There is however a dark side of the Neo-Calvinistic movement known as Missionalism, which is the syncretizing of the Great Commandment with the Great Commission. One result is that that the gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven gets harnessed into being an engine and mechanism for the transformation of the Common (non-redemptive) Kingdom of Man.
These days in the Reformed world, there is no way of escaping Neo-Calvinism, or Postmillennial views. The voices within this particular framework are particularly susceptible to the news, and therefore particularly vocal during election cycles. There is what could be termed “election cycle Christianity”, where Christians become especially active based on what they’re seeing and hearing in the world.
There is however a dark side of the Neo-Calvinistic movement known as Missionalism, which is the syncretizing of the Great Commandment with the Great Commission. One result is that that the gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven gets harnessed into being an engine and mechanism for the transformation of the Common (non-redemptive) Kingdom of Man. Categories become erased, and both the language used and the assumptions brought into the Christian worldview is that they are all part of the same thing. We are to be “living out the gospel”.
So, naturally as the cultural strings are pulled in an election cycle the Missional church must not only be weeping on command with whatever suffering they have elevated into our sight this week, we must be swept up into the same sense of frustration at our own inability to change what desperately needs changing for the better. Cynicism at this is considered as a certain wrong-headed aloofness, and being non-political is not an option afforded to the Christian, because it’s all in the mix.
It is true that the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Man are connected, they meet in the life of the Christian. Christians are members of both kingdoms, and Missionalism has syncretized the Great Commission (preach the gospel, baptize, make disciples) and the Great Commandment (Love God and neighbor) together. Evangelism is the intersection where the all the category mixing begins. In order to reach the world, Missionalism teaches that we must come alongside the world, feel their plight, be for the justice that the world is for as the media pulls the string, take the right position, vote the right way, and use the right language. Only it appears that it must be left leaning, because that’s what direction pop-culture leans. One effect of this is the Church gives moral credence and cover to secular political movements.
There is a certain and attractive immediacy of this flavor of Christianity that does sound a lot like Paul becoming as a Jew among Jews and a Greek among Greeks, but there is a sort of compromising that can occur, more than that, it does occur, and it takes wisdom and discernment to even know what that means and how that might be, but the real issue is the mixing of theological categories that they have done.
I would argue that because of that, Neo-Calvinistic Missionalism is not something that God is blessing. Because it’s not a healthy or right view of Christianity or the Christian life. Right doctrine and good theology is used by the Missional movement, but it ultimately serves a different master. It’s ultimately a corruption of biblical Christianity, and it needs to be corrected, or better yet, abandoned.
That need for doctrinal correction is an important issue that I believe needs to be elevated in the Reformed world. The big blind spot that the missional movement has, its mixing of theological categories and mixing of the idea that we are both living-out and proclaiming the gospel.
The spirituality of the church needs to be reasserted, and a proper understanding taught of how Christians should live in God’s Two Kingdoms. The theological categories of law and gospel need to be kept distinct, and an understanding that the gospel is good news, not good works, and that we are not in any way living-out the gospel. We are simply proclaiming the gospel of what God has done in Christ two thousand years ago to save sinners like us and anyone who would believe. Good works are the Christian ethic, fruit every individual Christian is to bear, but they are not the good news. We are not the good news. We’re here to bear witness to the good news. It’s a message, a proclamation of something God did to save us and all who believe.
Instead of the Neo-Calvinistic emphasis on transformation, we should assert the historic Reformed understanding that there are two distinct kingdoms that God rules over. There is a Kingdom of Heaven (the redemptive kingdom of God) and a Common Kingdom of man (a non-redemptive kingdom God also rules over). Believers (God’s elect) are members of both kingdoms, but unbelievers (those who are not elect) are only a part of the Common Kingdom. The Common Kingdom is not eternal. It has a terminus. There is an end to it all on the great day of judgement, it and all those who are not elect have no eschatological future, they have no eternal life, and no future in the new heavens an the new earth.
The Common Kingdom is inaugurated covenantally in the promise God made with Noah and all of creation. That promise from God that He would never again destroy all life with a cataclysmic flood, but that things would continue, the rain falling on the just and unjust, until the last day, until all God’s purposes are complete and all His elect have been united to Christ through faith alone.
