Since the Conference hosted by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch and Communitas from 18-20 May 2009 on the theme “What can we learn from the book of Acts about being a Missional Church?” the Book of Acts has suddenly become the new Magna Carta for the missional church in South Africa. Several questions ensue from the Dutch Reformed Church’s unexpected interest in Acts. If Acts is a trailblazer in regard to effective local and global missionary work, why has the church delayed its imperatives to study and implement what Jesus Christ’s apostles taught and practiced in Acts? What has motivated the DRC to embark at this late stage in the history of the church on a research programme that will work on seven themes in the Book of Acts over a period of three years? Are they aiming to reach the lost with the unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ so that as many lost sinners as possible may be saved? Or, is she working toward the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth in which every conceivable religious ragtag and bob-tail is welcome? Why is the DRC’s younger generation clergy obsessed with the ancient practices and experiential theology and disciplines of the so-called Desert Fathers, i.e. contemplative prayer, centering prayer, labyrinths, breath prayers, the silence, solitude etc., when these disciplines do not feature in the book of Acts? To find some answers to these questions it might be feasible to pay attention to the names of distinguished missiologists who keep on popping up in the on-going discussions on the blogs of DRC pastors and students on the internet.
A name that seems to be on every “Acts-orientated” follower of Jesus’ lips is David Jacobus Bosch. He was a missiologist in South Africa who died in 1992 in a tragic car accident only a year after he published his monumental book, Transforming Mission. He formulated the concept of AC, the “Alternate Community” in South Africa which was born out of his strong aversion to the Apartheid system. In his book “Mission and the Alternative Community,” pp. 8-9. Bosch wrote:
“The church has tremendous significance for society precisely because it [exists] as a uniquely separate community . . . . We have to work consistently for the renewal of the church—the alternative community—and precisely in that way at the renewal of society.” (Emphasis added)
Bosch’s definition of the church as a uniquely separate community seems to contradict his strong aversion to the Apartheid system. Wasn’t it the “doctrine of separateness” of the Apartheid system that led the politicians to believe that they could change and renew society? And yet, Bosch advocated an alternative community (the church) as precisely the entity to renew society. How can a uniquely separate community (embodied in the church) renew the society when today’s society advocates unity in diversity, centralization and globalization? Either the church needs to transform into a unified society or the society needs to be transformed into a uniquely separate church community. Having seen the direction the emergent church is going it is obvious that the missional church is opting for a unified and centralized community or society. As soon as the ecclesiae flirt with politicized methods (such as social action or activism) to transform, renew or refurbish society in order to stamp out social injustices, disparities between the rich and the poor and other communal discrepancies, they inevitably need to shift and even erase boundaries so as to engage different cultures and religions in an effort to find joint ways to reform society. In some instances it inadvertently and in others deliberately leads to a compromise of one’s beliefs and principles. To illustrate, I would like to quote to you what Lesslie Newbigin said in an interview in 1988. Newbigin hailed Bosch’s book Transforming Mission as “a kind of Summa Missiologica” that “will surely be the indispensable foundation for the teaching of missiology for many years to come.” (This endorsement is found on the back cover of the paperback version of Transforming Mission). Andrew Walker interviewed Bishop Lesslie Newbigin in 1988.
WALKER: How do you answer people when they say to you, ‘Why, Bishop Newbigin, do you believe in the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ?’ I mean, how would you suggest to a modern world that such a belief is credible?
NEWBIGIN: Well, ultimately, of course (and here we see my Reformed background), I come to the doctrine of election. I mean that by his mysterious grace God took hold of me, an unbelieving, pondering person, and put me in a position where the reality of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, became for me the one clue that I could follow in making sense of a very perplexing world.
The test, of course, can only come at the end. I would want to claim that that clue ultimately gives one a kind of rationality that is more inclusive of the whole of human experience than the real, though limited, rationality of the reductionist and rationalist scientific point of view. But at the end of the day, we have to wait for the day of judgment. There is an element of risk, there is an element of commitment involved, where you don’t pretend to have something – that is, if there were some way by which I could prove the authority of Jesus Christ from outside, then that would be my authority and not Jesus Christ. I can only point to him.
