Mission Between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom
The Lausanne Conference of 1974 was called “possibly the widest-ranging meeting of Christians ever held” by Time magazine (xv). Under the leadership of John Stott, evangelicals from around the globe gathered to discuss Christian mission and the role of the church in the world. The numbers were astonishing: “Nearly 2500 participants and 1000 observers from 150 countries and 135 Protestant denominations” (1). The resulting “Lausanne Covenant” included “topics related to Christian social responsibility, radical discipleship and church renewal and unity” (6). The robust discussion around these topics was due largely to the input from Latin American theologians, including C. René Padilla. Mission Between the Times is a collection of papers and articles delivered at Lausanne and at a number of follow-up conferences and discussion groups, and captures in one explosive volume the penetrating insights of a leading Latin American evangelical. Originally published in 1985, Padilla’s insights are as relevant and necessary as ever as 21st century Christians wrestle with the relationship between the gospel and social responsibility in the world.
Chapter 1, “From Lausanne I to Lausanne III,” describes the global evangelical context surrounding these essays. The first Lausanne Congress was “one of the most significant worldwide missionary events in the twentieth century” (1). Following Lausanne I, a number of follow up conferences wrestled even more deeply with this relationship and progressively clarified the necessity of good works in social, political, and economic spheres. However, Lausanne II seemed to reduce the mission of the church once again to “evangelism in isolation from social responsibility” (16). Lausanne III (at the time of the original writing) seemed to be at a crossroads, with the opportunity to address the issues of radical discipleship, globalization and poverty, and environmental issues. The rest of the essays capture in part Padilla’s contribution to these discussions.
Chapter 2, “Evangelism and the World,” was originally shared at Lausanne I. The New Testament uses the term “world” in a number of different ways: all of creation, the present order of human existence, humanity hostile to God, and the whole world hostile to God and enslaved by the powers of darkness. Evangelism must proclaim that Jesus is Lord of all, and not fall into either secularism or “culture Christianity.” True evangelism requires repentance, including from the ways we have been entangled in the systems of this world. American Christianity is not the only culprit in terms of this syncretism, but “because of the role that the United States has played in world affairs as well as in the spread of the gospel, this particular form of Christianity, as no other today, has a powerful influence far beyond the borders of that nation” (53). “Our greatest need is for a more biblical gospel and a more faithful church” (65).
Chapter 3, “Spiritual Conflict,” was part of a symposium called to further explore the Lausanne Covenant. Padilla describes a powerful “consumer society” that is “the offspring of technology and capitalism” that has spread from the affluent West to the rest of the world (69). Behind this materialism lie “principalities and powers” that remain “entrenched in the ideological structures that oppress humanity” (72). This consumer society is idolatrous in character and has tremendous “power to condition men and women” (73). The church adapts itself to this worldliness when it reduces the gospel “to a purely spiritual message” and when it also “reflects the conditioning of the consumer society” (76, 78). The church will experience conflict when it takes the gospel seriously and begins to oppose this world system.
Chapter 4, “What is the Gospel?” was delivered at the IX General Assembly of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. In an insightful bit of exegesis, Padilla first explains how the original Hebrew and Greek words for “gospel” were historically used to announce the birth of a new king or the victory of a king over his enemies. In the New Testament, the term takes on an eschatological note—an announcement that the end time ultimate kingdom has broken into the present. There are a variety of ways to express this “good news,” but Jesus Christ underlies “all the descriptions and weld[s] them into a unity” (92). The gospel announces salvation from the consequences and power of sin as well as complete restoration of man, woman, and all creation. This message calls for a response—repentance and faith—which is necessarily evident in good works.
Chapter 5 explores “The Contextualization of the Gospel.” Every interpretation is conditioned by our attitude toward God, our own ecclesiastical traditions, and our culture. Communicating the gospel necessarily involves culture, as seen in the incarnation, otherwise there could be no meaningful response, either positive or negative. Padilla points out that almost all of the theological resources published, even in Latin America, are dominated by writers and thinkers from the West. This results in a lack of real contextualization of the gospel and the inability of those local believers to withstand challenges to their faith. The result is that the second and third generation leaves the faith. All theology needs to be based on the Word of God, with attention to concrete historical situations, in obedience to Christ.
