Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 5, Number 1


C. Leonard Allen
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

A few days ago I received a letter from a former student who has just moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to work for six months. I want to share a paragraph from that letter in which he describes what he has seen and how it has affected him.

I had heard a report in the States a year or two ago that one-fifth of the world's population lived on a dollar a day or less, and could not imagine how that could possibly be. We have met many people here who live on such an income. A typical laborer here makes about 60-70 Kenyan shillings a day--about $1. They somehow get by. Most people eat a corn-meal and water concoction that looks like a doughy bread; they may sometimes have some greens to go with it. . . . We have gotten to know a driver named William. He has four children and a wife, and two cousins living with him. They all live in a little shack, about 10'x 10'. . . You just get a different perspective on life being in a place like this. I honestly doubt that we'll be able to maintain the perspective that we'll develop over the next six months when we return to the States. Good Americans cannot comprehend the idea of limited goods.
My friend's comments helped set the direction for this paper. I could discuss various educational strategies for addressing the problem of Western affluence in missions, and these would be of some value I am sure. Jonathan Bonk, for example, suggests strategies for individuals, families, mission agencies, and training institutions. He points to Fuller's course entitled "Incarnation and Mission among the World's Urban Poor" and to his own course entitled "Rich and Poor: The Problem of Affluence in Mission."

But rather than discussing various strategies, I have chosen to focus on the deeper theological problem underlying the problem of affluence in missions. For I believe that the most creative and well-developed strategies will fall flat without addressing the deeper issue. That deeper issue concerns the eschatological grounding of our Christian faith.

From Resident Aliens to Established Church

In their stance toward the world, the earliest Christians viewed themselves as "alien citizens." This image has deep roots in the New Testament. God's great people of faith "acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth" (Heb. 11:13). Though Christians are "aliens and exiles," they must "be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution" (1 Pet. 2:11-14). Though their "commonwealth is in heaven," they live and patiently serve in this world (Phil. 3:20).

In the second-century, pagans puzzled over such attitudes toward the world. They wondered how the Christian church enabled its members "to set little store by this world, and even to make light of death itself." In response, an early Christian writer spoke of this stance as a marvelous paradox:

. . . though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country.
During the first three centuries, the Christian church largely maintained this sense of being "resident aliens," a pilgrim people, a caravan community. But something happened in the fourth century that brought epochal changes: the joining of church and world (symbolized by Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity).

In the Constantinian situation the makeup of the church changed dramatically. Up to that time Christians were a minority in the empire. They faced regular opposition and sporadic persecution. Being a Christian required courage and intense commitment. But after the Christian faith became officially sanctioned, and its profession a badge of respectability, almost everyone became a church member. Being a Christian required little courage, commitment, or sacrifice. Floods of half-committed and uncommitted people flowed into the church. The standards and expectations for discipleship had to be relaxed. Infant baptism, which required no explicit faith, replaced believer's baptism as the mark of church membership.

Christianity took on majority status. With this new status church and world were fused in significant ways. The church began to view itself as responsible for christianizing the social order, for bringing all the institutions of society under the Christian umbrella. The result however was not the christianization of society. The result was the widespread dilution of Christ's high calling in the church.

This shift is referred to as Constantinianism, and it had enormous consequences for Christian ethics or discipleship. John Yoder has argued that whenever Christian faith becomes an official or established ideology the Lordship of Jesus gets compromised. "Some other value: power, mammon, fame, efficacy, tends to become the new functional equivalent of deity." Power rather than servanthood is glorified. The concrete and often radical way of Jesus gets compromised by the way of Roman imperialism and might, or in modern times, by the way of capitalism, or American nationalism, or liberal individualism. The mission of Jesus becomes identified with or pre-empted by humanitarian causes and liberal notions of human self-fulfillment. The proper biblical name for this tendency is idolatry.

