Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ

J. Todd Billings
Wednesday, November 2nd 2016
Nov/Dec 2016

The term “incarnational ministry,” like “missional” or “Emergent Church,” is used in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes “incarnational ministry” means ministry that crosses cultural barriers to be an embodied presence to people in need. At other times, it’s used to talk about culturally relevant analogies for the gospel. In still other contexts, “incarnational ministry” has become shorthand for affirming that intellectual assent to faith is not enough—faith needs to become embodied and “incarnate” in acts of love and service, as in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It is understandable if you find these different uses of the phrase puzzling. In its common evangelical usage, “incarnational ministry” often has surprisingly little to do with the unique incarnation of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. For instance, surely Muslim, Jewish, and other religious practitioners would affirm that faith should be made manifest in concrete, physical acts of love and service, but none of them would affirm the incarnation of the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This leads us to a question underlying the coupling of the term “incarnational” with “ministry.” What is the relationship between the one incarnation and the activity and ministry of the church? Should our ministries be guided by analogies between the incarnation and our own Christian lives?

The Word Made Flesh (and Deed?)

Missional blogger Timothy Cowin suggests that the incarnation is important for ministry because it teaches that “Jesus came to physically be with us,” to show the Father’s love to tax collectors and sinners, seeking not to retreat from culture but to “penetrate” it.¹ The incarnation applies to us because “the missional church sees its mission as the same as the Lord’s.” For Cowin, the incarnation is about engaging in a set of inclusive and loving activities (as in the ministry of Jesus), since the mission of Jesus Christ is the same as our own.

Although Cowin makes some legitimate points about the church’s calling to be in but not of the world, approaches like this one risk missing a profound truth of the gospel: that the incarnation is utterly unique. Whereas it may sound empowering for us to have the “same” mission as Jesus in the incarnation, there is a subtle but profound danger in this incarnational analogy. It is God alone who saves, and God alone saves through the Word that takes on flesh in Jesus Christ. The incarnation is not a pattern of activities that we copy. It’s not simply a truth that Jesus lived a self-sacrificial life, but that the eternal Word became incarnate in the man Jesus, who lived the righteous life of love and obedience. The incarnation is a reality without which the ministry of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection would have no significance for our salvation. As such, the incarnation is a central, constitutive truth of the gospel.

Those who seek to recover the doctrine of the incarnation and its implications for our lives and ministries are right to want to emphasize its practical applications. We should not enter into ministry in a prideful way that looks down upon others rather than serving them; we should be mindful of the call to cross cultural barriers for the sake of the gospel. In order to explore this further, I will examine how the incarnational analogy has functioned in evangelical missiological circles. After this analysis, I will point to one area in which I think analogies can be made from the incarnation that do not compromise its uniqueness or centrality; finally, the article ends by drawing upon the wisdom of the Heidelberg Catechism in articulating the ways in which we participate in Christ and his mission, and the ways in which our mission remains distinct from that of Jesus Christ himself.

Becoming All Things to All Men

A common example of the use of “incarnational ministry” in missiological circles comes from a widely used textbook, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers.² Lingenfelter argues that the incarnation has profound consequences for cross-cultural ministry—Jesus came into the world as a “learner,” needing to learn about Jewish language and culture, and like a careful anthropologist, he studied the culture of his people for thirty years before he began his ministry. Although Jesus Christ was “in very nature God,” he identified with humanity and human culture, taking “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6–7). He not only completely identified with humanity but with Jewish culture in particular. Thus Lingenfelter sees the incarnation as the model for incarnational ministry, for Jesus was “a 200 percent person”: “he was 100 percent God and 100 percent Jew.”³

Lingenfelter goes on to make a direct analogy with our own ministry: we should seek to become 150 percent persons, becoming less like persons of our own culture and more like persons of the culture to whom we seek to minister (thus 75 percent of each culture). He has legitimate and pressing missiological concerns that underlie his use of the incarnational analogy—he has seen the tendency of Western missionaries to retreat to their safe missionary compounds, rather than approach the receiving culture with humility and respect. This action of distance (rather than humble engagement) distorts the message that Christian missionaries try to communicate. Thus the incarnation seems like an attractive analogy to inspire missionaries to acquire a posture of cultural humility.