WALKER: Given that you can point to him, do you think it reasonable or unreasonable to suggest that to be a Christian does involve some minimal amount of beliefs?
NEWBIGIN: Oh yes, surely it does.
WALKER: I mean, if somebody was to come here, put you into a corner and say, ‘Now look here Bishop, what have you got to believe to be a believing Christian?’, what would you say were the basics?
NEWBIGIN: I would simply say, ‘Jesus Christ, the final and determinative centre around which everything else is understood.’ If that is there, I am not enthusiastic about drawing exact boundaries. I think you can define an entity by its boundaries or by its centre. I think that Christianity is an entity defined by its centre. So provided a person is, as it were, ‘looking to Jesus’, and seeing him as the central, decisive, determinative reality in relation to which all else is to be understood, then even if his ideas are weird or off-beat, I would regard him as a brother in Christ. (Emphasis added)
According to Lesslie Newbigin and his rendering of the doctrine of election, Jesus Christ is apparently merely the one clue which all men can follow to make sense of a very perplexing world. His statement fits in perfectly well with the emergent perspective of being a follower of Christ. Jesus Christ is no longer the unique Way, Truth and Life because such an exclusive assertion stifles a working relationship between the church and the non-Christian religions who find it very offensive. Christ is seen merely as the epitome of sacrificial living which He demonstrated in His sacrificial death on the cross, motivating his followers to follow his example, to topple the walls of social injustices and make sense of a very perplexing world. The problem is that this is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nowhere between the two covers of the entire Bible are Christians given a mandate to renew or change society. Their mandate is to go into all the world, make disciples of individuals within every society (nation) and to teach them to observe everything He commanded them to do.
To see Jesus Christ as the epicentre of one’s existence is a very noble and honourable thing to do, but what significance does the epicentre have, if any, when it is stripped of exact boundaries? (i.e. exact doctrines such as “I am the Way the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.”) Surely, the entrenchment of Jesus Christ as the epicentre of your life involves obedient submission to His doctrines and His calling to herald the unadulterated doctrines of His grace (2 John verse 9). Before I continue, it is of the utmost importance to articulate very carefully what is meant by the drawing or setting up of doctrinal boundaries. First of all, it does not entail a separation or exclusion of people from the mercies of God (Titus 2:11). God extends His grace to all people, no matter what their present position with regard to their creed, race, and ethnicity may be. Consequently, these exact doctrinal boundaries are not drawn to exclude people who are presently confined within the boundaries of other faiths but to break through those boundaries, and to translate the confined within those boundaries out of their present position in the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of His dear Son (Colossians 1:13). The translation is thus a transference from without the confines of one set of kingdom boundaries into the confines of another set of Kingdom boundaries where bound sinners are set free in Jesus Christ. In essence it an individualistic salvific experience through faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the demands of His Gospel, by which each and every individual repentant sinner is placed on the Rock within the boundaries of the Kingdom of God, the boundaries being the sovereign will of God as expressed in His eternal doctrines. The post modern missionary model has shifted from an individualistic salvific experience to a communal, transformational and reconciliatory missional paradigm which finds its niche in the emergent church’s view of the Kingdom of God — an all inclusive universalistic Kingdom which is perhaps defined best by Rob Bell’s statementBoth the Reformed en Emergent fraternities have a keen interest in the establishment and progression of God’s Kingdom on earth, Lesslie Newbigin says:
The church is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God. It calls men and women to repent of their false loyalty to other powers, to become believers in the one true sovereignty, and so to become corporately a sign, instrument, and foretaste of that sovereignty of the one true and living God over all nature, all nations, and all human lives. It is not meant to call men and women out of the world into a safe religious enclave but to call them out in order to send them back as agents of God’s kingship. – Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks
Newbigin’s call to repentance is not based on the individual’s need to confess his own personal sins to a holy and righteous God who extends His arm of unlimited grace through the finished work of His Son on the cross to every single human being, but on the need for a corporate change of loyalties, i.e. a corporate and societal transformation. David Bosch had a similar view of the Kingdom.
