The Reformation Captivity of the Church’s Mission

Originally posted at:


by The Rev. Canon Tad de Bordenave,
Founder and First Executive Director of AFM

Martin Luther admonished Christian leaders to address the controversies of the day rather than issues unrelated to the contemporary church. Consistent with his own advice, he took on the corrupt teaching of the church in his essay, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” Luther boldly brought out the biblical teaching that contrasted to the heresies that the church was teaching.

Today there is another captivity, one also brought by influences within the church. No, these are not heresies—far from it—but a vigorous theological stance that sidelines a stronger biblical mandate.

Held captivity is mission to the ends of the earth, the call to make disciples of each and every nation. Holding this captive is the legacy of the Protestant Reformation which produces a steady stream of volumes and debates within the church. I do not make a case to displace, downgrade, or diminish the heart of grace and all related truths, but these are penultimate truths. Their place lies beneath the ultimate and supports the most central position of scriptural teaching.

The mandate to make disciples of all nations belongs in the foreground. Replacing that has not quenched mission but certainly has overshadowed it. Yet 25% of the world’s population still doesn’t know of Jesus Christ. We have failed to be alerted by that staggering number and have failed to respond. If even a tithe of all the attention to the doctrine of grace had been turned to evangelizing those at the ends of the earth, the world would not have 2 billion people today who have not heard the Gospel.

Our Protestant mission story did not begin until 1800 with the sailing of William Carey to India. Before that the Roman Catholic Church went to the dark parts of the world, their flaws in tow. We, on the other hand, wrestled with the flaws. A dynamic mission theology for us lagged behind and did not emerge for another 300 years.

The correction that begs attention is accepting the primacy of the Commission to every nation. From the call of Abraham–whose language first introduced languages, families, and clans–to the vision granted to John of some from every language, tribe, and nation–this is the task that God puts before the church.

Mission research has made progress in identifying those nations which do not have key resources for making disciples. These would be essential tools like the Bible in their own language, training for leaders, or radio and correspondence courses. These “unreached” nations—ethnic groups with no viable support for their own church—number over 7,000.

The case for mission as the church’s priority need not depend on theological or biblical studies. A look at the most critical moments in the earliest church show this truth. Let me refer to four—three leaders and one event. Each of these forced clarifications about the foundations for the church. As we will see, unlocking the stagnation depended not on tangents of grace alone but on who can be admitted to the kingdom. Was the kingdom intended for the Jews only or for Gentile nations as well?

Stephen’s speech marked a turning point in Luke’s history. Stephen boldly and lucidly exposed flaws in the Jewish pride of election. He told how their heroes Moses and Abraham found God’s presence and wisdom outside of Judea. He then undermined the revered stature of the Patriarchs, the Temple, and, lastly, the Law. All this was to show God was greater than the confines of the land of Judah and the bulwarks of Judaism. Had Stephen been spared execution, we would read his climactic conclusion declaring the unlimited mercy of God for all.

Paul had been the foremost defender of the sacred status of the Jews and the protection against Gentile inclusion. He was profoundly challenged by the argument he heard from Stephen. When the Lord met him outside Damascus and gave him the commission to be the Apostle to the nations, the seed planted by Stephen took root. He articulated the Gospel for all the nations and established churches among Gentiles.

“This is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. By God’s grace and mighty power I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News. I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan to everyone” (Ephesians 3:6a, 7, 9).

Peter faced the challenge of Jewish provincialism when he visited the home of the Gentile Cornelius. There he discovered the mercy of God already at work. Told and retold by Luke, this crucial encounter uncovered the bias of Peter against Gentile inclusion. We see his reluctance to move beyond the Jewish people, the very thing that was causing the stagnation of the church’s growth. The story is rightly known as the double conversion–of Cornelius to Christ’s love for him and of Peter to God’s love for Gentiles.

One further event puts a revealing light on the dividing question of the day. This takes place as Paul is addressing the throng at the Temple just after being arrested. Many of Paul’s most virulent adversaries were followers of Christ, but they wanted to silence Paul’s teaching on mission to the Gentiles. Luke describes the critical point when the crowd ignites its hateful passion against Paul. Paul tells the hostile crowd of his conversion and elicits not reaction. He mentions the temple. Again, no reaction. Finally, he tells how Jesus instructed him to tell the Good News to the Gentile nations. At that, riot erupts.

