Why I don’t believe in incarnational mission

I’ve always had a nagging suspicion of ‘incarnational mission’ – the use of the incarnation as a for mission. Yesterday I was leading a Northern Training Institute seminar day and our discussions helped clarify my unease.

The Problems with Incarnational Ministry

1. We can’t do it

Incarnation is the act of divinity becoming human. We can (and I think should) live among the people we are trying to reach just as Jesus came and dwelt among us. But incarnation is a precise theological term that means refers to a divine being taking on humanity. I can’t do that!

2. We’re not commended to do it

Much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good. Much of it is commended in the New Testament. But it is not commended in the New Testament with reference to the incarnation. We are sent in to the world as Jesus is sent in the world (John 17, 20). But we are not told to imitate the incarnation. (Perhaps because we can’t!?)

3. It doesn’t help

Incarnation offers no guidelines for involvement ministry.

The Dangers of Incarnational Ministry

If much of what is commended in the name of incarnational ministry is good then why worry?

1. Incarnation as a for mission offers no boundaries. Should I become transgender to be incarnational among transgender people? Indeed people readily play games with how like they culture they can become. Missional kudos is measured in terms of identification with the (sub-)culture. ‘I have a tattoo.’ ‘I smoke pot.’

2. Incarnational mission creates a ‘be’ rather than ‘tell’ approach to mission. The rhetoric is often of ‘ simply being with people without an agenda’ (an agenda like calling them to repentance!?).

3. Incarnational mission equates culture with ‘artefacts’. The focus becomes on what you wear or do. ‘Should I get a tattoo?’ ‘Should I wear a shell suit?’ ‘Should I go clubbing?’ But culture is more than artefacts. It is worldviews and values. And these are where the real gospel encounters take place.

4. Christians are not only called to adapt to culture, but also to transform culture.

The Alternative to Incarnational Ministry

The locus classicus of missional contextualization is 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul says: ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (22) What are the categories he uses here?

1. How can I serve these people?

‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.’ (1 Corinthians 9:19) Elsewhere Paul says: ‘For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.‘ (2 Corinthians 4:5) When in Philippians 2 Paul does appear to appeal to the incarnation the focus is actually on Jesus becoming a servant – a service exemplified in the cross (5-8). So the guiding question is: How must I change to serve these people?

2. How can I win these people?

Paul makes himself a slave to everyone ‘to win as many as possible’ (19) His identification has an agenda – winning people for Christ. In verse 23 he says: ‘I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’ Here the guiding question is: How must I change for the sake of the gospel? How can I change so that the people I am reaching will find the gospel understandable, credible and attractive? How should I become like them to win these people for Christ?’

Perhaps the over-arching principle is love. There are many stories of missionaries doing poor contextualization (wandering around Africa wearing pith helmets), but whose genuine and evident love won the hearts of those to whom they went. That doesn’t mean contextualization is irrelevant. Good contextualization is an act of love and service to those we are trying to win. But if I am a cool, ‘incarnational’, trendy, urban missionary dude but have not love then I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I know all the latest theories of contextualisation and can give lectures on them, but have not love then I am nothing.


32 thoughts on “Why I don’t believe in incarnational mission

  1. That’s great, Tim. Really helpful.

    I was struck by Tim Keller on Genesis 15 explaining that God enters culture using signs and symbols we understand (that would have been understood 4000 years ago), but then transforms the meaning (the walking between the pieces of animal) in order to reveal himself to us and call us to him.

    I’ve been attracted to “incarnational” ministry for a while, but mostly because I’ve often seen people explaining the gospel by basically saying “and when you understand this good news, you’ll become like us: you’ll suddenly not like rock music anymore (jazz, in my case), you’ll want to wear a suit every Sunday, and you’ll want to disengage from the culture and preserve out of date traditions”. Which people, in my experience, never seemed to want to do once they became Christians!!

    Incarnational ministry seemed the right alternative, but I think you’ve just helped me see that the “enter culture, transform it through love” is the excluded middle.


  2. Have you heard Eric Mason’s talk on Incarnational ministry at the dwell conference in NYC? It’s very good. There is a particular attitude (especially in youth work) that seems to say “if you’re being incarnational, then you don’t have to tell them the gospel, because you’re bringing Christ to them by having Christ in you”. It’s evangelism by osmosis, and surprisingly enough, fails.

