Ways Lesslie Newbigin Helped to Cultivate a More Robust Missional Ecclesiology
Lesslie Newbigin has made significant contributions to ecclesiology. First, along with with Bosch, he helped recover the missionary nature of the church by reminding us that mission is not primarily a task given the church, but the church in her essence is missionary, just as God is a missionary God. His eschatological vision of all people from all over the world under one God, drove his ecumenical spirit to seek to bring what he saw as three ecumenical streams (preaching of the gospel, right administration of the sacraments and the Pentecostal approach) together. He shares the strengths that the various branches of Christianity have, but how all are necessary. He demonstrates through Acts 19 that the main question is: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Not what Protestants might ask, “Did you believe exactly what we teach?” And not what Catholics or Orthodox might ask, “Were the hands that were laid on you our hands” (156)? The Holy Spirit unifies the body of Christ. Finally, Newbigin brought significant clarity to the “relationship between ecclesiology, mission and the contemporary Western culture” (157). He brought to light people’s epistemological presuppositions, thus he has helped the church to both affirm and critique culture; modernity (modern scientific rationality that led to individualism) on the one hand, and the “nihilism and hopelessness” of postmodernity on the other. Newbigin helped us understand the importance of becoming missionaries to our own culture, thus enrichening our understanding of contextualization.
Each of these contributions has helped to reshape my own understanding of the church over the last ten years. My first exposure to the Christian church was through well meaning, sincere Christians who had a foundationalist approach to epistemology based in the enlightenment project or modernity. This resulted in an individualistic, privatized and transactional approach to salvation, which failed to address systemic injustice, and thus was rightly viewed as quite shallow and self-serving to those outside of faith. We were shaped to believe that we saw the truth “objectively,” thus contextualization was not as necessary and the gospel became a proof text. This narrowing of the gospel tended to separate personal morality from social justice and justification from sanctification in such a way that the good news became irrelevant for this life and thus ineffectual for cosmic transformation. As Newbigin says, “The idea of salvation that is a completed experience for each of us privately, apart from the consummation of all things, is a monstrous contradiction in terms” (153). In addition, because we saw truth “objectively” there was little appreciation to have an ecumenical spirit, for Roman Catholics and Orthodox, and even some Pentecostals, were simply outside of the faith. Finally, mission was looked on more as a task to accomplish, than an essence to be lived out. Exposure to Newbigin and others years ago has helped me to have a more robust gospel and a healthier approach to living missionally by recognizing that “being” proceeds “doing”. And finally, a more biblical eschatology has given me a greater heart and vision to pursue the gift that God has given us – the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. For as we understand where God is taking us, a people from every tongue and tribe and nation under one God, we can start living the future in the present.