While I share the author’s practical missiological concerns, I think his close analogy between the incarnation and cross-cultural ministry is not the best way to address these concerns. It depends upon a questionable interpretation of Philippians 2 and a reduction of Christology to a problem of math. (How exactly is a “200 percent person” one person rather than “two sons,” as the ancient heresy of Nestorianism claims?) For our present purposes, I will focus upon two observations.

First, Lingenfelter’s portrait of the incarnation tends to conflate the unique incarnation with our own process of learning about another culture. The deity of the Son is seen as a “culture” and the taking on of humanity as a second “culture” taken on in the incarnation. Thus Jesus, as the pioneer of our faith, shows us how to take on a second culture as well. But here is the problem: the divine nature is not a “culture,” and we cannot (and should not) see ourselves as analogous to the pre-incarnate Word that then takes on humanity. The deity of the Word won’t fit into the box of “culture,” because God is not a creature and culture is a characteristic of creaturely existence. Instead, God is the transcendent and mysterious creator of the universe. The truth of the incarnation is that in the eternal Word, this same transcendent God takes on the flesh of human beings for the sake of our salvation.

Second, this doctrinal conflation can lead to a significant problem in practice: It can conflate the mission of Jesus with our own mission. While the author certainly doesn’t intend to promote a messiah-complex among missionaries, the close analogy between the incarnational as a culture-crossing action and our own culture-crossing action makes this a constant issue. I recall times in which missionaries schooled in incarnational ministry told me they were “cheating” from the model if they gave something away to people in need, or if they presented any ideas not already inherent in the culture of reception. Behind this sense of “cheating” is the assumption that our identification with the culture is enough—that is our mission. While I agree that missionaries should seek to identify with the receiving culture, our identification with that culture is not itself inherently redemptive. We should identify with the culture so our lives offer an intelligible witness to the one Redeemer of peoples from all cultures, Jesus Christ. It is not enough to bear witness to Jesus as the model for crossing cultures. Jesus is much more than a model.4

Instead, we must be crystal clear about the fact that the incarnation is a unique event. Jesus Christ is central to the gospel because the incarnation is not something that happens in various forms to various persons. Jesus Christ is the one and only incarnate Word. There is redemptive power in the incarnation; apart from the incarnation, Christ’s obedient life, death, resurrection, and ascension would be of no use to us. Because of the incarnation, we know that it is none other than God himself who has sought us out and cleansed us from our sins. “In Christ” we know and have fellowship with God. If God and humanity were not united in Jesus Christ, then being “in Christ” would not be a locus of our communion with God.

Indeed, if we are to make analogies between the incarnation and our own lives, it should point us to the reality that Jesus Christ is not a “200 percent person”—a being in which deity and humanity are framed competitively, as two persons smashed into one. Instead, the incarnation shows us how God’s action in our lives does not mean the evacuation of human agency but the empowerment of it. Christians often struggle with spiritual pride—we find it difficult to take a compliment in a way that does not give ourselves “spiritual bonus points” for our own faithful acts. We know we should give credit to God, but really, I was the one who performed that act of service and love, right? Ultimately, it is a competitive, nonincarnational view of divine and human work that creates this ambivalence. In the incarnation we see that true God and true humanity are brought together in one person, Jesus Christ. When we perform an act of love and service, we can give the Spirit the credit while still recognizing that this act is our own in a secondary sense. Why? Because as we become more like Christ by the Spirit, we are not becoming “less human” by becoming more like God. Our true humanity is being restored as the Spirit unites us to God in Christ.

The Unique Incarnation and the Work of the Church

If it is misleading to see the incarnation as an example of culture crossing or to conflate Christ’s mission and our own, then how do our lives and ministries participate in the Incarnate Christ and his mission? The Holy Spirit has united believers to the living Christ; thus it is important to think about the positive ways in which we participate in Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) is instructive on this point—rather than taking the incarnation as the point of departure for how we participate in Christ, it speaks in terms of the three offices of Christ:

Question 31. Why is he called “Christ,” meaning anointed?

Answer. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our redemption; our only high priest who has redeemed us by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the redemption he has won for us.

Question 32. But why are you called a Christian?

Answer. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.

Note how the HC does two things. First, it speaks about a profound union between believers and Jesus Christ. We are not lone-ranger Christians; we are profoundly connected to the living Christ: “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing.” Its language is strong and unequivocal on this important connection. Second, note how our “membership” in Christ and “sharing” in his anointing are derivative of and subordinate to the living Christ. Christ alone is the “chief prophet and teacher,” our “only high priest,” and our intercessor to the Father. In our own person, we can do none of these things. The Son is a child of God by nature, but we are children of God by grace. This difference has profound consequences for ministry—we should not seek to simply “copy” Jesus as Cowin suggests. We belong to Christ; we are not Christ himself.

