The Problem with “Incarnational” Ministry

Writes Eckhard J. Schnabel in his chef-d’œuvre, Early Christian Mission, Volume 2: Paul and the Early Church (IVP, 2004), pages 1574-1575:

“I submit that the use of the term ‘incarnational’ is not very helpful to describe the task of authentic Christian missionary work. The event of the coming of Jesus into the world is unique, unrepeatable and incomparable, making it preferable to use other terminology to express the attitudes and behavior that Paul describes in 1 Cor 9:19-23. The Johannine missionary commission in Jn 20:21 does not demand an ‘incarnation’ of Jesus’ disciples but rather their obedience, unconditional commitment and robust activity in the service of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely John who describes the mission of Jesus as unique: Jesus is the ‘only’ Son (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:14, 18), he is preexistent (Jn 1:1, 14), his relationship to the Father is unparalleled (Jn 1:14, 18). For John, it is not the manner of Jesus’ coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, that is a ‘model’ for believers; rather, it is the nature of Jesus’ relationship to the Father who sent him into the world, which is one of obedience to and dependence upon the Father. … The terms ‘contextualization’ or ‘inculturation’ certainly are more helpful.”

(HT: Tony Reinke)

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with “Incarnational” Ministry

  1. Interesting. I disagree though. I find the concept of ‘incarnational ministry’ very helpful. And although there are poetic and symbolic aspects to the term, there is also real truth. Paul speaks of us as the church as being the ‘body of Christ’. What is that, if it’s not incarnational? We are filled the Holy Spirit. We are bearers of His Spirit. What is that, if it’s not, in a sense, incarnational?

    Mainly I like the term because it reminds me that as Christians it is who we are, our character, that is far more important in transforming the world than what we do. If our activity does not flow from a character committed to holiness and to Christ being ‘formed in us’ as Paul puts it, then it is ineffective.

    Like it or not, if people want to see what Christ is like, then until he returns, they have to look at us.

    • Ultimately it’s not a question about our preferences concerning meaning. The question is, is this a term/category used by the New Testament of Christians, or reserved for the uniqueness of Christ?
      You say, “Like it or not, if people want to see what Christ is like, then until he returns, they have to look at us.” This is only partially true, the only pure and perfect manifestation of Christ is found in the Bible, especially in the gospel. The church is to be a manifestation of the reality of Jesus as she proclaims the biblical crucified and risen Jesus, and lives out the transformation of grace before a needy world. Even at her best, filled with all the fullness of the Spirit, the church is not perfect, that’s why it’s always her privilege to point to the Saviour as seen in his word.

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