The third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, held in Cape Town, South Africa, has concluded, but its influence will be felt for years to come. Chris Wright, who heads the theology committee, brought difficult but salutary words to the representatives of global evangelicalism. Wright is the author of The Mission of God, from which I have profited immensely. He also heads the Langham Partnership and is a minister at All Soul’s Church in London. His call for a new reformation was greeted with applause from the thousands of international delegates. I wanted to draw your attention to his speech and also to one of the key Lausanne statements that he helped draft for the Congress.
In his paper (available at the Lausanne Congress website), Chris Wright called for reformation involving repentance, renewed humility, integrity, and simplicity.
What struck Wright was the fact that many of the same weaknesses in the global evangelical movement that were noted at Lausanne II in 1974 are even more evident today. While there is much to praise God for, there is much to confess. The answer is to be neither conformed to the world nor to withdraw from it, but to embrace the gospel and the costly call to discipleship. The church is called not only to proclaim the cross but to exhibit a spirituality of the cross. Nevertheless, the worldly values of dominance, pride, and dishonesty are widespread in our churches.
The church has been identified with particular ethnic, cultural, social, political, and economic systems. Affluence in the developed world often numbs us to the reality of suffering and poverty, undermining the simplicity of lifestyle that is enjoined in Scripture on believers. “We crave for success and recognition. But this easily leads to distortion of the truth and manipulation of people.” There is a crisis of leadership, he adds. “There are megachurch pastors lording it over churches, with unaccountable power and phenomenal wealth.” This power-mongering sometimes involves racial or cultural domination. Wright asks,
Can we trust all the inflated statistics thrown around the world of Christian mission? What are they there for? What do they prove? Whom do they flatter? Whom do they diminnish? What damage can they do? Exaggeration or sheer invention are common admitted to (in private if not in public) by those who have to produce reports on the ‘success’ of their mission, sometimes under pressure from those who demand them as a condition of funding. Are there methods of evangelism that are simply unbiblical and unethical, driven by ‘success’ and ‘speed,’ rather than by obedience to all that Jesus commanded?
The “prosperity gospel” comes in for special mention at this point. Yet broader criticism is offered concerning manipulative methods, competitive pride, and the tendency to measure success in terms of numbers rather than depth.
The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World
Wright also chaired the committee that drafted for the Congress several statements, including “The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World.” This statement begins with “the whole gospel,” the committee explains, because the church is produced by the gospel. The gospel itself is refreshingly defined by appeal to Scripture itself as, “above all else the historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth through whom God has accomplished salvation.” It is a message that is already proclaimed in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. “Drawing our understanding of the whole gospel from the whole Bible will protect us from a reductionism that shrinks the gospel to a few formulae for ease of communication and ‘marketing.’” The gospel is richer than a sales pitch. Given the diversity of cultural contexts, there are many different entry points, but they all lead to that central message of “the living God and his saving work in Christ.” Included in this gospel is the “peace-making” work of the cross in uniting Jews and Gentiles as one new humanity in Christ, from every race and tongue. Furthermore, “The church, as the community of those reonciled to one another and to God, is therefore the embodiment of the gospel.” There is therefore no justification for racial or cultural prejudice or domination in the churches.
The gospel declares that in the combined work of the cross and resurrection of Christ, God comprehensively took upon himself the judgment our sin deserves, and accomplished the defeat and eventual destruction of satan, death and all evil powers, the reconciliation of believers with God and one another across all boundaries and enmities, and the final redemption of all creation. The gospel then assures us that, solely through trusting in Christ alone, we are united with Christ through the Holy Spirit and are counted righteous in Christ before God; we receive the forgiveness of our sins, are born again into his new and risen life, adopted in his family, and have full assurance of salvation and eternal life.
The statement adds,
The cross was the supreme act of self-giving by God. It is thus utterly contrary to the message of the cross when the gospel is commercialized, or its benefits are sold for profit. The gross abuse of indulgences in the pre-Reformation church lives on in some forms of Prosperity teaching, and in the practice of paying for anointings, for holy oil, or any other means of gaining blessing, healing, success or miracles. These are sheer exploitation of the poor and gullible for private gain, and stand condemned in Scripture (Acts 8:9-25).
At the same time, “the gospel produces ethical transformation,” genuine repentance: putting off the old self and putting on the new self, renewed in the likeness of Christ. Saving faith yields the fruit of good works. “Although we may perceive the distinction that classical systematic theology makes between the event or moment of justification and the process of sanctification, we should not drive a wedge between them. Nor should we press the distinction between evangelism and discipling. Both are essential components of gospel ministry – as Paul’s missionary life and team-work demonstrate.”
The committee’s statement also highlights the important—and often neglected—role of the Holy Spirit in the history of redemption and mission.
At the same time we are well aware of the many abuses that masquerade under the name of the Holy Spirit, the many ways in which (as the New Testament also exemplifies) all kinds of phenomena are practised and praised which bear the marks of other spirits than the Holy Spirit. There is great need for more profound discernment, for the detection of blind-spots and delusion, for the exposure of fraudulent and self-serving manipulators who abuse spiritual power for their own ends. Above all there is a great need for sustained biblical teaching and preaching that will equip ordinary believers to understand and rejoice in the true gospel and to recognize and reject false gospels when they are exposed to them.
