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“The Great Missing Link in Much of Anabaptist Missions” — David Robertson

It is sometimes useful to read books written by those who don’t fit neatly into any of your existing boxes. Such is the case, for me, with David Robertson’s book [amazon text=A Vision of Kingdom Christianity: Finding the Big Picture of God’s Design for His People&asin=0994050100] (published in 2015 by Kingdom Vision Books, Niverville, Manitoba, Canada).

My employer and friend Marvin Kauffman recently gave me this book to read and review, since he enjoyed it. I’ve found it an interesting read. Robertson is a prophetic voice and a lifelong kingdom pilgrim who is still eager to learn how to better follow Christ.

Vision of Kingdom Christianity

I’m not quite done this book, but here is a brief overview.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One is called “Something Is Missing: In Search of the Kingdom.” Robertson discusses four “cloud layers,” as indicated by his chapter titles:

  • The Big Picture Is Being Replaced by Little Pieces
  • Anabaptism Is Being Blended with Popular Protestantism
  • Spirituality Is Being Separated from Practice
  • The Authority of the Bible and of the Church Is Being Replaced by the Authority of the Individual.

Part Two is called “Putting the Big Picture Together: Essential Pillars of the Faith.” In this part, which forms the bulk of the book, Robertson discusses twelve core realities, rehearsing them in a manner designed for use in training disciples. Again, chapter titles:

  • God Exists
  • God Has Spoken
  • Peoplehood
  • The Kingdom of God
  • Discipleship
  • The New Birth
  • Faith
  • Humility
  • Ecclesia
  • Missions
  • Watchfulness
  • You Will Give Account

Robertson says “I come from a background of evangelical Protestant Christianity and am moving towards the kingdom Christianity that characterized much of the early Anabaptist movement” (p. xiv). Given that self-description, it is no surprise to see that John D. Martin wrote the foreward to the book. (Brother John D. is known for, among other things, his hymnal and his involvement with both the Anabaptist Identity Conference and Charity Christian Fellowship.)

Given the endorsement by John D. Martin, it is also no surprise to see Robertson critique Protestants for having “in general, like the original Reformers of the 1500s, … missed the essential Gospel core” (p. 17). (That’s probably not a nice thing to say on Reformation Day.) And it is no surprise to hear Robertson critique modern Anabaptists for looking more and more like evangelicals. Nor is it surprising to hear him emphasize that “the church as a new people group has the right to establish general standards in practical and cultural areas and to pass them on to other churches” (p. 144). (I’m not entirely convinced by his exegetical argument on this point.)

But other things that Robertson says are perhaps less expected. As a sincere and original disciple, he does not fit neatly into our expected boxes.

For example, listen to these extended excerpts which first inspired me to share this post. Do you think our brother is saying something here that we need to hear?

One thing that puzzled me when I first came into contact with Anabaptist people and their writings was their use of the word discipleship. They talked much of discipleship and even claimed that one big difference between themselves and the Protestant evangelical churches was their emphasis on discipleship.

Coming from my Protestant background, I reached the opposite conclusion. It seemed the Anabaptists had no time to disciple because they were so busy working to make a living. And if they did have time, they had no actual program to do so, except maybe a pre-baptism class.

The Protestants, on the other hand, had whole libraries of books describing one-on-one discipleship, group discipling, multiplying disciples, and sharing the faith. They had an incredible stock of resources that could be used to give direction and guidance to the disciple. So what was the difference? Who really emphasized discipleship? I think the answer is both. Eventually, I came to learn that for the Anabaptist, discipleship meant obedience in all of life. Without growth in obedience to the teachings of Christ, they believed there was no discipleship. They rightly saw that discipleship involved all of life and not just class time.

The problem, however, is that there are still men and women, young and old, who need to be systematically taught the basics of the Christian faith, practice, and witness. All too often we Anabaptists have no sound resources to do so, and no people who have been trained to take on this joyful task. Here the Protestants can teach us, for they have men freed up to develop resources, to train laborers, and to do the actual work of discipling.

To my dying day, I’m sure I will remember the different men who after experiencing great revival in their lives and joining the church, shared their desire and even expectation that they would be meeting with me at least once a week. Oh, the agony to know I could not meet their expectation and that there was no one else prepared to do so…

We must not just talk of discipleship. We must train and free men up to do it. We desperately need both the Anabaptist and Protestant understandings of discipleship. (pp. 84-85, bold added)

(I am very happy to endorse that statement on this Reformation Day.)

And this:

Jesus’ pattern of preparing disciples who will themselves make disciples seems to be more of an apprenticeship, rather than seven years of seminary. This apprenticeship, [sic] involves both study and practical work right from the start.