Christians are not given a mission to redeem the earth, or the culture or all things. That is not the mission God gave the church. The church is given the Great Commission to proclaim the gospel, baptize and make disciples. We individual Christians should love our neighbors. That is the Great Commandment given to all mankind, and it is a rule for the Christian life that we seek to love God and neighbor. As individuals we can and should certainly love our neighbors as the Holy Spirit calls us to and enables us to particularly in our own personal circles. Christians can certainly get involved in politics, and in various ways seek to limit some of the worst suffering in this fallen world. But that it’s not the mission of the church, that it’s not redemptive work, although it might (or it might not) gain an ear for the preaching of the gospel to some. Remembering that the common culture, God’s Common Kingdom has no eschatological future should help us to moderate our expectations of just how far those labors can go.
Here is a helpful example of the teaching that Paul gave to the church in Thessalonica. That the church there should “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] own affairs, and to work with [their] hands, as instructed, so that [they] may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thes 4:11-12)
This is contrary to many views of the Christian life in America that have followed Abraham Kuyper (a), who was a politically minded Christian theologian whose theology was in part a reaction to the government in the Netherlands having stopped funding churches as they had previously. He developed a system involving Christians interacting in their own different spheres of influence in life which he called “Calvinism as a life system”. This became a popular way to seek influence in the culture. The impact of his popular theology has shaped Christian thought immensely in the past 120 plus years, particularly in the Neo-Calvinist movement.
Neo-Calvinism holds a specific view of the “cultural mandate” (sometimes called dominion mandate) given to Adam to subdue and fill the earth. They hold that even though the cultural mandate was originally a part of the covenant of works that Adam was to fulfill, that instead of Christ fulfilling that mandate in the new heavens and the new earth in the age-to-come that Christ is calling on us in at least a partial fulfillment of that mandate in Christian lives in this current-age.
That since as Kuyper notes, there is no square inch of the universe that is not God’s, that God is calling us to be involved and somehow injecting the Christian worldview into every part of the domain of human existence. Some take that as requiring a more direct Christian civil governance, while others (Neo-Calvinistic Missionalism) argue we should seek to influence culture.
Either way this somehow makes us responsible not only for something that is part of the Covenant of Works, but that it also makes us involved in God’s temporary Common Kingdom, harnessing God’s eternal Kingdom of Heaven for this new mission.
This is at the heart of “Missionalism”, which is the theology of a missionary named Lesslie Newbigin (b), which has been popularized by Tim Keller. Pastor Keller has found a way to weave Reformed theology into this narrative of mission, which includes the idea that an authentic gospel (a gospel that reaches unbelievers) must include deeds. Which blurs the lines between the gospel as message and good deeds that we do.
One example of this theological commitment can be Pastor Keller’s 2018 New York Times article (c) where he clearly argues that Christians must vote (and it seems he prefers we vote Democrat), that being apolitical is not an option, but that we must weave what we do with the good news or else.
This is what has recently shaped a lot of the theological commitments in the PCA in issues involving social-justice such as racial inequalities, economic inequalities, and gender issues. Rather than being a Reformed Presbyterian denomination, there has been a particularly Neo-Calvinistic shift, which confidently assumes Missionalism is not only the proper form of Reformed Christianity, but it’s the only form to reach the world in this present evil age.
This redirecting of the mission of the Kingdom of Heaven to include positions and issues that are more in the realm of the Common Kingdom have had the effect of a change of emphasis on doctrinal issues to issues of ethics, where instead of doctrine informing ethic, ethics are beginning to shape doctrine. In many ways this seems like a replay of what happened in the mainline Churches earlier in the 20th century. It is my position that Missionalism as it is currently taught, needs to be rejected, and that even the Neo-Calvinistic view of Calvinism as a Life System needs to be rethought so that a proper Two-Kingdom perspective is in place in it. So that there is moderation as to how much influence, or how far influence goes, and to what end in the Common Kingdom. We should have more moderate expectations of those cultural efforts. We must not loose sight of the fact that we are not called to transform this world in this present evil age, and that is not the mission of the church. The gospel is not a tool or engine to bring about earthly utopias (right or left wing), or the city of God. That city comes down from heaven at the Eschaton (Rev 21:2), and that is the day we should all be looking forward to.
- M. White is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is used with permission.