Restoring the Church’s Role in Missions: Missionaries as Ambassadors

Basil Grafas
Thursday, August 20th 2020

If you have been fed a steady diet of missions literature and conferences, describing missionary identities as martyr/witnesses, warriors, and ambassadors might seem jarring. Yet, they supply the critical ingredients necessary to promoting global missions by the visible church of Jesus Christ. My bold claim is that embracing them will help erase the barriers that already exist that separate the various parts of the church and often prevent cooperative ministry. Let me show you what I mean. My examination of the necessity for Christians as missionaries of the visible church to serve as “martyrs” and as “warriors” will appear in Modern Reformation vol. 29, iss. 5 and vol. 29, iss. 6 respectively. In this post, we will examine the significance of the missionary church living as ambassadors in the world around them.

Exiles and resident aliens

The identity of the covenant people of God as exiles and resident aliens (from home and into the world) finds its origins in the Old Testament Exodus and the subsequent exiles from Israel and Judah later in the Old Testament. It also plays a role in the New Testament, and the situation in the New Testament more closely parallels our own. We live in the light of the resurrection and ascension. We no longer associate home with a physical Jerusalem. The paradigm of exile as it is played out in the New Testament is, I believe, very beneficial to us as ambassadors of Christ in the here and now.

A short word of clarification: I waffle between exile and resident alien for a few reasons and land on the appropriateness of both. People are forced into exile or flee from greater risk ordinarily. Exile, therefore, is not simply a lifestyle choice or a matter of immigration. As resident aliens, however, it is implied that people settle down to some degree. When my father moved to the USA from Greece on the eve of WWII, he settled down but never stopped missing Greece. He often saw his future rest somewhere else. To be an exile is to make a home in the “now” and “not yet.” Exiles are not simply nomadic people. They make their homes in foreign lands. That means making new relationships, even friendships with strangers.

As believers, we are always reminded to live out our primary identity as followers of king Jesus, regardless of domicile. We are made in the image of God and we reflect that image to the world around us. We have the choice to isolate ourselves so as to protect ourselves from foreign contaminants, to shelter-in-place. That, however, is not the pattern we see revealed either in scripture or our history.

Our response to becoming “foreigners” must flow from our understanding that we exist as exiles due to the eternal choice of God. He wants us where we are. God has a purpose for our lives that includes where we live.⁠[1] There is a greater point. Since God ordains where we live, he also directs how we live, and how well we live.

The key to life in exile is in remembering, not forgetting. We remember who we are by remembering whose we are. We are made in the image of the one true God, whose perfect image (icon) is Jesus Christ. We were gathered together by God’s sovereign, loving design as one new people, set apart in a covenantal relationship with him. We have also been adopted into a new family as we are united to Christ. That makes us different; different from what we were and different from those around us.

1 Peter 2:4-10 echoes a collection of Old Testament verses addressed to the covenant people. We are living stones, just as Christ imaged the cornerstone, the foundation of Zion (Isa 28:16). We image Christ as we corporately, in faith, comprise his house. Peter gets to the heart of our specific identity in 2:9-10.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (ESV).

We are a chosen race. God chose us for this life. The phrase, however, means more than that. It echoes Isa. 43:3, indicating to the covenant believers that Yahweh, the God we know now as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is their only salvation and their only deliverer from exile in Babylon.⁠[2]

Peter plunges still further. We are not simply chosen by God for a special purpose, but we are a “chosen race”. We are remade by God into something entirely new. We think of race as being fundamental to our identity. In a profound sense, however, God remakes us into a new race. It is “stripped of ethnicity” and open to thriving anywhere. They could maintain local ethnicity but not at the expense of the new identity they were given.⁠[3] Just as he made us from nothing at all, and just as he made dead men and women come to life, he remakes our fundamental identity, repurposing our lives through that transformation.

We are also a “holy nation.” Peter reminds us that, as we begin to understand our new identity, we can see the Exodus and the consecration of God’s people as they renewed the covenant of life that, witnessed by the law, differentiated them from the nations around them and illustrated what the new life would be. And so it is with us.

Reflections of Christ

As we live in a foreign land under hosts that may not affirm our faith, we still live as images of God. We must because we are both reflections and relations of his. We have been called by God to live among other people, but we are also called to reflect Christ to them. Just as Christ authored and personified everything that the law described, we, as his images, also personify all that he, as perfect man is. We do that as individuals, as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), but we also do it as a new race, a new structure, a new nation. We do it together. We are united to Christ into a holy temple (Eph. 2:20-22), a living creation that radiates Christ. We do not need the glorified climes of heaven for that. We can live that anywhere we are.

