August 24, 2016

Acts and answered: what is the mission of missions?

by Joel James

Last week we began by defining missions as “ecclesiology with a passport.” Then we looked at two big picture problems with the social action approach to missions. That was followed by two posts (here and here) that gave eight biblical reasons the social action theory of missions is misguided. Today we wrap up this series by looking at how the Apostle Paul understood the role of social action in missions:

If we allow the book of Acts to lay down the lane markers for our missions efforts, then church planting, leadership training (and Bible translation, where necessary) will be our focus.  That’s how the men whom Jesus trained understood and applied His commission.  

There is no doubt that the early Christians showed concern for the needy unbelievers around them (Titus 3:14; Gal 6:10):  that’s what Christians do simply because they’re Christians.  And I would hasten to add that I encourage this.  For example, people in my church are employed at orphanages, teach Bible studies for orphans, volunteer at a hospice, direct a school for underprivileged African farmers, minister in prisons, sponsor theological training for needy pastors, have created a food-for-trash program for street children, and a host of other compassion efforts.  They do those things because they’re Christians.  However, what Christians do because they are Christians, and what the church mobilises itself to do as its organised, corporate missions program are not necessarily the same.

An Illustration:

The apostles’ philosophy of missions can be compellingly illustrated by Paul’s long-planned mission to Rome.  In Paul’s day, Rome was a sprawling metropolis with over a million inhabitants, and its social woes were easily the equivalent of those found in any modern city.  What would the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans have looked like if it were written by one of today’s evangelical social action advocates?

I can’t wait to come to Rome to lead the charge of Christ-centered social justice!  Deed must precede word!  We need to proclaim Christ’s love for the city by working to improve the general civility, race relations, and social conditions in Rome.  We need to eradicate slavery and poverty. We need to start orphanages.  The people of Rome won’t listen to the gospel unless we first help them flourish socially and economically.  But if the church organizes a series of community-based services to eradicate unemployment and to uplift the disadvantaged, then we’ll see the city of Rome transformed.

Of course, you know what Paul actually wrote:

“For my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation … “

And in Romans, Paul makes it clear that his gospel is a gospel of sin, wrath, Christ, the cross, repentance, faith, and forgiveness.  Paul was fully aware of the social conditions that prevailed in any large city in the Roman Empire; nonetheless, he showed the same systematic disregard for social action missions one finds throughout the book of Acts.

Its true that, because of the varying gifts in the body of Christ, some missionaries will add more mercy and compassion components to their ministry than others:  believers have different gifts.  That is not my concern.  My concern is that we are allowing corporate social action missions—something we see no example of in the NT—to take over our missions efforts.  At the very best it is disproportional to the book of Acts.  And in fact, it’s hard to say that it reflects the book of Acts at all.

Long after the AIDS orphans have grown up, the wells have been blocked with sand, and the medical clinics have closed due to a lack of Western funding, the people of Africa where I minister will need churches to preach the Word and proclaim the gospel.  If we send out missionaries who are primarily focused on social action, who will plant and pastor those churches?  Unbelievers and NGO’s don’t preach the gospel and plant churches:  only the church does that.  While the work of social action is emotionally rewarding for missionaries and for the churches that send them, I fear that we’ll wake up one day and realise that we’ve not been helping the world in the most helpful way.

What can you do to correct this trend?  First, remind your current missionaries that the proclamation work they’re doing is of highest significance. Old-guard missionaries who are doing book-of-Acts kind of missions sometimes feel pressure to embrace the new social-justice model.  They know that “We cared for fourteen orphans this week,” is far more likely to produce a positive response from supporters than “We are in our fourteenth week of an exposition of Philippians in our church plant.”  Write to or visit your missionaries and encourage them not to redirect their efforts based on trendy rhetoric or pragmatic pressures.

Second, when preparing to send out new missionaries, sit with the book of Acts open on your knees to determine your philosophy of missions, and what they did, you do.   Let Acts shape—yes, even dominate—your view of the church, and therefore, your missions program.  It’s no mystery:  how the men whom Jesus personally trained understood the Great Commission is the right way to fulfill it.