What, we may ask, is the relevance of all this for Christians in modern times? Have we not left the Constantinian joining of church and state far behind? Is not the American democracy built squarely on the disestablishment of religion? The Constitution did legally separate church and state and the Bill of Rights did guarantee freedom of religion. In this way the legal establishment of Christianity ended. But the cultural establishment of Christianity did not. Indeed, a generic version of Protestant Christianity continued to function as a national or civic religion well into the twentieth century. For many citizens, America remained not only a Christian nation but a Protestant one, and the language of this faith was deeply intertwined in the rhetoric of patriotism. As one scholar recently put it, "Establishment by law ended in the nineteenth century. Establishment by cultural domination ended [only] in the twentieth." This kind of unofficial Christian establishment John Yoder calls "neo-Constantinianism."

If this analysis is at all correct, then American Christianity still faces the problem of the effects of establishment on Christian discipleship. Only now the problem is framed differently. It is no longer the problem of the legal establishment of Christianity in the context of Roman imperialism, but rather the problem of the cultural establishment of Christianity in the context of liberal democracy.

Discipleship in a Liberal Culture

To understand the new form of this problem, we must grasp the basic features of the liberalism that undergirds our culture.

Modern liberalism began in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It took shape around the basic claim that people could free themselves from the clutches of tradition and find a set of universal, rational truths that all reasonable people could assent to. The liberal claim was that with these universal, rational truths one could fashion a political and social framework in which people holding very different conceptions of the good life could live together peaceably.

In the liberal vision, every person would be free to live by whatever conception of the good he or she pleased just so long as that particular conception was not imposed in any way upon the rest of the community. The only vision of the good to be imposed upon the entire community is the liberal vision itself. Outside this, all that would be permitted is the expression of preferences.

Thus a basic feature of liberalism is that there is no one overriding good (except, of course, the guardian principles of liberalism itself). Society consists of compartmentalized spheres--politics, art, athletics, science, family, and religion, for example. The individual moves from sphere to sphere, pursuing his or her own preferences in each one.

This, I think, summarizes in broad strokes the liberal ideology that fundamentally shapes modern democratic states. This liberalism is not primarily a theory of government but a theory of society, and it continues to form, in varying degrees, the working assumptions of both political conservatives and liberals, of Republicans and Democrats, of a George Will as well as a Ted Kennedy, of the Moral Majority as well as People for the American Way.

Liberalism has had some obvious beneficial results--perhaps chief among them the championing of freedom of religion. But a fundamental weakness appears in the moral vision it sponsors. The very ground rule of liberalism--that all competing conceptions of the good be allowed as preferences--makes it very difficult for any ultimate good to be established in the public realm. As a result, societies formed by liberal individualism tend to give rise to the notion that the moral life is but another form of consumer choice.

In such a context, the exercise of freedom, choice, and autonomy come to be viewed as the essence of the moral life. Authentic morality becomes the freedom to choose and the willingness to take responsibility for one's choices. The good society then becomes a society providing the greatest amount of freedom for the greatest number of people. In such a society it becomes hard to escape the conclusion that the good is little more than the sum of people's individual desires.

My basic point here is that when Christian faith becomes (unofficially) established in a liberal society a similar kind of dissipation occurs. Jesus' vision of the good gets reshaped or pre-empted by the liberal vision of tolerating competing goods. Liberal notions of freedom, rather than faithfulness to the cruciform way of Jesus, begin to define Christians' dominant values. Good citizenship in the liberal state tends to define good citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Christians learn to pursue their own desires rather than to curtail their desires for the sake of life in community. They get shaped more by capitalism's desire for acquisition rather than by Christ's call for contentment with little. State use of power and violence readily sets the standard for Christian sanction of power and violence. The gospel, in short, is domesticated and Jesus' Lordship compromised.

As an example, let me use Alexander Campbell, who well represents what Yoder calls the neo-Constantinian mindset. Campbell rejoiced in the legal separation of church and state, and gloried in the freedoms of American democracy. But he retained the fundamental Constantinian conviction that the fulfillment of God's kingdom was tied to human empire, that a civil authority was the bearer of God's cause. Campbell ardently embraced the belief--common in his day--that the gospel and Anglo-Saxon civilization formed a happy marriage and that together, in the not-too-distant future, they would triumph over the world.

