Ecclesiology and Mission: A Lutheran Perspective

By Rasolondraibe, Pert | International Review of Mission, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Ecclesiology and Mission: A Lutheran Perspective


Rasolondraibe, Pert, International Review of Mission


PERT RASOLONDRAIBE [*]

Introduction

My assignment was to present a "Lutheran position on ecciesiology and mission". At the outset I should like to make three remarks. First of all, what I am presenting is not a "Lutheran position" as such. Rather, it is a brief overview of the development of the understanding of the church and its mission in the history of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The approach is more historical than theological or doctrinal, with the emphasis on the understanding of the relation between church and mission. Secondly, I approach the LWF understanding of church and mission from the perspective of the Lutheran churches in the Southern hemisphere. Therefore, I am not presenting an official LWF position on the issue. Thirdly, this presentation is only a discussion starter and comes in a telegraphic style. Thus, some of the affirmations are not sufficiently nuanced or argued at any length.

1. From the church without mission to mission without the church

For a discourse on ecclesiology Lutherans usually refer back to the source, namely, the Augsburg Confession (AC). Article VII of the AC presents a peculiar understanding of the church: "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered". [1]

Much has been said already about this understanding or definition of the church but, for our purpose, we should concentrate only on its relation to mission. Given the historical context of the Augsburg Confession, it is not surprising that the emphasis in this definition is placed on what God does rather than on what the church does. What guarantees the being of the church in time is God's gracious self-giving action in word and sacraments, which creates and sustains a living faith; the faith that bears fruits, viz. good works (AC VI, XX). [2]

Mission, as churches came to speak of it later, is not explicit in this article or in the entire Confession. It has been argued that the Lutheran reformers did not speak of mission as a function of the church. Also, during the time of Lutheran orthodoxy (17th century), when the focus was on the "right teaching of the gospel", the church became so preoccupied with self-justification that it became unwilling, unable and unfit for mission. In this period, mission was seen as a function of the state or a colonial government, which were expected to be responsible for convening pagans, by force -- jure belli -- if necessary. [3]

In addition, the onslaught of rationalism and empiricism on the churches during the period of the Enlightenment (18th century) did not afford any fertile ground for mission either. With the Enlightenment view of human beings as autonomous individuals without any supernatural reference, says Bosch, the church's sense of mission was undermined. The church was busy struggling for her own relevance and had to carry on without mission. [4]

The history of the church, however, shows that when God's creative word is rightly taught, that is, when it is "communicated in ways that engage and transform the actual pains and brokenness of the world," [5] mission happens. The revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries had to break away from the grip of the institutionalized mainline churches (establishment), which had been weakened by rationalism and empiricism, to recapture the essence of the church as a movement of living discipleship (e.g. pietism in the 18th century and student missionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries). [6]

Thus, the move from a church without mission to mission without the (established) church took place. Granted, in that period, mission was understood mainly as foreign mission aimed at the conversion of pagans into Christians.

2. From missionary church to church in mission

As the history of missions has attested, missionary "movements" (and, later on, societies) gave birth to churches (established churches! …

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