Engaging in Missional Apologetics
By John H. Armstrong, Senior Fellow, Center for Christ & Culture
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). This means Christ is changeless. His nature will always remain the same, thus the reality of his person and work is eternal. This confession follows a verse in which the writer had spoken of the faith of faithful leaders who had taught the Christian faith to the Jewish readers of this epistle. The word “today” here is very likely a reference to the words of the eyewitnesses who observed Christ (cf. Hebrews 2:3). The Christ these eyewitnesses had seen was still the same Christ now that he had ascended into heaven and was seated on a throne. And that same Christ remains the same now, nearly 2,000-plus years later. This truth about the changeless and eternal Christ is not one for this age and then a different one for another age. What the eyewitnesses said about him at the beginning, and thus the witness they bore to him in the first century, remains unchanged in the twenty-first century. He is the absolutely supreme Lord over all!
The Unchanging Christ and Our Changing Times
Without an unchanging Christ you will not have a biblical, confessional faithful and robust Christianity. The gospel of Jesus Christ is one, full-orbed, unchanging message of grace. But people’s questions are always changing, from age-to-age. They even change from generation-to-generation. This is a basic fact that the apostle Paul captured in a well-known description of how he used his freedom in Christ in service of the mission of God.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
Paul curtailed his personal and social privileges, plus his religious rights, in order to reach different kinds of people with the gospel message. He deprived himself in order to accomplish his mission for Jesus. In this context those people who were “under the law” refers to the Jews who lived under the religious cultus (or religious practices) of the Old Testament. For the sake of these Jews Paul would routinely conform himself outwardly to the practices they expected of him (cf. Acts 16:3; 18:18).
Paul accommodated himself to non-Jews by using his Christian freedom to relate to their Gentile culture. He remained under God’s law by being “in-lawed (a literal translation here) to Christ.” Christ’s law is a term that scholars have struggled with in order to determine its precise meaning but it seems to mean “Christ’s teachings,” though I do not think we can limit this expression to the (so-called) “red letter” words in the Gospels. The “weak” here are those who have a weak conscience. Paul never used his freedom in a way that intentionally offended these individuals though he ultimately allowed no person to stop his effort to preach Christ to all people everywhere.
But why did Paul go to all this personal trouble? The answer is in verse 23: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul’s understanding of personal obedience to Christ, and the church’s faithfulness to the missional mandate of Christ, prompted him to count his own privileges as completely secondary to his attempts to reach all people with the good news. This did not mean that he broke God’s law in order to reach unbelievers. But it did mean that Paul carried out the mission of Jesus with personal courage and social sensitivity. He seemed willing, if necessary, to even allow for some Christians to misunderstand his method, so long as he could faithfully present Christ to people where they lived day-in and day-out. This has to mean that he lived in such a way that he intentionally sought to answer the real questions unbelievers had.
There are two mistakes commonly made with regard to this Pauline teaching. The first is made by some evangelicals. They are willing to do, so it seems, almost anything to attract a crowd. They sometimes shamelessly embrace ethically dubious methods so long as they can gain an audience. This is how marketing and consumerism threaten to undermine the gospel. When we reduce the gospel to a message about how to gain fulfillment in life, then matters are made even worse. We actually do adjust almost everything about the church and the gospel to the question of how we can draw the most people.
But the opposite error plagues another part of the church. This error is equally harmful to mission. We preserve barriers that are not essential to the gospel or for Christian community. We make our cultural expressions of Christianity the norm. Nothing more than human traditions becomes the defining criteria of faithfulness. By these mistakes we routinely deny the magna carta of the New Testament itself: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
It is here that the tension between liturgical churches and non-liturgical churches often lies. Both sides make valid points. Both sides even have Scriptural texts to support their practice. And both sides have long held traditions that support their conclusions. But in order to settle this seeming tension they will sometimes cast aside one part of this equation and embrace the other side exclusively.
A simple illustration will suffice. Anglican churches are generally quite liturgical, at least to varying degrees. But in an African context this liturgical Christianity, rooted in The Prayer Book of Thomas Cranmer, presents a new challenge. The solution has been to embrace both The Prayer Book and the social and familial context of African culture. The result has been, in many cases, quite beautiful. Anglican churches have rapidly grown, and produced many new churches, in a number of African nations where this blending of mission and practice has taken place.
© 2009 by John H. Armstrong
John H. Armstrong, Senior Fellow at the Center for Christ & Culture, is the founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for the Advancement of the Christian Tradition in the third millennium. He is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eight books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and web-based articles. Besides his writing ministry Dr. Armstrong is an adjunct professor of evangelism and apologetics at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker throughout the United States and abroad.