Part Two—“The Whole Church”—begins with the words, “The starting point for our ecclesiology must be the same as for our theology of mission and for our understanding of the world. Salvation, the church, and the world all belong to God.” The church is the result of God’s mission.
The statement affirms the connection between the gospel and the church: “It is vital that we strongly affirm, therefore, that while there are multiple ethnicities within the one church by God’s clear intention, no single ethnic group holds privileged place in God’s economy of salvation or God’s eschatological purpose. For this reason, we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to Jewish people today or to the modern Israeli state in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.” While challenging all forms of ethnocentricity and rejoicing in the remarkable growth of the church in the global south, the statement adds, “However, we strongly discourage the further use of this term, for two reasons. First, Christianity has no centre but Jesus Christ.” Therefore, “mission is from everywhere, to everywhere.”
Furthermore, the church is called to be and to do, to live out who we are in Christ; to proclaim the gospel and to witness to its truth in deeds of love and service. A church that mirrors the selfishness of its pagan environment undermines rather than exhibits the plausibility of its claims concerning the redeeming and renewing work of the Spirit in Christ through the Word. Consequently, Lausanne III renews the commitment of earlier congresses to the integral relationship between evangelism and social action in the church’s mission.
The third part—“The Whole World” focuses on the world as interpreted in Scripture, especially as God’s creation that requires our stewardship rather than exploitation. It also examines the globalized world of religions (as well as a secularized public square), and religious violence as well as poverty and injustice. A constant challenge, negotiating the relationship between our dual citizenship is crucial. It is always easier for members of one culture to see the log in the eye of another. An American evangelical may easily discern where a brother or sister gives too much loyalty to a social caste system, inter-ethnic violence, or polygamy, while failing to see how militarism and materialism warp his or her own faith. We need discernment to know when we are encountering cultural bridges or obstacles to the gospel. Belonging to Christ means that all other loyalties must be critiqued. This is God’s world and yet it is fallen. “We have hope, not in the eventual success of what we can do to fix the world, but in the accomplished victory of God through Christ, guaranteeing the new creation in which all that is broken will be made anew.
The church as the people of the creator and redeemer God, therefore, also lives with the ambiguity that we ourselves are fallen people who share in, and often contribute to, the brokenness of the world; and yet we are redeemed to live redemptively within the world. We bear witness to the accomplished fact of redemption (in the message of the cross); we bear witness to the ongoing redemptive power of God through his Spirit constantly at work in our own day; we bear witness to the hope of ultimate redemption of all creation.
Evaluating the Statement
From my summary above it should be clear that I am in sympathy with much of this document. In its rich grounding in Scripture and discernment, the statement proves the enduring leadership of the Lausanne Committee for the evangelical movement. Those of us from the churches of the Reformation have much to learn from our brothers and sisters and especially Chris Wright’s emphases (see his book The Mission of God) which resonate throughout this draft. The world is God’s (Ps 24:1). It does not belong to us, or to trans-national corporations, or to national interests. Furthermore, it is a world for which God has an all-encompassing plan. God is the sovereign missionary and his redeemed people have the privilege of proclaiming his love and grace to the world and of living out their heavenly calling through their earthly callings to their neighbors.
My chief concern, however, is “message creep” that inevitably leads to “mission creep.” After defining the gospel so well by appealing to a number of key passages, the meaning of “the gospel” expands with each section. The committee was careful to state that the gospel is the message concerning God’s saving work in Christ and yields transforming effects in us and therefore in the world.
However, there is a tendency later on to blur this distinction: “The gospel that is intrinsically verbal is just as intrinsically ethical. There is no gospel where there is no change.” There is the potential for “message creep.” “Furthermore, greater attention to the biblical integration of faith and ethics within the nature of the whole gospel itself would help greatly in resolving the ongoing disagreement over the so-called relationship between evangelism and social engagement.” There is the potential for “mission creep.” I know what the statement is trying to affirm: Faith without works is dead. There can be no justification without sanctification. However, we can affirm this without saying that the gospel is “intrinsically ethical” or that “there is no gospel where there is no change.” The gospel is intrinsically verbal and not intrinsically ethical! Christ is the gospel, my ethical transformation is its effect. As the statement said earlier, it is the Good News concerning God’s saving work in Christ.