Joel James


Joel is the pastor-teacher of Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, South Africa, where he has served since 1995. Joel has his D. Min. from The Master's Seminary.
  • Lewis

    If you are to let Acts “shape–yes, even dominate–your view of the church, and therefore, your missions program,” how do you justify Bible translation as missions work according to Acts more than social justice work as missions work? Is the work of Bible translation described or depicted in Acts?

    • Maranatha

      Acts 2,5-11 is that (as a hint to world translation needs of Gods Word instead of social engagement in Jerusalem) sufficient to you?

      • Jason

        The gift of tongues is certainly evidence that the message the church had was meant to cross language barriers.

        The commissioning of the church to make disciples in all nations, itself, demands the same.

        I suppose, if a person can find a way to raise up disciples of Christ a more effective way than Bibles in their language, translation would not be needed.

        Something tells me getting the whole world to transition to a universal language would take more effort than Bible translating.

        • bs

          So Jason, does education play a part in this scenario? And Acts seems to have been left behind here? And does the gift of tongues continue?

          • Jason

            Teaching is a gift of the Spirit for the building up of the body (Ephesians 4:11), so education in the scriptures and faith is definitely an important part of church life.

            If, however, you’re asking if I believe the church is responsible for ensuring that every person in their community know algebra or the history of Europe, I don’t think that can be justified with scripture.

            As for the gift of tongues question, the “perfect” of that particular gift is readily available in many cases (with translators, multi-lingual believers, believers in nearly ever tongue at this point natively, etc…) and therefore will not be gift the Spirit determines for many to have (1 Corinthians 12:11).

            Is there a case where someone will be given that gift? Maybe. Is what most people call the “gift of tongues” today what scripture says it is, certainly not.

          • bs

            Jason, you still haven’t answered the question about why Bible translation is not valid mission work, And no I don’t mean education for algebra or European history. But what about literacy, or do you think that having a book you are not able to read is enough?

          • Jason

            I’m sorry if you feel I have stated translation and teaching literacy are unworthy efforts for believers. I never said that, nor do I believe it to be true.

          • bs

            Jason, that’s good to know. But it seems that the claim being made in this series of posts is that only activities found in Acts are valid mission activities for the church today (excluding, of course! the miraculous acts). Am I reading this wrongly?
            If not, then Bible translation and its accompanying activities are excluded as valid mission. If you don’t like that conclusion and so allow for the possibility of some trajectory reading of Acts (and indeed the whole Bible) then Joel’s claim itself about so-called social action is going to need more nuance, yes?.

          • Jason

            He was careful to point out that personal assistance (like teaching a person to read, where the need is found) will often be the natural result of a life lived in faith. However, ensuring every community has a social program to address every issue is still not the mission of the church. That seemed nuanced enough to me, so I wasn’t particularly bothered.

            Basically, we have our personal ministries we do moment by moment (and we ought to!) but as soon as we try to hijack the church and use it to grow our ministries instead of letting the church be the church and the members do the good works which were prepared for each individual (Ephesians 2:10) we do the body as a whole a disservice.

            That doesn’t even exclude community work. For me, it is a matter of perspective. If we feel like the church is about housing, feeding, preparing for an occupation, etc… people we’re way off base.

            As far as Bible translation goes, I would argue that the New Testament manuscripts themselves disprove that the church written about in Acts did not undertake translating scripture for consumption in a variety of languages.

        • Maranatha

          Dear Jason, if God would have planned a universal language He would not have given the sign of tongues in Acts2. 😉 Universal language between natural sinful men (Adam) on earth = idea and aim of Babel! One universal language will be spoken and understood eternally in Heaven, between all saints.

          • Jason

            The sinful aim of Babel was to exalt man over God. Certainly, the universal language helped them work together toward that end (and the world would likely use it that way again) but it was neither the aim or idea of Babel (because, at that time, it was just their present reality).

          • Maranatha

            But it would be the idea of Babel TODAY, don’t you understand?