As we call people (back) to faith in God through Jesus Christ, we must help them to articulate an answer to the question ‘What do we have to become Christians for?’ At least part of the answer to this question will have to be: ‘In order to be enlisted into God’s ministry of reconciliation, peace, and justice on earth.’ It should be natural for Christians to be committed to these values. In a sense . . . there is already very much believing in Western society. What we do not need, then, is to introduce more religion. The issue is not to talk more about God in a culture that has become irreligious, but how to express, ethically, the coming of God’s reign, how to help people respond to the real questions of their context,how to break with the paradigm according to which religion has to do only with the private sphere.” — David J. Bosch, Believing in the Future (Emphasis added)
Here again the communal transformational and reconciliatory missional model as opposed to the individualistic salvific model comes to the fore. In his book “Transforming Mission” Bosch wrote:
Even so, personal conversion is not a goal in itself. To interpret the work of the church as the ‘winning of souls’ is to make conversion into a final product, which flatly contradicts Luke’s understanding of the purpose of mission. Conversion does not pertain merely to an individual’s act of conviction and commitment; it moves the individual believer into the community of believers and involves a real — even a radical — change in the life of the believer, which carries with it moral responsibilities that distinguish Christians from ‘outsiders’ while at the same time stressing their obligation to those ‘outsiders’. (David Bosch: Transforming Mission, pg. 117)
Jesus’ mission was first and foremost to the individual sinner. He came to seek and to save the lost sinner (Luke 19:10). This is borne out by his salvific encounters with individuals like Nicodemus, Zacchaeus,, the Samaritan Woman, Mary (Lazarus’ sister) who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, the blind man on whose eyes the Lord put clay to heal him, Peter, Paul and many others. Hadn’t personal conversion been uppermost in Jesus’ mind, He wouldn’t have given so much of his time to talk to and present His Gospel to individual persons. Missiology would indeed have been a non sequitur if it was not focused on the salvation of the lost individual which, to reiterate, was the main purpose for Jesus’ incarnation and not the transformation or renewal of whole societies. In fact, Jesus Himself said that very few people are being saved because the majority do not find the strait gate and the narrow way (Matthew 7:13 & 14). One of the reasons why so many are not finding the strait gate and narrow way is because it is so fundamentally and inexorably narrow-minded. It is too exclusive and condescending according to the emergent adherents. By the by, in another virulent attack on fundamentalists, Cobus van Wyngaard said the following on his blog recently:
In his [Scot McKnight’s] book Finding Faith Losing Faith he talks about a number of crisis that leads to de-conversion. I’ll order the book sometime, and will mention them more when I get the book, but form [sic] today’s talk Scot confirmed one thing: Fundamentalism creates extremely good soil for atheism to flourish in. I’ve been saying this for a long time now. The crisis that fundamentalism creates is that an expectation on infallibility [sic] of the Bible is created that cannot be met, and the text never intended to meet, when that realisation dawn on someone, it has the potential of leading to atheism.
It appears that Rev. Cobus van Wyngaard welcomes Scot McKnight’s attack on fundamentalism as an ex cathedra announcement of pure infallibility. Today’s emergent de-converted “saints” are strangely prone to an infallible choice of making fallible men the epicentre of their lives while claiming to be followers of Jesus Christ who once uttered the most fundamental truth in the history of mankind — “no one comes to the Father but through me.” The apostle Luke penned down an equally fundamental truth in the book of Acts that echoes Jesus’ words in John 14:6: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” Is Luke’s missionary dictum in Acts 4:12 fallible? If Cobus is correct in saying that God’s Word is fallible and that any claim to infallibility breeds atheists, why do the DRC clergy want to learn from Acts about how to be a missional church? It is preposterous to think that you will be able to proclaim Luke’s missionary dictum while you have doubts about the infallibility of God’s Word, unless of course you want to convert fundamentalist bred atheists to your own status of so-called de-converted Jesus-followers.
