Book Review: Paul Borthwick, Great Commission, Great Compassion

Borthwick, Paul. Great Commission, Great Compassion. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015.  Link to IVP

Paul Borthwick is a missiologist who teaches at Gordon College and has contributed several important books on missions and evangelism. This short book uses the Great Commission as a model of evangelism. The book divides into two sections; the first develops the biblical foundations for evangelism based on the Great Commissions(s). The Borthwick-great-commissionsecond develops a number of “lifestyle imperatives” necessary for successful evangelism. Borthwick offers insights based on Scripture and illustrations from his experience in cross-cultural missions in this encouraging book. His goal is it write a simple, clear text which equips people to do the work of evangelism.

Under the heading of “biblical foundations.” Borthwick uses five commissions from Jesus as a model for doing evangelism (“kingdom mission”) in the church today. Since these are the last words of Jesus in the Gospels, he observes that Jesus commanded his disciples to go, to “be on mission, to be 24/7 available as witnesses and to join the work he started” (29). Borthwick blends all five final words of Jesus in canonical order (Matt 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8; John 20:21-23).

There is nothing shocking in Borthwick’s presentation, although I would point out a few oddities. First, he prioritizes Matthew 28:18-20 as the “Great Commission,” a traditional name for the last words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew. Chronologically these are not the last words of Jesus, Acts 1:8 are just prior to the Ascension. Second, I think he could have omitted Mark 16:15-18 since the majority of scholarship (even conservative evangelical scholarship) agree Mark’s Gospel did not originally end with these words. He briefly mentions the problems with the text (39), but his footnote is wrong: “the text is deemed reliable by enough scholars that they include it in our Bibles” (200). Included, yes, but significant indications it is not “deemed reliable.” It would be simply better to avoid the controversy which distracts from an otherwise good presentation.

Third, and more controversial, is the lack of reference to Paul and the Pauline mission in the book. Although the Great Commission (in whatever form) are the last words of Jesus in the Gospels, they are not Jesus’ last words. The risen Lord Jesus also commissions Paul to a particular ministry and guides him a number of times in Acts to do evangelism and plant churches. I realize the book is entitled Great Commission Great Compassion, but to claim the Great Commission is everything the New Testament says about evangelism, mission, church planting, and cultural engagement is to overlook the ministry model used successfully by Paul in Acts and illustrated in the epistles.

Under the heading of “lifestyle imperatives” Borthwick briefly comments on eight necessary lifestyle choices which will help make evangelism successful. The first four are foundational (choosing to be involved in kingdom mission; learning what is necessary to share; looking for opportunities and prayer). The second four lifestyles are activities which are by their nature evangelistic (welcoming outsiders; generous giving; unity of the Church and cross cultural experiences).

These eight “lifestyle imperatives” are certainly necessary for evangelism and mission, but Borthwick does not consistently connect these imperatives to the Great Commission from the first half of the book. I wholeheartedly agree prayer and generous giving are necessary components of evangelism and the mission of the Church. But if the Great Commission is foundation for ministry, things like prayer or generous giving are not explicitly mentioned. I suppose one might say these things are taught by Jesus elsewhere (and they are), but I do not think Jesus’ teaching on prayer is foundation for his commission to his disciples to “go to the nations.”

Perhaps this is a result of the weakness of the biblical foundations section. By overlooking Paul’s mission, Borthwick misses an opportunity to support things like prayer and generous giving from biblical texts where Paul does both of these things in the service of evangelism and mission. His section on welcoming the stranger is excellent, although the Twelve seemed to struggle with this when “the stranger” included Gentiles. I find in strange Borthwick uses Peter’s experience with Cornelius as an illustration of welcoming strangers since Peter is extremely reluctant to go even when commanded by the vision and Peter’s later behavior in Antioch (Galatians 2) makes readers suspicious he did not fully integrate his experience into his own mission strategy. Every one of the nine principles for welcoming outsiders from Acts 10 ought to be integrated into the life of every church, but there is far more to be had by integrated Paul and his mission into the model.

Conclusion. My criticisms are the result of the brevity of the book and the clear delimitation o the book to include only the Great Commission as a model. And this may be a case of a reviewer concluding “that is not the book I would have written”! Nevertheless, this book would make an excellent text for a small group Bible study interested in developing an evangelism or missions program in a local church. Borthwick clearly and concisely outlines a biblical mandate as well as a biblical mindset for doing evangelism.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on April 28, 2016 on Reading Acts.

Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 2)

[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).

romans-1-16Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.

Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?

There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:

Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)

Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).

Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?


Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52

Paul’s Missionary Strategy in Acts (Part 1)

[This is the third set of guest posts from my Advanced Studies in Acts class. John Caprari is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]

The Apostle Paul is undoubtedly one of the greatest missionaries to walk this earth. The fruit of his labor is convincing enough! I’m sure Paul would suggest that he was simply a vessel. And a vessel he was. But, what does that mean? Some might say he just went wherever the Spirit led him. I might add, we should always be obedient to the direction the Spirit guides us in. With that being said, Paul did not just sit around and wait for anything supernatural happen.

