The Church in a Pluralist Society

Friday, 29 Apr 2011

“It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point.” (1)

This is one truth that British theologian and missionary Lesslie Newbigin (1909-98) emphasized in many ways. The statement might well be called the main point of his life and teaching.

His story goes like this. One Christmas, while Newbigin was serving his long tenure as a missionary in India, he noticed the people worshiping a host of deities, including Jesus. He realized this was not a step in the right direction; instead, it was proof that the Indian culture had domesticated Jesus into its religious customs. The Hindus in India didn’t reject Jesus’they simply accepted him as one of their many gods (GPS 3).

This led Newbigin to question if and how he himself had domesticated Jesus. How did he, as a Westerner, reduce the gospel like those in the Indian culture around him? Newbigin recognized that he had indeed tamed it by assuming it could be taught and defended primarily in terms of the reasonableness that the Enlightenment emphasized. Here was his conviction: he had subjected the gospel to his intellect rather than have his intellect be subjected to the gospel. “I too,” wrote Newbigin, “had been guilty of domesticating the gospel” (GPS 3)’which brings us back to the opening statement. When Newbigin returned to Europe and England, he became convinced that Western culture was also guilty of this domestication.

This is a good starting place for a discussion of Newbigin’s contribution to theology and missions today. What follows then is an introduction to what I believe are Newbigin’s most helpful commentaries on the gospel in Western pluralist society. I don’t agree with everything Newbigin wrote, but I do believe reformational churches can learn much from his impressive contribution to missionary theology.

Though it may be a cultural faux pas to summarize a British theologian with three (Dutch) points, I think the following are good ones: 1) the church and Western culture; 2) the church and public truth; and 3) the church and Christian knowledge. All of these have to do with the gospel, the church, the culture in which we live, epistemology (the theory of knowing), and missions’things that Newbigin spent his life learning about and teaching. Really, all three of these have much to do with the opening quotation.

The Church and Western Culture
Our Culture: Not Christian, But Pagan

Over twenty years ago, Newbigin wrote that our Western culture is no longer Christian, but pagan. Furthermore, it is a hostile sort of paganism borne out of the rejection of Christianity that has been happening for decades (FG 20). There may have been a time when Western culture was predominately made up of Christians, but that time is over. Today we live in a post-Christian society where pluralism reigns. Not only is pluralism the order of the day, it is even celebrated and applauded (GPS 1).

The places where we live are not places teeming with Bible-believing Christians; they are places where one finds Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, and a host of other such religions (not to mention agnostics and quasi-Christian groups). The situation is much like that of Mars Hill in Acts 17: people are “very religious” in our culture, but it is not really a good thing. Because of this religious pluralism, Newbigin believed that the society in which we live “is far more resistant to the gospel than the pre-Christian paganism with which cross-cultural missions have been familiar” (FG 20).

Some of us perhaps grew up in Christian circles, but these are breaking down and even disappearing where they may have been in existence just thirty years ago. In my own experience, even rural areas that have been predominately Christian in the past are no longer such today. In urban areas, the only things many people know about Christianity are what they learn through popular media (which leads to a much distorted view to say the least!). We should take to heart Newbigin’s observation that the pagan society in which we live “is the most challenging missionary frontier of our time” (FG 20). (2) It might not be a stretch to say that in the next few decades the United States will probably be one of the biggest and most difficult mission fields in the world.

Our Mission Field: Not There, But Here

Another thing Newbigin asserted clearly was that the church needs to be a missionary church to our own cities and towns. In our pluralistic Western culture, we are in a “missionary situation” (TOS 2). The people in cities and towns where we live are the places where we need to make disciples. Since mission is “faith in action,” in love we reach out to those next door (TOS 39). “Missions are…an expression of love” (GPS 127). In even more profound terms, Newbigin said, “The missionary action of the Church is the exegesis of the gospel” (TTT 35).

Newbigin also said that we really cannot speak of revival in our Western countries; we cannot call people back to their spiritual roots when we proclaim the gospel (TOS 2). The spiritual roots are no longer Christian roots; they are pluralistic. Perhaps there is some semblance of Christianity in the spiritual roots of many people, but it is Christianity plus a bunch of other non-Christian beliefs. The religious ideas of Eastern philosophies are becoming embedded in our culture, and many people now look down upon “Christian” Western imperialism (FG 101-03). Instead of the term “revival,” we have to use the terms “evangelism” and “missions” when we speak about being a church in the neighborhood where we live and worship.

