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8 January 2019

Proclaiming Reconciliation in our Being, Doing, and Telling

Synopsis:

This paper sets out in basic form the biblical foundations for reconciliation and peacemaking, connects those foundations with missiological issues in the East Asian context, and provides material that will assist us to reflect on the shape of our future missional engagement.

Peter Rowan

Peter is from Northern Ireland and has served with OMF International for over twenty years. He is the author of Proclaiming the Peacemaker: The Malaysian Church as an Agent for Reconciliation in a Multicultural Society (Oxford: Regnum, 2012), and is currently OMF UK National Director, a role he shares with his wife, Christine.

Proclaiming Reconciliation in our Being, Doing, and Telling

Mission Round Table 13:1 (Jan-Apr 2018): 4-11

Introduction: The future of mission and the gospel of reconciliation

Reconciliation and peacemaking are very much on the agenda in East Asia, whether we think of the DPRK and South Korea context, racially fragmented Malaysia, the inter-ethnic/inter-religious violence in Myanmar, the insurgency in South Thailand, the treatment of minorities in China, the continuing impact of Japan’s role in World War Two on its Asian neighbours, the tensions surrounding China’s presence in the South China Sea, or the divisions within and between churches themselves—for instance, between TSPM and unregistered churches in China. Whatever else we might say about the future of mission, it will be a future that continues to require agents of reconciliation for a broken world and fragmented church.

My aim in this paper is threefold: (1) Set out in basic form the biblical foundations for reconciliation and peacemaking. (2) Connect those foundations with missiological issues in the East Asian context. (3) Provide material that will assist us to reflect on the shape of our future missional engagement.[1]

1. The place of reconciliation in the Biblical drama

From a purely statistical point of view, the word group usage of “reconciliation” does not appear very often in the Bible. However, the concept of reconciliation “is the thread that gives coherence and momentum to God’s relationship with the whole of creation.”[2] The briefest of sketches will suffice to show that the theme of reconciliation is woven throughout the Bible.

The first and last books of the Bible frame the story of reconciliation between God and his creation (Gen 3:14–17; Rev 21:3–4; 22:1–2). At the heart of God’s mission is the healing of the relationships broken in Eden. The promise of restoration begins with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3. The covenantal promise to Abraham is the origin of the gospel and the first indication in Scripture of God’s missional purpose that through the election of one man all peoples on earth will be blessed. As a promise it pointed forward to the great ingathering of the nations into the people of God—a vision found in other OT passages (Isa 19:23–25; Jer 12:15–16) and declared by Paul to the Galatians to be a reality, made possible now through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:8).

The full scope of this blessing is captured in the biblical term shalom, defined negatively as the cessation and absence “of chaos, conflict, oppression, and broken relations” and positively as “the establishment… of wholeness, reconciliation, goodness, justice, and the flourishing of creation.”[3] The peace the gospel brings encompasses our relationships with God, with one another, and with the whole created environment (Isa 11:6–9).

In Revelation we find the reconciled multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (7:9), and in 21:3 the promise that “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” in a “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17). A liberated creation (Rom 8:21) is, with the “healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2), part of God’s reconciling to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col 1:20).

Although the Apostle Paul is the only NT writer to use reconciliation in a theological sense to describe the cross, the theme of reconciliation is found throughout the NT and especially in the ministry of Jesus. It is important to recognize that Paul builds on what Jesus himself said and did.

For instance, the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–32) and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:1–14) both center on divine-human reconciliation. In Matthew 5:23–24, Jesus teaches that the need for reconciliation is so important that only when it has been made can a gift be offered at the altar: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus’ teaching and example on interpersonal relationships were foundational for Paul:

As for Paul’s teaching about barriers being broken down between human beings, this is anticipated in Jesus’ own conduct, in mixing, for example, with socially marginalized groups, including tax collectors and women, but also in his teaching about love for enemies and Samaritans.[4]

2. The place of reconciliation in Paul’s theology and mission

If we look at the bare bones of word usage, the verb katallasso is used six times by Paul (Rom 5:10; 1 Cor 7:11; 2 Cor 5:18, 19, 20). Only one of these (1 Cor 7:11) is used in the context of an interpersonal relationship (between husband and wife) while the other occurrences refer to humanity’s relationship with God. The noun katallage occurs four times (Rom 5:11; 11:15; 2 Cor 5:18, 19), and the verb apokatallasso is found in just three places (Eph 2:16; Col 1:20, 22), being unique to Paul.[5]

