Trinitarian theology of church and mission

This post is from Dr. Randy Bloom, Board chair and faculty member at Grace Communion Seminary.

Though we may be inconsistent at times, we generally live according to what we believe. Theology has a similar influence in our lives, both personally and collectively as the church. Theology–the beliefs and concepts that attempt to express, in Biblically informed human terms, God’s being and actions–influences all we do. 

"Come and See" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)

Theological framework for mission

Beliefs affect actions. Theology, what we believe about God, gives direction to life decisions, ministry motivation, goalsetting, and planning. In other words, theology informs and directs the mission of the church. Mission answers the “What?” question regarding the church, i.e., mission explains what the church is to be doing (loving people, preaching the gospel, making disciples, equipping people for ministry, etc.). 

Theology answers the “Why?” question. Why the church is “on mission” (with Jesus)? An inadequate theological framework for mission risks not only misrepresenting God and distorting the gospel, it also risks misdirecting the work of the church. Sound theology provides loving, grace-based, Christ-centered clarity, motivation, and direction for everything the church does. It helps guarantee the integrity of ministry activities and missional initiatives in every cultural context. Church ministry initiatives, therefore, require a sound theological framework that provides a solid basis for developing, implementing, and evaluating missional strategies that enhance and advance the church’s participation in the work of Jesus. 

The doctrine of the Trinity, which finds its expression in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, provides a sound theological framework for people of Christ’s church to participate in His mission and ministry in any cultural context. Trinitarian theology attempts to express the true identity and nature of the redeeming God whom Christians love, serve, and worship. It provides the necessary foundation and motivation for every aspect of church life. The motivation for ministry and mission is found in the very nature of God, his eternal and inexpressible love for all mankind and his desire to include everyone in his Triune life. 

The Trinity: loving communion 

Scripture reveals there is one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; three distinct yet unified Persons sharing the same essence, nature, and will. Father, Son, and Spirit live in a perfect, mutually dependent relationship of love. An ancient theological term used to describe this loving communion is perichoresis. Perichoresis attempts to express the loving interpenetration and co-inherence of the three persons of the Trinity. Perichoresis refers to the mutual and active love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit which is expressed in the outworking of God’s purpose to save, reconcile, and renew the world. 

The perichoretic life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is dynamic, highly personal, vibrant, and relational. God in his perichoretic being is also creative. Out of his dynamic love, God created all that exists. He created humanity, the apex of his creation, in his image, to live in communion with him. Jesus expressed the Father’s desire for humankind to share in the love, unity, and joy of the Trinitarian life (John 17:3, 21-23). These passages, and others, express the Father’s desires to share with all humanity the very same love he has for the Son. This desire is ongoing and includes all of humankind, despite the fact that many have lost knowledge of or are unaware of their intended relationship with God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1-4). 

As determined from eternity, and to remedy the estrangement of humanity from the Father, the Son entered into human existence and assumed it, in his person, into the eternal perichoresis of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:4-7; Philippians 2:6-8). He redeemed mankind from sin and opened the pathway for all people to know God and to relate to him as his adopted children. Jesus affirms the fundamental purpose for mankind’s existence: to live in personal communion with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and thereby to glorify God for eternity. 

In apprehending the Trinity we not only learn about the perfect, loving perichoretic relationship shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit; we also learn about the love God has for all people. Through Jesus, and by the Spirit, all mankind has access to the Father. By sharing in the perichoretic life of the Trinity it is possible for imperfect people to experience the “give and take” elements of relationship with God. In Christ, broken human relationships are healed and people are able to live within God’s redeemed community. This is the good news Jesus’s church has to share with countless people in disharmony with their Creator. 

Implications of trinitarian theology for mission 

The Father’s mission 

The doctrine of the Trinity is the most comprehensive framework for understanding and participating in Jesus’s mission. Though mission often is viewed as the activity of the church, it is not the domain of the church. Mission originates with, flows from, and is empowered by God. Mission is the loving, saving, redeeming activity of the triune God in the world on behalf of all humanity. Mission is God’s and God’s alone. 

What the Father, Son, and Spirit are doing on mission in our world is revealed in Scripture. John 3:16 affirms that God’s being as Father, Son and Spirit, and his relationship to all people, is love. From all eternity, we may say that love has been flowing out from the Father to the Son in the Spirit and from the Son to the Father in the Spirit. 

God’s love first exists in the internal relationships between the Triune Persons. Creation is the “product” or “overflow” of that love. Out of love, the Triune God created the universe and all it holds. Out of love, God created humanity. Out of his love, the Father sent the Son of God, by the Spirit, to save people who had estranged themselves from him. The incarnate Eternal Son came, on mission, to redeem, renew and draw people to the Father through himself, by the Spirit. Jesus is the incarnation, the divine embodiment, of the Father’s love and the Father’s mission to a fallen world. 