  3. Dear Tim,

    I have been a secret reader of your blog for a few months now. After living as a missionary for several years this post caught my attention. I believe that one of the greatest problems in the Christian church today is the fact that people are not willing to let the Gospel infiltrate their entire lives (incarnation). So, many people relegate ministry and the “spiritual side” of their lives only to the times when they are doing so called “spiritual things” like attending a worship service.When I read the Gospel I see Christ calling us to a radical life change where the logos (words, thoughts, essence) of God permeates our entire being and everything that we do (ie- incarnation). You are right that none of us can fully live our lives with the perfection that Christ did, but that does not mean that we don’t try. He is our example! He left all that was comfortable and poured himself out in order to bring the Good news to a dieing world. The call to be incarnational is the call to follow in his footsteps. Below are some of my thoughts in regards to your post.


    1. We can’t do it- Yes, we can! When we live the Gospel in every area in our lives we indeed “incarnate” or put the word into our fleshly being.

    2. We’re not commended to do it- Yes we are!- Mt 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24-46-7, John 20:21, Acts 1:6-8, and John 15 to name a few instances.

    3. I respectfully disagree. I believe that incarnational ministry opens up our entire life to be part of our ministry instead of just limiting it to designated ministry times. I believe the push back comes because we don’t like the idea of living our entire life for Christ (none of us do because it goes against our sinful and selfish nature).


    No boundaries- I would argue that first we need to make sure the boundaries that we hold to are consistent with God’s boundaries. Often, like Peter in Acts 10, we hold precious to cultural biases (or church cultures) which really do not align with the things that are important to God. After that, I agree with you this is an area where Christians need to be cautious. It is easy to jump headlong into any culture and then justify it, rather than seeking to bring God’s Kingdom culture to the world around us.

    Be rather than tell- I think this has become an issue in recent years because Christians have tended to be more about “telling” than “being”. Obviously the Bible calls us to both.

    Artifacts- I don’t know that agree with the premise of this statement (I find tatoos and dress a secondary (or tertiary) issue).

    Cultural adaptation versus transformation- I wholeheartedly agree with you here!The question then is, “If we totally separate and segregate ourselves from culture will we be able to participate in bringing any meaningful change to that culture?”

  4. I agree with all that you affirm. I agree with the need to live radical lives. I agree our whole lives need to be lived in the service of God (that what we argue in Total Church). I agree we are empowered by the Spirit to live such radical lives. But I believe incarnation is simply the wrong theological category to describe all this. Incarnation is the act of God becoming human. I’m not God! Incarnation is not the gospel infiltrate an entire life. Incarnation is God becoming human. The NT never tells us ‘to incarnate’ or ‘do’ incarnation. None of the verses you cite use the language of incarnation. They are about being sent. Let’s stick to biblical categories – like sending, service and love.

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  6. Thanks for the post Tim. I have raised the issue of incarnation referring specifically to God becoming human, and that it is not directly transferable to us as well. Each time I do I receive a lot of pushback from the crowd that claims it. I think our ‘sentness’ is more than sufficient of a concept for us. I will be at the Total Church conference in San Diego next month. Look forward to hearing you guys and participating directly in the discussion.

  7. Tim,
    Thanks for this post. I too have been uncomfortable with this confusion of categories. I am glad you have said something about it, and so clearly! I have seen confusion in other areas too amongst the ‘missional’ people (whatever they are!).

    I wonder if at some point you might expand on your third point under “The Dangers of…” where you talk about ‘artefacts’ rather than ‘worldview’. I am unclear what you mean here.

    Thanks again!

  8. Let me expand a little on what I mean by the danger of focusing on artifacts. In his book, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, David Hesselgrave identifies seven dimensions of culture that we have to take into account in cross-cultural communication:
    1. worldviews – ways of perceiving the world (metaphysics)
    2. cognitive processes – ways of thinking
    3. linguistic forms – ways of expressing ideas (language)
    4. behavioural patterns – ways of acting (body language etc.)
    5. social structures – ways of interacting
    6. media influences – ways of channelling the message (arts, culture, symbols)
    7. motivational resources – ways of deciding
    My fear is that a focus on being incarnational sometimes (though this is not necessarily the case) focuses on ‘how can I be like these people’. The answers tend to be about how I speak, what I wear and how I do leisure (a bit of 3 and a bit of 6). One danger then, is that this can be inauthentic. But more importantly it misses all the other dimensions of cross-cultural encounter. But if you are asking, How can I serve these people for the sake of the gospel? then you are bound to ask about how the gospel interacts with their worldview, values, cognitive processes, social structures and so on. I realise this argument involves a bit of comparing the worst of one with the best of another. But I think the ‘how can I be like these people?’ question heads us off in the wrong direction.

