This paper discusses the fact that the notions of missio Dei and missionality have for decades been intimately connected to the Trinity and to Trinitarian theology, but Churches of Christ have been little impacted by this connection. This is due to the relatively distanced position of Churches of Christ from both missionality and Trinitarian theology. In response, the specifics concerning a void with respect to Trinitarian theology in Churches of Christ need identification and attention so that this theological lacuna may be filled, leading to missional possibilities for Churches of Christ. Then, given their history and ethos, what are the ways in which the connection between missionality and Trinitarian theology could and should specifically manifest itself in Stone-Campbell churches overtly expressing a Trinitarian theology?
Although missio Dei has been understood and applied for over sixty years, the turn of the millennium has witnessed a widespread popularizing and proliferation of missionality among not only mainline denominations but also among those typically counted as evangelicals. In fact, in the same way that both the post-World War I era and the second half of the twentieth-century each became known for their respective key theological paradigms, one of the theological moves for which the earliest part of the twenty-first century will be known is the widespread popularization of missio Dei and missionality. Several theological perspectives—those oriented toward social justice, N.T. Wright’s this-worldly eschatological perspective and his contribution to what has become known as the New Perspective on Paul, postconservativism, the acquiescence of a Western, industrialized bias to a global perspective concerning church and theology, the resiliency of Barthian theology—have received attention at the beginning of the current century. Along with these noteworthy concentrations, missio Dei and the missional church are greatly contributing to contemporary theology and the ministry of the contemporary church.1
The identification of missio Dei as a significantly relevant advancement within Christianity and the embracing of missionality by denominated Christian fellowships and their individual churches, ministries, and theological and ecclesiastical instructional centers has come at different rates. Mainline denominations in North America and the state churches of Europe began applying missio Dei decades ago;2 some evangelicals in North America are yet to make its acquaintance.3 Indeed, it makes sense that where there is essential correspondence between, on one hand, the basic theology of any segment of Christians interested in expanding the influence of Christ and his kingdom and, on the other hand, the theological roots of missio Dei, there would be a readier acceptance of missionality. And, of course, when the theological ethos of any grouping of Christians stands removed from those elements that comprise the theological identity of missio Dei, missionality is likely to be received more slowly and with less enthusiasm.
After a brief glance at the presence of theologically centered ministry and missio Dei among a cappella Churches of Christ,4 the following will focus on one central theological foundation for missio Dei—the doctrine of the Trinity—and the potential impact of the Trinitarianism (or lack thereof) of the Churches of Christ on the embracing of missionality by this fellowship of Christians. If the doctrine of the Trinity is central to missio Dei, then reception and application of Trinitarian doctrine among Churches of Christ should decisively shape their missionality.
Trinitarian doctrine should decisively shape the missionality of Churches of Christ.
Theologically Centered Ministry and Missio Dei in Churches of Christ
There is a sense in which the ministry and mission of Churches of Christ have always been theologically motivated. In typical Restorationist thought, the mission of the contemporary church should center on emulating the mission of the primitive church, which in turn emulated Christ. The Christ-directed mission derived from scriptures like Matt 4:19, 23; 28:18–20; Luke 4:18–21; Acts 1:8, or from a host of other biblical passages has compelled the church to go into all the world with the good news of Christ. To minister to the unfortunate ones and preach the good news about what God has done in Christ is to participate in the Father-originated ministry and mission of the Son through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And of course the biblical example of Jesus has significantly figured in the mission of the church, which exists “to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) as Christ did.5 The church is called to wash one another’s feet in response to the example set by Christ (John 13:14) and to love one another just as they have been loved by him (John 13:34). God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world (John 3:17), so the church responds by attempting to achieve the same.
Where Churches of Christ have emulated the ministry of Christ, their efforts amount to being a theologically motivated ministry. The concept of missio Dei may be only recently known among some in Churches of Christ, but it is not as if there has never been a connection between ministry conducted in Churches of Christ and the mission of God through Christ and Spirit in the world—even including the existence of some ministries, operating now for decades, that possess a decidedly social-justice orientation.6
Additionally, that there has been within Churches of Christ during the last four decades, or so, significant theological and ecclesiological change in areas that have been linked by missiologists and missional theologians with missio Dei partially explains why there has been some acceptance and application of missio Dei and missionality by Churches of Christ. This major theological refocusing and renewal has included a move from ecclesiocentricity to theocentricity (actually, to a specifically more Christocentric focus).7 It has formulated a greatly altered conception of the gospel (attendant with the newly Christocentric focus) that accentuates God’s role in saving us and the transformation of all creation through Jesus, rather than on the steps of salvation that are the biblically required believer’s response to what God has done.8 There has been a recognition of the universally effective, dynamic character of the kingdom (as opposed to viewing as identical the kingdom of God and the visible church), combined with an acceptance of an “N. T. Wright-like” concern for the renewal of all creation, and positive affirmations of the role of the Holy Spirit in the mission of the church.9 There has been an ever broadening conception of where the church’s efforts should impact the world for the gospel, so that domestically and internationally Churches of Christ find themselves going out not just to evangelize but to bring God’s healing presence.10