Such convictions deeply shaped Campbell's view of discipleship, of what it means to profess the Lordship of Christ. For him and many of his disciples the marks of the true church were primarily doctrinal and formal, not ethical and communal. They held up a precise New Testament blueprint or model for structuring the church, not a vision of a radically transformed kingdom community. They proclaimed believers' baptism by immersion as a formal ordinance required for salvation and church membership--not as a symbol of entry into a community formed by trust in and radical obedience to a Christ who walked the way of the cross yet triumphed mightily over all the powers of this world.

Campbell of course thought that baptism should be followed by the "Christian life" and growth in grace, but he did not see the life of discipleship as particularly odd. After all, he and his followers were living in an especially propitious time--a blessed time when a democratic, Protestant-dominated, providentially-prepared nation stood poised to usher in the great millennial age. So he eagerly hitched the church to the rising American star, and the prospects were glorious indeed.

Discipleship thus remained a somewhat tame and culturally acceptable proposition, not a path especially marked by oddness or dislocation--and certainly not a path of persecution. Campbell made this stance surprisingly clear on one occasion. In 1859 a young preacher had insisted that Christians must "take up their crosses and bear them" after Christ. Campbell objected: "There is now no cross under our [American] government. In other words there is no persecution in our country. . . . Hence no man in the United States has to carry a cross for Christ's sake."

Such pronouncements strongly suggest that Alexander Campbell failed to see the extraordinary nature of Jesus' ethic or the fuller significance of the confession that Jesus, not Caesar--Jesus, not liberal democracy--is Lord.

Eschatology and Ethics

What is missing in such neo-Constantinian versions of the Christian ethic is the New Testament's bold eschatological claim. The Christian ethic is grounded in this bold claim. The claim is that in Jesus' death and resurrection all the hostile "powers" of this present age have been disarmed and defeated, that God's kingdom has broken into history and thus, for the believer, brought an end to all other kingdoms. In Jesus' victory and in this new kingdom, the believer sees the end of history. The believer, by faith, knows how history will turn out. And though the worldly "powers" seem to rage and threaten, the believer knows that they are doomed--finished. He knows something that unbelievers do not know--that Jesus Christ now reigns as Lord of all, and further, that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Lordship. Knowing this, the disciple can follow Jesus in all things, even in those things that seem utterly impractical and unworkable to those who do not know what Christians know.

In contrast to Campbell's neo-Constantinian vision, Barton Stone, David Lipscomb, and James A. Harding were three important nineteenth-century shapers of our heritage who lived out of an apocalyptic vision. [Let me note here that though all three men held some version of classic premillennialism, a premillennial stance is not a necessary feature of apocalypticism.]

Consider David Lipscomb. Catching the spirit of Lipscomb's life, one of his contemporaries noted that he "lives in utter disregard of the notions of the world." In a characteristic passage, Lipscomb wrote that the "religion of Christ was not only adapted to the common people, but despite all theories to the contrary, they are those best fitted to maintain and spread that religion. The rich corrupt it, the rich pervert it to suit their own fashionable ways." "The rich, and worse, those not rich who aspire to ape and court the rich, are the greatest corrupters of the church," he wrote in a common refrain. When the rich embrace the faith, he said, "ninety times out of every hundred their influence is to corrupt the church, lower the standard of morality, and relax all discipline in a church." God's people, Lipscomb believed, rejected worldly fashion and sought simplicity. For this reason he was appalled in 1892 when he heard that an Atlanta church had spent $30,000 on its new building. "When I hear of a church setting out to build a fine house," he wrote, "I give that church up. Its usefulness as a church of Christ is at an end."

