Yoder on church growth, the Great Commission and mission

I knew that Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder’s “Baptism and the new humanity” chapter of Body Politics had key things to say about my previous post concerning the shape of the church and anabaptist versus emerging church ecclesiology – but I forgot how many related issues this chapter speaks to. I went back and read some of it this morning, actually as research for my new novel (The Fur 2! I was going to put some of these ideas in the mouth of Stephen the preacher), but I ended up not getting any writing done because he gave me so much to think about.
First, this quote:
For still others, the “mission of the church” should be understood much more realistically… as planting viable church communities in every culture, especially where there has been none before. What then if such planting and growth could be facilitated by accepting ethnic isolation and defensiveness because in certain homogenous cultures people will not forsake their own cultural style? That price in terms of ethical compromise would be worth paying for the sake of church growth. (37)
That sums up an anabaptist critique of church growth and emerging church very well. Yoder goes on to ask questions about the Great Commission.

The Book of Acts does not report that the apostles remembered the so-called “Great Commission” and conscientiously set about obeying it. Nor do we see them thinking about the lost status of individuals whom they had not reached. The event of ingathering came first. Only later did the Twelve think about it. Only still later did they “send” someone. The theology to explain the rightness of the ingathering was imposed by the events, which it explained after the fact. The Twelve did not set out to obey the Great Commission; they talked about the risen Lord and they broke bread together in their homes and thus they found themselves together first with Hellenized Jews and then even with Gentiles… The action of mission was prior to theory about it.

This observation might provide some guidance within the current lively debates about “church growth” and cultural homogeneity… If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.

– Body Politics p. 37-38

I’ve been worried about how the Great Commission is used, especially by church growth people. WA Baptists favourite John Kaiser starts with the Great Commission and then asks how we can most efficiently do it. The assumption is that we know what the Great Commission means. Yoder drops a couple of hints that it doesn’t mean what we think it means. He doesn’t seem to think it’s as important as church growth people make it either. I want to know more about his argument here, because as the last words of Jesus in Matthew at least, and as a command, it is of course important. But here’s Yoder’s footnote on it:

For two centuries the term ‘Great Commission’ has been the code label for Matthew 28:20 ‘Make disciples of all nations, as you go, baptizing them, teaching them…’ This was understood as the most specific statement of the missionary imperative the church was called to obey. In the beginning of the modern missionary movement, there were debates about whether this command was still binding, or whether perhaps the apostles had already done it. Often the first words “Go ye” were accentuated, although in the Greek that is said adverbially, as it is rendered above: “As you go…” (p. 85)

I think Yoder would say – and I say – it is still binding. As usual, he gives us a history of an idea as a first step, and expects us to do the work from there. In calling it the Great Commission, we bring a whole set of ideas to the command. Translated as he has done it here, it has a different sense – ‘as you go’.

It seems to be a feature of a lot of evangelicalism to accept a certain sense of the Great Commission, with distinctives coming out of the best way to do it. Here’s some rough stereotypes:

1. Sydney Anglicans – personal evangelism using doctrinally correct resources (2 ways to live)

2. Church Growth – seeker sensitive mega-churches using research about what people groups are looking for. (This has probably moved on a bit)

3. Emerging missional church – incarnational mission to particular people groups – ie small church expressions among subcultures.

To differing extents, all three of these streams would see the command as being filled in individual conversions. In their classical expressions, none of them would see the shape of the church, the breaking down of emnity between races and classes and genders, as a part of the good news. But in all of them, there’s people willing to listen to the idea!


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