Michael Goheen on the early church paradigm of mission

In my last post I talked about Michael Goheen’s understanding of mission, in his Introducing Christian Mission Today (Downers Grove: IVP), 2014. In this post I would like to quote what he says about the early church paradigm of mission.

Goheen talks about the early church being the “third race” to in the Roman Empire.

Living close to the time of Jesus, those in the early church saw themselves as continuing the mission of Jesus and living in the newly inaugurated kingdom. Thus, as citizens of the kingdom, they viewed themselves as resident aliens (paroikoi) of a “third race” in the Roman Empire. Although residents of their cultural communities, their primary identity was found as inhabitants of God’s kingdom, and thus they found themselves at odds with the way of life of their contemporaries. (Page 123)

It is this emphasis [not to assimilate to ‘this world’ (Rom 12:2)] on difference, on the prophetic-critical stance within culture, which made them distinctive, that was one of the most salient features of the early church’s missional life. (Page 123)

According to Goheen, the early church broke down barriers of social status, gender, and more! I think there is much for the church today to learn here.

The early church broke down the barriers that had been erected in the Roman Empire between rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, Greek and Barbarian, creating a confounding “sociological impossibility.” A potent “gospel of love and charity” was exercised toward the poor, orphans, widows, sick, miners, prisoners, slaves and travellers. The exemplary moral lives of ordinary Christians stood out against the rampant immorality of Rome . . . Christian unity stood in sharp contrast to the fragmentation and pluralism of Rome. Christians exhibited chastity, marital faithfulness and self-control in the midst of a decadent, sex-saturated empire. Generosity with possessions and resources, along with simple lifestyle, marked their lives in a world dominated by accumulation and consumption. Forgiving love toward each other and toward their enemies witnessed to the power of the gospel. The lives of the believing community, nursed and shaped by the biblical story, enabled them to live as resident aliens, as lights in a dark world. (Pages 124–5; emphasis added)

The following description of the early church is another challenge for us today.

In fact, the early church was for the most part publicly subversive; it did not allow itself to be pushed into a private realm in some obscure religious corner of Roman society. It refused to be conformed to the public doctrine of the Roman Empire. Its confession “Jesus is Lord” stood in stark opposition to the confession “Caesar is Lord,” which bound the empire together. (Page 126)

But Goheen also points out the failures of the early church. Here is one example.

Thus, for too many, immortality of the soul in a celestial home, salvation from rather than of the world, replaced the coming of the kingdom into history. This spiritualized eschatology weakened interest in the desire to see the gospel as a transformative power in the world. Ecclesiology became increasingly concerned with its own inner life; order and office, orthodoxy and institution took priority over the call of the community in the world. (Page 127)


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