          • Jason

            The undertaking at Babel is alive and well today just fine. People look to advancements in science and politics as though man were on track to solve all the worlds problems and overcome every obstacle.

            Just as universal language wasn’t the problem then, scientific collaboration isn’t the problem now. However, just as back then, the way in which it is used is more destructive than helpful when it comes to the ultimate goal of glorifying God instead of ourselves.

          • Jane Hildebrand

            Maranatha, please explain what you mean.

  • KPM

    Looking to the Book of Acts as normative can be very dangerous. Many look to the communal living in Acts as prescriptive for the church and for society, rather than descriptive of what the early church did (i.e. 16th century Anabaptists). Some have even advocated for Christian Socialism as a result.

    Many restorationist movements (some of them which qualify as cults) in post-Great Awakening / 2nd Great Awakening America looked to the Book of Acts to justify their aberrant practices. This is where charismatics and pentacostals come from.

    It seems like a better way to develop a philosophy of missions would be to look at what scripture commands us to do, and to build our philosophy of missions upon that. The Great Commission, for example, tells us to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. Paul also tells us in Romans that a preacher must be called and sent by a church before going into the missions field.

    You’re right to point out that gospel proclamation is primary, and I’m glad you don’t discount social ministry altogether. Historically, however, it has proven to be dangerous to develop a philosophy of ministry based on what is described in scripture, rather than what is prescribed. All kinds of trouble has come as a result of that approach.

    • Jonesy


      Generally agree with what you said re. the importance of developing an understanding of what should be done on the basis of what is prescribed, not what is described.

      My pedantic knee jerked when you said that the Great Commission tells us to “make disciples BY baptizing . . . .” (Emphasis mine) I don’t see how Matt. 28:19 invisions that just because a person got dunked in water made them, ipso facto, a disciple. If so, the Paul should not have been so non chant about not baptizing people, cf. 1 Cor. 1.13-17.

      Under His Mercy,

      • Archepoimen follower


        • Jonesy


          I agree that baptism is integral to our faith. I have no doubt about that. What I wanted to point out is that the relationship between the two is not one where baptism is the means of making us a disciple. I used 1 Cor. 1.13-17 as a means of suggesting that if that were true, then Paul would have been more concerned to see to it that the Corinthians were baptized.

          Under His Mercy,

          • KPM

            (Romans 6:3-4) Do you not know that all of us who have been BAPTIZED into Christ Jesus were BAPTIZED into his death? We were buried therefore with him BY baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

            Q: How does a person die to sin, according to Paul?
            A: By baptism into the death of Christ.

            For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

            Q: Where to we look for assurance that we will be raised with Christ on the last day?
            A: We have been united with Christ BY baptism into His death. This is the source of our assurance that we will be raised with Him on the last day. Unity with Christ is the source of our alien righteousness. Unity with Christ comes by grace through faith. Baptism is the ordinary means by which God unites us with Christ, gives faith, regeneration, and the Holy Spirit.

            We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

            Q: Why should Christians no longer continue in sin?
            A: We died to sin when we were baptized into the death of Christ. Likewise, the New Adam was born in us at that time. If we are dead to sin through baptism, then we should not continue in it any longer.

            This is why John Calvin said the following:

            “…there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood.” – Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.XV.4

            And in the Large Catechism, Luther said the following:

            “Therefore, if you live in repentance, you walk in Baptism. For Baptism not only illustrates such a new life, but also produces, begins, and exercises it.”

          • Archepoimen follower

            I think we agree that baptism is the response of a heart that has been pricked by the Holy Spirit through God’s word, Romans 10:17.
            Where we continue to disagree, I think, is that in 1 Corinthians Paul is disparaging baptism because baptism itself is unimportant. I am convinced that Paul’s comments are related to the faulty understanding of the Corinthians as demonstrated by their dividing into factions based on who baptized them.

            In Him whose Grace is sufficient,


  • Pingback: Acts and Answered:What is the Mission of Missions? | TLG Christian News()