It is easy to criticize those who spend years in academic study preparing for future ministry, but have we fallen into the same trap of preparing now and obeying later? Perhaps we have adopted the philosophy that we must first build a strong, united church with no problems or needs and then reach out to others. But consider with me, would you apply that idea in your business? No, if you drank coffee and built unity every day you would soon go broke and get on each other’s nerves. In the workplace, team building, training, problem solving, and work go hand in hand, and so it should be in the church…

This command [the Great Commission command to “go”] violently interrupts the plans we have for our lives and businesses. The call to missions shakes us up; it is not comfortable…

The great missing link in much of Anabaptist missions today is this purposeful preparation, mobilization, and support of laborers. We Anabaptist-type groups have been good at doing relief work, cleaning up after hurricanes, re-building barns, and helping with medical expenses. Our labor (time) and money are poured into these projects and into schools to educate our children. We have excelled at these social ministries, but why has not even more time and money been expended proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom in every place, beginning in our own countries? We claim to have the foundational pillars of the faith that all must hear, but we leave the job of proclaiming the faith to the Protestants (who we say, have largely missed the critical kingdom message). That makes no sense.

We have prided ourselves in having no salaried ministers in our churches as if somehow not having paid workers will earn us a special “Well done” from the Lord. I know this is a sensitive subject with no easy answers, but maybe it needs to be examined. The final issue is not: “Are workers paid?” but rather: “Is the job God gave us being done?” To get the job done will take an army of trained, Spirit-filled volunteers as well as men who are released to give large portions of their time to equipping laborers and advancing the message and ministry of the kingdom. Why have we left this job to zealous individuals and to the rich among us? It is not the independent individual who has been commissioned with this great job, but the whole church. The church must get a vision of the work to which she is called, and then discern how her labor force can be equipped and supported to get the job done. To get the job done is going to take both sacrifice and support

Frankly, we are better at supporting intensive missions when they are overseas than we are close to home, but missions begins at home. The church is a missionary community in which we all together seek to sacrifice and support so that the kingdom is advanced, beginning right here close to home. As long as missions is mainly something that happens far away it will never be a vital part of the life of the church…

As kingdom Christians we believe the church has been given a job. To do this job, we need a continual stream of prepared laborers.

The blessed heritage of the Anabaptists places the responsibility to accomplish this job onto the whole church, not just the professional clergy… There is great potential as a while community of faith takes responsibility for the work. There is incredible potential, but all too often we have failed to embrace a specific purpose to which to give ourselves, and though we raise up laborers from within, we have failed to train them and to raise up enough to get the job done. No business would prosper and expand if it were run this way…

Who in our churches has been given the responsibility to oversee the advance of the kingdom beyond the local church? Who has God set apart and gifted for this? How can they be supported to free them to do the job? We ordain pastors and deacons, but what about evangelists, traveling teachers, apostolic church planters, and men with prophetic ministries to the whole church or society? Why have we focused so much on those ministers that serve in the local church and neglected to equally recognize God’s call for ministers who serve beyond the local body?…

In the book of Acts we see that there are apostles such as Peter, Paul, and Barnabas who are given to missionary outreach, and there are helpers such as Timothy and Titus. Then there is another group, the elders of the local church. These two groups of leaders work together but have two distinct areas of gifting and responsibility…

We must prepare and release laborers both inside the church and outside, so that the whole job of both missions and pastoring is faithfully carried out…

This pillar [missions] is not for later when we are mature or have resolved all the problems and needs in our Jerusalem. No, this pillar is for now. It must be there from the beginning. It is why we are still here. (pp. 160-65, bold added)

“We never did join the Mennonite church,” Robertson writes, “but our interaction with them caused me to go back to the Scriptures again and again to see what they really said” (p. 5). Robertson clearly throws his lot in with what he calls the “Radical Believer’s Churches” (p. 5), yet he aims to learn from the broader church, and his allegiance is ultimately to Christ alone.

I don’t agree with all of Robertson’s conclusions, but I expect I would be encouraged and deeply challenged if I met this brother over a cup of coffee or—more likely—in his prayer cabin or on the streets of some Canadian town, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.

What do you think? Do you agree with Robertson’s diagnosis of how poorly many Anabaptist local churches handle missions? Do you agree we should learn from the Protestants in how they train intentionally for both missions and discipleship? What can we do to better recognize (both see and authorize) those among us who are gifted in evangelism and church planting? How should the money flow change to get the job done? Share your passion in the comments below.

Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Giving To and Through the Church (Part 4)

[See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 in this series.]

Part 4: A Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church

After my last post, you might think that I got my titles mixed up. Isn’t pastoral support a controversial issue? Yes, it is. But this post addresses a topic that, at least for some people, is even more controversial.

First, a brief review. I suggested that the NT describes and teaches three main reasons for giving to and through the church: (1) to support needy local Christians, (2) to send relief to distant Christians, and (3) to support gospel proclaimers. The first of these soon became quite systematized, with daily distributions and widows lists. The other two seem to have occurred, at least based on NT evidence, more on an as-need basis, prompted by things like specific famines or missionary trips.