Further, although there has always been a great interest among Churches of Christ in the advancement of the gospel and Christianity among the unchurched, there has occurred in the last few decades a much needed relaxation among Churches of Christ of interest in converting those who are part of another Christian fellowship to the “Church of Christ” way of looking at the gospel and church. This has been an attitude that unfortunately dominated much of the domestic evangelism and international missions efforts of Churches of Christ for much of the previous 75 years. A number of Churches of Christ, then, have completely altered the basic orientation of their ministerial focus. They more frequently than in the past possess the revised goal of reaching with the impact of God’s in-breaking kingdom those hurting ones who both remain apart from Christ and those who endure the suffering of being in a broken world far from God. Ministerial priorities include the creation of new ministries oriented toward social justice and a reorientation of the evangelistic efforts of Churches of Christ toward those who really do stand apart from the influence of Christ and God’s reign in the world.11
All this to say that the concepts of theologically driven ministry or of missionality have not fallen on deaf ears among Churches of Christ. In fact, to cite one place of recent, specific influence, the connection of Mark Love (now Dean of Theology and Ministry at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan) with the Gospel and Our Culture Network and his efforts at promoting missionality within Churches of Christ have been effective and are expanding. It is significant for Love’s work (and for several others) that since the 1980s, or so, many in Churches of Christ are no longer convinced of their exclusive status as the singular body of Christ. As a result, ministerial practitioners and theorists have felt a new freedom to collaborate with those from other theological and ecclesiastical traditions. This is especially significant in the case of discussions regarding missio Dei and missionality in light of the fact that these central concerns for mission and ministry, present in missiological discussions among theologians and missiologists of mainline denominations and those linked to the World Council of Churches for over half a century were, until the 1990s, unknown to or largely ignored by missiologists and practitioners in Churches of Christ. Expanding openness in Churches of Christ to the missional theorizing of others has fortuitously coincided with the revivification and popularizing of missio Dei and the rise of missional church thinking among missiologists in North America, meaning that collaboration regarding missionality between those in Churches of Christ and those at the center of the missional church revival has in some quarters easily occurred.
Trinity, Missionality, and Churches of Christ
The modern day theological and historical roots of missio Dei and the missional church have been carefully researched and discussed. The origins of missio Dei applied in the contemporary context go back first to the work of Karl Hartenstein and the crisis of German missiology occurring in the first half of the twentieth-century.12 In a series of articles beginning in 1928, Hartenstein argued for the missionary existence of the Christian community by grounding mission in the sending of the Son into the world by the Father and the eschatological expectation of his return following his ascension. He used the expression missio Dei in a 1934 article to describe the proper impetus for the nature of the missional church.13 For Hartenstein, the church and its commission from God, rather than God’s immanent nature as Triune being, is the primary locus of missionary agency. Thus, although John Flett dissociates from Hartenstein’s work a specifically overt grounding of missio Dei in the Trinity, missionality is no accident or sidebar in Hartenstein’s theology.14
Nonetheless, the exact roots of a connection in our era between Trinitarian doctrine and missio Dei are disputed. For example, David Bosch implies that the roots are Barthian, saying that
indeed, Barth may be called the first clear exponent of a new theological paradigm which broke radically with an Enlightenment approach to theology…. His influence on missionary thinking reached a peak at the Willingen Conference of the IMC (1952). It was here that the idea (not the exact term) missio Dei first surfaced clearly. Mission was understood as being derived from the very nature of God. It was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology. The classical doctrine on the missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit was expanded to include yet another “movement”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world. As far as missionary thinking was concerned, this linking with the doctrine of the Trinity constituted an important innovation.15
In response to Bosch and others, John Flett argues persuasively that it was not Barth but Paul Lehmann, H. Richard Niebuhr, and F. W. Dillistone—with help from Lesslie Newbigin—who were responsible for lending to Willingen a link between missio Dei and the Trinity. Lehmann, Niebuhr, and Dillistone were part of the North American commission who between 1950 and 1952 prepared what is commonly known as the American Report, a preliminary document prepared in advance of the Willingen conference. Although the commission did not meet with the express intention of drawing a connection between Trinity and mission, this constituted one of its major premises. It directly influenced the final report for Willingen, drawn up by Newbigin.16
While the exact origins of the link between Trinity and missio Dei are important, what is most important is that this connection was indeed made. When Trinity is the impetus for the church’s mission, mission is not primarily something for which the church is responsible, as if mission is a church-centered, church-originated concept. Rather, mission is what God is and does in inviting and empowering the church to join in with what he himself is and is doing. The church is not first a sending institution but is a people sent by God to fulfill his mission, which coincides with his own nature as Trinitarian sender and Triune sent ones. In this it is God’s Trinitarian character and activity that is most decisive, casting the shadow of his immanent nature over all that the church does for the kingdom of God.
Apart from the reality that there are issues concerning the specific impact Trinity has and should have on missionality, our concern here is the very limited way in which Trinitarian doctrine impacts missionality within Churches of Christ.17 The problems/needs are at least threefold. First, there is a need for increased theological depth and reflection by those in Churches of Christ with reference to the theological underpinnings of their ministerial efforts, including consideration of the bases on which they have been impacted by missio Dei. Second, there is the struggle Churches of Christ face with respect to their Trinitarian orientation. They need to become explicitly Trinitarian. Third, there is a void within Churches of Christ regarding the structures needed for effectively fostering theological and ministerial change, including helping Churches of Christ be both explicitly Trinitarian and Trinitarianly missional. I will address each of these in turn.