One more thing worth noting in brief is that Newbigin said that though Christianity used to spread with Western imperialism and colonization, this is no longer the case. In fact, it is a danger for the Western church to think in terms of cultural imperialism, as if the gospel is part of Western culture. Since our own cities are the “mission field” and since we live in a pluralistic culture, “Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power. They have to learn to go against the stream. And in this situation we shall find that the New Testament speaks to us much more directly than does the nineteenth century as we learn afresh what it means to bear witness to the gospel from a position not of strength, but of weakness” (TOS 5). In “going against the stream,” the church’s message also clashes with cultural values.

The Church and Public Truth
The Central Truth: The Resurrection

“A serious commitment to evangelism, to the telling of the story which the Church is sent to tell, means a radical questioning of the reigning assumptions of public life” (TTT 2). This important statement must also be aimed at the Christian. The gospel questions the reigning assumptions of the basic person. As stated earlier, Newbigin said we have to realize that we have some cultural assumptions that lead us to domesticate the gospel. “The gospel…calls into question all cultures, including the one in which it was originally embodied” (FTG 4).

There is no such thing as the gospel story being told without a cultural context, but we do need to (prayerfully and carefully!) fight against presenting the gospel as a Western ideology or philosophy. We also need to be more open to learning from non-Western churches, which might be able to pull the log out of our Western eyes and make us see Christian truth even more clearly (FG 137). The church is a church in via (on the way), a learning church, one that is a pilgrim on the heavenward way (GPS 124, 197; PC 70, TOS 179-80). Therefore we humbly take lessons from other Christian churches that are also on the way. No church can claim to know it all or take the position of cultural superiority.

The resurrection is the truth that calls cultures into question and keeps churches humble. “The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the beginning of a new creation, the work of that same power by which creation itself exists” (TTT 11). The story of Jesus standing up in life after being dead in a tomb is a true fact and in fact true (TTT 10-11; PC 4-6). In J. Gresham Machen’s words, “The good news about facts is that they stay put.” Though cultures change, the gospel does not; the message of Jesus dying and coming back to life is not something that happened in my heart. It is the turning point of history that happened, as a matter of fact, on Palestinian dirt two thousand years ago. (3)

The External Truth: The Resurrection

Because the resurrection is a fact of history, it is a not a private value but a public truth (PC 2, 26, 37; TTT 24; TOS 87). The clash here is that most people in Western society think that religion is a matter of private value, while scientific findings are those of public truth (PC 46; FG 17). Modernity says freedom (of speech, of religion, and so forth) is the way to truth. Jesus says the opposite: he is the truth that sets people free (PC 68). Therefore, because of this clash, the church in any culture will need to attack all the cultural behaviors and beliefs that are incompatible with the gospel, just as “foreign” missionaries have done (FG 95). Because our Western churches are mission churches to our own pluralistic culture, we will have to loudly and clearly unmask the pagan practices and idolatry of the day (Newbigin talked about consumerism and politics, among other Western idols). And we have to start the unmasking in our own churches.

Recalling Newbigin’s argument that he had adopted the Enlightenment’s intellect, he explains: When the church tells the story about Christ being raised from the dead, we announce it as a public, factual truth while the culture around us subjects it to the realm of private value and belief. The church must never cave in to the reigning assumption of the day, that belief is something that stays quietly and romantically in one’s closet. “There can be no true evangelism except that which announces what is not only good news but true news” (TTT 52). This is a head-on collision between the church and Western culture. The preaching of the cross and resurrection means that the darkness of the world will attack and make the church suffer (GPS 114). As with Christ, so with the church: the cross comes before the crown.

The Preached Truth: Not a Secret

The resurrection story that the church is compelled to tell as a missionary church is not a story of her own creation. Instead, she was created by this factual story (PC 53). Christians have been laid hold of by the author and subject of this story, and now the church’s task is to bear witness to this true story (PC 94; TOS 17). The church is not the lord of the story, the church isn’t the possessor of the story, nor is the church a ghetto where the story is kept secret (PC 94; TOS 189). The church is a humble witness to the historical good news of Jesus’ resurrection. If the church does not proclaim this good news as public truth, it becomes simply one more religious club or moralistic cultural ghetto. “Christians can never seek refuge in a ghetto where their faith is not proclaimed as public truth for all” (FG 115).