Missionary ChurchRoland Allen is one of the classics of our era who have written on Paul’s missionary methods that many look to for understanding. He believes Paul’s ministry strategy was more a lack of strategy than anything else. He calls it spontaneous expansion: “This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the exhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church…” (Allen 10).

In his book The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church Allen argues that the less control we have over the church, the more growth we will see. The more freedom we allow the Spirit to work, the more expansion of the Church will happen. For Allen, no type of organization is important. The pre-requisites of a great missionary are: 1) faith and 2) dependence on the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit’s influence on Paul’s ministry is not only evident, but also vital. It’s the Spirit that called Paul and Barnabas out: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2). And it’s the Holy Spirit who led them where they were to go: “The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4). Just a few chapters latter in the narrative of Acts, Luke again shows the presence of the Spirit in these missionary journeys: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, have been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). I wonder what Paul was thinking after this: “Come on! There is so much potential in the province of Asia. The gospel needs to be preached there!” But, God had other plans.

These are just a few examples telling of the influence of the Spirit in Paul’s ministry. Surely, there are many more that communicate the Spirit’s guiding and also the importance of the Spirit’s ‘hand’ on the fruit of our work.

Can you think of any passages, especially in the book of Acts that communicate the absolute need of dependence on the Spirit in our ministry? Is Allen right in suggesting that we should drop all ‘control’ we have and allow more freedom for the Spirit to expand the Church? Is there room for organization and strategic planning in missions? Why or why not? Was Paul more strategically oriented in his ministry or was he completely dependent upon spontaneous expansion?

Book Review: Scott A. Bessenecker, Overturning Tables

Bessenecker Scott A. Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to IVP

In Overturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker offers bold suggestions for new ministry models applicable to both traditional missions as well as western church ministry. The problem is what he calls the Christian Industrial Complex, where the Gospel has become the product and the unsaved the consumer. Strategies for reaching the lost are barely distinguishable from methods for selling products to consumers. As Bessenecker says, “one can barely distinguish a conference design for Protestant pastors, church leaders or mission agency executives from a commercial convention for those dealing with data management, telecommunications or selling shower curtain rings” (23). He argues the American mission movement has become enslaved to a corporate attitude, with an emphasis on privatization and individualism. He believes this corporate addiction is a rejection of the values of the Kingdom of God. While his immediate interest is “world missions,” his observations can be applied to local churches, especially as they grow larger and adopt corporate management systems to cope with millions of dollars in infrastructure.

Overturning TablesThe first several chapters of this book are a brief history of missions. Bessenecker argues the roots of the Protestant missionary movement are intimately connected with the rise of capitalism. Some of the early missionaries were viewed by their Missions boards in the same way a business might look at opening a new market. This Christian Industrial Complex guided decisions about where to open new fields and how the gospel would be presented in these new fields.

In contrast to this capitalist oriented missions movement the author describes early Christian missionaries he served in fields living alongside the poor. George Leile, for example, went to Jamaica and found several churches in the late 1700s. He was more or less uneducated and untrained, but was an effective preacher, responsible for converting over 500 slaves to Christianity. Based on this and other examples throughout the book, Bessenecker argues this model of doing missions is more scriptural then the capitalistic corporate model used in most missions. He sees unintended results from the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic as a result of the Reformation. He tries hard to guard against the charge of anti-capitalism, although I am not sure he is successful. There are indeed real problems with applying western capitalistic methods for doing missions in majority world countries.

In order to remedy the situation, Bessenecker suggests re-examining the structure of mission boards, avoiding corporate organizational models. He also suggests the model found in Acts is far more biblical and ought to be adapted for modern Missions projects. For example, there are many missionaries who live in communities alongside those they are trying to reach. Often this is a missionary from another majority world country reaching into places a Westerner could not.

A serious problem for Western missionaries is the perception of wealth as missionaries move into the majority world. Compared to most of the world, the West is fantastically rich and the potential of getting money Western missions organizations is tempting. But money is not always the answer when establishing missions, Bessenecker argues, since the prosperity gospel has caused a host of serious problems in places like Nigeria. Bessenecker calls this a “syncretic, American expression of God’s kingdom on earth.” It is a fact it costs a great deal of money to put a missionary on the field so many missions organizations must function like corporations in order to deal with the very real problems of money. Instead he suggests the West ought to support majority world missionaries who are going to other majority world fields. He gives several examples of this in his fourth chapter. Is it really possible to do “missions without money”?  Once again he sounds anti-capitalist by describing redistribution of wealth and turning over the purse-strings to the excluded elements of the church.