  9. I understand, and agree with, your reservations about the term ‘incarnational.’ However, when peopel use that term, I think they are (mostly) trying to capture something that is Biblical and is real – about us going to people where they are, not waiting for them to come to us; and about us being involved in their lives, rather than retreating from them. This seems to be what Paul was talking about when he spoke of becoming all things to all people.

    So here’s my question: short of using a paragraph of explanation every time, is there a simple word or phrase which would convey the ’embedding’ quality that is (I think) intended when people use the term ‘incarnational,’ without implying with it the theological weight of the unique incarnation of Christ?

    Is there a better word or phrase to use?

  10. Thanks Tim for the helpful post. I was wondering however if you (or if you have another link) can unpack what proponents of Incarnational missions would look like. So your response in comment 8 is very helpful. But can you outline I.M. from thier perspective?


  11. Tim, thanks for this post. Someone pointed out your blog and this topic. I agree with your assesment of the use of the term. I quoted Michael Horton last December on the same idea. Here is part of what Horton had to say,

    Evangelicals have been talking lately about transforming the culture, doing kingdom work in all of life, and incarnating the church in the world. Sound good? The trouble is, these movements can conceive of the church as a substitute for Christ, shifting the focus of Christians from his promised return to your best life now.

    In fact, “incarnational” is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness.[9] Christ’s person and work easily becomes a “model” or “vision” for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness.[10] We increasingly hear about “incarnational ministry,” as if Christ’s unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in “high church” or “low church” terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. In its train, the sacramental cosmos returns. As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.</blockquote.


    Thanks again for sounding the call. BTW, nice blog theme (same as mine).

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  13. Thanks Tim – I love a provocative post!

    As I have been reflecting on it, I would agree that technically you are correct – we can never be ‘God in the flesh’, but I am not sure the notion of incarnational mission was framed as a technical theological term.

    Rather I would see it as a way of describing a more classical ‘sentness’ approach to mission and the embodiment of the gospel – a way of saying ‘contextualised’ mission as distinct from a pre-determined and then imposed cultural expression.

    I don’t think any of us who would sit comfortably under that description would see ourselves as replicating the incarnation! Rather we would see the incarnation as the depiction of how God engaged in mission and would take our cues primarily from Jesus as the one sent by God.

    Sometimes it helps to see where expressions have their origins. I would suggest that the ‘fortress’ mentality of church that was prevalent in the mid-late 20th C actually provoked this alternative imagination and it has (for the most part) been a very healthy shift. It was here that we started paying attention to what cross cultural missionaries have known for years – that the gospel is not expressed only in western cultural forms.

    I must admit that I found your concerns about incarnational mission something of a caricature and as one who has been on the road a while I cringed somewhat.

    Some reflections back on them:

    1. Incarnation as a (‘frame’?) for mission offers no boundaries. Should I become transgender to be incarnational among transgender people? Indeed people readily play games with how like they culture they can become. Missional kudos is measured in terms of identification with the (sub-)culture. ‘I have a tattoo.’ ‘I smoke pot.’

    Wouldn’t a biblical understanding of sin would allow for adequate boundaries? Of course there is some cultural dynamic in that too – take language as an example – or even public nudity! Quite tricky at times, but I certainly don’t think we have hit our missionary context with a ‘no boundaries’ approach. And I don’t know many (any?) who have.

    2. Incarnational mission creates a ‘be’ rather than ‘tell’ approach to mission. The rhetoric is often of ‘ simply being with people without an agenda’ (an agenda like calling them to repentance!?).

    I’d say there has been some of this for sure, but its (again) a reaction to a church that spoke lots and did little. A healthy balance is what we would all seek. Word and deed. Hopefully that pendulum will swing back a little more so that speaking of Jesus is seen as integral.