Churches of Christ need to become explicitly Trinitarian.
The Need for Theological Reflection Regarding Ministry
Historically, the ministries of Churches of Christ have been shaped by their restorative stance, whereby they have attempted to replicate the ministerial forms of the earliest Christians. In some respects this has been advantageous in that the primitive church was essentially theologically driven with respect to its ministering efforts and focus on mission. The consistent witness of the New Testament is that the apostles and other early Christians were driven by God’s history with Israel and their connection to Israel, by their Christology, by their acknowledgement of the Spirit’s presence, by how they conceived the kingdom of God, by agape, by their vision of the church as the chosen people of God, by their notion of koinonia, and by the renewal of all creation. To the extent that Churches of Christ have replicated the primitive church’s theologically driven ministry, their cooperation with God as he works for kingdom transformation has been noteworthy.18
However, the biblical primitivism that has been so much a part of the ethos of Churches of Christ has not always served them well. Too often the forms of the primitive church have been viewed as the end goal. Replication of external forms was thought a crucial and decisive element in making for biblical ecclesiology, without those in Churches of Christ seeing the need to connect ecclesiastical forms (e.g., ecclesiastical polity, ecclesiastical mission, ecclesiastical service to the world, ecclesiastical relationship to political and social structures) to core theological foundations.19 This is changing, and it would not be wrong to say that this is rapidly changing, especially in larger churches in urban locations and in places where church leadership has made a point of exploring the relationship between their ministerial effectiveness and the extent to which their ministries are driven by the dominant theological themes of the Bible.20 But there remains a need for a much broader application of theology to the church’s ministry, including the need to see the very nature of God and his key Trinitarian activities directly related to the church’s practice.
It was noted above that there has been in Churches of Christ some acceptance of missio Dei and the concept of missionality, and, as noted, this has much to do with the progress made in recent decades as many in Churches of Christ have exercised their autonomous theological and ecclesiastical freedoms and made much-needed theological changes that run parallel to missio Dei. However, I wonder if at this point the theological parallels have been often serendipitous rather than intentional. Churches of Christ have become more theocentric, less ecclesiocentric, more Christocentric, more kingdom oriented, and so forth, but my impression is that this was not explicitly done in order to reflect missio Dei, even if these moves have been made with a view to becoming more theologically centered. This raises a question: if missio Dei were intentionally given a greater priority among factors affecting ministry in Churches of Christ, would it not enhance the extent to which our churches would be both theologically and biblically centered? Is there not room then for deeper and more pointed reflection regarding the specific theological factors that would raise the profile of missio Dei in Churches of Christ? This would especially be the case if a Trinitarian turn was included as part of reflection upon missio Dei in Churches of Christ. As seen below, because of the disparagement of overtly Trinitarian doctrine within the Churches of Christ, there has been little opportunity for the Triune God qua Triune to directly and overtly influence mission within Churches of Christ. I suggest that this reality be changed and that Churches of Christ give due attention to the Trinity as the primary foundation on which their efforts at being missional should be grounded.
Churches of Christ and the Trinity
While many Churches of Christ have been quite open to the progress of missionality and missio Dei, there is at least one place at which their own theological infirmities will continue to hinder both their theoretical contributions to the missional church discussion and their applications of missio Dei to the praxis of missionality. This is in reference to the merely implicit nature of the commitment of Churches of Christ to Trinitarian theology.21
The history of thought within Churches of Christ demonstrates that they, along with their sister fellowships in the Stone-Campbell Movement, have generally been orthodox Trinitarian in their theological orientation. Although there have been exceptions, Restorationists have generally implicitly believed in the Trinity in a way that corresponds with historic, orthodox Christianity.22 However, there is a long history in Churches of Christ of a hesitancy to use traditional Trinitarian language in expressing their beliefs about the Triune God. In Churches of Christ, Trinitarian theology has been largely understated (or not stated, at all!), and it certainly has not been overtly influential in individual churches, having little impact on either theology or ministry in Churches of Christ. Although in recent decades, as mentioned above, a Christocentric influence has significantly impacted the thinking, preaching, teaching, and practice of many in Churches of Christ, historically Trinitarian doctrine has not been a shaping force with respect to either doctrine or practice.23
The lack of impact of Trinitarian theology on ministry within Churches of Christ stems from the approach taken to the Trinity by those who initiated the Stone-Campbell Movement. Although essentially Trinitarian, Thomas and Alexander Campbell (especially Alexander) were hesitant to speak or write about anything they perceived to require “speculative language.” In addition, relatively insignificant disagreement between the positions of the Campbells and that of classical Nicean-Constantinoplean Trinitarianism occurred when Thomas Campbell accepted a mild subordination of the Son and when Alexander Campbell raised questions concerning the eternality of the Son and the incorrectness of referring to the logos by using Father-Son terminology. Clearly one does not find in the Campbells’ strong advocacy for classical Trinitarian doctrine, even if this for the most part represents their view.24
Barton Stone, for his part, refused to accept what he thought of as the irrational, illogical, unbiblical explanations of theologians who resolved the unexplainable relationship between the so-called persons of the so-called Trinity by positing theological mysteries and by using philosophical language that was neither found in the Bible nor helpful for rationally delineating the relationship between Father and Son. With Stone there is a definite move in the direction of Arianism, whereby the Son finds his origin in the Father at a specific time prior to natural history, meaning that the Son cannot be identical with the one and only true God, who alone is eternal.25