A more complete study on the place of reconciliation in Paul would require a closer examination of these verses and their contexts. For the purpose of this paper we simply note that although the usage of the “reconciliation” word group is quite limited in the NT, word usage is not necessarily a reliable guide to theological importance. So while it may not appear that often in the Bible as a whole, there are good grounds for saying that reconciliation is central to Christianity, goes to the heart of Paul’s theology and to the heart of the gospel itself, and offers a powerful paradigm for mission. The limitations of space prohibit me from substantiating these claims but I have done so elsewhere[6] and can point to other works which see reconciliation as the “organising principle”[7] for describing the salvation of God, or as the “controlling metaphor”[8] for the way Paul expresses the gospel.

Reconciliation, sculpture by Josefina de Vasconcellos, replica in Berlin as part of the Berlin Wall memorial © 2008 Mark Ahsmann [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. The peaceful fruit of reconciliation

In the letters of Paul, the doctrine points in two directions simultaneously. We are led to the heart of the gospel itself, discovering through the image of reconciliation what the gospel is and has achieved. At the same time, we are pointed to the everyday realities of life and relationships and to how the doctrine transforms the reconciled into new people and communities of reconciling agents.

If we take Romans 5:1–11 as our base we can sketch the broad contours of reconciliation in Paul’s theology.[9] First, reconciliation is necessary because of the alienating effects of sin (Rom 5:6–11). The impact of sin on the mind and understanding was made clear in Genesis 6:5, and the fact that it affects not only the heart of the individual but social and political structures as well (cf. Amos 2:4–8; 5:7–15; Rev 13:1–7). Second, reconciliation is initiated by God (Rom 5:8). It is through God’s gracious initiative that he himself takes steps to remove the cause of his wrath against us and restore us to fellowship with him. Third, reconciliation is accomplished through the cross (Rom 5:10). The Ephesians are told that their fellowship with God and the reconciling of Jew and Gentile are made possible “through the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13–16). The fourth aspect of Paul’s theology of reconciliation, in Rom 5:1–11, is how it results in peace. Given the theme of our article, this deserves a sub-section of its own.

The classic verse stating that reconciliation results in peace is Romans 5:1— “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace and reconciliation with God, peace and reconciliation with fellow humans, and peace and reconciliation with God’s suffering creation are all part of the comprehensive salvation accomplished through the cross of Christ. While Romans 5:1–11 is concerned with peace and reconciliation with God, elsewhere Paul includes the reconciling of peoples (Eph 2:11–22), and the ultimate reconciling of all things (Col 1:19–20, cf. Rom 8:19–21). So reconciliation has vertical, horizontal, and cosmic dimensions.

In relation to Jews and Gentiles, Paul’s “two-fold gospel reality” is that “all, both Jews and Gentiles, are recipients of God’s saving righteousness manifest in Jesus Christ” and this “peace-making breakthrough … peace with God through Christ and peace between former enemies” is reflected in most of Paul’s letters.[10]

The theme of peace in Ephesians 2 has clear allusions to Isaiah. Two texts in particular provide the foundation for Paul’s argument. Isaiah 52:7—“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news”—is the background to Ephesians 2:17—“He [Christ] came and preached peace to you.” Further, Isaiah 27:19—“Peace, peace, to those far and near… And I will heal them”—ties in with the rest of Ephesians 2:17—“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” It is the cross of Christ that creates the new people of God that Paul writes about in Ephesians. Those far away—Gentiles—and those near—Jews—have been brought together in the peace of Christ. Isaiah’s duplication of “Peace, peace” (Isa 57:19) “means peace in its full reality and nothing but peace,” and the promise of healing (Isa 57:19) is the “complete wholeness that peace implies.”[11] God’s purpose—to “create one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility”—is not simply a by-product of the gospel but part of the message itself.

However, the working out of the horizontal peaceful fruit of reconciliation has not always been a strength of evangelical witness. This can have a profound effect on our missional endeavours because if our positive response to the invitation to be reconciled to God is not accompanied by the transformation of relationships with the “other” in a divided society, we are left with a truncated gospel and a compromised witness.[12]

In both NT studies and missiology the theme of peace has until recently received insufficient focus. William Swartley draws attention to this in the title of his book, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Elsewhere Swartley notes six dimensions of peace in the NT:

  • as reconciliation between humans and God
  • as reconciliation among humans
  • as the new creation and alternative community to the Pax Romana
  • as sociopolitical reality
  • as present and future cosmic harmony and
  • as inner tranquility in the midst of adversity[13]

This paper concentrates on the first three, but peace in relation to the present suffering creation, or, as Swartley puts it, peace, “as present and future cosmic harmony” and the implications of this for the church’s mission, should not be overlooked and we will discuss its importance in the following section.