    3. Incarnational mission equates culture with ‘artefacts’. The focus becomes on what you wear or do. ‘Should I get a tattoo?’ ‘Should I wear a shell suit?’ ‘Should I go clubbing?’ But culture is more than artefacts. It is worldviews and values. And these are where the real gospel encounters take place.

    Sorry – I think is a gross misrepresentation. Having spent the last 5 years living in a specific suburb as a missionary I have found myself grappling more significantly than ever with the worldviews and values of my friends and neighbours. What car I drive is an expression of worldview, but hardly the core issue.

    4. Christians are not only called to adapt to culture, but also to transform culture.

    We use the phrase ‘engaged but distinctive’. Our community is called ‘Upstream’ because we see it as our core mission to live very much in the flow of society (recognising that not all of our culture is bad) but to live counterculturally. Again I’d see this concept as more prevalent amongst those I work with than simple embedding in culture without thought.

    For some reason you use the word ‘incarnational’ alongside ‘cool and trendy’ as if they were synonyms… May I ask where that comes from?

    My experience has been that most of our incarnational mission has been anything but cool and trendy – somehow ‘taking up your cross’ and slogging on long term in one area for little tangible result lacks a certain sex appeal…

    So – while I hear your theological issue and see where you are coming from, I also see a carciatured depiction of an ‘incarnational missionary’ that really doesn’t have much currency in my own experience. It seems to suggest fad and form rather than truth and substance.

    There are no doubt examples of those who go too far in contextualisation, but a vast majority of incarnational missionaries are simply people embodying the gospel in their own fairly mundane suburban context.

    Thanks for an engaging post that really caused me to think. I appreciate that. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts back!

  14. Thanks Hamo for your full and thoughtful comment. A few quick thoughts (I am supposed to be on holiday).

    First, I did emphasize that I whole-heartedly agree with most of what is affirmed in the name of incarnational mission. I found myself thinking the same of your comment. I just think incarnation is the wrong theological category.

    As for caricatures, my point was not that everyone who advocates incarnational ministry operates without boundaries, fails to tell the gospel and so on. That was not the shape of my argument. I was arguing that these are dangers in the model – not universal characteristics. And I think they are. (We should not be surprised if dangers arise when we use the wrong theological categories – which I think you almost conceded incarnational mission is doing?!)

    As it happens, I’ve just finished reading an essay on a recent book arguing for ‘incarnational’ ministry that has an explicit ‘do’ not ‘tell’ approach. I think my suggestions, drawn from 1 Corinthians 9, offer a better model.

    The caricatures theme is an interesting one. I’ve just finished another book (it’s summer, I’m on holiday, I’m catching up with my reading) which again has a chapter strongly arguing for incarnational ministry. It is riddled with caricatures of traditional church and traditional approaches to ministry. I’m afraid it does portray itself a new, cutting edge and innovative. It cuts both ways. Advocates of new/ancient ways of doing church (among whom I include myself) have been peddling caricatures of traditional church for years. Perhaps we need to clean up our own act before we come over all defensive.

    Ah well, longer than I intended.

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  16. With respect Tim, books are designed to sell. Therefore, to suggest that they completely embody truth without bias/caricature would be a stretch.

    However – those who live missional incarnational lives are not doing it to sell anything. So, when caricatures are made, they simply end up sounding lame, on both sides of the equation may I add.

    I must admit, I think you are playing semantics with the term ‘incarnational’. If God is in me (His truth, His word, His light) and I am sent with these into the world, how am I NOT incarnational?

    Given that you don’t like the phrase, I really must insist (listen to me – insisting you do something in your space – how rude of me!) I further invite you to provide a phrase that better articulates what you think these actions actually are.

    If you simply have an alternative, then call it an alternative and allow ‘incarnational’ to stand.

    If it is better, then watch the ‘incarnationals’ grab it one hand! (the other hand is on a cafe mocha!)

    Toddy (from Hamo’s blog)

  17. Hi Tim

    Thanks for your response mate.

    I guess I don’t see the theological category question as an issue, so I’m not sure which ‘categories’ you would even be considering in this regard. Perhaps I’m a tad ignorant here :)

    I guess there are dangers in any approach. Missionaries risk assimilation and those who simply want others to ‘come to church’ risk creating a different sub-culture that can be quite removed from the rest of society. Either is of course an extreme response.

