January 23, 2013

To Be, or not to Be an “Incarnational” Ministry, That is the Question

by George Lawson

A Double Windsot KnotMaybe I’m just old fashioned.  Yes, I still like preaching in a suit and tie on Sunday mornings (I know how to tie a Double Windsor knot and will be teaching my son).  Yes, I prefer paper books to digital books (maybe I’ll plant a tree to make up for all the ones I’ve killed in my library). Yes, I taught my kids to say “Yes Sir” and “No Sir” (it may not always reflect a submissive heart, but it still sounds good).   And Yes, I think some language should be reserved exclusively for the Son of God, and should not be shared with His followers, like…incarnation.

Pile of BooksIs anybody else just a “wee bit” uncomfortable with the phrase “incarnational ministry”?

This is not a “heresy hunter” post.  Relax!  I have good friends who use the term “incarnational” and I haven’t tarred and feathered any of them.  If you use the term, I am not questioning your orthodoxy.  No one I know believes they are God in human flesh (at least the last time I checked).  However, I do wonder if we should use the phrase “incarnational.”  After all, we would never say that we have a “transfigurational ministry” or a “crucifixional ministry” or an “ascensional ministry” would we? And what do people mean by “incarnational” anyway?Rapper Costume

Many use the term “incarnational” to advocate some type of assimilation into the culture around us.  In their minds the way to win the people in the culture is to be like the people in the culture.  They would argue that Jesus, in His incarnation, identified with us and we should identify with others.

The last time you read through the gospels, did you walk away thinking, “Wow! Jesus really fit in.”  I doubt it.  Even Paul’s practice of “becoming all things to all men” wasn’t to fit in with them, but rather to remove any distraction, so that the gospel would be clearly heard.  Christ’s incarnation was not an attempt to fit in culturally with the world.

Stop TractWhat others mean by “incarnational” is that we should not distance ourselves from the people in our community.  “We should not expect the community to come to us, but rather we should be going to them.  As Jesus came to us, we should be going to the community around us.”  In this case “incarnational” means nothing more than practicing evangelism.  You won’t find me discouraging anyone from fulfilling the Great Commission. But incarnation seems like a bit of a stretch to describe evangelism.  I am not Christ coming to them but rather I am coming to share Christ with them.

Church in snowOne of my friends uses the term “incarnational” to speak of local churches being an expression of the body of Christ.  As believers, we are the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:12; Colossians 3:15) and we are predestined to be conformed into His image (Romans 8:29).  Our union with Christ is a glorious reality.   In some way, we can say that Christ is being put on display through His church.   This is true, but even this still comes short of deserving the term “incarnation” in my opinion.  We both agree there will always and forever be a distinction between Christ and His church.

So why bother people if they find the term “incarnational” helpful?  Am I just old, grumpy and reformed?  Maybe I am, but I believe there are good reasons to refrain from using “incarnational” to speak of our ministries.

Here are the reasons I’ve chosen not to speak of my ministry as an “incarnational” ministry.Grumpy old man

1) It’s misleading:

If I have to explain my illustration it might be best not to use it.  “Incarnational” means different things to different people and can easily be misunderstood.

2) It’s inaccurate:

I am never called to be Christ in Scripture.  I am encouraged to preach Christ (2 Corinthians 4:5), to follow Christ (Matthew 10:38), to imitate Christ (1 Peter 2:21), to put on Christ (Romans 13:14) but I am never encouraged to be Christ.

3) It’s distracting:

The focus of Jesus’ incarnation was not on His dwelling among us, or identifying with us but His dying for us.  I am called to imitate Christ in His humility and love but my focus needs to remain on preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).  My fear is that many people spend more time trying to identify with unbelievers than leading them to the cross.

4) It’s unnecessary:

What does the term “incarnational” do that the term “evangelistic” or “sacrificial” doesn’t?  I don’t see how the Christian mission is made clearer by the use of the term.

5) It’s confusing:

If I use the term “incarnational” to describe my ministry, what will I use to elevate the ministry of the Incarnate One? Just like some of Christ’s attributes are incommunicable and cannot be shared with His followers, some aspects of His ministry are also incommunicable and cannot be shared with His followers. 

Michael Horton said it well, “His [Jesus’] incarnation is unique and unrepeatable.  It cannot be extended, augmented, furthered, or realized by us.  It happened; Jesus is God from Bethlehem to eternity.  He did not come to show us how to incarnate ourselves but rather to be our incarnate Redeemer” (Hyde, Daniel R. and Shane Lems, eds. Planting. Watering. Growing: Planting Confessionally Reformed Churches in the 21stCentury. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.  pg. 275)

It may be old fashioned but I’ll keep opening doors for ladies, and I’ll keep using the term incarnation for Christ alone.Holding door open

George Lawson


George is a graduate of The Master's Seminary and is the Pastor-Teacher of Baltimore Bible Church, a new church plant in Baltimore, MD (www.baltimorebiblechurch.org)
  • Riaan

    Thank you, brother Lawson for writing this very helpful articulation of the problematic usage of the phrase “incarnational ministry”. I’ve had similar issues with the phrase but I just couldn’t articulate it as clearly as you have done. God Bless, Sir!

    • outreaching

      Thanks, glad it was helpful.

  • Don Smith

    Good explanation. You might try “missional” next.

    • outreaching

      I think Jesse has already written a good post on “missional” but I agree there’s a lot of confusion there as well.

  • PatrickSlyman

    First, I agree that there is great confusion as to what “incarnational” means.

    However, there does seem to be precedence for using a word such as “incarnational” from Jn 20:21, “As the Father sent me [incarnation], I also send you [incarnational].” Not that we ever “are” Christ, but that we imitate Him. In the words of Stott, “Deliberately and precisely [Christ] made his mission the model of ours.”

    • I dunno, Patrick. I don’t buy it from John 20:21. I don’t think the “as” in the sentence means, “in precisely all of the same aspects in which the Father sent Me, so now I send you in the very same ways.” Jesus simply saying that the disciples are to carry on the ministry of the Gospel, being witnesses to what Christ and Christ alone has accomplished. Christ was God who took on human flesh to save the world by bearing sin as a substitute. We are humans (incarnate from birth) who witness to that work by the preaching of the Gospel. Carson has some helpful comments in his commentary, pp. 648-49.
      But the point is: While imitating Jesus is right, we need to temper our understanding of that imitation by recognizing the many unrepeatable acts and accomplishments that were unique to the mission of the God-man Himself. Rather than being an “re-incarnation” of Christ, Christians are to be witnesses to that incarnation, and that sinless life, and that substitutionary atonement, and that resurrection, and so on.

      • jthiessen

        I’d go a step further and say that the meaning of John 20:21 is explained in verse 22, “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So the meaning of verse 21 is very specific, as Jesus was sent in the power of the Spirit so are His disciples, i.e. Acts 2. But that leads to whole other issue with “incarnational” language, it isn’t our personal “incarnation” that makes Christ present in us or to the world, but the Holy Spirit.

  • George, you’re not old enough to be “old, grumpy and Reformed”! 🙂

    I especially appreciated your point #2.

    The Second Person of the Trinity came to take a body 2000 years ago, when the Word became flesh. Us? We came into existence with one.

    • outreaching

      Thanks David. I guess that just means I qualify for being grumpy and reformed 🙂 I appreciate it.