kingdom over against the church are built on a solid biblical foundation.


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16 thoughts on “Missional Misfire (2)”

  1. Ted Bigelow says:

    Thanks Kevin. Such a helpful analysis!

  2. john cho says:

    what do you think of chris wright’s writing, e.g. mission of God? he seems to make a great case for missional living and does strong exegetical work.

  3. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I have Wright’s book but have only looked through parts of it. I’m sure it is more in depth and exhibits stronger exegetical work. Wright is a top notch evangelical thinker. Though I have to say that I did not find his chapter on Genesis 12 very convincing.

  4. Justin S says:

    I appreciate your points. Thanks for sharing. I don’t know if you’ve read Timothy C. Tennent’s new missiology text, but he spends a bit of time focusing on Jesus’ incarnation as the model for our mission to the world. I’m not sure what Kostenberger has argued regarding John 20:20f, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on Tennent’s new work, not just on this issue. I think it’s going to be a standard for quite some time.

  5. Paul H says:

    I agree with your assessment that much of the missional emphasis is based on bad exegesis. Why in your opinion is there such a push for a missional focus to ministry?

  6. Kevin says:

    I think some of the questions others have asked hint at what frustrated me about today’s blog post. I haven’t read McNeal’s book, but my guess is that he is building on the scholarship of others, not claiming to be making the whole case himself. Thus, your summary sentence, “The case for missional living is largely based on bad exegesis,” is a bold, dismissive statement that doesn’t necessarily follow from your interaction with McNeal’s book.

  7. Mike says:

    Kevin

    Enjoyed the post overall. I agree with many of your points from these first two posts.

    Having said that, however, I believe that your reading of Gen 12:1-3 is incorrect. Gen 12:2 does possess a commandment for Abrahahm to be a blessing. In the final clause of v. 2, translated in the ESV as “so that you will be a blessing,” the verb “to be” in the MT is actually an imperative. Why most English translations make it a result clause rather than an imperative isn’t clear to me.

  8. Justin S says:

    Kevin, does McNeil ever explain why his definition of missional: “the missional church is the people of God partnering with God in his redemptive mission in the world” is incompatible with a “traditional church?” Why do having an elder board, a building, a choir, etc, disqualify a church from fulfilling this definition? Like you, I think he teaches a lot of right doctrines from wrong texts. I agree with McnNeil on almost all of what he says that the Church ought to be doing (though I would nuance that and probably mean something different by the same words!), but he seems to imply from your summary that only non-traditional church bodies can do them. Any thoughts?

  9. Logan says:

    I’m fairly new to your blog admittedly, but if a church should not be “missional” or on mission, what do you suggest is it’s purpose?

    Preserve Christians until the end? Be a light that draws people in on a Sunday?

    I appreciate your critiques, but am left wanting for an alternative.

  10. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I’m not saying the church shouldn’t be on mission. I’m simply arguing that this particular missional approach has many flaws.

    If I had to summarize the mission of the church in two words it would be: make disciples.

  11. Meredith Nienhuis says:

    Kevin – yes, make disciples! So that they are feeding on, and giving others, the Bread of Life. Many churches seem intent on making go-fors to simply give out physical bread to the hungry but with little regard for their eternal destiny – bread for today but no hope for tomorrow.

  12. Kevin, your two word summary of the church’s mission would be incorrect. Jesus makes it very, very clear, we are to “make disciples OF ALL THE NATIONS.” This is the problem I have, namely, that the “all the nations” part gets so reflexively and unbiblically left off.

  13. Abu Tulip says:

    Fascinating post and comments.

    I find it interesting that he tends to make commands out of statements of fact, when Hunsberger (another missional church theologian) has radically (in my opinion) redefined the Great Commission by claiming it is a statement of fact rather than a command. They aren’t speaking with a unified voice.

    What it comes down to is: are you contributing to the effort to make Christ known where He is not currently known? Are you expending undue energy in places already saturated with the gospel? Or are you just enjoying your salvation and doing nothing?

  14. Abu Tulip says:

    You also make a great point about the 1 Peter 3 passage. Most interpretations of this one really bug me as they ignore the context of persecution. It is often easier to bless people by meeting their physical needs than sharing boldly about spiritual truths because we get a lot more pats on the back that way. Both are important. But we need to watch our hearts continually that we aren’t overly concerned about the praise of men.

  15. mac says:

    ‘“the missional church is the people of God partnering with God in his redemptive mission in the world” (24). Earlier he explains that this means we set things right in a broken, sinful world, to redeem and restore what God has always intended for the world (21). In other words, our task is to partner with God in rebuilding shalom, in remaking the world so that people can experience the fullness of life as it once was in Eden.’

    To me, this is where the author goes off the rail. There is a revival of the post-millennial notion of humanity-bringing-in-the-Kingdom going on in many mission circles. This line of thinking (I think) founds itself upon the Imago Dei view of the Church while diminishing (purposefully or ignorantly) the Pneumatakoi or Holy Spirit People.

    This new missional thinking finds community in the shared humanity of all people rather than the empowering resurrection and eternal life of the Holy Spirit. At its best, this form of theologizing shows an ongoing weakness in understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in preserving the Church through the ages and empowering Her for mission to all people for all time. At its worst, it is colonialism where a group of elites know what is best for everyone else…a human forged eschaton.

    We do not partner with God; God graciously offers us a place to serve his Kingdom. Only the Holy Spirit empowers us to form communities of Shalom and life. I think God wants what McNeal writes about, but we must never think it is under human control! There are too many dead bodies littering the landscape of human history to forget this lesson.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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