Theology: at the heart of mission

This post continues a series looking at The Shape of Practical Theology by Trinitarian theologian Ray S. Anderson. For other posts in the series, click on a number: 1, 2, 4567891011, 12131415.

Last time we noted how Dr. Anderson emphasizes that mission is at the heart of theology. This time, we'll see how he places theology at the heart of mission.

Jesus Healing Centurion Servant by Paolo Veronese
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons 
According to Anderson, there are many ways people care for one another, and in so doing alleviate human suffering. While such efforts are laudable, they only constitute Christian ministry to the extent they reveal the reality of "God's revelation and reconciliation through Jesus Christ" (p. 54). Anderson comments:
A social worker or psychiatrist may be able "make" people better or to "make" the conditions of human existence better. But the end result tends to be just that---a result, a product from which the "maker" can detach himself or herself with no consequent loss of identity or meaning. However, in Christopraxis the act itself becomes the embodiment of a life of community and wholeness that is derived from God himself through Christ. Thus we know that reconciliation is more than making people or conditions better; it is inextricably involved with revealing the power and presence of God through the act.
In the same way, we can also say that there are forms of ministry that purport to proclaim revealed truths of God and to indoctrinate disciples in those truths, but if they do not also touch broken and alienated human lives with liberating and healing power, they are not of God. (pp. 54-55)
As Christian ministers, our calling and challenge is to ensure that our theology is missionally grounded and that our mission, through theological reflection, is theologically centered. Regarding the second part of that challenge, Anderson notes this:
Theological reflection is the activity of the Christian and the church by which acts of ministry are critically and continually assessed in light of both revelation and reconciliation as God' true Word... Theological reflection as a critical exercise leads to competence in ministry by which the one who ministers unites both proclamation and practice in the truth of Jesus Christ. It is not only reflection on the nature of ministry from the perspective of biblical and theological truths but also on the nature of divine revelation from the perspective of its saving and reconciling intention in the lives of people. (p. 55, emphasis added)
Sadly, theological reflection often is shallow at best or altogether absent at worst---seen by many church leaders as unnecessary and even a distraction, with preachers proclaiming, "Now I don't want to get too theological here." Of course, if the theology they are referring to is ivory-tower stuff detached from the reality of Jesus and his ongoing missional activity, then their concern has merit. However, for them to proceed with teaching and leading their church in mission apart from thoughtful, ongoing theological reflection is to risk detaching their teaching and missional activity from the person and work of Jesus Christ.

By the way, the theological reflection that Anderson advocates is not about discovering "new truth." To the contrary, it's about ensuring that our missional activity is deeply grounded in the theological reality of the enduring apostolic tradition, the truth of the gospel which is the revelation of Jesus Christ given to us by the Spirit in Holy Scripture.

Theological reflection takes careful note of Scripture, leading us then to take careful note of "the presence of the One who is revealed in his continuing ministry of reconciliation through the Holy Spirit (p. 55). Theological reflection does not ask, "What would Jesus do in this situation," but "Where is Jesus in this situation and what am I to do as a minister" (p. 56).

Thus we understand that the principal theological competence of ministers is that of spiritual discernment---the ability to discern the presence and ongoing ministry of Jesus, in the Spirit. That discernment includes taking careful note of the historic activity of Jesus described in the New Testament so we can then discern his current missional activity, through the Spirit, in our world. So, again, the question is not "What would Jesus do?", but "What is Jesus now doing, and how may we participate?"

This sort of Christ-centered, missionally grounded theological reflection avoids a common problem, namely the tendency toward separating the being and the doing of God, which means abstracting the truth of God from the work of God (p. 57). This abstraction can cause Christians to entirely miss the boat as to God's actual nature (being) and actual, ongoing work (doing) in the world. An example of this abstraction is the way the Jewish religious leaders in the first century turned Sabbath law into an abstract, absolute principle, and in so doing were able to justify condemning Jesus for his work of healing on the Sabbath. Jesus' response was to chastise them for holding a theology detached from God's activity.

Paul, who as Saul, had succumbed to this Pharisaic abstraction, learned, through the Spirit, a better way of knowing the triune God in his integrated being and doing as revealed fully and conclusively in the person and work of Jesus Christ. With his theology now centered in Christ, coupled with his ongoing missional grounding in the work of the Spirit, Paul proclaimed circumcision no longer a criteria of covenant membership.

Next time we'll look more at how ministry competency has to do with integrating theology and mission in Jesus. In the meantime, you might find helpful a related earlier post on this blog.