Word Ministry and Deed Ministry (3 of 3)


Here’s part 1 of this series, and here’s part 2. Now, here’s part 3:

The word “mission” gets caught up in this question about the relationships of words and deeds. Some people say that we should define “mission” narrowly—to admit only Word ministry (the Great Commission—making disciples and teaching) in its definition. Some people say that we should define the word broadly—to admit everything which is commanded of the Christian life in the New Testament.

“Mission” is not a biblical word, so in one sense we can define it however we please. But the reality is that whatever you include in the definition gains a certain privilege over what’s not included in the definition. So if you ask the question, “What’s the mission of the church?” and I answer, “Word ministry,” I’m privileging Word ministry over everything else. But if I say, “To do everything Jesus commanded in Word and Deed” or “Love God and neighbor” then I privilege nothing, and words and deeds become indistinguishably important for ministry and mission.

Advocates of narrow definition want to preserve the emphasis which should be given to Word ministry, and so restrict the definition to Word ministry. Advocates of a broad definition don’t want to exclude any necessary obedience, and so the church’s mission becomes the whole of the Christian life. One group aims especially at getting Scripture’s emphases right. The other group aims especially at getting all of Scripture. Both sides might feel caricatured by that, but I think it’s useful to put it like this in order to see what principles are at play as we figure out how to define the word “mission.”

Really, the whole conversation reminds me a little of the different ways Americans and Brits use the word “pudding.” The narrow-definition folk are like the Americans who define “pudding” narrowly to refer to a creamy gelatin-like substance. The broad-definition folk are like the Brits who refer to all deserts as “pudding.” Naturally, this tempts the American to think, “What? It can’t all be pudding! If everything is pudding, nothing is pudding.”

What then shall we say is pudding?

Either way, can you see the tension? The narrow definition folk (“camp 1” from the first post in this series) have a right burden to privilege Word ministry. But the broad definition folk (camp 2) have a right burden not to exclude any necessary obedience and to keep word and deed integrated for the sake of Christian witness and mission.

At this point, another theological distinction becomes critical—the distinction between the local church in its institutional capacity and the militant universal church in its organic capacity; or in different terms, the distinction between the local church as the local church and individual Christians. I think we have to say that the local church has a slightly different mission than the individual Christian.  By this I don’t mean that both don’t have the same ultimate mission (glorify God by doing his will).  I just mean that the local church has a different role or sub-mission in that overall mission than the Christian does.

After all, the local church and the Christian have been given different chargesareas of authority, and stewardships from Jesus, the apostles, and the Holy Spirit. The local church can do things that the individual Christian should not do (like affirm an elder or distribute the Lord’s Supper) while the individual Christian can do things the local church cannot do (like love one’s wife).

Here’s an analogy: There’s a difference between the mission of an individual engineer and the mission of a school of engineering (or a professor of engineering)? One’s charged with doing engineering; one’s charged with teaching it, even though the teacher can leave and any point to do it. But you need both, right? They have different charges and stewardships.

By the same token, the mission of the individual Christian is slightly different than the mission of the church local—even though they’re serving the same overall end. The problem is, when we hear the question, “What is the mission of the church?” we kind of lump it all together, as if the question really were, “What is the mission of Christianity on earth?” But we need to keep the two things separate.

With that in mind, I think we can say that the mission of the Christian is a little broader and the mission of the local church is a little narrower. The local church is especially called to “teach everything [Jesus] commanded” while the Christian is especially called to do everything Jesus commanded.

Now, notice, I didn’t say that the local church is completely narrow and the Christian’s is completely broad.  Why not? See post 1 in these series. I think we always need a conception of word and deed that is integrated, but that allows each to play a distinct role and that centralizes announcing what God has done. In other words, the Christian’s mission and the local church’s mission involves words and deeds, and for both we need to be able to say that in a way that allows us to say some things are more important than others. Don’t flatten the landscape. Let there be mountains! And let Word ministry must be the peak. Still, I think we have to say there’s a larger emphasis on Word ministry (more focus on the narrow definition) for the local church than for the individual. A local church cannot be a church—by definition—apart from Word ministry, whereas a Christian can be a Christian (albeit a weak one) even if he never speaks of his faith.

What do you think? Happy for you to push back here. We’re still trying to figure out how to understand and explain these things well.

P.S. It looks like Kevin DeYoung has a conversation going on this stuff  here. I haven’t read through the comments, but it looks like there’s a few!

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

9Marks articles are made possible by readers like you. Donate Today.