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President’s Message

Dr. Joshua W T Cho

Integrated Mission — Gospel for the Poor?

Jesus Christ’s Work of Deliverance

There are many accounts in the Bible of God’s care for the poor. The poor and the oppressed are often seen as those for whom God especially cares. Psalm 146 mentions that the God of Jacob cares for the oppressed, the prisoners, the blind, the wronged, the righteous, the alien, the widow and the fatherless: “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them — the Lord, who remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, and the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” A common characteristic of all these people is that they have no legal, economic or political status and power. They have no right to have their voice heard, nor do they have a representative to speak on their behalf. Before the law, an alien has no legal status; prisoners wither in the loneliness of the prison cell; the moaning from the hungry is also not heard. However, the psalmist makes it very clear that the God of Jacob will help all these deprived people and make their voices heard.

Accounts in the Bible of God’s care for the helpless and the poor can be seen not only in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament. The accounts in the Old Testament depicting God’s caring for society’s poor and helpless are concretely fleshed out in the office of Jesus Christ.

According to the gospel narratives, Jesus Christ stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth to declare himself a minister of the gospel taking upon himself the work of a deliverer. Unrolling the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus read to those present, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18-19)

What do we mean when we speak of Jesus Christ as the deliverer? One of the dominant perspectives is this: Jesus becomes the redeemer of our souls as He delivers us from sin and gives us eternal life. Yet, the delivering work of Jesus goes far beyond personal salvation.

The Gospel of Delivering the Poor?

A close study of Jesus Christ’s ministry in the world reveals His care for the whole person. After preaching to a crowd who had gathered in the wilderness, Jesus prepared food for them. He said to his disciples, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” (Mt 15: 32; cf. Mk 8: 2-3) Even though he refused to dazzle people with miracles, he never refused anyone who came to Him asking for healing. In Matthew 14: 14 we read, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Such was Jesus Christ’s ministry of deliverance as he met the physical needs of the poor, the sick and the helpless.

Many Christians feel strongly that the gospel of Christ is the gospel for the poor and agree that the work of deliverance of Christ is central to the Biblical message. They hold that the God revealed in the Bible is the God who especially cares for all those who are poor and oppressed. These include orphans, widows, the prisoners, beggars, street-sleepers, and victims of unfair political and economic systems. The church is the agent which is called to put into practice God’s work of redemption and deliverance; therefore, one of her main vocational callings is to pursue political and economic justice. It is through establishing such a social order that the church puts into practice God’s powerful work of deliverance.

Two Gospel Views

The above understanding is different from the mainstream view emphasized in traditional Christian mission. Traditionally, Christian mission tends to lay stress on word of mouth proclamation of the gospel. Their concern is the salvation of the soul so that man can break away from this world and enter into a spiritual world. Those who criticize traditional mission maintain that this view of the gospel reduces the deliverance of a person’s life to healing a person emotionally, mentally and spiritually. The criticism is that traditional mission dichotomizes what is physical from what is spiritual. This approach takes seriously a person’s private transformation but tends to ignore the social dimension. They point out that this gospel view underlines the personal evangelism of Jesus Christ while ignoring his broader ministries in the society: for example, healing, driving out demons, setting free those enslaved. Thus the gospel’s power to transform society is simply ignored.

No doubt, those devoted to traditional mission react strongly and consider that the mission with an emphasis on the gospel’s social dimension makes this emphasis as an excuse to neglect the mission of personal evangelism. They worry about the downplay of the ministry of evangelistic meeting so that the church has increasingly neglected personal evangelism and has allowed social relief work to take its place. Critics of social action also point out that the gospel is not limited to the economic sphere. They argue that a theology that over-emphasizes the deliverance of the poor will very often ignore other important aspects, for example, the need for a godly life, worship in the church, human character formation and the cultivation of the inner life. Some people would even criticize such mission work that is based heavily on the social needs and problems declaring that this work will blind people to seeing the urgency of personal salvation of the soul. As a result, there is a fear that, without being given proper warning, the sinner will be allowed to fall into eternal death. These critics have always regarded the social gospel to be an overstatement, a distortion of the message of the Bible and, even worse, a “false” gospel.

The above mentioned different views towards the proclamation of the gospel can easily be seen in today’s churches. The evangelicals attempt to adopt a stance of moderation among these views and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization is one of such important efforts.

From Gospel Preaching to Life Transformation

Then, how should we seek a common ground? From the model of Jesus Christ and his instructions, one thing becomes clear: Christ calls us to “go out” to preach the good news to “make disciples,” and to make disciples is to experience the transformation of life. Our model is clear: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” (Mt 9: 35) As Jesus preached the gospel, he healed the sick. Besides, he instructed the twelve disciples to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is near and told them to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons. (Mt 10: 7) This makes clear that the goal of preaching the gospel is not only the proclamation of the knowledge of salvation but also the transformation of lives. It is not enough to give only part of our lives to Jesus but we are called to give Him our whole lives. Therefore, preaching the gospel includes the proclamation of personal salvation, but it goes beyond this proclamation. The gospel has the power to transform the whole person and even to transform culture, society, organization, and tradition.

When measured against Jesus’ model and instruction, today’s churches obviously pay much more attention to verbal proclamation while neglecting the gospel’s life transformation dimension. While not denying the necessity of verbal proclamation, we must make it clear that we are called to implement the whole gospel as modeled by Jesus Christ. The integral mission is not confined to proclaiming by word of mouth but needs the evidence of action. Francis de Assisi exhorted his students to go out to preach the gospel in this way: constantly lead people to Christ, but do not use words unless necessary. Francis makes it clear that while verbal language has its place, words are limited.

