Unity of the Church and Mission

Bosch has an interesting section in his chapter on “The Missionary Paradigm of the Eastern Church”, where he discusses the relation between the church and mission in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In understanding missional paradigms, it’s important to understand the “why” behind the “what”. This becomes very important during the medieval paradigm. The Orthodox paradigm may seem rather inert compared to present day enterprises, but I think they deserve credit for stressing the oneness of the church so much in their understanding of mission. Sometimes it’s easy (dizzying really) to look at all the missional endeavors, justifications, and causes today and forget that there is a unified, organic, concrete whole that functions as the container of God’s blessing and the expression of His grace. When that corporate vessel is endangered, maybe it’s time to reevaluate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

In Orthodox thinking mission is thoroughly church-centered.

“The church is the aim of mission, not vice versa” (Bria 1980:8).

The “ecclesial character” of mission means “that the Church is the aim, the fulfillment of the Gospel, rather than an instrument or means of mission.” The church is part of the message it proclaims. (Bria 1975:245).

In the Orthodox perspective mission is thus centripetal rather than centrifugal, organic rather than organized.

If mission is a manifestation of the life and worship of the church, then mission and unity go together… For the Orthodox the Great Schism of 1054 had far-reaching consequences. Whereas the Catholic Church continued with its missionary outreach without interruption, particularly after the fifteenth century, and Protestant churches and mission agencies each embarked on their own outreach to those who lived beyond the borders of historical Christendom, the Orthodox could not easily do the same. When the unity was broken, “the Orthodox Church saw its mission altered from evangelism to a search for Christian unity” (Stamoolis 1986:110)… Since the church is Christ’s body, and there is only one body, the unity of the church is the unity of Christ, by the Spirit, with the triune God. Any division of Christians is therefore “a scandal and an impediment to the united witness of the church” (Bria 1986:69). Tragically, from the Orthodox point of view, we only too often convert people not to this one church, the body of Christ, but to our own denomination, at the same time imparting to them the “poison of division” (Nissiotis 1968:198).

–David J Borsch, Transforming Mission, pp. 207-208

14 thoughts on “Unity of the Church and Mission

  1. Credit is definitely due. That is a very noble mission. I don’t have much contact with many Orthodox Christians, but I don’t get a sense that mission to unify the church has survived until today. Doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful pattern.

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  2. Kyle,

    I’m more familiar with and influenced by Christopher Wright’s concept that “mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission” (The Mission of God).

    But these last few posts you’ve done on the Orthodox Church have been insightful, and are stretching my mind!

    I want more.

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    • Hey Chris,

      I think everyone would agree that mission and the church are mutually dependent entities that interface at an organic level. Breaking up mission into 2 facets may help. To me, direct mission is for the church. Preaching the gospel is step one in building up the church, which I understand as the goal of God’s eternal purpose (Eph 3:9-11). But the church is for indirect mission in that the church (as the New Jerusalem) will forever express and glorify God to the whole universe. In this sense the church was created for a greater mission than the salvation of sinners. It is the means AND goal of God’s mission, His eternal purpose to become one with His chosen and redeemed people to be expressed by them.

      If you understand that the church was made for mission, how do you understand mission? If it’s direct mission, then what happens to those who are saved by the mission of the church? They become part of the church, the body of Christ. Doesn’t this in some sense mean that mission is for the church? I haven’t read Wright’s book though, so it would help to understand how he means that quote.

      The contemporary use of the phrase “being on mission” (embodying the gospel in our living or as Paul said, to live is Christ) aligns closely with how I might understand “the church was made for mission.” Similar to Paul’s desire to magnify Christ in any situation in Philippians.

      I haven’t finished Bosch’s book either. This was just his assessment of the Greek Orthodox missional paradigm. I have to wait to the end to find out how HE actually views everything. Stay posted!

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      • Very good–this makes sense. And I certainly resonate with this,

        In this sense the church was created for a greater mission than the salvation of sinners. It is the means AND goal of God’s mission, His eternal purpose to become one with His chosen and redeemed people to be expressed by them.

        Thanks for explaining a bit more, brotha. Staying tuned!

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  3. This is an interesting read. Western Christianity certainly seems to downplay the importance of the unity of the church, although such unity is strongly emphasized in the Bible (see John 17 and Ephesians 4). We would do well to open to the Lord and allow Him to impress us with the importance of oneness in the Body of Christ.

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    • > Western Christianity certainly seems to downplay the importance of the unity of the church

      I think the idea of the unity of the church to many Christians I talk to is like this: External unity is just not going to happen. There won’t be any reconciliation of denominations to each other. There’s not even unity within the denominations themselves. So the oneness has to be sought out on a more interpersonal level, between individual believers.

      I think its much better than NO oneness, but it doesn’t fix the problem of a compromised testimony of the church. The testimony of the church is the core of the issue, to me.

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      • That’s definitely the impression I get too, but I think it’s selling ourselves short. The biblical data indicates there was a real and vibrant unity among all the Christians in a city. Corinth was the notable exception and Paul addressed it as a major issue. While this might not be entirely possible today (not because of logistics but because of unwillingness) it is possible to take an inclusive basis toward all genuine believers. I think Witness Lee’s aphorism for a local church is spot on: special, general, practical.

        Also, I added some links that may reflect some of the common sentiments toward unity.

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        • Aphorism, I like that. It’s going in the quiver.

          I read a few of those links you posted. It’s nice to know that some Christians are thinking about those kinds of things. One of the authors, Kevin DeYoung, makes a good point that it starts with clearly defining the limits of the faith. I like how he puts it:

          > We need to know what constitutes the irreducible core of the Apostolic gospel.

          That’s not as simple as it sounds. Even in Witness Lee’s book Speciality, Generality, and Practicality of the Church Life (which you reference), he admits that one of his tenants (one church, one city) would not be accepted by all as part of the “irreducible core”. Can an Russian Orthodox and a Southern Baptist (for example) come to consensus on what is and is not included in the irreducible core? I would love to sit in on that discussion.

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    • John 17:21- “that they all may be one… the world may believe” obviously indicates a visible and practical unity. There are around 80 Christian groups at UT and it’s amazing how much discord or suspicion there is among them. It’s hardly a situation of unity. I know that they’re not all churches, but it is a microcosm of the attitude that denominations and different ministries can create.

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