Filling in the Holes of Holism

A Response to Christopher Wright’s “Whole Gospel, Whole Church, Whole World

Christians are so adept at theological reductionism that thousands of denominations have spun off from the teachings of Jesus. Many of these versions of Christianity are differentiated by slight hermeneutical nuances, nearly undetectable to the theologically untrained. Others argue the heart of the gospel beats within the incubator of their doctrinal laboratories, rendering all others a diluted version of Christianity.

Some splinters of the larger evangelical community avoid these doctrinal divisions by merely resonating with styles of worship, teaching, or mission toward which their constituents have a strong affinity; they simply agree to disagree over doctrinal divides.

Whatever the issue—including issues no less comprehensive than church, gospel, or world—Christians are a divided people. Yet Christ shunned such ecclesial, theological, and human reductionism and division by maintaining a simple center based in love and reflected in unity.

What do we mean by the whole church?

Throughout the Gospels, Christ attempts to form a community that doesn’t exclude deeply committed religious people, including the Pharisees and Sadducees—they do a fine job of excluding themselves. Rather, Christ looks for common ground as a hinge to community, even tucking voices on the fringes into the company of his message bearers.

Mark 9:38–41 expands our notion of the “whole church.” Someone on the doctrinal margins (insert whoever that might be in the reductionist standards of one’s tradition, e.g., the emergents, liberation theologians, prosperity gospel preachers, charismatics) is ministering under the name of Christ. The disciples attempt to arrest his activity, eliciting this response from Christ: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Today, many evangelical churches draw sharp lines to indicate who’s in and who’s out. Citing doctrine, evangelicals sort out the issues around an understanding ofthe saints, negotiating a relationship with Mary, the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, or using icons in worship. Doctrinal lines allow unenlightened evangelicals to suggest they are the whole church.

The historical, Christ-centered, worshiping community of believers, however, includes sisters and brothers committed to mainline Protestant denominations, Orthodox Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. For any one of these historic Christian traditions to lay exclusive claim to the title “whole church” would be a direct assault on the others.

Similarly, evangelicals, though a significant and crucial part of the global Christian mosaic, would be presumptuous to assume that our expression of the greater Christian tradition embodies the “whole church.”

What do we mean by the whole gospel?

Evangelicals who presume they have figured out the whole gospel are misled. As the director of an international community engaged in missional service, I can’t count the letters and e-mails we have received from various evangelical churches concerned that we don’t follow a particular doctrine that is central to their worshipping community’s identity. Their “whole” is made up of bits and pieces.

Christ kept the heart of the gospel simple: “God so loved the world …” sums it up, and the gospel ethic, “love God fully and love humanity sincerely,” follows naturally.

Christ spent much of his time dismantling doctrinal divides by embodying the motivating force of love. He healed a man’s hand on the sacred Sabbath, not only to do the compassionate thing, but also to create conflict around a doctrine that had become a barrier to love.

Jesus also intentionally created conflict around practices like fasting, the understanding of family, and the relationship between the person and the state. Some thought he lowered sexual standards by refocusing attention from a woman caught having pre- or extra-marital sex to the judgment harbored in the minds of religious people anxious to maintain purity.

Love is the way because love is the message; God is love. Whenever a socially constructed religious dictate stood in the way of love, Christ exposed its reductionist heart. Christ’s sense of the whole gospel was not grounded in what it wasn’t, but in what it was: love.

What do we mean by the whole world?

Christ never offered easy formulas for packaging, presenting, or propagandizing his message of unity and love.

In Scripture Christ interacts with people in a way that is honoring, loving, and inviting. To one Christ said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” To others he said, “Go in peace.” After healing another he instructed, “See that you don’t tell anyone.”

Christ met people where they were and challenged them to be where they needed to be, while affirming the uniqueness of each person’s humanity.

Sadly, evangelicals’ commitment to world evangelization has been largely focused around particular groups or strategies that reduce persons and entire communities to target audiences. Even worse, many modern mission movements have over-identified their “target audience” with a small aspect of how they live or how they suffer.

Many attempts to be holistic in mission aggravate this reductionism by over-compensating for what appears to be missing in outreach strategies. This error largely belongs to those who serve among the exploited, oppressed, repressed, and poor. The language of holism has become the hook social-justice types have hung their hats on. But this just pushes the pendulum back the other way.

Holistic mission can’t be reduced to versions of mission among the poor. The love of Christ offers solutions for every human need. To only tell someone about Jesus is a crime against holism and the heart of the gospel.

Then what is holism?

Throwing ourselves at the mercy of the whole gospel by celebrating the whole church so that the whole world might see us bear witness to hope in Christ must be our missional commitment. This is our aim and our ideal, but we must embrace this commitment humbly, as a goal rather than an announcement.

The evangelical understanding of holism has many holes. Ironically, we haven’t filled these with love and unity. Instead, we’ve but padded and protected the ecclesial, theological, and missional doctrines that have excluded those Christ embraced. Thoughtful, caring Christians must base their reconstruction of holism on a clearer vision of the church, the gospel, and the world with love as the only true indicator of integrity.

Christopher L. Heuertz is international executive director of Word Made Flesh, working with the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He is the author of Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World.

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)

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