There are other kinds of giving that are also emphasized in the NT, such as caring for family or individuals giving directly to needs. Giving happens on a spectrum, in all kinds of situations, and all individual Christians are also simultaneously members of Christ’s church according to NT thinking, so it I don’t want to force an imaginary line between church giving and giving done by families or individuals. But the three reasons I have noted are, I think, primary NT reasons for giving collectively, to and through local churches.

Is there any reason for giving that you are surprised not to see on my list? If you compared this list with the average giving patterns of most American churches, what unmentioned reason for giving might stand out?

The answer to my question is, surely, giving to pay for church buildings. (There, I promised this would be controversial!) In a survey of American evangelical churches conducted in 2012 by the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (see here), average church expenses broke down as follows:

  • Personnel Expenses: 58%
  • Facilities/Occupancy Expenses: 18%
  • Programs Expenses: 14%
  • Administration Expenses: 6%
  • Other Expenses: 3%

Here are several other findings:

  • The largest single sub-category was Pastoral/Executive Salaries, at 36%.
  • Only 3% was given to either Local/National Benevolence or International Benevolence, the subcategories that best match the first two reasons for giving that I cited.
  • Building Fund expenses constitute a third of the Other Expenses category, so that effectively bumps Facilities/Occupancy Expenses up to 19%.
  • For whatever reasons, Facilities/Occupancy Expenses are much lower for micro (14%), small (18%), and medium churches (15%) than for large churches (29%).

Other studies have yielded different percentages, but the general pattern seems accurate: personnel expenses forms the largest portion of most American church budgets, followed by expenses related to buildings. What would a survey of conservative Anabaptists find? I don’t know, but I suspect that personnel expenses would be way down (not entirely for good reasons—see my last post), giving to benevolence causes would be considerably up, and facilities/occupancy expenses might be roughly similar. What do you think?

How do we square these giving priorities with the NT? After all, not one text in the NT either commands or describes giving to pay for church buildings.

Here is a sample of the evidence I find in the NT about this topic. What conclusions do you think we should draw from these verses?

When he [Peter] realized this [that he had been delivered from prison by an angel], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. (Acts 12:12)

And he [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. (Acts 18:4-7)

Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Romans 16:23)

The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 16:19)

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Colossians 4:15)

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house… (Philemon 1:1-2)

Analyzing historical evidence based on such slim evidence is tricky (although I haven’t post it all), and drawing valid theological and practical conclusions for today is even trickier. But let me take some risks.

First, historical conclusions. The early church didn’t have single-use church buildings. Instead, as they were pushed out of the synagogues by unbelieving Jews, they met in public spaces and in private homes. This explains why no commands to support building projects are found in the New Testament. In place of church buildings and building funds, we find that Christians who were wealthy enough to own large houses gave to the church by hosting the church in their own homes. According to Archaeology Magazine, the world’s oldest known church building (located in eastern Syrian in the ancient town of Dura-Europos) was not built until around AD 241. “Inside is the earliest known baptismal font.” This church building was located, not surprisingly, “in a house.”

People debate why the early church did not build church buildings. Was it because they were too poor? Was it because their congregations were so small? Was it because of persecution? While each of these factors undoubtedly played a role, none of them were universally true for the first 200 years of the church. I don’t think any of them explain fully why the pagans built temples, the Jews built synagogues, but the Christians didn’t build church buildings. I suspect a better answer is found in the theological nature of the church as a spiritual household, a missional body, and a heavenly citizenship, but that is a topic too big for this post.

Second, what theological and practical conclusions can we draw from the historical evidence? At minimum, I think, these:

  • Local Christians should work together to provide space for the church to gather, whether in homes or other buildings. The church does need space to meet, and this means some people will need to give to make this possible.
  • Richer members of the local congregation should be willing to give more than their poorer brothers and sisters. In fact, poor Christians should never be pressured to pay for church buildings.
  • Church building projects should not distract the church from its primary giving goals: supporting gospel workers and caring for poor Christians near and far. If church building expenses become the central focus of our giving and our talk about giving, then we have severe vision problems.

What else might we learn from the example of the early church here? What might we learn from the global house church movement today? (For example, Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader, edited by Rad Zdero. See [amazon text=here&asin=087808374X].) How might we adapt our assumptions about church meeting places, church sizes, and church giving patterns to streamline them for missional goals? How many large church buildings does each community really need? Might some people be drawn to church buildings rather than to Christ? Or, at minimum, do some of us have trouble imagining how we could follow the Homeless Man without well-equipped, expansive and expensive church buildings?

More could be said, but it is your turn. Tell us what you think in the comments below!