To preach the gospel we need to use different means. To do this does not confine us to “speech,” it may include every single deed that a man can do. Each of our deeds must be inspired by the spirit of Jesus and flow out of His love. Just as that day when Jesus Christ saw the great crowds of people, His compassion was aroused. He saw human beings who were helpless in their predicament, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9: 36). Consequently, a integral mission goes beyond persuading others to believe in the gospel message by word of mouth. It is also an action: an action empowered by love (Mt 22: 37 – 39).

To Love God and to Love One of the Least Neighbors

The action of love is the mark of a Christian and also the mark of the true proclamation of the gospel. To love God implies loving our neighbors. As we have always been taught, neighbors can be those living in our vicinity or those who are aliens from a far away land. They can also be the hungry or the homeless, or they can be in prison or oppressed. Make no mistake about it: when one loves these neighbors, one is loving God. In loving God and loving our neighbors there can be priority but one cannot proceed without the other. Just as Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the lease of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25: 40)

The parables in Matthew 25 remind us of this: unless we can come face to face with Jesus through reaching out to “one of the least,” we cannot meet with him. From Prophetic Literature and the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament and the Gospels in the New Testament, we can encounter God in history and meet with Him as we reach out to one of the least of our neighbors. The poor are certainly one of the least of our neighbors. Jesus singled out the poor as those whom God loves and blesses because they will enter into His kingdom. However, in the world they are poor because they are oppressed by society’s unjust social systems. These systems allow the poor to be sacrificed for the wealthy. In fact, their poverty is the result of the affluence and power of the wealthy.

To Enter into the World of the “Other”

“One of the least” means those of our neighbors who are oppressed, the social classes who are exploited and the ethnic groups who are despised. All these people are denied their full humanity, and their lives cruelly tortured. These people can be found in the street, beneath the flyovers or inside the cubicle apartments. They can be found in Hong Kong in the districts of Sham Shui Po, Tuen Mun, Tin Shui Wai; in Mainland China, Myanmar, Vietnam and North Korea. Not only this, but we must point out the irony that the oppressed often play the role of the oppressor. A male slave can tyrannize his wife; a female teacher who is being oppressed can tyrannize her students in school; a child living in a slum area can bully his classmates. Nevertheless, they are people who lack love. They all need our friendship and also our intervention and support.

It is clear that loving one’s neighbors requires serious life transformation; such transformation must include changes in a person’s thoughts, emotions and behavior. To love one’s neighbor implies that one is willing to follow Jesus Christ’s example as he was present in the midst of the exploited and bullied. From this angle, to love one’s neighbor, as Jesus Christ did, is to place oneself in the midst of the poor and the oppressed. This implies that one is willing to take a step forward and to enter into the world of the “other.” In this process, the ‘other’ is the poor and becomes the revealer of God, the wholly other. This kind of social participation exemplifies a truly spiritual transformation. This transformation is not only an intimate communion between an individual and God and not only the change of an individual’s thoughts, but it also involves a life transformation which is carried out in a social, economic, political and cultural context. The motivational force behind those people who love their neighbors comes from Christ who can always be found in the midst of the poverty-stricken and the helpless.

Rodney Stark points out that it was the act of Christians loving their neighbors that was crucial to the birth and growth of Christianity in the first century. At that time, Christians loved those whom they found in predicament and were willing to serve them in the midst of disasters and pain. When an epidemic disease quickly spread, non-Christian neighbors immediately fled, but the Christians stayed to care for those in need. In response to the Christian’s kindness, many of the abandoned turned to Christianity. Genuine love enables others to see the face of Christ leading many more people to come to Christ.

To Love One’s Neighbors Is the Practice of an Integral Mission

Consequently, to love one’s neighbors is to practice integral mission. Through the power of love, the preaching of the gospel and social ministry are integrated. Both the preaching of the gospel and social ministry become the means both to love God and to love people and pursue their well-being. This is to say that in spirituality and in substance, to preach the gospel and to do social action, and to love God and to love one’s neighbors are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are like our two hands and our two feet, which are not in opposition but mutually supportive.

If we understand that mission is the transformation of love, making others Jesus’ disciples and glorifying God in society, then we can see an integral basis for mission. This integral mission is God’s call to all churches. Those churches devoting themselves to integral mission would proclaim the gospel both through their identity in the community and also through all they say and do in the world. The church needs to understand that its purpose in the world is not in being a mega-church (taking pride in its statistical figures she has achieved), and not becoming a materially affluent in the social community, not in being an institution enjoying a privileged relationship with politically powerful parties. Rather, the purpose of the church is to bring about life transformation at all levels through the power of the Holy Spirit and through loving our neighbors, especially the poor. The result is that when diverse group comes together and in our midst everyone experiences the love of Jesus Christ.

Consequently, we can also see that integral mission is the ultimate dimension of all “theological construction.” This integral mission is what all HKBTS’s teachers and students have been pondering and exploring since last year. We strive to develop a theology based on an integral mission enabling HKBTS’s theological education to march forward in order to face our churches, face the conditions of the world in which we now live and enter into the world of the “other.”

(All Bible quotations are taken from NIV Bible.)

Nov 2012