These events in the earliest church support the centrality of the world Christian movement as the controversy of highest importance. The charged atmosphere revolves around the question of the kingdom for the Jews only or for the inclusion of the Gentiles.

The inclusion of Gentile nations fits as the foremost biblical priority only if that dispute carries weight today. If this controversy were isolated to the earliest church, then we would look for other important questions. But, sadly, the controversy persists, and not just today but throughout the history of the church. 67 generations have passed since the church received the Great Commission. If this were energetically incorporated into the mainstream of the church, the results would be different. But with two billion people and more than 7,000 ethnic groups beyond where we are reaching, the issue persists.

Actually, the deeper dimensions of justification by faith do point to the mission of the church. The usual question that justification answers is, “How are we saved?” But just as relevant, more so for this argument of the centrality of frontier mission, is the question, “Who can be saved?” Justification points to that answer. The answer moves us beyond the church’s borders.

The logic goes like this: The answer, of course, is: “Any and all sinners.” Not just ourselves but all who meet the qualifications. What qualifications? The only qualifications God establishes are repentance and faith. Who would that include? Me and you. Others? Why, yes, others. What others? Any others, all others who repent and believe. Are there boundaries to inclusion of “others?” Are some admitted but others not? No? If there are no boundaries, then there are none whom God wants omitted from the invitation. Do all know this truth? Have all sinners received the invitation? No? Well then, there you have it: embedded in the truth of grace is the call to see that all sinners receive the invitation.

If saving grace does not bust our boundaries of God’s mercy, grace has missed its place. Embedded in grace is movement beyond ourselves, to those who could qualify but do not yet know that. Grace must shift from only being my hope for salvation to including the church’s sacrificial call to unharvested fields. Properly placed, grace brings to my ears what Jesus commanded, “Go and make disciples of each and every nation.”

There is mission, of course, massive resources and personnel sent to fields already established. Work there is often more fraught with hardship and resistance than in the frontiers. All these fields need all that is sent and more. But note, this deployment moves resources from one part of the Body of Christ to another part of the Body of Christ.

The consequences of the world Christian movement being overshadowed are severe. Let me briefly mention only three.

First is the church’s disobedience. We have been told. The church has had frontier pioneers, of course, and these courageous men and women have broken new ground, tilled up hardened soil, and often paid dearly for their service to the Lord. But these have been individuals or teams—sent solo or by an order or mission society. Rarely have they been emissaries of the corporate Body of Christ.

Second, we believers are being made into the image of Christ, but we receive a diminished image of our Lord. We have a taken a pass on knowing the grieving of our Maker and Redeemer for His unreached people. We have not had our hearts troubled and broken by the millions dying apart from Christ nor wept over lost sheep lost forever. We will be like Christ, but in this lifetime our sanctification will have this missing piece, a piece central in the heart of God.

But this is not about us. Third, millions die without knowing the Father’s love. If over 25% of the world’s population is not on our radar, we should not expect resources or any attention to be pushed in their direction. If no one at the helm knows of the Qashqa’i of Iran, why should we expect missions to address this widely neglected group of over 1 million people?

What will we hear from them on the Last Day when they learn that there is forgiveness from heaven, a God whose throne is righteous, and who holds the powers over death? “Why were we never told?” That is what we will hear.

All will face judgment—we who are followers of Christ and they who have never heard of Him. But there is a difference. They will be judged on the basis of truth they have never heard; the church will be judged for obedience to a Commission we have heard.

I hope and pray for the scene to change. I hope that the church will place frontier mission front and center, where it has always belonged. This does not predicate shifting resources from present work to the ends of the earth. The worldwide Body of Christ has all the resources needed, and the power of the Holy Spirit is fully sufficient for mission to all territories and all people. I hope millions will soon hear the Good News for the first time.

The course ahead for the church should follow the course of the Apostle Peter. He’s the leader who was slow to get the message of including the nations. But he is also the one whose humble gratitude for the Savior’s grace drove him to crucifixion upside down. He saw God’s call beyond Israel and reminded the church of the purpose of that grace.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Peter 2:9).”

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