Monday, February 21, 2022

Jay Choi: Ecumenical Mission and Jubilee in the Philippines

Today’s post is by Rev. Jae Hyoung Choi. Rev. Choi is Missionary in Residence with the General Board of Global Ministries. It is part of an occasional series on mission and jubilee.

Looking from the conventional view of Christian mission, doing mission work in the Philippines is ambiguous. Does the view of mission as establishing the church through conversion by spreading the gospel make much sense in the Philippines? The archipelago accepted the first missionaries from Spain almost 500 years ago, and Protestant mission has been active for more than a century.

The slogan “believe in Jesus!” will put both evangelists and hearers in an awkward situation. The same with “church.” If “church” means a space for worship, almost every barangay has it. If the “church” means an order, the Philippine has a state of art order from the Vatican to the barrio. The recent growth of some Protestant denominations is overwhelming, especially that of Pentecostals.

Thus, this tension between the “Christianized Philippines” and the “Christianizing mission” demands an answer. As a missionary who served this land, I find the answer in ecumenical jubilee mission.

The most famous biblical foundation of mission is the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. The verses, however, have suggested a rather aggressive expansion of the institutional church. According to Karl Barth’s exegesis, its meaning is rather closer to “filling the world with new ethical beings that are transformed in the gospel of Christ as the disciples were.” Its Old Testament parallel could be Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

Another problem is that most Christians have tended to take this verse as the sole foundation of mission. As a result, the other Great Commission has been overlooked and neglected. The other Great Commission is unity among Christians, found in John 17:11. Jesus willed his followers to be one.

Christian unity and mission are like two sides of one coin. We can never overemphasize the missional meaning of Christian unity. That is, mission is not only “going out to preach the gospel” but also “loving one another to be one in Christ.”

This pursuit of inner cohesion that may look somewhat passive becomes, in fact, a very active social kerygma toward the world. The apathy of the world is exposed through agape in the church; the violence of the world is disclosed by peacefulness in the church; the injustice of the world is indicted through equality in the church; and conflict and division in the world are questioned through the unity of the church. Thus, unity of the church pro-vides a profound and practical guideline for mission.

Sadly, church today seems to devote itself too much for centrifugal mission (going out, reaching out, and preaching to) while neglecting the centripetal aspect of mission (forming a model within so that others come and see). The balance between propagation and unity has been severely damaged.

Figuratively speaking, it is like children from a dysfunctional family yearning for recognition and acceptance outside their family. Or it is like troubled spouses wandering outside searching for immoral satisfaction. Looking for the solution from the outside while the problem is from within is a paradox. The more they roam outside, the worse their situation will be, and in the end, they will be the objects of censure from others.

Likewise, many churches are busy with various outreach programs while pretending their inner relations are normal. What about the universal church? Is it healthy enough as one body? If we understand how the early Christians wrestled to keep unity within the church, we will surely be ashamed of being called Christians today.

Throughout history, when disunity of the church reached an unbearable level, the church was no longer the subject of God’s mission. Instead, the church itself turned into the object of God’s mission, which meant severe judgment. How many innocent people had to suffer and shed their blood because of the disunity of the church! Therefore, mission should always include the church’s looking within through genuine metanoia (repentance) and kenosis (self-emptiness). Isn’t this the mandate for the universal church, to be one in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit the essence of ecumenical movement?

By looking at mission from this ecumenical perspective, doing mission in the Philippines is never ambiguous. Christians from all traditions should be aware of this unity and strive for this unity with all their hearts and strength. All missionaries should be fertilizers for this unity. Churches, instead of revealing other churches’ weaknesses, should strengthen their own weaknesses by seeing others’ strengths until all of them may grow into maturity through Christ together. Then the churches will be the agents of love, justice, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Although unity is important, it is not the ultimate end of the church. The clue for unity should not be sought in “doctrine” or “belief” anymore; instead it should be found in the joint action of solving the most urgent and universal problem. I will talk more about the role of Jubilee in this sort of joint action in my next post.

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