The outcome of these early beginnings is that there has never been a strong affirmation of the Trinity within Churches of Christ, even if there has never been a pervasive rejection of classical Trinitarian doctrine. The generations that followed after the Campbells and Stone were often simply silent with respect to Trinitarian doctrine, refusing, like Campbell, to use speculative language and rejecting the creeds as authoritative—or even as valuable statements of faith—so that the Trinitarian doctrine so often at the center of these creeds was for the most part ignored.26
At the same time, the rise and then the influence of evangelicalism in North America—which coincided to a great degree with the historical timeline of the Churches of Christ—has meant that the pervasiveness of classical Trinitarian doctrine among evangelicals, not to mention the Trinitarian doctrine that has characterized so much of the remainder of Christianity, has influenced Churches of Christ, becoming the basic position for Churches of Christ with respect to the Father, Son, and Spirit. That Churches of Christ are in fact for the most part classically Trinitarian, even though this belief is implicit, often goes unrecognized, and is given little place as a foundation for the fellowship’s ministerial praxis.27
With this in view, it would seem that an overt, intentional renewal of focus upon Trinitarian theology would be quite fitting and in order for Churches of Christ, and there is little reason why it should not be welcomed. In fact, whether in conjunction with a call for Churches of Christ to accentuate missio Dei or not, the recommendation here is that Churches of Christ make explicit their already implicit commitment to a doctrine of the Trinity that is essentially in line with that found in the classic ecumenical creeds of Nicea and Constantinople. But what course should be followed in actually developing a vibrant Trinitarianism that could serve as solid foundation for missionality among Churches of Christ? How will they actually become explicitly Trinitarian? Although much more could be said, a primary attitudinal change must take place within Churches of Christ that will allow them to develop a perspective different from that of their theological ancestors, who, as seen above, were hesitant to focus on explicit Trinitarian doctrine.
Alexander Campbell and those who followed after him refused to take a stronger position on the Trinity largely because Campbell himself capitulated before contemporary events and understandings, not because he perceived that biblical justification for the Trinity was entirely absent. There was so much controversy and ecclesiastical disunity over the Trinity that Campbell concluded through his empirically considered, propositionally oriented evaluation of the biblical witness that the Bible’s language about the Trinity was insufficiently clear to develop a highly nuanced Trinitarian position.28
Part of what today makes possible a different approach to Trinitarian doctrine is that the entire climate of Western epistemology has changed, not only from what it was two hundred years ago, but also from what it was sixty years ago, bringing with it changes in the theological/ecclesiastical milieu of Christianity. There is now a freedom and a need to reach new conclusions regarding the biblical foundations of Trinitarian doctrine, and there is no longer the worry among many adherents of Churches of Christ that rampant disunity will be propagated if an overt Trinitarian stance is espoused. Postmodern acceptance of differences of opinion and the loss of confidence in foundational truth claims mean alternative perspectives can more easily coexist. In such a context, overtly expressed belief in a particular Trinitarian perspective is less threatening and less polemical, allowing for new conclusions freely to be entertained without pressure. The hope expressed here is that this will take place.
The Way Forward For Trinity-Based Missionality
What, then, should be the way forward for Churches of Christ as they attempt to apply in their contexts the ferment of missio Dei, the missional church discussion, and the assertion of a Trinitarian foundation for missionality?
Unfortunately, this is not a question as easily answered among Churches of Christ as it might be among some other Christian fellowships. Inculcating doctrinal transformation in Churches of Christ is not an easy task. They possess no denominational headquarters and no authoritative statement of faith that is bound on their churches. Nor is there a unifying, universally effective means of communicating to all churches the ferment of a discussion like one about missio Dei and its theological foundations (even if such a discussion were to take place in some context)—all in a fellowship that prides itself on the autonomy of its individual churches. The structures, then, that might allow for uniform, efficient transformation in doctrinal views are not in place. Typically, the independent, autonomous, often disconnected nature of ecclesiology in Churches of Christ means that new paradigms are communicated and inculcated within our churches with difficulty. Widely distributed publications, travelling teachers, the training that occurs in educational institutions, blogs, university sponsored lectureships, and scholarly conferences are some of the ways in which new ideas are shared, sometimes with effectiveness, but the fact is that this pattern of discussing and being influenced by new ideas is often sporadic and incomplete. As part of communicating effectively and persuasively something as dramatic a change as a new emphasis on Trinitarian doctrine, along with a coinciding focus on the impact the Trinity should have on the missional nature of ministry in Churches of Christ, Churches of Christ need to continue proceeding down a path of transformation they have already begun, exercising all of the above options for communication, and more, with the specific intention of being more overtly Trinitarian.29
In the course of such efforts Stone-Campbell churches should continue moving in the direction of replacing what has primarily, or at least often, been a concern for their ecclesiological mimicry of the primitive church forms with an interest in being theologically driven regarding ecclesiological function. For many this has now been happening for several decades. For others this will require that they ask a new set of questions regarding the identity of their churches, whereby, key loci and elements of biblical theology will receive pointed attention. This means that even before they begin thinking in terms of the influence of the Trinity on their nature as missional church, there is a need to broaden the impact on them of a more holistic view of the biblical theology. They should take their clues for how to be the church from God’s attitudes and great acts in creating and restoring his entire creation, from his interaction with Israel, and, most centrally, from a set of identifiable core theological principles, ideas, and driving concepts that comprise the ethos present in God’s saving interactions with his creation. What is God’s fundamental attitude toward all that he has created? What are God’s fundamental attitudes toward His children? What are God’s goals for humankind? What are the basic forms of relationality God exemplifies in interacting with his people and with those who for the time being do not acknowledge his Lordship? What is God’s attitude toward human sin, toward sin as an influence within all of creation, and what is it that God does in response to sin?