4. Proclaiming reconciliation in our being, doing, and telling

Paul, following the example of Christ, embodied the ministry of reconciliation. We see this demonstrated in practical and costly ways in Paul’s own life. Take for instance his letter to Philemon where he stands between a slave and his owner and allows the cross to shape his ministry of reconciliation in that situation. In a Christ-like way, Paul is prepared to “stand in the place of risk and pain, with arms outstretched towards the slave and his owner … stand at one of the pressure points of the human race from that day until very recently.”[14] This is what being “entrusted with the gospel of reconciliation” can look like in practice.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though Christ were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:19–20), he is speaking of a proclamation responsibility given to the whole church.[15] We will look at this proclamation through the three inter-connected dimensions of being, doing, and telling.[16]

4.1. Reconciliation: Proclaimed by being communities of reconciliation

In his letters Paul envisages communities that embody the message of reconciliation to the wider world. In the midst of the brokenness and suffering of the world, the church exists as a community of reconciliation, pointing back to the unique reconciling work of God in Christ on the cross, and pointing forward, by its work and witness, to the ultimate reconciliation of “all things.” This cosmic dimension (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10) is a major component of Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation. One crucial element of the eschatological fulfillment of this cosmic dimension is already present and visible in how the people of God have been redefined and enlarged to include both Jews and Gentiles: “The mystery of cosmic reconciliation finds a preliminary historical proof in the reality of Jews and Greeks gathered round the Lord’s table.”[17] This is what Andrew Walls describes as “The Ephesian Moment” when “two races and two cultures historically separated by the meal table now met at table to share the knowledge of Christ.”[18] This new humanity bore witness to a new identity given in Christ.

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was thrilled to see Gentiles believing the gospel and living under the Lordship of Christ. But what takes center stage in Ephesians is the fact that in the gospel Jew and Gentile believers are now one people—God’s new humanity. This creation of a new humanity is essentially about identity being recreated in Christ. And this was not a one-off historical event but a model for the way Christian mission is to understand itself: “that now through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” (Eph 3:10). Therefore, what Paul saw in the context of Jew and Gentile, the church is to expect to see in various contexts of division.

This “Ephesian Moment” is not about the erasing of cultural or ethnic identities. Biblical reconciliation affirms cultural pluralism. Reconciliation is not about uniformity. However, cultural identities, though important, are not primary. Vinoth Ramachandra puts it like this:

we could say in general that if our self-identity is rooted in anything we possess, whether it be our racial or cultural heritage, educational ability, theological scholarship, wealth, social prestige, religious devotion, ‘meritorious works’, political power, moral achievements, or whatever, that identity will always divide us from others who lack that particular possession. Language, Culture, Religion, Education, Science … all these, while either neutral or good in themselves, become causes of human division whenever they are sources of human identity. And they become sources of human identity when we reject the identity God confers on us. That attempt to ‘make ourselves’ through what we do, in whatever area of human action, stands in contradiction to divine grace. Thus it is that ‘law’ must be abolished as a means of human self-identity if true reconciliation between God and humankind and within humankind can be realized.[19]

This is why local congregations must see themselves as models of reconciled communities. “Mission,” says Rene Padilla, “begins with churches that embody the gospel of reconciliation.”[20] Sadly, churches have too often failed in this calling. The Cape Town Commitment acknowledges with grief and shame the complicity of Christians in some of the most destructive contexts of ethnic violence and oppression, and the lamentable silence of large parts of the Church when such conflicts take place…. Christians who, by their action or inaction, add to the brokenness of the world, seriously undermine our witness to the gospel of peace.[21]

Proclaiming the message of reconciliation requires congregations to be and become people of “centripetal peace … a community of peace in its internal life, its centripetal activity … a ‘sphere of interrupted violence’ in the midst of a violent world.”[22] However, as in the early church, so today, congregations are often deeply divided within and between themselves, and this affects our participation in world mission. “Today’s church”, as someone has put it, “suffers from a reconciliation deficit disorder.”[23]

