Book Review: The Primary Mission of the Church, by Bryan Estelle
Estelle, Bryan D. The Primary Mission of the Church: Engaging or Transforming the World? Mentor, 2022. 448 pages.
Over ten years ago, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert published What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. The book would prove to be a major contribution to contemporary discussions about the church’s mission in the world today. DeYoung and Gilbert located the church’s principal mission in the Great Commission, focusing primarily on evangelizing the world and growing believers in Christ. Efforts in social activism and mercy ministry might be worthwhile, but they are nonetheless downstream of the church’s main task of making disciples of Jesus Christ and building healthy local churches.
Many books have appeared since DeYoung and Gilbert's that address the subject of the church’s mission. Some have followed their pattern in giving primacy to evangelism and discipleship, while others have advocated for a more prominent place for social concern and cultural transformation.
Bryan Estelle’s The Primary Missions of the Church: Engaging or Transforming the World? belongs solidly in the DeYoung/Gilbert tradition.
WHAT IS THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH?
“The church is spiritual and its mission is spiritual. The church corporately should stick to its job description. When she does not, the result is fuzzy boundaries” (23).
These words from Estelle capture the thesis of his book. He builds his thesis on a modern exegetical, theological, and historical defense of “Two Kingdoms” theology.
Estelle distinguishes between the regnum gratiae (the kingdom of grace) and the regnum potentiae (the kingdom of power) and argues that Christ’s rule over these two realms is exercised in different ways (21-22). Christ exercises his rule over the whole world (the kingdom of power) as King and Lord over all. He administers this rule chiefly through the state, which is his peculiar agent for advancing his purposes and executing his judgments in the world.
The state, therefore, has special jurisdiction over earthly affairs and is answerable to God for how it exercises its jurisdiction. In the case of the kingdom of grace, Christ exercises his rule as the mediator of the covenant of grace. This rule over the kingdom of grace is administered through the church. The church has special authority over ecclesial affairs and a special mission to proclaim the gospel to the world and disciple the people of God.
Estelle deploys this Two Kingdoms framework to define the church’s mission. According to Estelle, the mission of the church is not to be found in social justice, cultural transformation, or political activism. Rather, the church’s mission is spiritual and taken up ultimately with the world to come. It concerns spiritual realities of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
Estelle is careful to clarify, “It does not follow that this emphasis on the primary mission of the church as spiritual signifies that her business is only with non-physical matters” (23). He is not calling for a “non-material other-worldliness” (23). He recognizes that spiritual concerns certainly have implications for the material realm. Estelle even says that his understanding of the church’s mission does not preclude individual Christians from getting involved in politics or advocating for social reform.
However, individuals pursuing such efforts as an outworking of their Christian faith is different from locating such efforts in the primary mission of the local church, which Estelle maintains is chiefly spiritual.
Estelle writes out of a concern that “the primary mission of the church is being challenged today by a resurgence of movements that are seeking to expand the primary mission of the church to include some form of a ‘redefined’ social gospel” (27). This concern pervades the book. Feeling the pressure of “constant ‘clarion calls’” for the church “to address social justice issues” (392), Estelle makes his appeal for a return to a more biblically faithful and historically-rooted approach to the church’s main mission.
A SUBSTANTIVE CONTRIBUTION
The Primary Mission of the Church is divided into four major sections that cover significant ground exegetically, theologically, and historically.
In the first part of the book, Estelle provides a biblical basis for his understanding of the primary mission of the church. In Part Two, he considers what he would regard as negative historical examples of how various individuals and theological camps have conceived of the primary mission of the church, including North American Neo-Calvinists in the train of Abraham Kuyper, Liberation theologians, Theonomists, and figures like Leslie Newbigin and Martin Luther King Jr. In Part Three, Estelle presents again his understanding of the primary mission of the church stated theologically and confessionally, particularly within the framework of the Westminster Confession. In Part Four, Estelle considers how his understanding of the mission of the church can be applied practically to issues facing churches today.
Estelle should be commended for providing a substantive contribution to the conversation surrounding the church’s primary mission. The greatest strength of the book is his historical analysis which provides important context for the discussion. He also offers a strong defense for his understanding of the primary mission of the church particularly within the framework of Presbyterian confessionalism. Those who would wish to give social activism and cultural transformation a more prominent place in the mission of the church must reckon with Estelle’s analysis of the record within Presbyterianism.
WHERE'S THE GREAT COMMISSION?
While there is much to commend in Estelle’s work, the book does suffer from some significant weaknesses.
First, in nearly 450 pages, Estelle does not provide any significant engagement with contemporary scholars, theologians, or pastors on the subject of the church’s mission. For the most part, he limits his critiques to figures and movements of the past. It would have been helpful to see Estelle directly engage the arguments of other contemporary thinkers who advocate a more significant place for social concern and political activism in the church’s mission.
A second weakness that will perhaps be bothersome primarily to non-Presbyterians is that Estelle positions his arguments too squarely within a Presbyterian framework, yielding the book less accessible and useful to non-Presbyterians. By depending so much on distinctives of Presbyterian exegesis, theology, and history, the book is rendered less helpful for other denominations and church traditions.
The third and most significant weakness in Estelle’s book is that he gives no attention to the Great Commission passages save a single page on Matthew 28:16-20 (133). He instead focuses on statements from Jesus on the nature of the kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:18; 22:15-22; John 18:36-37; 19:10-11) and passages that deal with Jesus’ respective jurisdictions over the church and world respectively (Eph. 1:22-23; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:9-17). Moreover, one would expect to see in a book on the mission of the church more substantive engagement with the New Testament’s contributions to this vital subject. However, in his four chapters of biblical exegesis, he only gives one to the consideration of New Testament material.
THE WAY FORWARD: BIBLICAL EXEGESIS
Estelle’s book will be most helpful to theologians, seminarians, and more intellectually-minded pastors. It is on a higher shelf than DeYoung and Gilbert, but provides a good deal more historical context to the discussion.
However, it must be said, the way forward on this question ultimately will not be settled by foregrounding history and culture or even confessional statements. The only way to definitively arrive at an answer to the question “What is the mission of the church?” is through careful, thorough, and sustained scriptural exegesis. A faithful study of the Bible will not leave us with an unclear answer to this crucial question.
The church’s mission is to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, specifically through evangelism and teaching the commands of Jesus, all within the context of healthy local churches, unto the glory of God.