    Hope the conversation is a productive one for all of us!

  18. I’m sorry guys. I’m obviously not making myself clear. Let me have another go.

    1. Most of what is affirmed in the name of incarnational mission I support and try (badly) to practice. I simply think it is the wrong theological category.

    2. Does it matter? I think it does. The point of my ‘caricatures’, as they have been called, is not to suggest that every practioner of incarnational mission does these things, but to show that the category lacks boundaries.

    3. There are enough people ‘outdoing one another in identification’ and ‘doing without telling’ in the name of incarnational mission to demonstrate the point. Maybe it’s different in Australia, but in the UK this is the case.

    4. I did hear one story from Australia of someone engaging in Aboriginal spirituality in the name of incarnational mission. This is synchretism. Please don’t get all uppity. Please don’t choose to misinterpret what I’ve just said. I’m not suggesting everyone who does incarnational mission is a syncretist. I’m sure most of you are doing mission in a way that I would be 100 percent behind. The problem is perhaps that, while you have a wider set of theological categories that ensure your incarnational mission stays in proper boundaries, others do not and so the term leads them down unhelpful paths.

    5. ‘Incarnation’ as a framework lacks the ‘that by all possible means I might save some’ and the ‘for sake of the gospel’ supplied by 1 Corinthians 9.

    I realize some people have a lot invested in term ‘incarnational’ and some of you are not going to give it without a fight. Ah well. So it goes. I might draw a line under it. I am supposed to be on holiday!

  19. Chester states that [the good work we do] “is not commended in the New Testament with reference to the incarnation. We are sent in to the world as Jesus is sent in the world. But we are not told to imitate the incarnation.” Chester however, fails to deal with at least two very explicit scriptures where Christians are called to imitate the incarnation of Jesus Christ:

    1) Philippians 2:5 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
    2) 2 Corinthians 8:9 – I am not commanding you (to excel in the grace of giving), but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

    We can’t imitate Christ’s incarnation ontologically but we can do it ethically. What was it that Jesus gave up? It was not his divinity, but his divine rights and prerogatives. We as people who enjoy good rights (ethnically, economically, socially, etc.) are called to give them up in order to consider ourselves no better than anyone else and take on the nature of a servant. Incarnation is a helpful and accurate word to use in this context.

    Theologically, we must get all our kingdom imperatives out of the indicatives of the Gospel. We ask ourselves what Jesus did and to respond as those who are “in Christ.”

  20. Tim, I enjoy your blog and heard you when you spoke at the M.A course at Cliff. I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about.Certainly I’ve always found Stott’s statement most helpful that ‘all authentic mission is incarnational mission’ then linking it with Paul’s classic passage in Corinthians about him becoming ‘all things to all men.Of course it is not exactly the same as God becoming man but the missionary’s attitude should be one of humility laying aside his pride and seeking to understand the pains and angst of those they seek to bring the message.

  21. Hi Tim. I certainly appreciate your concern about the emerging interpretation of incarnational mission. The shift in emphasis toward the “became flesh and lived among us” over and above “The Word” aspect of incarnation certainly does and has lended itself to syncretism. My main concern, among many concerns, is equal to your concern of the subversive method of evangelism. It’s almost as though we should admire the world’s culture so much that we should not engage in critiquing the culture as much as learn from it. The critique then should be openly directed at the church so the rest of the world can see how open-minded and understanding we are. Then, they will respect and listen to us.

    My question with this reasoning is, why would I try to change the world’s culture if the world is supposed to teach me? Don’t misunderstand, the church can be flawed and we are to walk humbly. But, we are not just to walk humbly, but walk humbly WITH OUR GOD. Those who talk about incarnation must remember that while The Word did become flesh and lived among us. The Word was still The Word. The Word only changed His form NOT His substance. He was and is still the way, the truth and the life.

    And, he calls us to do the same as we are set apart by the truth. With respect, Tim, I believe Jesus’ teaching of ‘incarnational mission’ is present throughout the New Testament. As you pointed out, in John 20 Jesus informs his disciples after his resurrection that as the Father sent him, Jesus is sending us. Romans 8 has incarnational mission running through it. And, don’t forget about 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul calls the collective church, the body of Christ. Yes, this is the continued working of the Father to those of us who believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and are being transformed by His Holy Spirit dwelling in us. As Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 5, we are all ambassadors of our Lord Jesus proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God working in the ministry of reconciliation. This is why I believe in incarnational mission.

