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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 109–111 

Book Review

Theology of Mission: A Believers Church Perspective

John Howard Yoder. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014. 430 pages.

Reviewed by Titus Guenther

Those familiar with Yoder’s published work will find in Theology of Mission “some of the most striking material since The Politics of Jesus.” In spite of the fact that it originates from tape-recorded course lecture notes that were lost in storage for decades, this book is surprisingly current in its treatment of missiology. The course, taught at AMBS between 1964 and 1983, presents “a theological basis for a free church or believers church approach to Christian mission” (8). However, Yoder was no stranger to missionary practice. In his introduction to the book, Wilbert Shenk notes that Yoder “had a long-term interest and involvement in mission work and theology” (11). The book wrestles with the distinction between “right and wrong adaptations [of the missionary witness] to the new host culture” (35).

Those who know Yoder’s work will be surprised neither by his methodology nor the resulting insights. By integrating the biblical witness to God’s work in Jesus, a theology of the Trinity, believers church ecclesiology, a Christian peace ethic of discipleship, ecumenical relationships and inter-faith dialogue, Yoder lays the basis for mission after Christendom.

Theology of Mission demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of general church history as well as of particular denominational missionary theologies and engagements. As the main engine of the Modern Missionary Movement (1792–1970), the Pietist movement receives here both affirmation and criticism. Pietism undertook laudable initiatives but remained stuck between the established church and a biblical or believers church model. Although privileging the believers church’s embodiment of Christian witness in society, Yoder does not shy away from naming its shortcomings when it succumbs to isolationist tendencies.

The Great Commission, paramount to Christian mission, Yoder asserts, needs a “corrected” translation; rather than “go ye” it says “as you go.” As the communities of believers escape persecution or move about in search of a livelihood, they are to witness, teach, and baptize those who believe, inviting them to join the renewed people of God. This led Yoder to develop “migration evangelism,” which is developed throughout this collection. In migration evangelism a modest-sized group of Christians, rather than individual missionaries, relocates into a new culture or country to live out a holistic gospel communally while making their home in the new cultural surrounding. A distinct advantage of group migration over individual missionaries is that the group demonstrates what a community practicing gospel values looks like. {110}

As part of his theology of mission, Yoder challenges systematic theology’s conception of God at its core with his biblical reinterpretation of the Trinity. Rather than systematic theology’s static conception of God, the biblical Trinity reveals a “sending God.” That is, “in church history, the Trinity had a significant function as a way of saying that sending, reaching out, loving and being gracious is God’s very nature and not simply an adjustment God made to the presence of a fallen world” (132).

This “redefinition” of God’s being requires Yoder’s revisiting of the classic marks of the faithful church (One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church). He argues convincingly that mission is an indispensable mark of the faithful church. A church that ceases to be missionary—living and witnessing as the ethical, reconciling new humanity embodying the gospel—is apostate, and thus not church. “The denial of mission is apostasy” (190), asserts Yoder, and again: “Central to the definition of faithfulness and therefore of apostasy is whether a church proclaims reconciliation” (191).

The missionary church’s values are antithetical to the values of society and government. The political values of Jesus include sharing of power in decision-making, unconditional love even of enemies, serving one another, sharing of goods and valuing each person’s gift in the “body,” and gender equality. However, when the church abandons these values taught by Jesus (e.g., in the Inquisition, the Crusades), outsiders will be right to reject such a church since it is at best an unfaithful church.

Conscious of the church’s ambiguous missionary record during Christendom, Yoder nevertheless decisively advocates for active missionary witness by the church today. He stresses the importance of incarnational presence in service but insists that failing to include verbal proclamation is at best incomplete mission and at worst unfaithfulness to the church’s calling.

Says Shenk, Yoder’s Theology of Mission, in its rigorous Christocentric focus, calls fellow Christians from across the denominations “to deeper and more complete obedience to our crucified and reigning Messiah.” His persuasive articulation of a biblical-theological “migration evangelism” for our time, is a powerful corrective to “the Christendom ecclesiology that forces a choice between a church without mission and a mission without church” (33). These missional insights, though formulated half a century ago, have a remarkably current ring to them.

Given the groundbreaking insights Yoder’s book brings to post-Christendom missiology, it is regrettable that these “lecture notes” were not published decades earlier when he first considered doing so in the 70s and 80s (cf. 8f.). The field of missiology could have benefitted all this time from {111} this treasure trove of insight into mission from the believers church perspective. Still, its release in 2014 is cause for celebration.

Titus Guenther
Associate Professor of Theology and Missions
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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