We should be cautious about seeing ourselves as “the very presence of Jesus Christ in the world.” Our ministries should point to the Head of the body, not the body itself. Paul brings together these teachings of union with Christ, yet he points to Christ when he writes that God has made known his riches among the Gentiles in the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” But, rather than follow up with an emphasis on our own redemptive action, Paul continues: “It is he [Christ] whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:27–28 NRSV). We are united to Christ in a profound way, yet we do not simply copy the action of the one Redeemer. We bear witness to Christ the Redeemer rather than ourselves; we find our maturity and identity as ones united to Christ but also as “servants” of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1), the one Incarnate Word who reconciles us with God.

The answer is also instructive for thinking through the implications of the three offices of Christ—the difference between Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and how we in our own lives participate in those offices. First, we are “anointed” by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Christ; that is, to “confess his name.” We are not the great prophet and teacher, but we confess the One who is. Second, we offer our entire lives as “a living sacrifice of thanks” to “strive” against “sin and the devil.” Christ alone offers the perfect atoning sacrifice. Our own sacrifice is one of gratitude and thanksgiving, done with a “good conscience” because of the complete work of Christ our high priest. Finally, we “share” in the kingship of Christ by sharing in his resurrection and exaltation, looking to the day when we will “reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.” Christ is the true prophet, priest, and king, and as members of his body we participate in those offices by professing Christ and his truth, loving God and neighbor in gratitude, and living in hope of our final resurrection, exaltation, and reign with Christ. We do participate in Christ’s “mission,” in a certain sense, but our “mission” is grounded in his salvific and redemptive work, not a direct replication of it.

The Incarnation and the work of the Church

In terms of Christian ministry, the result of this approach is one that gives central place to the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. We are not sent to go out and “take over the culture,” or to seek to be the Savior to those around us. Instead, we point to Christ, the Head, through the word of the gospel held forth in both word and sacrament. There is no human set of activities, no matter how loving or revolutionary, that can bring redemption—this comes through Jesus Christ alone, made possible by the Spirit’s work in uniting us to Jesus Christ.

This approach toward Christian ministry overlaps, on a few key points, with some visions of incarnational ministry. As Lingenfelter suggests, we need to seek out relationships with those to whom we minister, displaying our faith in lives of humility and service, and to approach the culture in which we minister as thoughtful students. However, it is not necessary to draw upon the incarnation as a model for culture crossing in order to promote these virtues. These attitudes are the natural fruit of those who know they belong to Christ but are not Christ themselves: we present our lives as “a living sacrifice of thanks,” serving God and loving our neighbor in humility and gratitude. A life of gratitude recognizes that we are not our own but that we belong to Jesus Christ, and this identity should temper our allegiance to national or cultural priorities that fuel the ethnocentric tendencies that compromise our witness to the gospel. As a way of giving thanks to God, we are called to seek out relationships with those in need and move across cultural barriers that threaten to block our grateful witness to Jesus Christ, the One to whom we belong.

In contrast to seeing incarnational ministry as the model for culture crossing, the HC directly counters our own messianic tendencies: we are not the Redeemer; we belong to the Redeemer. We are freed from manipulating those to whom we minister, because we do not need a list of spiritual accomplishments to please God. In the unique incarnation and the once-for-all sacrifice on the cross, we have been cleansed from our sins and filled with the Spirit who brings new life—we are now free to strive in good conscience against sin and the devil. Precisely because the incarnation is unique to the Incarnate One (and not those united to him), we are freed for humble, nonmanipulative witness and service for the sake of the gospel.

J. Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University Divinity School) is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is the author of several books, including Union with Christ, the winner of a Christianity Today Book Award, and Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, winner of a 2009 John Templeton Award for Theological Promise.

  1. See
  2. Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers, Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). Lingenfelter also uses the analogy in Teaching Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Teaching and Learning, coauthored with Judith Lingenfelter (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003).
  3. Lingenfelter and Mayers, 17.
  4. For further analysis of the biblical and christological issues raised in proposals such as Lingenfelter's, see my article, "'Incarnational Ministry': A Christological Evaluation and Proposal," Missiology: An International Review 32:2 (April 2004): 187-201.
Wednesday, November 2nd 2016

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