After the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father and Son, as the agent through which the Father continues to accomplish his mission in Christ—transforming hearts and minds, giving gifts, and guiding and empowering people to participate in God’s ongoing mission to all people. The story of the Bible is the story of a loving God on mission. His loving and gracious activity in the world, evident throughout history, is rooted in his love. His doing (mission) is grounded in and inseparable from his being (love). God cannot be God and not be actively engaged in the world that he created and loves, drawing people into communion with himself. 

The church’s missional identity 

As Christians, we know that our life and identity is in Christ. Through the Incarnation, Jesus has drawn us into the life and love of the Trinity, sharing with us all that he is, as he shares in all that we are. Our identity—collectively and individually—is grounded in who Jesus is. Because God’s being (nature) cannot be separated from his doing (his missional activity), the being (nature) of the church cannot be separated from its doing (ministry and mission). 

Just as Jesus was sent by the Father to enter into humanity and share God’s life and love in practical, realistic ways, so Jesus sends his church to actively participate with him in what he continues to do by the Spirit (John 20:21). Thomas Torrance put it this way: 
The being and nature of the church are equally inseparable from its mission, that is, its sending by Christ on the mission of the love of God, just as the sending of Christ by the Father is inseparable from his being and nature as the incarnate Son…. We can never speak of the being and nature of the church statically, but always in terms of the divine act, the divine movement of love from God to man, and from man to God and man to fellow man. (Atonement, p. 373) 
Torrance also writes, 
Because the church is filled with the universal Spirit of divine love, it is caught up in the universal movement of that love that ceaselessly flows from God through Jesus Christ out into all the world. Hence the church is also catholic in that it is incorporated in the universal mission of redemption that is essentially missionary. (Atonement, pp. 390-391) 
In other words, the church’s identity, life, and activity is fully in Christ and it cannot fully live its identity in Christ apart from active participation his mission. 

The church’s role 

Jesus formed his church to participate in the mission he began (Matthew 28:18-20). He delineated the primary principles for living: love for God and love for people (Matthew 22:37:38). God’s perichoretic love, as revealed through the doctrine of the Trinity and incarnation of Jesus, is the motivation for the church’s work – not fear, not church growth, nor the perpetuation of tradition or organizational structures. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-11, the apostle Paul describes Jesus as the foundation for all ministries. The church is Jesus’s “building”; it does not belong to the domain of men. Church members are co-workers with Christ and they are exhorted to build (with him) with care and grace. 

As the incarnated Son of God did not become human to serve self-interests, Jesus Christ has called the church not to live for itself alone. It is to be in the world and for the world as Jesus was and is in the world and for it. The Father sends his church into the world as he sent and sends his Son and his Spirit into the world. 

As noted above, the root of the church’s mission is the very being of God. It is a matter of God’s being in action through his people in the world. As Christians are included in the Triune life and participate in the divine nature of God, they are included in, and actively participate in, his divine mission. This participation leads to church mission that is focused on revealing and sharing God’s love – sharing the opportunity to enter into Trinitarian communion – within every possible cultural context. 

Incarnational living 

Jesus’ incarnation sets the context for the church as it fulfills the Father’s mission on earth. As Jesus was sent by the Father, Jesus sends his church (John 20:21) to be with people, where they are and as they are, within every cultural context. As the Father revealed himself in his Son who was made flesh, he continues to reveal himself to the world through flesh – his people. 

This incarnational lifestyle involves a form of sacrificial social engagement on the order of Jesus himself (Philippians 2:5-8). Incarnational mission entails setting aside cultural preferences and abandoning non-essential traditions, without compromising the gospel, orthodox doctrine, or core values. 

As Christians live individually and collectively on mission with God, they live out of their true identity, which is in Christ. As Jesus’s church participates with him, through the Spirit, in the Father’s mission, it becomes more fully what it truly is; it presents itself to the world as the redeemed body that it is, living an accurate and relevant reflection of Jesus. 

I dare posit that the problems Jesus' church universal experiences at this time are due to people of the church living lives and participating in missions that are not based on the life and work of the Triune God. They are not living out of their true identity in Christ. Some seem to be living out of an identity defined by culture and/or flawed theology. Any organization (or individual) that does not live out of its true identity is bound to struggle and live with internal and external confusion. May our loving Father, by the Holy Spirit, lovingly lead, correct, nurture, and guide the church of Jesus to be all it is meant to be – alive in Christ and on mission with him.