Chapter 6, “Christ and Antichrist in the Proclamation of the Gospel,” was given at the Second Latin American Congress on Evangelization (CLADE II) in 1979. The New Testament describes the antichrist and various antichrists with imagery that connects to the Old Testament, especially the book of Daniel. Rather than relate these teachings to some specific contemporary figure, Padilla highlights the most powerful and dangerous world system as the consumer society: “Behind the materialism of this consumer society is the spirit of the Antichrist” (141). Christians must discern the nature of the times in order to be faithful in the present situation.
Chapter 7, “The Fullness of Mission,” was first presented at the Fourth Conference of the International Association for Mission Studies. Padilla offers a nuanced critique of “growth statistics” in the spread of Christianity. Many converts seem to be unified “under the impact of Western technology” but are no more than “baptized heathen” (148), and many unevangelized regions still remain. Much mission continues to be done “from a position of political and economic power with the assumption of Western superiority” (151) rather than true partnership. Wealthy countries are in an “affluence explosion,” and need a radical reorientation to “the demands of social justice” including a redistribution of wealth (155–56). “Such a change could take place only if the church were willing to follow the way of repentance and self-limitation” (156).
Chapter 8, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogenous Unit Principle [HUP],” is Padilla’s famous critique of the HUP. God’s plan is to unite all of humanity and all of creation under the headship of Christ. The example of Jesus, the initial Jerusalem church, and in Antioch demonstrate this unifying principle and show no evidence of separate churches along the lines of ethnic homogeneity. Especially the issue of circumcision in Galatians and Acts 15 demonstrates that keeping the two parties in intimate fellowship with one another, not segregated, was central to the concerns of the gospel. The same is true of the church at Corinth. Though we should be rightly concerned that numbers of believers increase, the HUP abandons a central concern of the gospel, has no real basis in Scripture, and can leave wealthy, materialist, racist Christians isolated and with no concern for believers in other situations.
Chapter 9, “New Testament Perspectives on a Simple Lifestyle,” was delivered in 1980 to explore of the meaning of a phrase in the Lausanne Covenant in which affluent Christians committed to “develop a simple lifestyle.” Padilla starts with the fact that Jesus was a poor man—he became poor for us! He brought blessing for the poor, and this cannot be reduced to merely “spiritual poverty” without any reference to material poverty (as many are prone to do). He called the rich to renounce their riches, and affluent Christians cannot simply assume that this doesn’t apply to them. Care for the poor was a central element in the early church, so that the “age-long ideal” (Deut 15:4) was fulfilled. Contentment is essential, connected with temperance, and a view of ourselves as “stewards of God’s gifts summoned to live in the light of God’s generosity toward all and his special concern for the poor” (198).
Chapter 10, “The Mission of the Church in Light of the Kingdom of God,” explores inaugurated eschatology, what it means to be “between the times.” Time itself has been restructured; the kingdom is already here and not yet consummated. The church is the community of the kingdom, the place where the kingdom is presently manifested on earth by the Spirit. Good works are a manifestation of the kingdom, bringing Christ’s kingly rule to bear on all of reality. Though his reign is universal, the world needs to enter the kingdom now in order to escape judgment when it is ultimately consummated.
C. René Padilla is a remarkable man, and Mission Between the Times is a remarkable collection of essays. It stands as a testimony to the necessity and fruitfulness of cross-cultural theological discussions. This book is a classic and deserves a wide reading. Christians in the affluent West, evangelicals wrestling with the relationship between the gospel and social justice, and missionaries seeking to take the gospel to unreached peoples can all learn from Padilla’s insights. Readers should be warned: this book is not for the faint of heart. Western readers especially should be prepared to have cultural idols torn down and their hearts exposed to the piercing gaze of the Scriptures. For those who wish to confront their own blind spots, this leading voice in global evangelical theology is a great place to start.