Further, if biblical theology is to drive the identity and mission of the church, the foundational, fundamental Christocentric turn signaled by the earlier efforts of Thomas Olbricht, Rubel Shelly, Randy Harris, Leonard Allen, Monroe Hawley, and many others needs to find continued expression and further expansion among those currently thinking and working on behalf of Churches of Christ.30 What are the core features of the personhood, mission, and teaching of Jesus? How should the central teachings of Jesus impact the efforts of the church in a culture that is rapidly becoming less Christian? How should the uniqueness of Christ and the faith he founded help Christians to respond to religious and cultural pluralism, to a world driven by social media, to issues of social justice, and to what seems to be an escalated and spiralling devaluation of what were previously identified as moral norms?
Additionally, there is a need for a deepening of the sense that the church’s mission is not to be viewed as activity that has merely originated in God but as the ongoing mission of unity and cooperation with and in the Triune God. Although Churches of Christ have followed the example of God and Christ, there has been little direct expression of the church participating in a cooperative mission with God. The church has been sent out by God as Christ was but without the mutual working with God in the mission that is part of the Son’s existence in the Father’s mission. The Son is sent, but the sending occurs in mutual participation with the Father, rather than as an isolated monarchical action. Further, the sending of the Son includes incarnational participation with those to whom the mission is directed, so that the church following after Christ will find itself participating both with God and with the world, even as it is sent into the world.
The church following after Christ will find itself participating both with God and with the world.
Finally, Churches of Christ have largely missed cooperating with and being driven by the Spirit in the mission of the kingdom of God, including missing the realization that the Holy Spirit is at the center of the ministry of the Word of God in the world. Reciprocal relations between Father, Son, and Spirit constitute the fullness of the communal, cooperative mission they share in redeeming humanity, but discussion of this kind of Trinitarian reciprocity is simply missing in a fellowship unfamiliar with allowing Trinitarian theology to directly and influence its praxis. This must change, and help in doing so can be readily found. Jürgen Moltmann’s The Church in the Power of the Spirit and The Spirit of Life together provide a vision for the impact that the Holy Spirit should play both in ecclesiology and the church’s redeeming ministry, and in both the concepts of Trinity and kingdom are never far away.31 Michael Velker’s God the Spirit advocates Spirit-fostered change, where justice, mercy, and our understanding of the nature of God conjoin to create a community where self-giving on behalf of other creatures becomes the rule.32 Craig Van Gelder’s The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit may be the most accessible of recent works that join missionality with pneumatology, and his overview and comparison of ecclesiological models, his look at open-systems theory and organizational structures, and his theologically skillful look at the Spirit’s role in the church’s ministry would likely be instructive, even for those familiar with missional church.33
Rather than bringing to an end this look at missio Dei, missionality, Trinity, and Churches of Christ merely by drawing together a summary and conclusions, at this early stage of Trinitarian missional thinking for Churches of Christ two series of questions are in order, along with some provisional answers to these questions. First, how explicitly Trinitarian should Churches of Christ become? Hopefully, quite explicitly. Will overt, clear formulations of Trinitarian doctrine be formulated and adopted by individual congregations in a fellowship in which congregational doctrinal autonomy is still defensibly the norm? Hopefully; prayerfully. Will an explicit Trinitarianism within Churches of Christ closely follow the classically stated orthodox Trinitarianism of the ecumenical creeds? There seems to be no reason why this should not happen; whether it does or not, explicit Trinitarian doctrinal formulation is in order for Churches of Christ. Can Trinitarian doctrine be explicitly formulated, stated, and accepted in non-exclusionary ways, so that specific forms of Trinitarianism do not become the basis on which lines of fellowship are drawn? It will be the responsibility of church leaders to avoid the mistakes of the past, the mistakes which moved progenitors of the Stone-Campbell Movement to avoid shaping for themselves and those who came after them an explicit Trinitarianism. The current ecclesiastical and theological climate of graciousness, openness, acceptance, and non-judgemental cooperation in Churches of Christ should make it possible to celebrate the Trinity without denigrating the specific Trinitarian doctrinal formulations of others. Disunity within the community called forth by the being and acts of the Trinity does not have to be the excessively ironic outcome of thinking deeply about the being and unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Further, it would seem that merely stating an overt belief in an orthodox view of the Trinity, although a crucial first step, will not take our churches far enough in the direction of allowing Trinitarian doctrine missionally to shape the ministries of our churches. What aspects of Trinitarian doctrine should be most decisive for shaping missio Dei as it comes to fruition among Churches of Christ? Should those interested in allowing the Trinity and Trinitarian doctrine impact their ministries focus primarily on the proclamation and revelation of the immanent Trinity, as Barth did, or on the interaction with creation of the economic Trinity34 in line with Catherine LaCugna35 and Jürgen Moltmann?36 What Trinitarian theologians should most influence the manner in which Trinitarian doctrine impacts our perceptions of the church as a ministering community created by and emulating the community that is the Trinity: Alan Torrance?37 John Zizioulas?38 Miroslav Volf?39
Whatever may be the answers to such questions, Churches of Christ need to accept and apply an overt, robust view of the Trinity and Trinitarian theology, even while they allow the real divine Trinity, the Trinitarian God, directly to impact and advance their work in the world and for the kingdom of God.
