October 22, 2017

Evaluating Incarnational Ministry (2)

Taigen Joos

clip_image002Last time, I quickly gave a description of what those who teach an incarnational approach to ministry mean by that terminology. To quote Ben Edwards, who summarizes this position well when he critiques it, saying that the incarnationalist believes that Christians are sent into the world to “imitate Christ by serving the world and identifying with them in their culture and suffering.”[1]

I would like to begin evaluating this approach to ministry, starting with its foundational understanding of key Gospel texts.

Incarnational Ministry Misunderstands Key Biblical Texts

John 17 gives us an intimate glimpse into the prayer life of our Savior. There, Jesus prayed for things regarding the glorification of Himself (v. 1-5), continued to pray for His own disciples, eleven of whom were present (v. 6-19), and finally prayed for those who would believe the gospel through the ministry of the disciples (v. 20-26). This puts verse 18 into the context of Christ’s prayer for His own disciples when He said to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” In John 20, Jesus rose from the dead and came to where His disciples were that evening. In verse 21 He said to them, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

In both of these texts we find the same progression of, “As … so I …” As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends His followers. The question, though, remains as to the intended meaning of Christ in these words. Is Jesus intending to communicate the idea that as the Father sent the Son to be incarnated into a Jewish culture, so the Son sends His followers to be incarnated into a pagan culture? Or is Jesus seeking to emphasize the fact that just as He was sent by God, so He is sending others? In other words, is the emphasis on the incarnational aspects of Christ, or the sending aspects of Christ? Cheong dives deeply into the Greek grammar and usage of the key words of these verses and essentially concludes that while there can be some level of imitation or modeling involved, that is not the primary aspect. He says, “Missiologists and theologians can also agree that the disciples participate in Christ’s revelatory and redemptive work in a mostly secondary sense.”[2]

The emphasis of these verses is more on the sending than the modeling, though the modeling aspect may not be able to be ruled out completely. However, to the incarnationalist model of ministry, it is the modeling of Christ in His incarnation that is overemphasized beyond the intent of the text. It is read into the text by those who wish it to be there. I would argue that what the incarnationalists are doing here is more eisegesis than exegesis.

Jesus was sent into the world for the purpose of giving His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) in order to save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). His incarnation is unique, as He is God who became man. No human, by definition can be incarnated. Jesus sends His followers into the world for the purpose of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world and making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). The purpose of Jesus and the purpose of Jesus’s followers are quite different. The incarnation of Jesus was for the salvation of mankind. Jesus sent his disciples into the world to proclaim, not to incarnate, Christ. This is a crucial distinction that must be understood. If it is not, as the incarnationalists don’t seem to understand, it leads to other problems.

Editor’s Note: Part (3) is planned to run next Tuesday.

Part One is here.


Taigen Joos is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Dover, NH. He blogs at A Beggar’s Bread, where this article first appeared. It is republished here by permission.

  1. Ben Edwards, “Being Jesus, Missio Dei, and Kingdom Work: An Analysis, Critique, and Proposal for Modern Approaches to Holistic Ministry,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Volume 19, (2014): 74. []
  2. John Cheong, “Reassessing John Stott’s, David Hesselgrave’s, and Andreas Köstenberger’s Views of the Incarnational Model.” In Missionary Methods: Research, Reflections, and Realities, edited by Craig Ott and J.D. Payne, (William Carey, 2013), 53. []


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