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  23. interesting article. when i have seen the term incarnational mission, it is usually followed with at least a brief definition that identifies it as separate from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. this seems like an issue of semantics more than methods. the real question is, are we living, breathing, being, and telling the Gospel wherever we go as the Spirit guides us? does it matter what we call it internally? I would say that there is a difference between incarnation (little i) and Incarnation (big I), as seen in 1a and 1b below.

    from webster…

    Main Entry:
    14th century
    1 a (1): the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form (2)capitalized : the union of divinity with humanity in Jesus Christ b: a concrete or actual form of a quality or concept; especially : a person showing a trait or typical character to a marked degree
    2: the act of incarnating : the state of being incarnate
    3: a particular physical form or state : version
    — in·car·na·tion·al \-shə-nəl, -shnəl\ adjective

  24. Hi Tim, I came across this post from Andrew Hamilton’s blog, and I will have to read more of your blog. A great post on the benefits of clarity in thought and speech, especially when dealing with theological topics such as this. Just a thought regarding the question of “categories”…

    After reading your exchange with Matt (comments #3 and 4), I’d suggest the category is sanctification. I see that word/category satisfying Matt’s objection to your point #3 most directly, but it also relates to points 1 and 2. Christians are called to live a Spirit-filled sanctified life, which by its very nature is counter-cultural while still being in the midst of culture.

    I think we need to expand our Scriptural focus on this beyond 1 Corinthians 9. I know other texts have been given regarding “sentness” (which I will wholeheartedly affirm). But on this matter of incarnation/being/sanctification/whatever-the-label-is, we need also to include such passages as Matthew 5:16, John 17:11-19, 1 Peter 2:12 and 3:15-16, which call us to live differently – more specifically, to live such good lives among people that it will cause them to ask us why we believe and act as we do. Sure there is contextualization that is necessary. But there are also the counter-cultural acts and attitudes (lived with all humility, as 1 Peter 3:16 would admonish) that cause people to say “something’s different about you”…and open up conversations that way too. My concern is that 1 Cor. 9 gets abused in the name of “incarnational” attitudes, and there really is a both/and – being in the world (1 Cor. 9) but not of it (Matt. 5/1 Peter 2 and 3).

    Hope that’s helpful as we continue to reflect…

  25. Hi Michael. An interesting suggestion. The ‘problem’ with the word sanctification (and it is our problem rather than the NT’s problem, as it were) is that sanctification conjures for many people (wrongly) a sense of withdrawal from the world. We’re after a word that expresses our willingness to adapt to the culture, but also expresses the limitations of that adaptation. Perhaps sanctification should do that if we understood it aright. I wonder if ‘a servant approach’ to mission (‘servant mission’) is better. We are servants of others (and therefore adapting to, and identifying, with them) and servants of the gospel (and therefore calling them to repent in culturally specific ways).

  26. Hi Tim. Interesting post and comments, and I see from the earlier comments there is another ‘Ant’ lurking around reading your blog!

    Anyway – ref your post, I am not persuaded (yet) that it is illegitimate to use ‘incarnational’ as a term to describe the practices you describe and commend. I have no great commitment to the word itself, and I do have problems with the way some use it as a reason for not speaking up or being counter-cultural. But still I have some question marks about what you have said.

    Ref the issue of definitions – you have stated a definition of ‘incarnation’. I would like to think more about whether your definition is necessarily the right one. Need it be that tight/exclusive? I am not sure. As it is not a word found in scripture, it could be difficult to insist on that biblically. Is there also precedent, as with other theological terms, for there to be a secondary lesser application of a divine concept? We are one with Christ, but clearly in a lesser/different way than Christ is one with the Father. We are sons of God, but not the Son of God. Etc.