Consider also James Harding. Harding lived his life according to what he called God's law of "special providence." This meant, he said, that he tried to choose his work by the needs of the kingdom "without taking into consideration my financial interests at all, except to believe that God would supply my every need, if I worked faithfully for him." His only employment contract, he said, was a Matthew 6:33 contract--"Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." Such a contract guarantees everything one needs, no matter the circumstances, he insisted. It does not depend on whether one pleases people or not, on sickness or on health, or on the size of one's family--but only upon pleasing the Lord. Such a contract makes one free like nothing else, for God is a friend more loving and kind than any earthly father or mother, and his promises of care and blessing are more sure.

God's promises of care and commands to trust, Harding stressed, are just as plain and certain as "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved"; to reject one teaching is just as much unbelief as to reject the other. Harding accepted both. Late in his life, he could write: "For thirty-six years I have endeavored to follow the directions of Jesus literally. I have avoided the accumulation of property. . . . I have no house, no land, no stock, no property except that which we daily use, no money laid up for the future." He said that he rarely possessed as much as fifty dollars at one time and, when he did, most often used it for immediate needs.

I grew up under the influence of David Lipscomb (1830-1917). I did not know his name, of course--he was long dead by my time and very few, in fact, could call his name--but his shadow remained long over me. David Lipscomb spoke apocalyptic. He knew its syntax and grammar well, though he spoke in the distinctive "dialect" of post-Civil War southern alienation. He published his views in many articles and especially in a little book entitled Civil Government (1889).

Lipscomb believed that all human government represented the rebellion of humankind against God's sovereign rule and the transferring of allegiance to the kingdom of Satan. Due to this rebellion, the earth, which was once a paradise, became "a dried and parched wilderness" where sin and suffering permeated everything. Christ came, Lipscomb said, to rescue this world and to restore it to its "primitive and pristine allegiance to God." Christ mightily engaged Satan's rule and succeeded in re-establishing God's kingdom. But this kingdom in its present churchly form was not the "everlasting kingdom," but the kingdom in "a lower state of growth and development." But the time will come, Lipscomb believed, when that kingdom "shall break in pieces and consume all the kingdoms of earthly origin." Jesus will come again and then "the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and all things in the world will be restored to harmonious relations with God." Lipscomb clearly envisioned a restored millennial kingdom on the earth, though he refused to speculate about Jesus reigning for a literal thousand years.

For Lipscomb this apocalyptic outlook deeply shaped his ethics. Christians should stand aloof from civil government, refusing to hold political offices, to participate in war, and even to vote. They should live lives of simplicity, sacrifice, and service, expecting as a matter of course the misunderstanding and scorn of the world.

This apocalyptic outlook characterized a sizeable segment of Churches of Christ throughout the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, however, Churches of Christ largely cast off the apocalyptic worldview with its calls for radical discipleship. Some openly denounced Lipscomb's apocalypticism as heresy. One of the most influential men among twentieth-century Churches of Christ, for example, charged that Lipscomb had cultivated the seedbed for premillennialism; and he charged that Lipscomb's book, Civil Government, was "about as rank with false doctrine as one book of its size could be." Among most people, however, Lipscomb's apocalypticism was simply ignored or forgotten. And so it remains to the present day.

An episode during World War II epitomizes the rejection of apocalypticism among twentieth-century Churches of Christ. With the war fever raging, the strict pacifist stance which had predominated in Lipscomb's time made little sense to many people. A preacher named O. C. Lambert expressed the prevailing attitude. "I lose faith in the Lipscomb Lion and Lamb story!" he proclaimed. Indeed, Lambert stated that Churches of Christ should call in all copies of "the Lipscomb book [Civil Government]" and burn them. So dangerous was its message, he was convinced, that it "would be outlawed now if the FBI knew its contents."

With the apocalyptic outlook of David Lipscomb cast off, what typically remained was a rigid and garrulous form of biblical patternism and an exclusivism easily identifying Churches of Christ as the one true, restored kingdom of God. What also remained was a constituency ever more at home in mainstream American culture and ever more content with conventional moral standards. The sense of separateness from the world remained a significant factor past mid-century, but it was like a cut-flower; severed from its apocalyptic roots and buffeted by the winds of respectability, its days were numbered.

