The Irresponsibility of Christian Missions

In his discussion of the Holy Spirit, Barth claims that “the outpouring of the Holy Spirit exalts the Word of God to be the master over men, puts man unavoidably under His mastery” (I.2, 270).  When the Holy Spirit is conceived outside of this relationship to Christ, the Spirit “is always transmuted into a quite different spirit, the spirit of the religious man, and finally the human spirit in general” (I.2., 251).  The Spirit’s work can only be considered in relationship to Christ:  the Spirit always and only draws us under Christ’s control.

Barth slowly unpacks what it means to “have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ” (270).  One of his explanations really struck me and I want to quote it at length.
“To have our master unavoidably in Jesus Christ is to exist in an ultimate and most profound irresponsiblity…[The Word of God] does not impose on us a new and final and frightful, because unending , responsibility.  It claims our response.  It claims our will and action.  It claims the achievement which is, of course, required of us.  It claims all this, not as an autonomous work, the success of which we ourselves must guarantee, but as an act of service, in the fulfillment of which we are borne and covered by the work it does itself.  From this aspect, too, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signifies the relativising of the question who and what we are in ourselves….As the people we are we have to participate in that work of the Word.  Not as those who have to finish the work, to reach the goal, to bring in the results.  In our very participation it is foreseen that we are men, and disobedient men, and therefore quite unsuitable for the work.  Our participation does not depend upon our fitness for this work.  It is a participation in spite of our unsuitability.  It rests on the forgiveness of sins.  It is grace…It is not a participation which involves anxiety and worry whether we can really do what we are required to do.  Of course we cannot do it.  That is the presupposition of our participation.  Only one thing is required of us.  As those who cannot do it ourselves, and never could, we have to participate when the Word does it.  It is a matter of the receiving and adopting of man into participation in the Word of God.  This participation corresponds to what took place in the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.  It is the basis of the life of the children of God, that non-autonomous life which is a life only of grace and of faith.  And when man is placed under the Word and under the command of hte Word, he is really free.  Free from worry about himself.  But also free from worry about others.  And free from worry about the whole development of human affairs in the Church and the world.  In the ultimate and decisive question, the doing of the will of God in all these things, he has no worries at all, even when he ought to be weighed down in all the penultimate questions regarding himself and others and the Church and the world.  That the will of God should be done in all things is what he can and should pray when the burden seems likely to crush him, and then it will not crush him.  But the very prayer, Thy will be done, is in fact an admission that I need not worry about it, because it is not my business.  I am not responsible.  This burden, the burden of my own and others’ sins, does not lie upon me.  It lies solely and entirely upon Jesus Christ, upon the Word of God…I can never invest myself with the dignity of the Word, the dignity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ alone bears it and can bear it.  Our relationship to Him must always consist in our knowing and saying and confirming and attesting and living out the truth:  that He careth for you.  And in this very freedom, in this ultimate absence of responsibility, it is self-evident that we have to hear the freedom of God and the revelation of God….
[The Old Testament prophets and Paul in the New Testament] do not really aim to do what God does.  They aim only to participate.  They do not do the work:  they assist.  It is in this way that they are the recipients and witness of revelation…They do not need to be ashamed of the Gospel, because it does not need their own dynamic.  And it does not need it, because it is itself the power of God, and indeed, for salvation (Rom 1.16)” (I.2, 274-276).  
Missions is free from responsibility, and therefore, free from anxiety.  It does not produce results; it witnesses to God’s work.  It is the Holy Spirit who draws people to the Father through Christ.  Strictly speaking, we are not necessary for this work.  The work is necessary for us–Christ binds us to it (“go into all the world”…).  But we are not there to do Christ’s work.  Our function, our calling, is to witness to Christ’s work (the great commission is preceded by Christ’s claim to possess all authority, involves our calling to make disciples of Christ, and is followed by the confirmation that this work will only be accomplished because Christ will be with us by the Spirit.  Further, the mission of the Church begins at Pentecost, with the coming of the missionary, the Holy Spirit, further signifying that missions is strictly speaking, not our work).  
Conversion is not our work, nor is it our responsibility.  It is out of our hands.  We engage in missions because we want to witness to the Spirit’s work of forming disciples (disciples are “formed and directed by” the Word, not by us, 276).  Missionaries make the bold step to witness to this work, not in the confidence that they have been brought out of disobedience, but  in the knowledge that God is faithful to the disobedient.  Missions proceeds from this place of freedom, which is a place of irresponsibility, of lacking responsibility for ourselves, the Church, and the world.  
The temptation for Christian missions is to assume responsibility, to take the work out of Christ’s hands and back into our own.  This temptation is an attempt to live without dependency on the Spirit–conversion is our responsibility, and thus is our work, which the Spirit may help, but which is a work ultimately in our control.  However, the Spirit does not assist us in our work of making disciples but brings us sinners under the mastery of Christ.  Therefore, our prayer should not be “Spirit, enable me to convert these sinners to Jesus” but “Spirit, reveal Jesus to us sinners.”  In other words, a properly irresponsible missions begins not with the question of how we faithful disciples may inspire faith in the faithless, nor even in the prayer that the Spirit speak to the faithless through us faithful disciples, but in the prayer that the Spirit would continue to reveal God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ to us faithless sinners.  
Any time we think of our neighbor as the one who needs our faithful witness, we have placed ourselves in opposition to our neighbor and our mission is headed down the wrong path.  Our neighbor–the “nonbeliever,” the “sinner,” the “disparaged or oppressed,” whatever our preferred designation of the recipient of our missionary work–is not the one who stands in dependence on us but is the concrete reminder to us that we stand with them in dependence on God’s mercy and care.  It is a reminder that may, and often does, contain a judgment on us, for in this situation of dependence it is always possible that they, and not us, are the ones participating in Christ’s work.  When God speaks and calls someone to witness–as with the samaritan woman at the well, John 4–it might be that God views us, the disciples, as an obstacle to be sent away and then challenged to imitate the one we would ordinarily think needed (to be like) us.  Christian missions begins with the acceptance of this humiliation, for it knows that in this humiliation–in this judgment on us, sinners–Christ brings mercy.
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One Response to The Irresponsibility of Christian Missions

  1. Anonymous says:

    Tim, this is a great post. I love how you have translated Barth's observations into the challenges and possibilties of Christian missions. Thanks a lot. bbantum

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