To reiterate: Jesus Christ is no longer the Way, the Truth and the Life because the non-Christian religions with whom the post modern missional church aims to work together to bring about an ethical transformation in society, find that doctrine highly offensive. Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is merely an example of sacrificial living in behalf of the poor and the destitute and the means to take on social injustices, poverty, crime and violence. There are several examples of this of which the most recent is Rick Warren’s PEACE PLAN. To accomplish a global transformational paradigm shift He suggests that we need to have a critical mass and in order for that to happen there must be a crossing of all barriers – unity is a must! “Critical mass” is a scientific term which, used in a societal frame, refers to “an explosion in global consciousness capable of ‘touching’ or transforming all of humankind.” The idea is that when a certain critical number of people all share the same awareness, then change can come to all people’s thinking because of the critical mass.”
From(pastors.com) “This is a time, which calls for a critical mass of transformational leaders who will commit to creating a synergy of energy within their circle of influence so new level of social, economic, organizational and spiritual success can be reached. We have not, however, developed the leaders we need for this noble task. To reach such heights, we will need to un-tap the leadership potential of skilful leaders who are successfully directing various organizations and systems. Some of these men and women, knowledgeable and committed, to there profession, will be the transformational leaders we need to create the needed synergy of energy.” (Emphasis added)
Are the DRC leaders’ efforts to birth a new missional strategy in South Africa focused on achieving this critical mass? The DRC clergy are already talking about “Mission as reconciliation” (Klippies Kritzinger) and “Acts being a book about crossing boundaries.” (Cobus van Wyngaard, My Contemplations). Here’s what Cobus and so many other DRC reverends believe:
Our group worked on Acts 15-20. Between 11:00 and 12:00 today, we identified the following as the most important theological thread for South Africa today:
Looking at our text, but also at the whole of Acts, we notice that Acts tell the story of boundaries that was crossed. Of course, we didn’t notice this first, the scholars that introduced he discussion also pointed us to this. However, what we believe is important is that the boundary crossing always caused the Jerusalem church to change their theology. When Peter visit Cornelius, the theology change. At the meeting in Jerusalem, the fact that boundaries have been crossed changes the theology.
That we need to cross boundaries is commonly accepted in South Africa today. But crossing boundaries need to change the theology of those on the inside. (Emphasis in the original text).
It is rather sad to hear learned men of the cloth say that the church at Jerusalem in the book of Acts always changed it’s theology and that when Peter visited Cornelius the theology also changed. The fact of the matter is that their theology never changed. If Peter’s, all the other apostles’ and the Jerusalem church’s theology needed change every time they crossed boundaries it would mean that their original theology was erroneous and that their conversion experience was false. What was their theology? The apostle Peter received their theology from the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when he encapsulated it as follows:
1) Jesus Christ was crucified and slain. (. . . this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death (Acts 2:23).
2) Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. (But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power (Acts 2:24)
3) His resurrection was prophesized in advance according to the Scriptures. (And so, because he [David] was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne, he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay (Acts 2: 30, 31).
4) His sacrificial death and resurrection demands a response through faith unto the remission of sins. Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 38)
Paul proclaimed the very same message much later in his first letter to the Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 15:1-5 Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
It was not the early church’s theology that changed or needed to change but some of the Jewish Christians’ perceptions in regard to God’s dealings with the gentiles. Peter’s vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven, containing clean and unclean animals, was not to teach him that he needed to alter his theology but to discard his Hebraic version of “Apartheid” which led him to believe that he would become unclean if he supped and dined with gentiles. He was rather slack in his understanding of Jesus’ words “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” ”Any man” to him seemed to have referred to the Jews only, in much the same way the Calvinists regard “any man” or “the world” as a reference to the predestined elect only. Peter’s mind and attitude, not his theology, was changed when he came to the following conclusion :
Acts 15:9-11 “He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Emphasis added)
Have you noticed the profundity of Peter’s statement? Peter said in effect: “We, the Jews, are saved in the very same way they, the gentiles are saved — by faith and faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross” He did not say that they, the Gentiles, are saved the same way as we, the Jews are. Peter’s statement of faith reached back into history 430 years before the Law was given and when Abraham, then still a Gentile, was made righteous through his faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3;17, 18). Gone was Peter’s exclusive brand of Hebraic Apartheid between Jewish and Gentile Christians who believed the same way. Does that imply that Christians have the right to change their theology or to compromise their faith when cultural boundaries are crossed? By no means, for if they do they cannot claim to believe the same way as Peter or the Gentile Christians in Acts to whom he referred.