This was a significant reason for Paul to write his letter to the Romans. Paul wants to involve the Roman congregations in his mission to the “barbarians” in Spain and his letter lays out the theological foundations for that mission, together with the hope that when he gets to Rome the Christians there will be ready to cooperate with him. But a prior necessity to their cooperation with Paul was their cooperation with each other. Robert Jewett sets the context:

In the competitive environment of the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds, the desire to surpass others and to achieve honor had invaded the arena of religion, perverting it into a means of achieving superiority. This situation is presented as paradigmatic, because the Roman house and tenement churches are behaving in a similar manner toward each other, and if given the opportunity, will certainly extend this competitive zeal into the mission to Spain, where it would have equally fatal consequences.[24]

The reconciling of these house and tenement churches is part of why Paul writes this letter. In chapters 13–14 Paul points out the gospel obligation “to love Christians beyond one’s small circle of the house or tenement church.”[25] Paul is addressing a situation where “mutual welcome of members and leaders from other Christian groups was a significant problem in the church”[26] and the resolving of this problem was crucial if the mission to Spain was to succeed. The letter builds to its climax in chapter 15, which includes, along with reference to Paul’s travel plans and mission strategy, a note about the offering for the poor in the Jerusalem church. More than a passing comment, this is a deliberate attempt by Paul to address the issue of unity and to connect it with world mission. In Romans 15:23–33, Paul writes of his empire-wide missionary vision, a vision that extends across the Mediterranean, east and west, encompasses all of God’s people both Jew and Gentile, and seeks to promote unity and peace among churches that were at both ends of the ethnic and religious divide. Paul is saying to the divided Roman congregations, “Look, your unity with one another as you come from all sorts of different backgrounds and ethnicities, and your love for and solidarity with believers across the wider Body of Christ, is crucial to your mission and mine!”

4.2. Reconciliation: Proclaimed by doing ministries of reconciliation

What we see at work within the early Christian communities in terms of their being communities of peace and reconciliation, is also expressed outwardly. They were not only communities of centripetal peace but of centrifugal peace—pursuing peace and rejecting retaliation.[27]

What shape does this centrifugally focused reconciliation and peacemaking ministry take in relation to those outside the church? Gorman gathers the various strands of Paul’s teaching on this into four areas:

  1. Peacemaking means embodying the same virtues in the world as in the church; there can be no ethical dualism of “churchly” and “worldly” activity; centripetal and centrifugal activity cohere.
  2. Peacemaking means renouncing retaliation for evil, even the kind of extreme evil (persecution) experienced by contemporary believers as their faithfulness connects them to the experiences of the prophets, Jesus, Paul, and the Thessalonians.
  3. Peacemaking means seeking the common good, especially by attending to the needs of the weak, promoting a spirit of forgiveness, striving for harmony, and encouraging all to take responsibility for the role in furthering the common good.
  4. Peacemaking in the present is grounded in the past world-reconciling love of God in Christ and the future world-redeeming salvation of God promised in such texts as Romans 8 and Colossians 1.[28]

The church’s commitment “to the task and struggle of biblical peace-making”[29] raises important questions about the relationship between reconciliation, justice, and forgiveness, especially where the church is seeking to build peace in a current or post-conflict context. Volf’s study on reconciliation in Exclusion and Embrace offers much help on this front,[30] but we note here the succinct exposition of The Cape Town Commitment in a section entitled “Building the Peace of Christ in our Divided and Broken World”:

Reconciliation to God and to one another is also the foundation and motivation for seeking the justice that God requires, without which, God says, there can be no peace. True and lasting reconciliation requires acknowledgement of past and present sin, repentance before God, confession to the injured one, and the seeking and receiving of forgiveness. It also includes commitment by the Church to seeking justice or reparation, where appropriate, for those who have been harmed by violence and oppression.[31]

From my own experience in Northern Ireland, I witnessed churches often unable or unwilling to exercise a peacemaking ministry. On the one hand, there were churches whose theology concentrated so much on the vertical aspect of reconciliation—the restored relationship with God—that the sectarian attitudes that polarized the wider society were often left unchallenged. Then there were churches that, whilst seeing the need for reconciliation and attempting to work on the horizontal level amongst divided communities, failed to make the connection not only between the vertical and the horizontal, but also between reconciliation, justice, acknowledgement of past and present sin, and the seeking and receiving of forgiveness. There is such a thing as “cheap reconciliation.” Speaking in South Africa before the dismantling of apartheid, David Bosch offered this critique:

Cheap reconciliation … means tearing faith and justice asunder, driving a wedge between the vertical and the horizontal dimensions: it suggests that we can have peace with God without having justice in our mutual relationships.[32]

This will mean that in doing reconciliation, we will also be seeking to act justly (Micah 6:8). And it means that as peacemakers we will seek to address the socio-political and structural dynamics that hinder reconciliation because, if the structural issues that cause division and tension are not addressed, we are left with a superficial peace.

Hands Across the Divide, sculpture symbolising the spirit of reconciliation, by Maurice Harron, Northern Ireland. It symbolises the spirit of reconciliation and hope for the future. Image by Laurence [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

One example of a church body that has recognized peacebuilding as central to Christian discipleship is the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This is expressed in its recently adopted ‘Vision for Society’:

WE, MEMBERS OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN IRELAND, saved by grace and called by God to grace-filled relationships, in the power of the Holy Spirit as ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom in a broken and divided world;

BELIEVE that the Good News of Jesus Christ challenges and equips us to develop radically new attitudes and relationships with our neighbours throughout the whole of Ireland.

WE CONFESS our failure to live as Biblically faithful Christian peacebuilders and to promote the counter culture of Jesus in a society where cultures clash.

ACCORDINGLY, WE AFFIRM Christian peacebuilding to be part of Christian discipleship and reassert the Church’s calling to pursue a peaceful and just society in our day.

WE SEEK a more reconciled community at peace with each other, where friend and foe, working together for the common good, can experience healing and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.[33]

4.2.1. Doing reconciliation by building bridges of understanding between different religious communities

One particular area in which peacemaking and reconciliation ministry can be taken forward is through the pursuit of inter-faith dialogue. This is especially relevant in places where a minority church exists in a multicultural society and where relationships between ethnic and religious groups are crucial for the common good. The temptation for a minority church is to retreat and disengage. This can lead to ghettoism which, as Lesslie Newbigin describes it, is “a practical withdrawal into the position of a tolerated minority, a cultural and religious enclave within the majority community. Correspondingly the great need is to find ways of breaking out of this isolation and entering into real dialogue with men of other faiths.”[34]

The terrain of inter-religious dialogue is perceived by some evangelicals as a theologically liberal landscape to be avoided at all costs. However, building relationships of understanding and trust, and cooperating in local projects for the common good, can create social space for gospel seeds to be sown, and is an important aspect of the work of peacebuilding in places where racial and ethnic tension run high.[35]

Interfaith dialogue can mean different things to different people, but if it is understood “as a means of building relationships of trust between those of different convictions and helping to understand others’ points of view,” it can become “an important instrument to further mutual comprehension and respect.”[36]

For instance, in Malaysia, the findings of research conducted by the Merdeka Research Centre in 2006,[37] remain pertinent to the local context.[38] To a question exploring levels of trust among Malaysians, the Merdeka poll found that 39 percent of Chinese trust Malays, 38 percent of Malays trust Chinese, while 29 percent of Chinese and 33 percent of the Malays trust Indians. According to the Merdeka Centre, these results “indicate that less than half of Malaysians trust fellow citizens of different ethnic backgrounds.”[39]

There is also evidence that negative racial stereotypes continue to persist among a high percentage of Malaysians. For instance, 63 percent of Chinese respondents agreed with the statement that, “in general, most Malays are lazy” and 71 percent of Malays agreed that, “in general, most Chinese are greedy”. The Centre’s research found that racial stereotypes are so deeply rooted “that a majority of members of particular ethnic groups agree to the negative views of themselves.” The findings of the poll pointed to the urgent need for dialogue and substantial social interaction among Malaysians. The urgency for this has not diminished over the past decade. Christians are well placed to facilitate such dialogue and interaction given the ethnic inclusiveness of the Malaysian Christian community as a whole.

Dialogue of this sort requires a framework or working definition, and this is something Andrew Kirk has suggested in the form of these five principles:

  1. Respect for the dignity and integrity of all human beings.
  2. The need to represent other people’s views fairly.
  3. The need to hear and consider what others say about our beliefs and practices.
  4. The call to work together in common projects that seek justice and reconciliation in society.
  5. Mutual witness. This, as Kirk notes, is perhaps the “most controversial aspect of dialogue.” He helpfully clarifies that “to be consistent with its core beliefs” Christianity “has to understand dialogue as a mode of evangelism.” In this sort of context, indeed in any evangelistic setting, there is a case for saying that “authentic evangelism has to be conducted in a dialogical manner… its method is patience and gentleness, rather than aggression, persuasion rather than threat, an expectation of God’s working rather than human enterprise and exertion.”[40]