Kelly Carter has, since 2006, been the Lead Minister at the Calgary Church of Christ in Calgary, Alberta, where he also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Theology and Bible at Alberta Bible College and Ambrose University. After ministry with the Shelbourne St. Church of Christ in Victoria, British Columbia, from 1986 to 2001, Kelly attended Southern Methodist University, completing there a PhD in Systematic Theology. He also holds a BS and MA from Abilene Christian University and an MDiv from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
† Adapted from a presentation at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN, June 8–10, 2016.
1 Although the present article is most interested in the theologically ultimate grounding of missionality in Trinitarian theology that has been present since the early 1950s, it is the case that the theological roots of missionality and missio Dei include other key components that help secure the strength and legitimacy of the missional turn present within contemporary theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. For example, thinking of the church as an institution to which the unchurched are called to membership, so that they join a static community, have their names placed on a role, and begin attending meetings for worship has been scrutinized and superseded by an ecclesiology in which the church is conceived as a community of God sent into the world for his saving purposes. Rather than being identified as a place, church is recognized as a people, a sent people, a community with missional responsibility. The church, then, is something different than a chaplaincy to the culture. Conceptualizing the body of Christ as a producer and provider of religious services, attracting adherents who receive, use, and benefit from the church’s dissemination of services has been reconceived so that the church is viewed as a dynamic, Spirit-driven organism capable of influencing, impacting, transforming, and in this way serving not just those who join the community but those who stand outside it in need of the community’s service. A movement has taken place from an emphasis “on a church-centered mission to a mission-centered church.” David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 370. See the classic summary of the theological and ecclesiological foundations for a vision of the missional church found in the chapters by George Hunsberger, Lois Barrett, and Inagrace Dietterich (Chapters 4, 5 and 6, respectively) in Darrell L. Guder, ed., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Cf. Bosch, 369–420.
Theologically, attention to Christology and, specifically, the mission of Christ has meant that with missio Dei the mission and activities of Christ have been viewed as being transferred to the church, with the body of Christ becoming the locus of Christ’s missionary agency. See John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 134. Cf. Bosch, 390. Further, there has been a new perception and application of the role of the Holy Spirit in the church, so that the Spirit’s impact on God’s people is viewed not just with respect to what happens in the lives of individuals who receive salvation and the personal benefits of transformed character and personal relationship with God; instead, the Spirit is viewed as the impetus and power behind a movement by the church into the world, with the Spirit’s influential communication and application of the gospel transforming not only individual lives but communities, societies, and ultimately all of creation into a reality bearing the fruits and marks of God’s presence. Additionally, there has been an alteration in conceiving the kingdom of God, so that ecclesiology has been directly linked to the kingdom’s identity, but in this case the church is not identified as the kingdom but as a kingdom-oriented community, so that the primary identity of the church is as an apostolic (sent), dynamic, missional force for the kingdom, sent for proclaiming and living out the gospel in our communities, rather than as a divinely established institution to be protected, defended, and maintained and where the private event of salvation for individuals constitutes the church’s sole or chief focus. The church does not establish, build or expand the kingdom but receives and enters into the kingdom’s activity through which God asserts his presence. God is fulfilling his missional purposes whenever the church in response to his mission proleptically acts to bring the kingdom’s presence.
2 John Flett traces in an illuminating way the history and progression of missio Dei as it began to be applied in the Lutheran churches of Germany in the 1930s (especially in the work of Karl Hartenstein), through the International Missionary Council at Willingen in 1952, and through the work of those like Lesslie Newbigin who popularized the concept for English-speaking churches and theologians during the last decades of the twentieth century. Flett, 123–62. For decades missio Dei was known among churches associated with the World Council of Churches before it began to find popularity first in England in the 1980s through the initiation by the British Council of Churches of the Gospel and Culture discussion and, then, eventually among evangelical churches in North America through, most influentially, the work of the Gospel and Our Culture Network associated with George Hunsberger, Craig Van Gelder, Alan Roxburgh and others.
3 I confess that I had never heard the terms missio Dei or missional church until about 2002, and it is even now not uncommon for someone to ask me to define these ideas when they arise in conversations we might be having about the mission of the church or the church’s role in propagating the kingdom. Only since 2000 has missio Dei become a known concept in popular North American evangelical church culture. Although many in Churches of Christ are now familiar with ideas about missional church, it would, I think, be easy to find hundreds of rural Churches of Christ, especially, where the concept of missio Dei or of missional church would be quite unfamiliar.
4 For the remainder of this article any reference to Churches of Christ will be to the a cappella Churches of Christ of the Stone-Campbell Movement, vis à vis those churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement that go by the designation “Church of Christ” but which are part of the instrumental fellowship of Independent Christian Churches.
5 Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
6 E.g., this is present in CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries) in Dallas, Texas, founded in 1988; in the vast relief efforts by the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, LA, which have taken place for decades; and in Zambia Mission Fund Canada, begun by the Shelbourne St. Church of Christ in Victoria, British Columbia, which since 1988 has been caring for orphans and the underprivileged in the Southern Province of Zambia.
7 See C. Leonard Allen, The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross Shaped People in a Secular World, rev. and exp. (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2006); Rubel Shelly and Randall J. Harris, The Second Incarnation: A Theology for the 21st Century Church, rev. ed. (Abilene, TX: HillCrest, 2001).
8 See Monroe Hawley, Is Christ Divided?: A Study of Sectarianism (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1992); Monroe Hawley, The Focus of Our Faith (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1985); Rubel Shelly, I Just Want to Be a Christian (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1984); James S. Woodroof, The Church in Transition (Searcy, AR: The Bible House, 1990).
9 The evidence for this is largely anecdotal and experiential, consisting largely of the presence of such themes in the conversations that I have almost daily with church leaders. It is telling that N. T. Wright has now been a featured speaker on two university campuses affiliated with Churches of Christ, that Jonathan Storment (who preaches for the influential Highland Church of Christ) has interviewed Wright and blogged about his work, and that ministers like Joshua Graves have taken the time to review Wright’s works (Joshua J. Graves, “Book Review: Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright,” Wineskins (Mar-Apr 2007): http://archives.wineskins.org/article/book-review-evil-and-the-justice-of-god-by-n-t-wright-mar-apr-2007. Mark Love is currently finalizing a monograph devoted to the Holy Spirit’s role in the mission of the church.
10 See Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008); Joshua Graves, The Feast: How to Serve Jesus in a Famished World (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2009).
11 In the Canadian context in which I work this is seen in the efforts of my own church, the Calgary Church of Christ, where our ministry includes a pantry which each year dispenses hundreds of lunches and full food hampers for the socially and economically disadvantaged, a weekly lunch prepared and served to the homeless in our area of the city, frequent free clothing giveaways, service days in which we go into our community meeting household maintenance needs for the elderly and infirm, the biweekly dispensing of lunches for disadvantaged children in two local elementary schools, and the biweekly use of our church building by the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, whose programs teach immigrants to Canada how to negotiate the challenges of moving, say, from worn-torn Syria or a Venezuela that is in turmoil to a large city in western Canada. In the case of Gentle Road Church of Christ in Regina, Saskatchewan, founded as a church plant by Kevin and Lisa Vance, the entire ministry is oriented toward serving the indigenous aboriginal people living in north central Regina. Family violence, addiction, prostitution, truancy, and systemic, epidemic depressive conditions are daily encountered by Kevin and Lisa, and their ministry intentionally focuses on bringing the influence of God’s kingdom into their community. The ministry of Parklands Crossing is a new work begun in Dauphin, Manitoba (directly connected with the Dauphin Church of Christ), in which they purchased a former Christian college campus, modifying it into a low-income housing and community-center ministry serving their entire region.
12 See Flett, 78ff. Flett details this crisis, which is a reaction to the grounding of German missions in an approach that stressed the need for missions to work through social, cultural, and political channels. For Hartenstein, Barth, and others, German missions had become largely secularized and based in classical theological liberalism rather than in a properly divinely originated, God-centered theology.
13 Ibid., 131.
14 Ibid., 135.
15 Bosch, 390.
16 See Flett, 123–62.
17 See Flett, 1–34; 163ff. Flett’s The Witness of God is a full-scale accounting of the insufficiencies of Trinity based missionality as currently conceived, with an application of Barth as a partial answer to the these insufficiencies.
18 A prime example of such cooperation with God and his kingdom is the medical mission conducted each year at Namwianga Christian School in the Southern Province of Zambia. Scores of doctors and nurses from Churches of Christ converge on the Southern Province, taking both medical aid the gospel to remote villages. I was pleased to return in 2015 to the village of my adopted daughter’s birth family, after an absence of 22 years, to find that in the meantime her extended family had been ministered to and impacted for Christ by the kingdom-minded medical volunteers that had been making their way to her birthplace.
19 A classic example of this is found in Edward C. Wharton, The Church of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2010). The driving forces in establishing a New Testament ecclesiology are the notions of pattern, recognition of the pattern, replication of practices, God’s organizational design of the church, and the principle of cause and effect. The rationalistic hermeneutics of J. D. Thomas in We Be Brethren: A Study in Biblical Interpretation (Biblical Research Press, 1958) and Heaven’s Window: Sequel to We Be Brethren (Abilene, TX: Biblical Research Press, 1974) illustrate how the rationalistic ferreting out and following of a pattern established in the early church should establish the church’s doctrinal and practical priorities.
20 Rubel Shelly’s previous ministry at Woodmont Hills in Nashville was an example of allowing dominant theological themes to control ministerial priorities, and, of course, Woodmont’s ministry has continued in this direction. The same can be said of Highland Church of Christ’s ministry (Abilene, TX) during Lynn Anderson’s time there and since, of the ministry of The Hills Church of Christ (North Richland Hills, TX) under Rick Atchley’s leadership, of Chris Seidman’s ministry at The Branch Church (Farmers Branch, TX), and of the many smaller, less well-known churches that from 1980s until now have left patternistic ways of identifying their ministries, preferring ministry driven by central biblical motifs, by the character of God, by the ministry of Christ, by a vision of the present and coming Kingdom, and by the Spirit’s presence and power in making the priorities of Christ the priorities of the church.
21 The following discussion and summary of Trinity in Churches of Christ is dependent on my monograph, Kelly D. Carter, The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement: Restoring the Heart of Christian Faith (Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2015).
22 See ibid., 185–222.
23 This is the cumulative point made in chapters 1–5 of The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement.
24 See The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement, 27–88, 153–57.
25 Ibid., 89–138; 157–75.
26 For those in Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches who have made use of Trinitarian doctrine see ibid., 187–222.
27 Despite the fact that the evangelical movement in North America constituted by conservative, biblicist Christians from a variety of denominational backgrounds is typically thought by those in Churches of Christ to stand apart from their own Restoration Movement, there are close parallels. While the origins of evangelicalism in North America are often traced into the eighteenth century and the First Great Awakening, or even beyond this to the Puritans, its gradual solidification from the time of the Second Great Awakening coincides chronologically with the rise and growth of the Stone-Campbell Movement. The conservative Christian biblicism that marked developing evangelicalism, vis á vis the rise of classical liberalism, also marked the conservative churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, including the Churches of Christ that became separately identified after 1906. The parallel response to encroaching liberalism by evangelicals and Churches of Christ which had become solidified following the liberal-fundamentalist controversy in the first three decades of the twentieth century, meant that despite the sectarianism present within the Churches of Christ, they at certain points connected with and were influenced by evangelicalism, perhaps most notably in their general acceptance of Trinitarianism. Cf. The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement, 191–94.
28 See The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement, 47–82.
29 For delineated suggestions for how Churches of Christ may become overtly Trinitarian, see The Trinity in the Stone-Campbell Movement, 255–72.
30 Contributions made by Shelly, Harris, Allen, and Hawley in moving Churches of Christ toward a more biblically centered theology were mentioned above in notes 7 and 8. Thomas Olbricht has been a significant voice in doing the same largely through his instruction at Abilene Christian University from the 1960s through the 1980s and at Pepperdine University from the 1980s until his retirement. Olbricht’s time as a student at Harvard in the 1960s, when both Krister Stendahl and G. E. Wright were there advocating biblical theology, led him in this direction. See Thomas H. Olbricht, “Hermeneutics in the Churches of Christ,” Restoration Quarterly 37, No. 1 (1995): 1–24; Thomas H. Olbricht, “Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point, Part 1,” Image 5, no. 9 (September 1989):14–15; Thomas H. Olbricht, “Hermeneutics: The Beginning Point, Part 2,” Image 5, no. 10 (October 1989):15–16 ; Thomas H. Olbricht, “Is the Theology of the American Restoration Movement Viable?,” a paper presented at the Restoration Colloquium, Princeton Theological Seminary, December 1991.
31 Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
32 Michael Velker, God the Spirit, trans. John F. Hoffmeyer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).
33 Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
34 Discussion about whether consideration of the immanent Trinity (simply put, thinking about who God is in and of himself; identifying and discussing him as Trinity without reference to his relationship to his creation) is a hindrance or help with respect to missionality occurs among those accentuating the fruitfulness of focussing on the economic Trinity (God’s Trinitarian ordering of his activity with creation in the activities of the sending Father and the sent Son and Spirit). A focus on the economic Trinity recognizes that not only do we know nothing about God apart from his interaction with his creation, including most specifically the Trinitarian act of incarnation, but that thinking of the Trinity only with reference to his incarnation and interaction with creation adequately identifies God as a missional God. Helpful treatments of this discussion are found in John Flett’s The Witness of God and Paul Molnar’s Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity (New York: T&T Clark, 2002).
35 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991). LaCugna is a major voice advocating a concentration on the economic Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine is for her eminently practical, with radical consequences for humanity, especially if the bias toward the immanent Trinity found in post-Nicene theology can be superseded.
36 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1991). Like LaCugna, Moltmann is critical of Karl Barth’s focus on the immanent Trinity, believing that the very nature of God is impacted by His interaction with humankind, especially in and after the Trinitarian incarnation. In response the church should reflect the nature of God as He carried forth with the kingdom initiated by Jesus through his interaction with humanity as economic Trinity.
37 Alan J. Torrance, Persons in Communion: An Essay on Trinitarian Description and Human Participation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996). Torrance is most concerned with human descriptions of God and the Trinity. What is the role and force of analogical language? Is the use of “persons” to describe the divine Three appropriate? What models best serve for Trinitarian description? Torrance gravitates toward a worshipful, doxological context from which to best articulate the Trinity.
38 John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, Contemporary Greek Theologians Series 4 (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985). For Zizioulas, true existence will always be communal existence, with personhood inherently being a relational phenomenon. This he grounds in the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Christ drew to himself a communion of people who experience in life with him the eternal communion within God.
39 Miroslav Volf, After His Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Volf here writes an ecclesiology grounded in Trinitarian communion. Valuing the work of Zizioulas, he sees both personhood and communal identity as best defined by Trinitarian relationship, making for a broad theological ecumenism. This is a more practical, more evangelically oriented application of the Trinity than Zizioulas, but it runs along similar lines.