We must be remind, however, that we live this new life as Christ lived his. Hebrews 12:1-2 that we run the race of this life with Christ our forerunner. He is in the lead and we follow him. We also go the way he goes. That is not a journey we may wish to take, but for the fact that we are already in him. In other words, we go with him, because the thought of deserting him is more painful than the consequences of that life.

People refined in the fire

We have plenty of illustrations to help us understand what the lives of exiles look like. We remember the three faithful followers of God in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3) or the long list of faithful martyrs in Hebrews 11. John reminds us in the Revelation of where following Christ in exile leads. We only need to consult the Smyrnaeans and Philadelphians in Rev. 2-3. We remember the martyrs under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11), the two witness (Rev. 11) and the 144,000 (Rev 14) as reminders of what faithful exile mean. It means witnessing without reservation of Christ in the face of hostility. It is a hard life, but more importantly, it is our life. Karl Barth noted:

Since the vocation to be a Christian is essentially and decisively the vocation to be a witness, man cannot possibly become and be a Christian without having to experience and endure affliction in the work of the surrounding world.[4]

Andrea Sterk’s study of the lives of Christian communities living under foreign rule in late antiquity describes the persecuted church in the period 240-500 A.D. She states that 4th century believers continued to expand in the face of persecution. Rulers were cautioned against excessive use of violence because it generally backfired.⁠[5] In these cases, exiles witnessed of Christ through their own holy faithfulness. Citing the historian Sozomen, who described the conversion of the Goths in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Sterk shows that the virtue of exiles led to conversion and baptism. These people lived as part of Christian communities in captivity and witnessed through their obstinate faith, ordinary godliness, and open witness.⁠[6] They were the aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15-16).

Ambassadors with portfolio

Just as the apostle Paul described himself as an “ambassador in chains (Eph. 6:20),” so too are we given our remit, our “portfolio” by Christ whom we represent as we live in exile. Paul Williams, in his Exiles on Mission,” is burdened by the Western church’s apparent contradictions. It longs for the kingdom but is ashamed of the gospel, he argues. He demonstrates that Western Christians live in a culture that has deserted it. That means that we now live in an alien world as exiles of the Lord.[7]

He describes the attempts made by the church to recoup its losses through cultural compromise such as the church growth movement and the emerging church. He believes that the church over-politicizes its role in society, but loses sight of its more fundamental calling to serve as witnesses in every-day communities. While I take umbrage with some of his broad brush strokes, I think he accurately describes the churches’ temptations either to withdraw or assimilate.⁠[8]

His alternative is that we exiles fulfil our divine calling as ambassadors in foreign land. We live in the world, but never separated from God’s presence. Just as Peter exhorted the church live out its new identity in Christ, obeying the laws of the land but openly maintaining its faith, so may we serve as lights of Christ to the dark communities we live in. Williams sees this as understanding our presence as strangers in alien territory as becoming ambassadors of Christ. Ambassadors do not take up their charge with resentment but fully engaged with assurance that they are with Christ and full of hope.⁠[9]

Are we angry at the persecution and suffering we’ve experienced because of our faithful witness to Christ (in which case, we need to forgive)? Or are we resenting the loss of influence and status that the cultural Christianity of the recent past has afforded us (in which case, we need to repent)?[10]

The ambassadorial role becomes ours when we repent of our resentment and embrace the new life we have been given. Resentment leads to isolation, defensiveness and hate. The acceptance of God’s ordained calling leads to joy and engagement. We begin to have a sense of urgency that compels us outside of our assemblies and into our communities bearing love and truth. The world may think us penned in, too intimidated to share the images we bear, but we do so as ambassadors of hope that the world needs whether they admit it or not.

Williams makes another good point. All of our churches become embassies and its members ambassadors. That requires much greater effort on our part to equip our own people for their ambassadorial roles. This need not lead to arguments over polity or the disastrous removal of necessary doctrinal standards. It simply means that the postmodern reign of “experts” is over. The mission of God to the world cannot be bottlenecked any longer by expert organizations, expert intellects, and celebrity pastors. The church needs to be equipped and sent out as ambassadors with portfolio, commissioned by Christ, in residence in the places in which they live.⁠12 We represent our sovereign and our real homeland. We honor our call when we, through our words and our lives, invite others to come with us.

Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.

[1] Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 80.

[2] Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 158.

[3] See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 213.

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, trans. G. W. Bromiley (London: T&T Clark, 1961) 618.

[5] Andrea Sterk, “Captives in Late Antiquity: Christian Identity Under Foreign Rule,” in Sources of the Christian Self: A Cultural History of Christian Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 247.

[6] Ibid, 253-256.

[7] Paul S. Williams, Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2020).

[8] Williams, 48-52.

[9] Williams, 64.

[10] Williams, 72.

Thursday, August 20th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology