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Billings and Lingenfelter on "Incarnational Ministry"

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For several decades now, "incarnational ministry" has been a catch-phrase in evangelical (and mainline) missiology. But is the Incarnation a unique and unrepeatable event in history that we proclaim or is it a metaphor or model for our mission in the world as well? A while ago, Reformed theologian and missionary Todd Billings wrote an article for Modern Reformation challenging greater reflection on this question (see here for links to articles and audio). In that article, he engaged the eminent missiologist Sherwood Lingenfelter, who pioneered the emphasis on incarnational ministry. Professor Lingenfelter responded to this article in our blog comments to which Professor Billings replied.

Here is Professor Lingenfelter's original comment:

In a lecture at Fuller on Thursday, February 24, 2011 Professor J. Todd Billings of Western Theological Seminary quoted from portions of my book, Ministering Cross-culturally, Baker Academic 2003 (pp. 13-25) that presents the case that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God's metaphor for those of us who hope to engage in cross-cultural ministry. I was at the lecture, and felt that did not approve of my characterization of Jesus as a 200% person (100% God, 100% human), and the idea that humans could aspire to be 150% persons.

Billing's critique of this common missiological theme is appropriate, and helpful. I agree with his point that the incarnation is "a divine act—something only that God can do," and that "the power in the incarnation is precisely in its uniqueness." As I have read back through my work, I would no longer write, "If we are to follow the example of Christ, we must aim at incarnation!" (p.25). I have never imagined that humans could become "fully incarnate" into another culture, as Jesus, wholly God, became fully human in our world. In fact my metaphor of becoming 150% persons makes that very clear. We can never achieve "full identification" with people of cultural origins different from our own. Therefore to state that we should "aim at incarnation" is clearly sloppy language and gives people poor direction for ministry.

At the same time, I continue to be moved by the power of the metaphor, and I find it compelling, particularly as presented in Philippians 2: 1-12 (NIV). The apostle Paul pleads with these new believers in Philippi to "have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had," and then he unpacks that thought, saying, "who, being in very nature God ... made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant ... as a human being he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross." We can imitate this attitude of Christ, and in fact, if we embrace this as God's metaphor for our lives as followers of Jesus, we will have the insight to "not cling to" our self-centered cultural ways, and to take on "the very nature of a servant" among whatever people and ministry to which God calls us.

Professor Billings chooses to call this "ministry in union with Christ." As long as he uses the Philippians text as Paul did to describe this union, and seeks to motivate us to step out of our cultural bias and add to our repertoire those values and practices which enable us to effectively serve and share the living Christ with others, he and I have no disagreement.

Sherwood Lingenfelter

September 12, 2011

Professor Billings was kind enough to offer a response:

First, I want to thank Prof. Lingenfelter for his response to my critique of Incarnational Ministry at the lecture, as well as in this posting online. As I mention in my full-length critique of Incarnational Ministry in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, I think that Lingenfelter's book has helpful practical insights for missionaries, as it responds to a genuine problem that missionaries face: how to move beyond a missionary-compound mentality and genuinely become self-sacrificial learners of another culture. I think that Lingenfelter's response indicates his virtue as a scholar: in the lecture and the posting, he is willing to rethink theological claims that are central to his book. I have presented a lecture-version of this material to various missiologists, many of whom have responded with much less grace and open-mindedness than Prof. Lingenfelter. When the writer of a common textbook (in a second edition) is willing to acknowledge a shortcoming in his work, it is ironic that those who learned from such textbooks are much less open to rethinking their theology of ministry.

Second, while I would refer readers to Union with Christ for my full argument, I would note that after surveying the literature on incarnational ministry, a central tenet of most approaches is that the act of becoming incarnate is put forth as a "model for ministry" to be imitated. Thus, to accept my conviction that the incarnation is "a divine act—something only that God can do," and that "the power in the incarnation is precisely in its uniqueness" means abandoning this central, underlying claim to most "incarnational ministry" proposals. In the posting, Lingenfelter refers to this as a "metaphor," particularly as it occurs in Phil. 2:1-12. In Union with Christ I work with this passage extensively, and show how it simply does not present the act of becoming incarnate as a model. Instead, the passage is about our union with the incarnate one, Jesus Christ the servant - whose life of humble obedience we are called to reflect by our union with Christ through the Spirit. This, it seems to me, is quite different from considering incarnation to be a "metaphor" to serve as a model for our ministries. But Prof. Lingenfelter's comments on this are brief, so I will just say that we would need to have more discussion about the interpretation of Phil. 2:1-12 after my full account is released next month in Union with Christ.

Overall, I am very grateful to Prof. Lingenfelter for his honest and thoughtful engagement. Let me emphasize again that there are many practical and helpful insights in Ministering Cross-Culturally, which is one among numerous books which uses "incarnational ministry" in a way that is subject to my critique.

J. Todd Billings


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