Why must Mission be Theologically Driven?


To assess why mission must be theologically driven, we will approach the question from three perspectives. Firstly, we will make a brief overview of the theological basis of mission in the Bible. Secondly, we will look at theologically-driven mission in church history. Finally, we will survey the shortcomings of attempts to divorce theology and mission.

Theologically-Driven Mission in Scripture

Bible & Culture

We will begin with the assumption that Christian mission must be biblical. By biblical, we mean  the Bible is the authority, or “norming norm,” of the local church.[1] So, for Frame, Scripture “contains all the divine words needed for any aspect of human life” and is “always clear enough for us to carry out our present responsibilities before God.”[2] Likewise, for Grudem, Christians are to “emphasize what Scripture emphasizes and be content with what God has told us in Scripture.”[3] Thus, for every question churches have about what to think or do, including mission, “everything God wants to tell us about that question is to be found in Scripture.”[4]

Our second assumption is that mission is an attempt at cultural change. Conn defines culture as “the common ideas, feelings, and values that guide community and personal behavior, that organize and regulate what the group thinks, feels, and does about God, the world, and humanity.”[5] People are universally alike yet unique, and the area between these two points is culture – where people with similar pasts, preferences, practices, and presuppositions cluster. Mission, by its nature, is outgoing, attempting to influence or change a surrounding or foreign culture. It seeks to affect what that culture “thinks, feels, and does” (in older terminology, the mind, heart, and will) through the conversion of individual souls.

The grounds for this cultural project are theological. When “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14), God entered into human history in a particular time and place, and in a way relevant to that culture.[6]  Mission is the church applying that meeting of theology and culture to its own cultural context. Church is a theological community, but in mission it must become cultural, correctly understanding its special place, being in but not of the world (Jn 17:11-14), “locked in a conflict of love” with it.[7] This is reflected in the Nicene Creed’s ‘apostolic’ (sent out speaking to the world) but also ‘holy’ (set apart from the world) church.[8] Accordingly, Stott urges that “we listen to the Word in order to discover ever more of the riches of Christ. And we listen to the world in order to discern which of Christ’s riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light.”[9]

Any mission of cultural change must flow from the church’s theological nature, not replace it. We can see this in light of Scripture’s use of ambassadorial imagery (2 Cor 5:20). Dawn writes that when living in a foreign culture, an ambassador “need[s] the memories of being an alternative society in order… to resist… contemporary culture.”[10] This was proven possible in Christ’s 1st-century incarnate life, which was lived out amidst common culture, yet remained holy.[11]

The Great Commission

We can see the prominence of theology in the passage of Scripture which best encapsulates mission, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20:[12]

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

We can see here mission’s theological basis, content, means, and motivation.

Firstly, the theological basis is immediately apparent, arising from something that occurred within the Godhead. The ‘therefore’ (οὐν) in v19 points back to Jesus receiving all authority in heaven and on earth. This opens up a series of questions. Where did Jesus receive this authority from? Why and how did he receive it? What are the implications of him possessing it? These are theological questions, which require theological, Scriptural answers. The very foundation of the commission is Christ’s position on the throne over heaven and earth, so mission not conducted in light of this can hardly be Great Commission mission.

Secondly, the content of the commission is also grounded in Trinitarian theology. Baptism in Scripture is not merely an initiation ceremony; it has lasting theological implications (Rom 6:3-4, 1 Pet 3:21). The baptism is into the one name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[13] How can three persons share one name? This, too, is a theological question. ‘Making disciples’ and ‘teaching to obey’ requires someone to be a disciple of and obey. This suggests that Jesus is aiming for a knowledge of and living relationship with the Trinity, rather than repetition of a form of words or action. From Genesis to Revelation, the clear message is a theological, relational one. Scripture confronts us with a God against whom we have sinned, yet who has secured us an undeserved salvation. If, as Letham contends, this salvation is in union with Christ, then mission cannot be anything less than theologically-driven.[14] Consequently, the apostle Paul saw “his divine commission to bring the salvation of God to a fallen world [as] nothing other than his defense and proclamation of the gospel (Rom 1:14-17).”[15]

Thirdly, what of the means of carrying out the Great Commission? This too is theological, for “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” necessitates deep engagement with Scripture and the assistance of the indwelling Spirit. The commandments are not mere impersonal rules; rather, they are commanded by Jesus himself, and obedience is only possible in relationship with God (1 John 4:7-8).