A working definition like this provides a framework for various kinds of dialogue initiatives, providing opportunities for Christians to respect those signs of God’s grace at work in the lives of others and to bear witness to the reconciling love of God in Christ. As Kirk points out under (d), there is scope for local churches and Christian organizations to work with non-Christian communities and groups to achieve specific goals in the areas of justice, human dignity, and peace. To those who may be apprehensive of such co-operation, Ramachandra offers the following encouragement:

To work alongside people of all faiths and ideologies, without losing the critical questioning and radical challenge that the gospel poses to all faiths and ideologies, requires a breadth of vision and courage that the gospel itself can impart.[41]

When genuine relationships of trust and respect are formed, there is always the potential for mutual transformation (an additional principle that could be added to Kirk’s list). An NT example of this is found in the radical encounter between Cornelius and Peter. Cornelius comes “to a saving knowledge of Christ,” and Peter “to a deeper discipleship, a more profound conversion of his life and cultural heritage towards Christ.”[42]

The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

4.2.2. Doing reconciliation by anticipating the reconciliation of all things

Engaging in ministries of reconciliation is to anticipate the reconciliation of all things. Paul gives us a breathtaking vision of cosmic reconciliation in Colossians 1:19 where he writes that Christ’s aim was “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” He thus echoes similar visions found in the OT, especially those in Isaiah 19:19–25; 65; 66.

The great eschatological vision of the OT, which is carried forward into Revelation 21–22, sees not only the peoples of the earth coming to Yahweh, but all their achievements, wealth, and glory being brought purified into the New Jerusalem (Isa 19; 60:5; Zeph 3:9; Zech 14:6; Rev 21:24–26). How this will happen exactly is not spelled out, but these various texts suggest that somehow our human activity and the whole of creation will share in the liberating rule of God. In Isaiah, the nations and their ultimate reconciliation with God and with one another are pictured in terms of a river of peace and the nations streaming, with their wealth, into “the world city of peace.”[43] We must remember that this is very much a garden city and another way of talking about the new creation of “new heavens and a new earth.”

These passages in Isaiah and Revelation will only be completely realized in the eschatological future, but as with all aspects of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God, these visions can be significantly anticipated now, bringing hope and shaping cultural and creational involvement in the present.[44]

One example of how local churches can anticipate the reconciliation of all things and be communities of hope in the present is through our caring for creation. This can be part of bringing the whole gospel to whole people, as we involve ourselves in the whole lives of our communities. Howard Peskett’s example from the multicultural town of Southall, near London, illustrates how our previous point about inter-faith dialogue and community relations can intersect with creation care and missional engagement:

I have a friend who was a full-time minister in two churches.… Since then, without losing his evangelistic concerns, he has become involved in a conservation project on a huge area of wasteland next to the town. He has found that this engagement with the environment of all those who live in Southall has given him greatly increased contacts with all sorts of people, young and old, from many of the different communities in the town. His engagement with the environment has enlarged his missionary engagement with the people he lives among.[45]

Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

4.3. Reconciliation: Proclaimed by telling the message of reconciliation

According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19, God has entrusted “us,” that is, the whole church, with the “message” (literally, “word”) of reconciliation. The church is to bear verbal witness to the reconciling gospel, telling the world the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

But in those places where the church is a marginalized minority and where ethnic tensions run high, some Christians may feel that in order for the church to simply survive, or for the sake of maintaining harmonious community relations, evangelism should be off the agenda. For sure, across East Asia opportunities for evangelism and the methods used may be determined by the state of affairs in a given society. Laws may restrict religious liberty and persecution may be a reality for a Christian minority. In the past, however, some Christian leaders in Malaysia concluded that evangelism is not God’s will if suffering or persecution is a likely outcome. Afraid of potential political ramifications for the Christian community, some prominent church leaders have at times sought to convince local authorities that Christians are not interested in evangelization. But this view has been challenged from within the Christian community itself. Writing about Pauline perspectives on suffering, Lim Kar Yong, one of Malaysia’s leading NT scholars, offered the following reflection:

A prominent missiologist once made the following comment on Operasi Lalang: ‘Christian leaders in Malaysia have come to an erroneous conclusion about ministry among [certain groups] there. Their position is based on their awareness that in the past, some have been imprisoned or expelled for evangelism. It is commonly concluded that because of persecution, not biblical injunction, it is not God’s will to attempt evangelism among [these people].’ When I first read these words, I didn’t know how to respond. Perhaps we need a fresh reading of Paul’s perspective on suffering and an urgent rediscovery of the missiological significance of suffering. We must re-examine our understanding of the relationship between suffering and the proclamation of the gospel. Or, has suffering for Christ’s sake disappeared from our vocabulary and understanding of the Christian faith?[46]

Working for peace and proclaiming the Peacemaker are not mutually exclusive activities. Indeed, peacemaking in Paul is connected to the church’s evangelistic witness. In several letters Paul exhorts his readers about how they should relate to those outside the faith and who are hostile to the church: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … live peaceably with all … never avenge yourselves … if your enemies are hungry, feed them … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:14–21, cf. 1 Thess 5:13–15). As Gorman points out,

the practice of peace is a sort of apologetic, a form of bearing witness to the gospel in the most difficult circumstances.… As the communities and individual believers bear faithful witness to the Messiah who taught and practiced peacemaking towards enemies, they become a living exegesis of the gospel … they become the gospel.[47]

Conclusion

The context in which we find ourselves will determine whether our missionary engagement begins with doing, being, or telling. No matter where we start or what the circumstances may be, our ultimate goal should be to share the message verbally. But that message is always more authentically communicated when emerging from a community that embodies the gospel and is engaged with its context. Biblically faithful integral mission is mission that integrates telling, doing, and being, and these dimensions combine powerfully within an understanding of reconciliation as an integrative theme for mission.

[1] The missiological issues that could be explored under (2) are too numerous for inclusion in this paper. Several issues have been selected and the reflection section at the end provides scope for a wider discussion.

[2] Brian Castle, Reconciliation: The Journey of a Lifetime (London: SPCK, 2014), 20.

[3] Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 146.

[4] David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 61.

[5] The classical Greek meaning of the root word allasso, “to change” or “exchange,” was applied to the exchanging of hostilities for friendship and the restoration of friendship after a dispute. In the NT, “reconciliation” is used to describe “the restoration of a good relationship between enemies.” H. G. Link and C. Brown, “Reconciliation, Restoration, Propitiation, Atonement,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol 3, Colin Brown, ed. (Exeter: Paternoster and Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 145. Kevin Vanhoozer reminds us that katallage combines “two Greek words that may be roughly translated ‘contra otherness’,” and that this provides us with “a vivid image of reconciliation: to reconcile is to remove the barriers that impede fellowship.” Vanhoozer, “Evangelicalism and the Church: The Company of the Gospel,” in The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects, Craig Bartholomew and Robin Parry, eds. (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 83. Although it will be far from extensive, something of the theological context surrounding what is said here about the meaning of reconciliation is explored in this paper.

[6] Peter Rowan, Proclaiming the Peacemaker: the Malaysian Church as an Agent for Reconciliation in a Multicultural Society (Oxford: Regnum, 2012).

[7] I. Howard Marshal, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media/Paternoster, 2007), 130.

[8] John W. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (London: SCM, 2002), 45.

[9] I am giving very little space to points 1–3 outlined in this paragraph in order to concentrate on point 4 and the theme of peace. Minimal reference is made to the Old Testament in relation to points 1–3; this is purely because of the limitations of space and not because I think the themes of sin, grace, and redemption are without OT foundations.

[10] Willard Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 195.

[11] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah, TOTC (Leicester: IVP, 1999), 359.

[12] In Miroslav Volf’s opinion, “There is a disturbing lack of sustained attempts to explain the social meaning of reconciliation of human beings to God and to relate the core beliefs about reconciliation to the shape of Christian social responsibility.” Miroslav Volf, “The Social Meaning of Reconciliation,” Mishkan: A Forum on the Gospel and the Jewish People, 35 (2001): 12–13. Volf has been a major contributor to studies on the social implications of the doctrine of reconciliation. See his Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

[13] Willard Swartley, “Peace and Violence in the New Testament: Definition and Methodology,” in Struggles for Shalom: Peace and Violence Across the Testaments, Laura L. Brenneman and Brad D. Schantz, eds. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014), 141–54, cited in Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 148.

[14] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: SPCK, 2002), 208.

[15] For a brief discussion on whether 2 Corinthians 5:19 is saying that only Paul and his companions are entrusted with the message of reconciliation, or if this is ministry given to the whole church, see Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 199–200. Flemming’s view is that “God has called the whole Christian community to bear verbal witness to the reconciling gospel.”

