While our Reformed churches haven’t been lax in doing mission, we certainly haven’t been prolific in writing about it. Our work in the area of missiology (the study of mission) has been notoriously miniscule. This is a shame for two reasons. First, Reformed theology has a lot to offer the field of missiology in general. Second, in the last half-century there have been some deeply concerning developments in this field which Reformed theology is well-equipped to address. These developments are not just theoretical, but have an immense practical bearing. Not only would our churches and their missionary activities benefit from more Reformed missiological reflection, so would many other Christians.
To that end, I’d like to introduce you to a document developed by The Southgate Fellowship (TSF). As they describe themselves,
TSF is a fellowship of theologians, missiologists, and reflective practitioners fully committed to the visible church and her Christ-appointed mission. In obedience to Christ and his Word, TSF exists to advance biblical thinking and practice in world mission, as captured in the solas of reformational theology.
TSF started meeting in 2016 and participants hailed from Canada, the United States, and Europe. The TSF Council consists of several men, three of whom are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America, two are (Reformed) Baptists, one is an Anglican, and one is from the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
This year, TSF published its “Affirmations and Denials Concerning World Mission.” This document was published in the journal Themelios. It’s also readily available on the TSF website. This document (hereafter AD) contains 100 sets of affirmations and denials on a host of contemporary missiological issues. Some of those issues include: the authority and nature of the Bible as revelation from God, extra-biblical revelation (such as dreams), contextualization, whether salvation is possible apart from Jesus Christ, and the relationship between word and deed ministry.
I have great appreciation and approval for almost all of AD. What I appreciate most is that it begins with a high view of the authority of Scripture:
We affirm that Scripture authoritatively and uniquely reveals and explains the meaning of the redemptive work of God in history, centering in and accomplished by Jesus Christ, and provides authoritative and sufficient instruction for faith and obedience, including authoritative and sufficient instruction for faithful dissemination of that unique message. (1e)
AD presents a view of Scripture which every Reformed believer ought to affirm – one which is in full agreement with what we confess in the Belgic Confession. This is solid rock on which to build the rest of the affirmations and denials.
For example, the word “uniquely” implies that no other “sacred text” is in the same category:
We deny that one can pick aspects of the non-biblical sacred texts and declare them in any way to be Holy Spirit-inspired. (12d)
Furthermore, the Bible alone is God’s ordinary means of salvation. Then what about dreams or visions?
We affirm that if God were to use extraordinary means today (e.g. miraculous events, dreams or visions), that these occurrences should be interpreted providentially either as pre-evangelistic praeparatio [preparation], uncommon tools in God’s hand for sovereignly drawing people to himself, or as divinely purposed tools for hardening unbelievers in their unbelief. (15a)
I appreciate how AD seeks to do justice both to the unique nature of the Bible as well as the reports one sometimes reads of how people are drawn in through unusual means.
TSF is also to be commended for their biblical definition of mission. AD asserts that mission involves the “verbal proclamation of the gospel, by which the Spirit of Christ calls people to turn in repentance and exercise faith, for the glory of God” (66a). The greatest need of sinful human beings is Jesus Christ. So where does that leave Christian acts of mercy? They’re not mission, according to AD. However, mercy ministry can never be separated from mission (74a); they belong together. Missionaries who show no compassion for the suffering and needy are not carrying out a faithful ministry (73b).
There are many more positive points I could mention, but I want this brief overview to give you a taste so you’ll go and check it out for yourself.
I also want to highlight a couple of areas that could be problematic. Even though AD is long, it still lacks a lot of context. There are points where I wish there was further explanation. This is especially in the section on ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). For example, I put a question mark behind this statement:
We affirm the value of working across denominational boundaries (within or without mission agencies), according to biblical principles of ecumenism. (77a)
My question would be: what are “biblical principles of ecumenism”? How are those defined?
Similarly, in the same section, there are affirmations and denials regarding the relationship of churches to mission agencies and parachurch organizations. Two worth noting:
We affirm that visible churches bear the primary responsibility for the theological, moral, and ministry-method oversight of missionaries. (75a)
We affirm that the visible church has the primary responsibility to recruit, mobilise and send individual church members into mission. (75b)
The qualifier “primary” is what grabs my attention here. Why not “exclusive” responsibility? If we’re working from a biblical perspective, isn’t it the church (and only the church) which sends out, supervises, and supports missionaries? Also, I’m perplexed about the use of the plural ‘churches’ in 75a and the use of the singular ‘church’ in 75b – I’m not sure if there’s a fine theological point being made there.
While I’m generally appreciative of the section on culture, there seems to be an overstatement of its relationship to religion. Affirmation 87a reads:
We affirm that the word ‘culture’ is used generally to describe the shared set of artefacts, characteristics, meanings, and values that give shape to the total corporate life of a group of people.
That’s a fairly conventional definition for our day. I would note the mention of “artefacts” – this is referring to things like eating utensils, cooking implements, and musical instruments. Older definitions of culture by Reformed theologians like Klaas Schilder often ignored this aspect of culture, so I’m glad it’s included here. But these statements then raise questions:
We affirm that culture and religion are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, the latter informing the former. (90a)
We deny that any facet of human culture may truly be a-moral, a-theological, or a-religious. (90b)
I wonder: if chopsticks are a facet of human culture, how are they, in themselves as material artefacts, related to religion? It seems to me that their use is what ties them to religion, i.e. whether you use them to eat to the glory of the true God. This could use some clarification.
It’s a long document and fairly comprehensive, but there are some things barely mentioned or not at all. For instance, I’d like to see more about the historic creeds and confessions. They’re mentioned in the section on the Trinity (22a), as well as in 71a’s affirmation about how local theologians should be accountable to “formulations of the Christian faith.” This is good, but I wish there was more. I also wish that AD had statements regarding worship and the place of women in mission.
Overall, AD is as faithful and comprehensive statement on mission as I’ve seen from a biblical perspective. In 1999, the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission released its Iguassu Affirmation. While that statement had some biblical content, it doesn’t really measure up to what the Southgate Fellowship has produced. Any Reformed believer interested in mission (which should be all of us!) ought to read and study these Affirmations and Denials. Perhaps it will stimulate the further development and expression of Reformed missiology in our circles and beyond.