The Church’s Ultimate Identity

Andrew Walls tells the story about an imaginary scholarly, intergalactic time traveler who gets periodic grants to travel to planet Earth to study the Christian religion.[1] He studies Christianity in Jerusalem at 37 C.E., again at Nicea at 325 C.E., in Scotland in the 7th century, London in the 1840’s and, finally, in Nigeria in 1980.  In his 1st century trip to Earth these early Christians are all Jews.  In fact, they seem to be a “denomination” of Judaism with the particular belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prior expectations of their own prophets.  They are eager to share this good news with others.
Later, when the intergalactic traveler returns to earth he is like a fly on the wall at the great Council of Nicea in 325.  The time traveling professor is surprised to see that, despite the diversity of this group, there are hardly any Jews there at all.  They now refer to Jesus as “Lord” and they are in a heated debate about the precise language used to describe the relationship of this Lord Jesus to God the Father.  It is clearly an important issue to resolve since these delegates will be going back to many new followers of Jesus in many different places.
On the third trip, the traveler lands on the rocky coast of Scotland to observe Celtic monks “standing in ice-cold water up to their necks, reciting the psalms.”[2] They are there in the Firth of Clyde calling the people to give up their worship of nature deities and find true joy in Jesus Christ.  They are an austere group and, interestingly, our observer notices that that these monks are using the formula for Christ which had been so hotly debated back in Nicea three hundred years earlier.
The spaceman’s fourth trip brings him to Exeter hall in London in the 1840’s.  He observes a large assembly hall of well dressed people enthusiastically proposing that missionaries be sent to Africa with Bibles and cotton seeds.  They are quoting verses from the Bible and calling on their government to stop the enslavement of a group of people known as Africans.  Our traveler is surprised to see that most of those who are present have their own copies of the sacred Scriptures.
Finally, on his last journey, our traveler, who is now a full professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions, lands in Lagos, Nigeria.  He observes a group of Africans dancing in the streets on their way to church.  They are inviting everyone they see to come and experience the healing power of Jesus Christ.  One of the Africans claims to have seen a vision, another, that he has been healed.  All promise powerful preaching about Jesus Christ from this same sacred book which our traveler has observed.
The interesting point of this imaginary story is that even though these different groups might not even be able to fully recognize each other as Christians, they all share (from the long perspective of history) many profound similarities.  These diverse groups are all proclaiming the ultimate significance of Jesus Christ.  They all have a reverence for the Scriptures, which they regard as the Word of God.  Finally, they all seem to be committed in their own way to sharing the message of Jesus Christ with as many people as they can.  In other words, they are not merely Christians in some strict confessional sense; they are Christians whose very identity is linked to the ever-widening horizons of the church across new cultural boundaries.
This imaginary, long view of the church helps remind us that the church has its ultimate identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ and that our Lord has given us a missionary mandate.  The entire church, not just a select group of professionals within it, is characterized by mission.  It is fundamental to our very identity as Christians who proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.  To put it another way, missions is more the mother of theology than the step child of theology.  As Ben Meyer has commented, “Christianity has never been more itself, more consistent with Jesus and more evidently en route to its own future, than in the launching of the world mission.”[3]

[1] See, Andrew Walls, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” as found in The Missionary Movement in Christian History:  Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1996), 3-7.
[2] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 4.
[3] As quoted in David Bosch, Transforming Mission:  Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1991, 1995), 16.  See, Ben Meyer, The Early Christians:  Their World Mission and Self-Discovery (Wilmington:  Michael Glazier, Inc., 1986), 206, cf 18.  Likewise, E. P. Sanders describes “the overwhelming impression…that Jesus stated a movement which came to see the Gentile mission as a logical extension of itself.”  See, E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1985), 220 (italics in original).  Sanders points out that no Christian group objected to the Gentile mission, the debate was over the terms and conditions of their entry.


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