We all have them—passages of Scripture that we’d rather weren’t there . . . little unalterable truths we wish would just disappear . . . statements about God or humanity that we’d like to revise. But no matter how hard we try to re-translate or re-interpret them, those convicting verses just won’t budge. And by the very fact that they torment us, they demand our attention . . . and submission.
In the World, Not of It
“Incarnational ministry” has become a common catchphrase for many evangelicals involved in missions at home and abroad. It is often contrasted with a “colonial” approach that allegedly sought to set up Christian outposts that promoted Western language, culture, and values—little islands of colonists who converted the natives not only to Christ, but also to capitalism. But an incarnational approach attempts to bring the message of Christ in words and works that incarnated Christ for the culture—becoming an Asian to the Asians, a Hippie to the Hippies, a Postmodern to the Postmoderns. In such a way we would be imitating Christ’s example, who became a human for the humans to minister to them as they were. As I reflect on Christianity’s relationship to the world, I return continually to the prayer of Christ.
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14–16)
Living in the world, but not of the world . . . being here, but not belonging here . . . the tremendous discomfort I feel when I think about Christ’s words makes me wish He had never said them. Christians are called to engage culture (and to disengage from it), to immerse in it (and to float above it), to relate to it (and to transcend it). It’s so easy to fall into one ditch or the other rather than to navigate along that narrow road of biblical balance. The answer must be to follow Christ’s lead with “incarnational ministry,” but what does that look like?
The Incarnational Narrative
The Bible teaches that the eternal Son of God voluntarily left His heavenly place of glory and, without ceasing to be God, also became a finite human being with a real body of flesh (John 1:1, 14; Philippians 2:6–11). God took on humanity while still remaining full deity; and upon His death and resurrection, God the Son returned to His place of glory with a resurrected and glorified human nature. I call this the “incarnational narrative”—the true story of the Son of God’s “V”-shaped act of voluntary humiliation, death, resurrection, and exaltation.
If our vision of “incarnational ministry” is to truly follow the pattern of Christ, and if we are to carefully live out the mandate to be in the world but not of the world, we must keep this incarnational narrative always before us as the only model. But sometimes I get the feeling that what many regard as “incarnational ministry” actually reflects a different story of Jesus that doesn’t quite reflect the biblical pattern of the incarnation.
True and False Incarnational Ministry
I believe that aberrant views of the incarnation—or a complete disregard for the doctrine—can lead to Christians misapplying Christ’s cultural mandate while still waving the banner of “incarnational ministry.” An ancient “adoptionist” view taught that the heavenly Christ descended upon the earthly Jesus at His baptism, or suggested that Jesus was adopted into the level of divinity at the resurrection or ascension. A variation of adoptionism suggests that the human Jesus gradually became God incarnate, growing throughout His life more and more godly, holy, and full of the Spirit until he reached a state of divinized humanity.
Another false view is a “kenotic” christology. This view—often associated with nineteenth century liberal theologians—holds that when the Son of God emptied Himself at the incarnation, He gave up His divine nature and was—during the earthly ministry—only human. Deity was exchanged for humanity. The heavenly became merely earthly.
These views fall short of the biblical incarnation. Yet sometimes what is passed off today as “incarnational ministry” seems to reflect one of these errant views rather than an orthodox incarnational view.
For instance, an approach to culture that strips Christianity of its unique identity, jettisons ancient biblical and theological forms and structures, or loses its reverence and transcendence to a casual familiarity, looks a lot like a kenotic christology. By exchanging the heavenly, timeless, and transcendent for the earthly, mundane, and culture-bound, some Postmodern Christians immerse themselves in the world without ever coming up for air. There’s such a thing as being so relevant to culture that Christians lose a unique (and, yes, offensive) Christian identity. Christians should never feel compelled to downplay theology, biblical authority, truth, and holy living for the sake of a so-called incarnational ministry. The eternal Son of God brought full divinity, truth, and holiness with Him into the world . . . and He paid dearly for it. So should we.
At the same time, we should avoid an adoptionist approach that begins with the things of the world and tries to “Christianize” or “divinize them.” Yes, we ought to redeem the things of this world for God’s glory to the degree that they reflect the original goodness of God’s creation and the image of God. But this can easily fall into the error of assuming unholy relics into the holy temple, the modern cultural equivalent of sacrificing swine on the altar or baptizing the unconverted. Not everything the world has to offer can be adopted uncritically “as is.” Not all music and movies contain secret Christian messages. Not every new organizational fad or business model should be adopted to revolutionize our ministries or to launch explosive church growth. These things might appear effective in the short term, but what are they really communicating about Christianity? And what are they reflecting about the Person and work of Christ?
From a true incarnational perspective, there is such thing as coddling too closely to culture, being both in the world and of the world. When Christ came from heaven to earth, He did not give up His unique deity, His holiness, His embodiment of truth. He was both profound and practical, theological and relevant, innovative and traditional, heavenly and earthly, spirit and flesh . . .
He was both in the world and not of it (John 17:14–16).