One of the growing and popular trends in ecclesiology and evangelicalism is the missional movement. In this book, Dr. Michael Goheen offers an missional ecclesiology that traces the biblical story. From the first line, the author states that his thesis is to analyze the missional identity of the church by tracing its role in the biblical story (ix). Goheen has a background in missional thinking and seeks to present the reader with an ecclesiology, rooted in the biblical narrative, that reflects missional convictions. However, he notes that even the best missional books, thus far, have little sustained biblical-theological and exegetical work (ix). And thus he seeks to present such a book that has been lacking in missional circles.
The author begins with a simple and important idea. God has promised that he would bring about a new world and he would make it visible through community. This is why ecclesiology is so important. The local church and the universal church, rooted in the biblical narrative and the missional drive, will create such a world.
The problem is that the church is captivated to bad theology, cultural accommodation, etc. Thus the author seeks to return the reader back to Jesus and the Gospels – the church’s origins. Central to the Gospels and the ministry of Jesus was His preaching on the Kingdom of God. Goheen says that the Kingdom is about cosmic renewal, the restoration of all creation and all human life and society; it is not the kind of announcement that should be tucked away in the religion section of the newspaper (17). And it is in this message of the Kingdom of God, fulfilled in the cross and resurrection, that Goheen sees as central to a missional ecclesiology.
The author sees the Kingdom of the God central to the gospel and the gospel central to missional ecclesiology. Here he sees five landmarks of the gospel on ecclesiology. First, the gospel demands of its hearers that it be accepted as the real story of our world (18) Secondly, God’s purpose and activity to renew the entire creation and the whole human life (19). Thus it is the mission of God to restore the creation and the life of humanity from the ravages of sin (19). Thirdly, is simply the coming of the Kingdom of God. Fourthly, God works out his redemptive purposes in this story by choosing a people to make know to all where history is leading (19). And finally, the gospel reveals that this community chose and sent by Jesus is both the beginning of something new and the continuation of something much older (20).
It is from here that Goheen launches into the rest of his book. From here the author traces this biblical story by which God restores all things, gathering for Himself a people, and builds the Kingdom of God. And it is here that much of the great insight of the book is gained.
First, his discussion of missions in the Old Testament is rare and helpful. He breaks missions in the Old Testament down into three parts: Universalism, Incorportation of Outsiders, and Proselytism. Ancient Judaism, up to the time of Jesus, saw missions in these three areas. God is a universal God, the creator of all people. And the drive towards proselyticism reaches its climax seemingly during the first century AD. Few discuss this aspect of missions and the Kingdom of God. What Jesus presents in the Gospels is a continuation and a fulfillment of the work that was expected of Israel.
This leads to the second great insight. God seeks to gather to Himself a redeemed people. That is what Israel was to be in the Old Testament: a light unto the nations. The great difference between the Jews in the Old Testament and the young church in the New Testament is how easily and almost immediately they break down barriers and include both Jews and Gentiles. The cross and resurrection stands as the climax of this story that ultimately fulfills God’s plan of gathering for Himself a people.
Thirdly, the author sees in the cross and the resurrection everything. The passion of Christ is the fulcrum by which the church stands and falls. Missional ecclesiology, that is, is based upon the work of Christ on the cross and resurrection. The author argues the full significance to the church of the death and resurrection of Jesus has too often in the last two centuries been let unexplored (101). It is a connection that is rarely made. The cross and resurrection drastically affects our ecclesiology.
And this leads to the fourth insight. The emphasis on the communal aspect of the gospel is eye opening to how we present a more complete gospel. The author does not diminish the individual aspects of the gospel. Certainly we must embrace the gospel, we must be transformed, we must repent, and we must be more like Christ. But limiting the gospel to individualism leaves it incomplete. The gospel has a communal aspect of it and we must proclaim it. Remember, God is gathering for Himself a people and that is what the Kingdom of God is. And the Kingdom of God is found through the gospel – the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Finally, his discussion on the various images of the atonement is helpful. The author does not discount, reject, or diminish substitutionary atonement. Propitiation is upheld, affirmed, and we must take the author at his word. There is nothing in the book to suggest that penal substitution is unbiblical, ought to be rejected, outdated, or unimportant. In fact, the opposite is true. However, the author does note that it is dangerous to limit the significance of the cross to one of these images. He highlights three: Christus Victor, Substitution, and Christ as Representative. The author suggests that the first two have historically been pitted against each other, yet both are important to fully understand the cross for a mission church (see 108). It is incredibly helpful to take Scripture at its word and to apply each motif allowing them to speak. Goheen applies them to the church, but we could easily apply them to each extension of the atonement: the eschatological, the communal and cosmic, and the transformitive (to use the authors language 109).
This all leads to two basic questions. The first regards how the missional movement has been understood. It would be fascinating to hear him discuss the liberal trend within the missional movement. Many have confused “being missional” with the likes of the Emergent Church. And like the Emergent Church, missional communities promote community and the biblical story. How can missional churches avoid the Emergent trap that tends towards liberalism? Why does it seem like mission communities are more susceptible to liberalism?
Secondly, why has there been so little ecclesiology developed out of missional circles? What Goheen presents here is fairly straightforward and not complicated. What he argues here can be affirmed by those who have watched the missional movement from a distance. All Goheen offers is a survey of the biblical story applied directly to the local and universal church. He is careful to avoid many of the common traps and presents a case that ought to be taken seriously. His admission that there has been little credible books written on gospel-centered missional ecclesiology is right. But why? It would seem that a movement this large would have developed a book by now. Why the wait?
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