Fourthly, the motivation offered (“I am with you always, to the end of the age”) is theological. It requires us to consider theological questions: in what sense is Christ with us? what are the implications of his presence? and what will happen at the end of the age?[16]

Theologically-Driven Mission in Church History

Mission Through the Ages

If mission in Scripture is theological, can the same be said of church history? Bosch divides missiological history into epochs characterised by differing mission paradigms. In Christianity’s initial years (Apocalyptic Paradigm), the church viewed itself as an eschatological community, which had massive implications on their lifestyle and witness.[17] This backgrounds one of the most contentious issues in 21st century mission; namely, how much should ‘mission’ deal with social concerns (present felt needs) and how much with theological ones (gospel proclamation in light of eschatology)? We will attempt to trace this question through the remainder of Bosch’s paradigms.[18]

Schnabel states that the initial “distance between church and society, between Christians and culture” was a result of this theological hope caused by new birth (1 Pet 1:3).[19] The Hellenistic Paradigm, however, saw an increasing engagement of Christianity with culture, which bore fruit in the Medieval Paradigm, seeing further blurring of the boundary between church (theological) and state (social) objectives. This manifested in so-called ‘missionary wars,’ which forced conversion to a universal institutionalised ‘Christendom’. A further blow to this symbiotic relationship between church and state was delivered during the Reformation Paradigm, by dividing the church. Secular anthropocentricism seen during the Enlightenment Paradigm made the split official. [20] The Enlightenment mentality “steadily but relentlessly whittled away the once so broad range of the church’s interests in all of life and society.”[21]

18th century revivals initially viewed social action as a result of gospel proclamation, not a partner.[22] Piper recounts that the missions movement in this era was “decidedly doctrinal,” and its “keynote… was the centrality of God and the glory of his sovereign grace.”[23] Eventually, though, social concerns crept in, and, writes Bosch, “missionaries, whether they intended to or not, became promoters of Western imperial expansion.”[24] Finally, the American Civil War effectively split evangelicalism into two sides.[25]  The one (which became liberalism) focused on cultural impact and social renewal. The other, (becoming fundamentalism) consolidated itself around theology, but remained inward-looking. As we shall see, neither had the whole picture.

The Temptation of Non-Theological Mission

The Role of Social Action

As we have seen, the church has at times left the theological dimensions of mission behind. The fruit of this liberal pursuit of social renewal without theological basis, content, means, and motivation, is that in most of the West there is now a “need to convince [nonbelievers] that there is such a thing as sin [and] moral, transcultural absolutes,” where before these were assumed.[26] Bible-centred Christianity is often perceived as being unconcerned or unconnected with social concerns, such as environmentalism, gender/racial egalitarianism, nuclear power, and body/mind well-being.[27]

Many churches are tempted to react by making social action projects (such as foodbanks) a more central part of their mission, divorcing them from any attempt to speak about spiritual Christian truths. Theological attempts have been made to show that social action should be the heart of mission. Bosch cites Barth grounding Christ’s sending of the church in God’s purpose (missio Dei) as an – albeit unintentional – contributing factor in the rise of this modern ‘social gospel’.[28] Since God’s mission is cosmic in scale, and since the church can participate in God’s mission, it is possible to see how “secularization and horizontalization” of mission (missio ecclesiae) occurred.[29]

That is not to say that the gospel is against social action or present-day change. Bavinck observes that Jesus’ compassion “not only encompasses spiritual ills and distresses but also is prompted as much by physical misery and material want.”[30]  The question is not whether these are right things to do, it is whether they are the church’s mission.[31] Stott attempted a more balanced view, trying to unite liberals and fundamentals around a “right synthesis of evangelism and social action.”[32] However, he did not go far enough. In pairing “a great commandment ‘love your neighbour’ and a great commission ‘go and make disciples,’” he accorded them almost equal weight, on the grounds that man (as both social and psycho-somatic being) requires holistic concern.[33] Engel and Dyrness follow Stott when they write that mission is “to extend the kingdom by infiltrating all segments of society with preference given to the poor, and allowing no dichotomy between evangelism and social transformation.”[34] There are several problems with this high place given to social action, particularly among the poor. Here, we briefly observe three: theological, exegetical, and pragmatic.

