Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You": Lesslie Newbigin's Missionary Ecclesiology

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

"As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You": Lesslie Newbigin's Missionary Ecclesiology

Article excerpt


Ecclesiology has become the central organising principle of 20th century theology. The Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan states that

The doctrine of the church became, as it had never quite been before, the bearer of the whole Christian message for the 20th century, as well as the recapitulation of the entire doctrinal tradition from preceding centuries. (1)

Many factors have contributed to this renewed interest in ecclesiology but perhaps none is so important as the new missionary situation in which European and North American churches find themselves. Jurgen Moltmann believes that "Today one of the strongest impulses towards the renewal of the theological concept of the church, comes from the theology of mission." (2) According to Moltmann, Western ecclesiologies were formulated in the context of a christianized culture. European churches were established churches that lacked a missionary self-understanding because they found their identity as part of a larger complex called the Christian West. Today, the Christian West is disintegrating, both culturally and geographically, and the Western church finds itself in a new missionary situation. Consequently, it is waking up to its missionary calling in the world. This has led, not simply to a fresh look at our mission in the world, but to a whole re-evaluation of the nature of the church and its role in God's redemp tive programme. Hendrikus Berkhof believes that what is needed is nothing less than a whole reformulation of our entire ecclesiology, from the standpoint of mission. (3) The resources of the missionary tradition that have grappled with the church's calling in cross-cultural settings hold much promise for this renewal of ecclesiology.

Perhaps few people have been as insistent, in both writing and practice, that the church is missionary by its very nature as Bishop J. E. Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin is one of the leading mission and theological thinkers of the 20th century. He spent almost forty years in India, much of that time as bishop in the Church of South India, where he attempted to nurture a missionary church. During that time he was also active in the ecumenical movement and held top positions in the International Missionary Council (IMC) and the World Council of Churches. (WCC); he was also editor of the International Review of Missions. Upon his return to Europe at retirement, in addition to teaching missiology at Selly Oak Colleges and pastoring an inner city church in Birmingham, he issued a challenge to the Western church that has been heard worldwide. In a number of successive publications he called the Western church to recover a missionary encounter with its culture. During his life he authored over thirty books including a s ignificant book on the nature of the church. (4) Throughout his entire ministry Newbigin maintained that the church can only be properly understood in terms of its missionary calling. This paper examines the missionary ecclesiology of Lesslie Newbigin.

Two major shifts in Newbigin's missionary ecclesiology

There are two major shifts evident in the development of Newbigin's missionary ecclesiology. Newbigin's first ecclesiological articulations came in the early 1940s. A comparison of these writings with his ecclesiological formulations in the next decade show that a shift has taken place from a Christendom understanding of the church to a missionary one. (5) In his earliest ecclesiological reflection, the church is a gathering of individual believers who have responded to the testimony of scripture and are gathered together so that the life of Christ might be nourished. Discussion of the church is far from central to his reflection on the gospel. In the decade of the 1950s this had all changed. Since Jesus did not write a book but left behind a community to communicate the gospel of the kingdom, the church now played a central role in Newbigin's understanding of the gospel. …

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