[16] In previous OMF research consultations, as well as in Mission Round Table (and in the various contributions of Rose Dowsett over the years), the three-fold understanding of witness as word, deed, and character has been prominent. I am borrowing the three-fold interrelated way of talking of mission—being, doing, telling—from the work of Dean Flemming, Recovering the Full Mission of God.

[17] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Evangelicalism and the Church,” 83.

[18] Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 76, 78.

[19] Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996), 266–267.

[20] Rene Padilla, “Mission at the Turn of the Century / Millennium,” Evangel 19:1 (2001): 11.

[21] The Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment (The Lausanne Movement, 2011), 41.

[22] Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 160. Gorman is drawing here from Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ, Translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 88.

[23] Norman Wirzba in Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

[24] Robert Jewett, Romans: A Short Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 103.

[25] Jewett, Romans, 178.

[26] Jewett, Romans, 178.

[27] Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 160, 164.

[28] Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 168.

[29] The Cape Town Commitment, 40.

[30] See also John W. de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (London: SCM, 2002) and the case studies in Robert Schreiter and Knud Jorgensen, eds., Mission as Ministry of Reconciliation (Oxford: Regnum, 2013).

[31] The Cape Town Commitment, 40.

[32] David Bosch in Michael Cassidy, The Passing Summer: A South African Pilgrimage in the Politics of Love (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1989), 283.

[33] https://www.presbyterianireland.org/Resources/Vision-for-Society/Vision-for-Society-Statement.aspx (accessed 8 February 2018).

[34] Lesslie Newbigin, Trinitarian Faith and Today’s Mission (Richmond: John Knox, 1964), 28.

[35] Building bridges of understanding must also extend to non-religious communities, for instance those in which secularism or Marxism or humanism is the dominant worldview. In such places, and where it is possible to do so, Christians will want to help explain the nature of faith more generally, as well as the gospel in particular.

[36] J. Andrew Kirk, Mission Under Scrutiny: Confronting Contemporary Challenges (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 27.

[37] Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, Public Opinion Poll on Ethnic Relations – Viewpoints On Ethnic Relations: Experience, Perception and Expectations, 21–26 Feb 2006 & 2–4 March 2006, http://www.merdeka.org/pages/02_research.html (accessed 6 February 2018)

[38] Merdeka Centre, Public Opinion Poll on Ethnic Relations, slides 15–21.

[39] Merdeka Centre, Public Opinion Poll on Ethnic Relations, slide 19.

[40] Kirk, Mission under Scrutiny, 28–29. Kirk provides a brief paragraph of explanation for each of these principles and the whole chapter, “Mission as Dialogue,” is devoted to the topic. For an East Asian perspective see Tan Kang San, “The Contribution of Evangelical Missiology from an East Asian Perspective: A Study on Christian Encounter with People of Other Faiths,” Iguassu Missiological Consultation: WEF Missions Commission (1999): 1–7.

[41] Ramachandra, Recovery of Mission, 271.

[42] Howard Peskett and Vinoth Ramachandra, The Message of Mission (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 198. Dana Roberts writes of mission in terms of “global friendship” and of how “A chief attraction to mission in the twenty-first century is that it holds out the opportunity to forge relationships across geographic, ethnic, and economic boundaries.” Authentic friendship, notes Roberts, as a pathway to mutual transformation, “has limitations when it involves a one-sided expectation that Westerners can change other persons or social systems without being changed themselves. Yet mutuality through friendship assumes that as people enter into relationships with each other, both sides will be changed by the encounter… mutual transformation through relationships is not a by-product of mission, but part of its raison d’être.” Dana L. Roberts, “Global Friendship as Incarnational Missional Practice,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 39 (2015): 180–4, http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2015-04/2015-04-180-robert.html (accessed 6 February 2018).

[43] Motyer suggests that “Wealth is ‘glory’, and as ‘the glory of the Lord’ means ‘the Lord in all his glory’, so in the Zion that is yet to be (Rev. 21:24–26) every nation will be present ‘in all its glory’, i.e. the glory of what it was meant to be and will be when its individuality is brought to mature perfection in the city of God.” Motyer, Isaiah, 403.

[44] See Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[45] Peskett and Ramachandra, The Message of Mission, 254. Italics mine.

[46] Lim Kar Yong, “Commentary: Paul’s Perspective on Suffering,” Kairos (February 2005): 24.

[47] Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel, 165.