Recovering the Lost Language of Apocalyptic

Right now I find myself caught in the dilemma that has become the dilemma of much establishment Christianity. I find myself in a community of faith that, though once quickened by a robust apocalypticism, now not only has lost that foreshortened vision but, by and large, no longer even finds it intelligible. I find myself in a community that no longer speaks the "language" of apocalyptic.

I grew up speaking a broken version of this language; it was still spoken some around my early household of faith but only as a kind of second language. And second languages usually do not fare very well in the long run. Over the last decade I have tried hard to relearn this language and to speak it before my students and before those whom I worship with each week. But I have done so with limited intelligibility. It may well be, of course, that I do not speak the language very well or that I speak it in a degenerate dialect.

But I don't think that is the main problem. It is rather that this language, as a living language, has been lost in my community of faith. Some people, to be sure, remember a good bit of the vocabulary. They still use some of the old words. But the old words have taken on different meanings. The grammar and syntax of apocalyptic have become foreign. And some of the practices associated with that New Testament "language" no longer make sense.

The trouble, it seems to me, is that apocalyptic is a language that cannot be translated faithfully into another language. Rather one must be taught it, and be taught it by those who speak it faithfully in the Christian colony. But when the colony has forgotten its language through its eagerness to do business with its neighbors and thus exchanged the "politics of the Lamb" for the "politics of the Lion," how can that language and the social practices (or politics) it enables be recovered? That question remains one of the most basic questions with which I continue to wrestle.

I close with a look at Revelation 5, a passage which focuses clearly the New Testament apocalyptic vision. In contrast to the "politics of the Lion" (which characterizes all human regimes), this vision presents us with the "politics of the Lamb" (which characterizes God's new regime or rule).

The scene opens with a figure sitting on heaven's throne holding a scroll that is "sealed with seven seals." John the seer realizes that no one in heaven or on earth can open the scroll and declare its message, and he begins to weep. But an elder's voice consoles him: stop weeping, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered and can open the scroll. And then the lion appears but in the form of a Lamb "looking as if it had been slain." The Lamb takes the scroll and immediately heaven's worshippers, joined by all of creation, lift up a great hymn of praise: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain" (5:8-14).

The sealed scroll, we may readily assume, symbolizes the secret of human destiny. The tears of the seer we may take as the tears of us all as we contemplate earth's sorrows and evils--the persecutions, the endless wars, the ravages of disease, suffering, death. Why does human history go on? Why does not God end it all? And the Revelation gives us an answer near the close of the scene: "You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (5:9-10).

Why does this earthly drama continue? Because God is forming a new race of human beings, a race called out from every race. Human history's last task is the forming of a new community on the earth. It is a community formed by the Lamb and governed by the "politics of the Lamb." The sacrificial death of Jesus has already formed this people. They are already a new people, a "kingdom of priests." And this new people is meant to rule the world under its risen Lord. But not as Caesar ruled, not as dictators and presidents now rule--not by swords and spears, or tanks and bombs. Not by the "politics of the lion." The Lamb's new nation will conquer by the very way of the Lamb, the very way that Jesus lived and died--triumph through a cross.

In the eyes of the world, which measures everything by the politics of power, compromise, and personal preference, the "politics of the Lamb" will appear strange and unworkable. It will appear much the same way to Christians whose fundamental convictions remain indebted to the modern tradition of liberal individualism. And indeed, in the short run this "politics" will often seem to fail. Yet the final outcome is certain, for in the heavenly hymn of Revelation 5 the Lamb has already passed his power to his people.

This conviction about the triumph of the Lamb stands at the center of the New Testament's eschatological vision. This vision can properly be called apocalyptic. Without such a vision, I am convinced, the church cannot occupy its proper minority stance in a liberal culture or in any other culture. Without such a vision and such a "language," our churches and the mission candidates they produce will remain more in step with the mesmerizing rhythms of Western affluence than with the clear, high notes of the economics of the Lamb.


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