    You say we cannot do it, and as you have defined it, that is true. But this point only stands if your specific definition is true. If we are the body of Christ in this world, with his Spirit dwelling in us, then couldn’t it be argued that in some lesser way we are incarnational? If Acts is all about what Jesus continued to do in the world, (cf. what he began to do in Luke) we must see that he does his work in and through his people as his body as they go all over the world and scatter into different places. True, the bible doesn’t actually use the word ‘incarnation’ to describe the church’s mission, but then it doesn’t actually use it for Christ’s presence in our world either. Someone else came up with the term later. Can’t it be argued the concept is there? Especially re the idea of being the body of Christ in all our parts using all our various gifts for him (and actually emphasising at the same time the corporate nature of that ‘incarnational’ witness, over against the tendency to individualism)?

    You say it has no boundaries and so can be taken too far. I don’t quite agree it has no boundaries. If it is about Christ in us, we must not grieve him, or do things he would not have us do (such as go transgender!) and must speak up when he would have us do so. The control is the question – who is it that dwells in you? What pleases Christ?

    Re it possibly being taken too far… if that is the case, there is no word we can use to explain the concept of going and being willing to become part of/adapt to/identify with a culture to win it and serve it, because there will always be the potential for someone to take it too far, such as in the examples you describe. I don’t think the use of the phrase ‘incarnational ministry’ is the problem. It is our sinful nature. The term ‘servant mission’ could also be taken too far, or any other alternative. As another commenter said, it is the question of what is sinful/wise/unwise that will preserve us. The dangers you highlight are real. But there will always be the need to say ‘and I don’t mean this…’

    In all this I’m not saying I’m completely convinced that we OUGHT to use the term, but these are my questions about your reasons not to. Am I missing something? It’s perfectly possible I am! Let me know what you think. Persuade me. If you’ve not gone to the States yet.

  27. Hi Tim, and thanks for the response. I see what you’re saying with the wrong understanding of sanctification. But to me, what you describe as what you’re looking for is exactly what sanctification is. It is living the Christian life by the Holy Spirit’s power, but still acknowledging the tension of John 17 – being in the world, but not of it. I’d rather call unhealthy separation what it is – unhealthy separation in violation of Jesus’ high priestly prayer and of 1 Cor. 5:9-13. That’s not sanctification to me. It’s the double-edged sword of humility and authority, contextualization and contending. It’s Eph. 4 and speaking the truth in love; both truth and love are essential, and you can’t have one without the other, just like the relationship of justification and sanctification. (And as an aside, these are not “in balance” as if they’re opposing forces, but simply in tension – we need to be fully engaged with truth and fully engaged in love.)

    Sorry, back from that rabbit trail now. :)

    I guess the larger issue for me is, do we stay away from a word because some wrongly understand it, or do we try to “redeem” it? My approach is generally the latter, though I can understand why some want to pursue the former. My concern with that is that there is no universal agreement on pretty much any word, especially when we’re talking theology. And perhaps this very discussion illustrates that well with “incarnation”. Offer any “church word” for discussion, and you’ll have 45 different thoughts about what that means and how it’s supposed to be used. I guess I would rather stand on the Scriptures and the historic church than on finding new terminology because it’s abused.

    Does that mean we should simply not discuss because we’ll never agree? By no means. :) I look forward to further discussion and iron sharpening iron.

  28. I think you missed the whole point of what most people mean by incarnational. Basically, being there in the flesh, vs not being there. Jesus models for us to go in the flesh to serve and win people. It is that simple. You can’t disagree with simply being there. You can disagree with what goes on after someone is there but you have to be there first. That is the incarnational part. You can do good incarnational ministry, or very poor incarnational ministry. You can serve and win or be a jerk and exploit and offend. But you can do nieither unless you GO and are there IN THE FLESH. You have split hairs and not seen the forest for the trees. And you are calling into question the motives of those few, precious few, actually willing to go and be there in the flesh. Loosen up. You might also dig deep down and see if your “disagreement” might not have something to do with the hardest part of true incarnational ministry. Getting nailed to a cross. This happens anytime anyone decides to get off his high horse and get down in the trenches and in the flesh go to work serving and winning. It is very painful. But the rewards are beyond belief.

  29. Hi Terry, I’m sorry my post made you so angry (why is that, by the way?). I’m sorry I didn’t make myself more clear. I am not against the content affirmed by the term incarnational ministry. My point was that incarnational is not the biblical term to describe it. (Indeed cruciformity might be a better word to describe it.)

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