Newbigin also said the church’s missionary witness to the resurrection is neither a self-serving exercise nor a self-promoting endeavor. The church doesn’t sit on top of the truth as its author; she embodies it, submits to it, and is constantly changed by it (PC 72-76; TTT 34; TOS 61): “When the church affirms the gospel as public truth it is challenging the whole of society to wake out of the nightmare of subjectivism and relativism, to escape from the captivity of the self turned in upon itself, and to accept the calling which is addressed to every human being to seek, acknowledge, and proclaim the truth” (TTT 13). The resurrection is not only a public truth the church announces to the surrounding pluralistic and relativistic culture, but it is also the starting point of her thinking, which leads us to our final point.

The Church and Christian Knowledge
The Starting Point: The Gospel

“Because the authority of Jesus is ultimate, the recognition of it involves a commitment that replaces all other commitments” (TOS 14). Drawing on St. Athanasius (d. 373), Newbigin used the Greek term arche (beginning) when it came to the resurrection as being foundational for our thinking (epistemology) (TTT 17). The beginning point of Christian thought’and of course the beginning point of the church and her mission’is belief in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, the good news. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection is the basis of our thinking and reasoning (TTT 24).

Here again the opening quotation comes into play. The starting point of knowledge, or epistemology, for most of Western culture has much to do with the Enlightenment’s insistence to subject everything to man’s critical scrutiny and observation. The gospel clashes with this because we must not start with Enlightenment presuppositions but rather with gospel presuppositions. One says, “What is dead stays dead,” while the other says, “Jesus died and rose again.” Jesus’ death and resurrection means Christians think differently from non-Christians.

We cannot fit the gospel into any worldview or epistemology that doesn’t start with the resurrection. This cuts deeper still: because we are products of “enlightened” Western culture, the gospel keeps on changing us and challenging our thinking; it cuts right down our center. When God changes us, our old beliefs “are called into question” (PC 87; TTT 49). This is a lifelong process Reformed theology calls sanctification’the dying away of the old man and the coming to life of the new man. Newbigin recognized this and called it a “life-long enterprise” (FG 148).

The Solid Reference Point: God and His Word

What are the reliable grounds for knowing the truth? “There are no more reliable grounds than what are given to us in God’s revelation” (TTT 33). We cannot first demonstrate Christianity’s reasonableness and truth by reference to something else, as if there is some Cartesian point outside of Christianity that can prove its truthfulness (TTT 35). The Christian faith that submits to Jesus’ authority and the truth of his Word is not a scientific experiment to dissect under the microscope; it is a truth that has to be personally affirmed and lived (PC 40-44; TTT 34-39). This knowledge is both subjective and objective; it is what Augustine said so long ago: we believe in order to know (PC 9, 50). We not only believe that Jesus rose from the dead, we personally assent to the truth and live according to it.

Even though the Word of God is true, and even though the empty tomb is a fact of history, the church is always a church in via (PC 7). The pilgrim church is part of a story, so there is always room for surprises (PC 72). This means the church needs to be epistemologically humble. As noted earlier, she is not lord and master of the truth, but believes it and proclaims it as her missionary endeavor (PC 86-92). The story is exciting, and since it made the church and is growing her, missionary theology is an exhilarating topic for discussion and prayer. Newbigin leaves no room for boredom in the church. There should be no such thing as dead orthodoxy if we are gripped by the truth of the empty tomb. It all goes back to the resurrection’the truly good news that continues to change us.


It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed any worldview except one of which it is the starting point.

The good news of the resurrection is at the center of the church, the church’s epistemology, the church’s preaching, and the church’s mission. These emphases of Newbigin are clear and consistent throughout his writing. For Newbigin, it was as if the resurrection was something like a nuclear bomb, only the fallout was life giving and mission enabling (GPS 116). Just as you cannot safely place a nuclear bomb in your backyard, neither can a person safely fit the gospel into his worldview. It shatters our old way of thinking and sets us on a new path’a path that is joyful and exciting, but that often runs counter to that of culture (FG 149). So it is also a painful path of the cross on the way to the glory of heaven (TOS 107-09).

In the end, Newbigin’s great contribution is his stress on the absolute necessity of the resurrection for missions. “Missions are an expression of our hope…[they] are the test of our faith that the gospel is true….At the heart of mission is thanksgiving and praise” (GPS 127). “Mission is…faith in action” (TOS 39). “Mission is an acted out doxology. That is its deepest secret. Its purpose is that God may be glorified” (GPS 127).



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