We cannot do the gospel, live the gospel, or be the gospel. We can only hear and receive the gospel (see 1 Cor 15:1-6 , Rom 10:13-17). When we receive it, we are justified and also transformed, but this transformation is the fruit of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. In fact, when our experience or transformation is confused with the gospel itself, we eventually lose both in the bargain. And even where there is no change in a given instance, there is still a gospel. The gospel is objectively true and present, even if no one believes or embraces it or bears its fruit. By the last part of the statement, we read of “The work of the gospel, then, in all its dimensions including evangelism, discipling, peace-making, social engagement, ethical transformation, bearing witness to the truth, caring for creation, overcoming evil powers, suffering and enduring under persecution, etc.,…”
Expanding the meaning of the gospel, the statement fails to appeal to God’s law as that Word that calls us to love and serve our neighbors, to respect God’s creation, and to steward resources he has entrusted to us. God’s law is meant to be proclaimed to the whole world, so that every mouth is shut. It is also meant to be proclaimed to Christians so that they know how to live honorably and lovingly in this world. Of course, the gospel is always front-and-center. As God’s word of salvation—not only of individuals but of the whole creation—the gospel directs us to Christ’s completed work in the past and his return in glory. So we have a horizon, a frame of reference, for orienting our lives in the present.
However, when it comes to specific commands, the law rather than the gospel is the word that God speaks to the world and to us as believers. Too much in the latter half of the statement uses the gospel to do the law’s work. Yet besides blurring this crucial distinction, this widespread tendency also reduces the scope of authority with which the church is called properly to announce God’s claim on the whole world. When we announce God’s judgment on the fourishing slave-trafficing industry, environmental irresponsibility, and other evils, we are bringing God’s law to bear on society as well as the church. And Christians in their daily lives—as consumers and voters as well as economists, lawyers, CEO’s and political leaders—are especially obligated to hear and obey God’s commands as that “reasonable service” in the light of God’s saving mercies in Christ.
“Message creep” and “mission creep” are further enabled by a weak doctrine of the church. Under the sub-heading “church and para-church,” the statement says, “We wonder if there is more argument about this distinction among mission agencies and church bodies than exists in the mind of God, or in biblical concepts. While recognizing that there are valid pragmatic or functional distinctions that may be made for the sake of good order and administration, we need to affirm the biblical truth that ‘where two or three are gathered’ in the name of Christ, he is there, and the church is there – one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Erasing the fundamental distinction between the church as gathered (in fact, explicitly denying that the church is an institution) and the church as scattered, the statement gives the impression that the visible church is called to do everything that individual Christians are called to do in their various callings in the world.
When the church’s calling to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments (identified in the Great Commission) is expanded to include social transformation, it exceeds the boundaries of its authority and competence. If Christian economists can disagree over tax structures or the best way of creating and circulating wealth, then can we really expect ministers and elders to develop concrete solutions to global crises? Should we not expect our members, shaped by God’s law and gospel, to bring their faith to bear on these questions alongside their non-Christian colleagues? The statement illustrates the problem. For example, it says, “Trans-national corporations (TNCs) ‘patent’ nature, negatively impacting possibilities of subsistence at the local level, and damaging God’s creation in the process. While some of the world’s poor have benefited from globalization the poorest of the poor are now even more destitute.” This is a well-crafted and stirring statement. But is it accurate? Perhaps. However, some trans-national corporations are the major funders of environmental research and infrastructure improvement in areas of the globe with systemic poverty and disease. Is a gathering of church leaders qualified to adjudicate these complex questions of globalization? The statement is on far firmer ground (both in terms of competence and biblical authority) when it says, “The simple affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’ points to the idolatry of any one nation, trans-national corporation, school of thought, or church that presumes to speak or act on behalf of the whole world.” There are things that churches can say, with the clear authority of Christ’s Word, but many other things that Christians must negotiate among themselves and with their non-Christian neighbors in the public square. Similarly, the statement addresses violence in sweeping terms. “Special attention should also be paid to the astronomical expense of military build-up, totaling $1.464 trillion USD in 2008.” Again, I sympathize with this concern. However, what does “special attention” involve and who is authorized to provide the biblical answer to that question? What would an acceptable military build-up be? On poverty, the statement repeats the tragic statistics we have often heard: “In God’s world of plenty and God-given human creativity, 20% of the world”s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources. Meanwhile 1/3 of the world”s population can barely feed and clothe itself adequately and 1/6 is daily on the verge of death. Poverty is not the result of lack of resources but a product of personal and institutionalized injustice and greed, ethnic prejudice and consumerism.” Along with non-Christian neighbors, we can feel the indictment, but paths diverge sharply over the best solutions. These are complex issues. That is not to throw up our hands and wash them of responsibility. In fact, it’s just the opposite; it’s to acknowledge that they are so important that the careful work of Christians (and non-Christians) at all levels, from citizens to heads of state, is required.
These concerns I have raised are important. Nevertheless, they are offered humbly as “corrections” of a statement that is in many ways useful and urgently needed. We need a clearer proclamation of the gospel. We also need a more authentic encounter with the law, calling us to repentance and driving us to cling to Christ in his gospel for justification and sanctification. It is too easy for us to separate the benefits of Christ, as if forgiveness of sins could be divorced from the way we actually live, work, and relate to others in the world. There is a new creation and we belong to it, so our lives should be characterized by its “solid joys and lasting treasures” even now. The distinctions between law and gospel, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, the church as institution and the church as the saints scattered in their callings, remain crucial. The important—and difficult—art is to distinguish them without separating them.