This post is an entry in the Prologue to Missional Discussion Synchroblog.
The question posed to the synchrobloggers this week is this: How is God at work outside the church -- is God working savingly or salvifically outside the church?
There is a broader theological component to this question and then a missiological subset of it.
I come at the theology in this question like a spider monkey. My answer ain't pretty, but I think it gets the job done. And like a spider monkey, there is method to the madness: logically, I reason that God is God and can do whatever he wants.
God is at work outside the church because he is God and his power and reach cannot be contained or limited. That he chooses to use the Church as the witness to his love and as the new humanity of his Son is an enduring testament to his incomprehensible grace, but to say the Church is the locus of God's saving activity in the world is not to say the Church is the limit of his saving activity.
I am not sure what "outside the church" means. Does it mean "Does God save people outside the witness/effort of the local church?" Or does it mean "Does God save people into something else other than the Church?" Does it refer to a salvation larger than personal? As in, "Does God save 'the world' outside the efforts of the church?" I will answer the first variation with my theological answer and touch on the other ones with my missiological answer.
You missional gurus, please bear with me while I focus on "personal salvation":
I do believe God saves outside the witness/effort of the local church. Off the bat, I can think of the unborn who die in utero, infants, or even the mentally handicapped. I am one of those armchair theologians who thinks that infants who die and the mentally deficient are elect. I know this theological point is not a given -- meaning, it's a peculiarity to my particular biblical understanding, as it is to others -- but if it is true, it means God is saving some apart from the explicit evangelistic efforts of the church.
I would also hold out the theoretical possibility of people groups unreached by the Church whom nevertheless God reaches through visions, angels, or some other means he determines.
All I mean to say is that God is God; we must use what is revealed to us in the Scriptures to see the way God moves and fulfills his saving purposes, but I believe there is ample cause therein to believe God can and does save those on the "outskirts" apart from the efforts of the Church.
On the other hand, I do not know how directive/influential this acknowledgment should be for the mission of the church. Not everything we find in Scripture that is descriptive is prescriptive. So while I do think God is God and that he can and does save anybody he pleases, the overwhelming testimony of both the written word and the incarnate Word is that God's blueprint, anointing, and commandments for his saving purposes in the earth fall squarely on the shoulders of the community called the Body of Christ.
I come at the missiological shade to the question as a proud badge-wearing member of the institutional church. Where the missional conversation takes this question typically ends up in whether God is "saving the world" through things like social transformation, governmental reforms, ecological "self"-corrections, and the like. I am somewhat agnostic on this. I do believe God's kingdom coming in its consummation will include a restoration of "all things," from coffee to cockroaches. What this looks like, I don't know. And I am not a postmillennialist, so I have not reasoned through missional theocracy or whatever is involved in that line of thinking.
The Church's involvement in things other than winning souls to Christ and into Christ's community can and does include many modes of mission, but at the center lies the declaration of the gospel and the "pure religion" it births. Activism of other kinds, while not outside the scope of the kingdom of course, appear to me minor notes.
I have looked, but I don't see God's saving concern in the New Testament for institutions other than the church. It is rather telling, in my opinion, that in one of the most oppressive governmental regimes -- at least, to the Jewish people and then later to the Christians -- Jesus and thereafter Paul have almost nothing to say about the injustice of this, except in how to live for God's glory within it. Indeed, when Jesus talks freedom for the captives and good news for the poor, he is talking about himself (and his church) doing it. And while what he proclaims has massive implications for the Roman government -- if Jesus is king, what's Caesar, chopped liver? -- he doesn't appear to be addressing this announcement to the government itself.
For a guy who spends a lot of his time in prison, Paul seems more interested in exploiting those fortuitous circumstances for the spread of the "personal gospel," not in calling for debt relief or justice for the poor, etc. And when Paul directs the church toward a particular posture when it comes to the political arena he basically just says to obey our leaders, including the interesting note that they don't wield the sword in vain.
Is God saving the world through social/governmental/ecological means outside the locus of the Church on mission? Perhaps. Perhaps that is part of God's ways in restoring his broken creation, preparing whatever "structures" endure into the new earth at the restoration of all things. "All creation groans." I think the mission of the church can and should include participating wherever we see God at work. He is the innovator, not us.
But I fall back again to wanting to emphasize what I see Scripture emphasizes: the community of Jesus-worshipers commissioned to proclaim and embody the gospel. The chief end of this mission is to reconcile the lost to God and to each other within the Body of Christ. I tend to think things like "social justice," etc. are things we do as we embody what Jesus did, but they are are still implications and ramifications of the gospel, not the gospel itself. In other words, I am supposing there is a difference between proclaiming that Jesus is King and then living like that proclamation is true.
On an ancillary note, there is a (good) concern about the outside-the-church mode of salvation being a this-worldly salvation. I am reminded that it profits a man nothing to gain food, health care, and economic stability and still lose his soul.
Others participating in the conversation:
Rick Meigs: The Blind Beggar
Bill Kinnon: kinnon.tv
Brother Maynard: Subversive Influence
David Fitch: Reclaiming the Mission
Tiffany Smith: Missional Mayhem
Jared Wilson: The Gospel-Driven Church
Jonathan Dodson: Creation Project
Feel free to explore and read their takes on the question. So for the sake of conversation, leave a comment with your own answer to the question "How is God at work outside the church -- is God working savingly or salvifically outside the church?”