Prosperity GospelIn chapter 5 the other challenges a common view that the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily about a private exchange, sold through persuasion, making churches distributors something like stores marketing of the product. This Western, capitalist view clouds the Gospel. He bemoans the church leader pastor as a CEO as if they were presiding over a corporation. “Mission cannot be practice package as a product. He cannot be reduced to a privatized exchange. It is not a ‘mission of individual prosperity; but of communal shalom” (110). He finds the language of Christian organizations distracting from mission. Well there’s nothing inherently evil about terms CEO employee brand or market, they really destroy our efforts to preach the gospel. I would suggest this is similar to Joseph Hellermen’s When the Church was a Family (Westminster, 2009). When we use corporate language to describe relationships within the church, we run the risk of polluting the Gospel with Western corporate goals (growth and wealth). These are necessarily bad, but they were not the goals of Jesus in his ministry nor Paul in his foundational church planting.

Bessenecker is very attracted to groups like the old order Mennonites or Quakers who do ministry “like a family.” In chapter 5 he describes what it would look like for ministries to move from individualism to collectivism. Again, most western capitalist Christians cringe at the word “collectivism.” Unlike the West, most of the world value some form of collectivism highly valuing families and communities as a way of existing.  This sort of model of mission work will lead to both plurality and diversity in leadership. The Western corporate model values the “Type-A” leader: a person who is aggressive, no-nonsense, decision-maker, someone who values direct confrontation. That sort of a leader is required in a major corporation. But according Bessenecker, the “Type-A” leader is detrimental to a mission in a culture which values family. A better model is a leader who seeks consensus and community diversity.

In chapter 6 the author uses the book of Acts as a model for how to do ministry today. He examines the appointment of deacons in chapter 6 as a way of empowering the margins of the early church. In my view, Bessenecker overstates his case by using the deacons as a model for cultural diversity. The difference between Hellenists and Hebraists in Acts 6 is not as great as he makes it out to be. In addition I find his comments on Antioch Christianity troublesome. He says “Christianity sheds its Jewish wineskin and become something unrecognizable as Judaism” (146). That does not seem to me to be what is In Antioch at all, as the book of Galatians makes clear. I really don’t think “the sketchy Gentile church in Antioch” is a proper description for what is happening in Acts 11. Bessenecker is however correct that the margins of the church need to be recognized and treated with respect. He is also correct that in order to reach people in majority world countries the West needs to empower the majority world countries in order to reach their own people.

Chapter 7 briefly deals with the problem of independent churches on the mission field in endowing local churches may be a way of breaking dependence on the west. In fact in chapter 8 the author describes this is moving from “growth to flourishing” churches. A serious problem with this however is using western criteria for growth to measure growth and maturity world contexts. A growing church looks different in Southern California than it might in Central Africa. He concludes the chapter by arguing the Western church needs to break from their “addiction to growth (177). In order to do this, Western churches ought to focus primarily on their own spiritual growth and recognize there are times of “spiritual dormancy” in a ministry. These downtimes are not negative at all but can be used to enhance growth in the future.

Conclusion. This is a challenging book since it does offer a model of doing missions that is clearly different than the popular Western model based on capitalism. Most American mega-churches exist because they have copied a corporate model of “moving product” rather than preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God for all people. Bessenecker is to be applauded for this challenge to the church. If you are involved in ministry, either missions or local church work, this book is an essential, challenging read.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Applying Acts (Part 2)

One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a study on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  Claiborne popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.  The Twelve Marks of a New Monasticism is an example of people who are trying to live out a lifestyle modeled on the church as it appears in the book of Acts.  I have a great deal of respect for this kind of ministry and think that these sorts of projects are healthy for the Church in general.

On the other hand, the majority of the church (historic and modern) has dispensed with the book of Acts as a model for doing ministry.  It is far easier to do what works in our community than carefully examining Scripture and attempting to synthesize Paul’s methods and draw some analogy to present situations. I suspect that Shane Claiborne is less interested in Pauline mission than using Jesus for a model.  He can correct me on this, but The Irresistible Revolution is an excellent attempt to live out the life and thinking of Jesus, not apply Paul’s missionary strategy.  In fact, there is little in the book that can be described as “Pauline” and pretty much ignores the book of Acts after the first few chapters as a missional model.

My guess is that Paul would not have created a commune-like community in Corinth or Ephesus.  In fact, I take great comfort in the fact that Paul founded a school (a Bible College, I assume) in Ephesus and functioned as a scholar-teacher in the Greco-Roman world.

But I also think that he was not at odds with Jesus on how to live out the Christian life.  Jesus did not do “mission” in the sense defined by Schnabel, even though he modeled a lifestyle that can be described as “missional.”  As Schnabel says “whenever we move from Scripture to our own time, seeking to let Scripture shape the life of the church, we face the dichotomy of a historical past and a contemporary future” (Paul the Missionary, 37-8).   The question is less about “can we re-create the church of Acts 2” and more about “should we re-create that church”?  But is it legitimate to desire to recreate the church in Ephesus or Corinth?