Theologically, Piper argues that for Jonathan Edwards, the biblical goal of missions is worship.[35] This simply cannot be brought about by non-theological missions. Neglecting the theological content of mission is a gospel issue, because the content of the gospel is Christ. Neglecting theology teaches that the gospel’s highest promise is positive change in this life. This collapses the glorious eschatological hope of Revelation 21-22 into present social projects, selling it far too short.

Exegetically, over-emphasis on social action is often supported using Luke’s supposed bias towards ‘the poor’. DeYoung and Gilbert critique this as missing the broader figurative meaning of ‘πτωχοῖς’ (‘to the poor’, Luke 4:18).[36] Bock says that although it doesn’t rule out an economic component, ‘poor’ is best seen here as a “soteriological generalisation.”[37]

The pragmatic concern is, as Chester writes, when attempting to balance social and theological concern in practice, there is always a proclivity towards neglecting theology.[38] This temptation is ever-present, because it is the theological elements of mission that the non-Christian will be most offended by. This “convenient theology of mission,” Yohannan argues, causes resources to become “sidetracked into the charitable social programs toward which the new governments of the former colonies were more sympathetic.”[39] Chester adds that without proclamation, the focus is on Christians and not Christ.[40]

Towards a Better Model

So what is the right place of social action in missions? Köstenberger and O’Brien affirm that “the sending of Jesus by the Father is still the essential mission,” but downplay continuity between missio Dei and missio ecclesiae.[41] Hesselgrave concludes, “’Kingdom mission’ was and remains uniquely the mission of Christ, though we are to witness to it… ‘Great Commission mission’ is uniquely ours and requires us to make disciples by preaching, baptising, and teaching the peoples of the earth.”[42] Kirk clarifies that Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto (Luke 4:16-19), though not missio ecclesiae, still contains guiding principles for the community it will form.[43] In DeYoung and Gilbert’s definition of mission, theological content is prioritised, but social concern remains rightfully implicit within “obey his commands now.”[44] Refining Engel and Dyrness’ view, in which love is central and proclamation the outcome, Chester writes that theological proclamation is central, but should “take place in the context of a life of love” (e.g. Mark 1:32-38).[45]

Similarly, Frame contends that the mission of the church is still the making of disciples, but this “inevitably leads to cultural transformation, as God’s righteousness is brought to bear on every aspect of human life.”[46] He upholds theology’s pre-eminence, but warns against accepting “a radical amillennialism that suggests there will be no improvement in society before Jesus comes” but to expect “little changes, fragmentary bits of progress”[47] Yohannan helpfully reminds us that “indirectly, the real Gospel produces more social change than all the efforts of the world combined.”[48] This is because only the real gospel has the power to renew hearts, minds, and wills, and thus bring about genuine cultural improvement.


There are too many ways to implement theologically-driven mission to count. Tentmaking (Acts 18:3; 1 Thess 2:9) and churches sharing personnel (Phil 2:19-30) are just two examples of this harmonic approach.  In this “new era of diaspora movement” (e.g. immigrants and exchange students), churches have the potential for church-centred, theologically-driven mission right on their doorsteps.[49] Winter and Koch highlight the strategic value of “reaching the more accessible fragments of these ‘global peoples’.”[50] This fits comfortably within our theologically-driven definition of appropriate world mission. These biblical structures, and others following their spirit, are as relevant to the 21st century as they were to the 1st, so long as they are applied with prayer and wisdom.


Theologically-driven Mission

We have seen that the mission of the church is theological in its basis, content, means, and motivation. We have also seen that in practice, neglecting this has weakened mission. If, as we said, mission seeks to affect genuine cultural change (i.e. heart, mind, and will), then the social action method seems ill-equipped for the task. Like the Reformers and the Puritans, we should seek to “restore the divine Word to its authoritative place, directing and energizing God’s people” for missions.[51]  Overall, then, DeYoung and Gilbert’s definition better reflects the theological nature of mission:

“to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”[52]

True mission, then, is theologically-driven, but bears the fruit of action and cultural change.

Graham Higson

Graham Higson

Graham Higson is a final year BA student at Union School of Theology, where he serving as student president. He worked for several years in South Korea as an English teacher, but has been exploring a call to pastoral ministry since 2012.
Graham Higson

Graham Higson

Graham Higson is a final year BA student at Union School of Theology, where he serving as student president. He worked for several years in South Korea as an English teacher, but has been exploring a call to pastoral ministry since 2012.