Now, let us return to Newbigin’s doctrine of election. The question is, how do you reconcile two apparently irreconcilable opposites — the one, a system which draws exact boundaries between the elect and the non-elect (reprobate) and contained one of the building bricks in the wall of Apartheid, and the other, a system which promotes and works toward an all inclusive universalistic spirituality? How can someone like Lesslie Newbigin hold to the doctrine of election and simultaneously regard someone with weird and off-beat ideas as a brother in Christ? Hadn’t Newbigin categorically stated that he believes in the doctrine of election, his testimonial that “even if his ideas are weird or off-beat, I would regard him a a brother in Christ,” could have been contributed to Brian McLaren who made the following weird and off-beat statement:
“I must add, though, that I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.” (A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 260) (Emphasis added).
Lighthouse Trails had this to say about McLaren’s weird and off-beat antics.
Is Brian McLaren becoming an enemy of the Cross of Jesus Christ? While his signature and endorsement on the back of such books as Tony Campolo‘s “Speaking My Mind” and Dave Fleming’s “The Seeker’s Way,” was horrible enough, that was mild compared to what he has now done.
In the midst of the Purpose Driven craze and an apparently sleeping church, Brian McLaren has endorsed a book that calls the doctrine of the Cross a vile doctrine. (p. 168, Reimagining Christianity – Alan Jones) (Emphasis added).
You may want to take me to task for making a connection between Lesslie Newbigin and Brian McLaren but before you do that I would like to draw your attention to an even more shocking notion that is making headway in the ranks of our new generation of South African pastors, one that needs to be taken very seriously, and that is the view that David Bosch is having a major influence on the emergent church in South Africa. The following very telling statement appears on Cobus van Wyngaard’s blog My Contemplations
For I believe a growing group of us, the work of David Bosch is becoming key to the emerging conversation in South Africa. He’s had an important influence on thinkers such as Alan Hirsch and Brian McLaren, he is South African, he wrote brilliantly, and on the questions that we are currently asking. So in attempting to answer the question I’ll refer to my own and other’s interpretation of Bosch, and show where I believe Bosch is guiding us at the moment. (Emphasis added)
If David Bosch is one of Brian McLaren’s major influences, he was indeed far ahead of his time but that certainly does not mean it is something to be admired. In fact, the church as a whole should be very concerned about the DRC’s apparent interest in the book of Acts while they are actually promoting the contemplative spiritualties of the Desert Fathers and their disciples. Of even greater concern is the fact that David Bosch adopted Hans Kung’s “Paradigm Theory” in his book “Transforming Mission” in an attempt “to demonstrate the extent to which the understanding and practice of mission have changed during almost twenty centuries of Christian missionary history.” (For a critique of Bosch’s use of paradigm theory, see Gerald Pillay, “Text, Paradigms, and Context: An Examination of David Bosch’s Use of Paradigms in the Reading of Christian History,” in Mission in Creative Tension, ed. J. N. J. Kritzinger and W. A. Saayman (Pretoria: Southern African Missiological Society, 1990), pp. 109-23.). To get a better insight into Hans Kueng’s missiological paradigms I suggest you read here. It gives you an idea of the direction the missional or “sent churches” in South Africa are taking and it does not look good — not good at all.
Deut 13: 1-3 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Emphasis added)