Christians Need to Re-Think Story of Salvation,
Missions specialists gather at CMU for annual
meeting of Association of Anabaptist Missiologists
By Dorothea Toews
Christians need to rethink the way they present the story of salvation if the
church is to successfully reach people in other cultures.
That was the message Mark Baker presented to participants at the opening
session of the conference of the Association of Anabaptist Missiologists (AAM)
at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) on October 12-13.
In his address, titled Two Foundational Stories of the Cross: How They
Affect Evangelism, Baker stated that the Bible contains a variety of ways of
viewing Christ’s death on the cross, including redemption, justification,
sacrifice, triumph, legal transaction, and others.
All of these views are understood on the basis of one underlying story, or
foundational narrative, he said, adding that problems arise in cross-cultural
mission because the church in the West emphasizes the wrong story.
According to Baker, an Associate Professor of Mission and Theology at
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, CA, the western church typically
presents the gospel of Christ using the Penal Substitution Model of the
atonement. In this story, God is holy and creates human beings to be in
relationship with him, but human sin has severed the relationship.
The penalty for this guilt is understood as death, he went on to say. But
since God does not want people to be separated from him forever, He sent Jesus
to live a sinless life on earth and then take upon himself the sin of all human
beings—dying in our place. This sacrifice satisfies the need for justice, and
removes the barrier of sin from between God and people.
Baker stated that while this story makes sense in a Western guilt-based
culture, where crime and punishment naturally go hand-in-hand, it doesn’t
resonate in cultures based on honour and shame.
Baker suggested that Christians who want to share the Gospel outside of North
American culture need a new paradigm for salvation. For him, the best story is
the life of Jesus. That story, he said, is about God’s loving and gracious
initiative being extended to human beings.
In this story, Baker said, “Jesus accepts and accompanies the victims of
oppression, and he confronts the oppressors who are sealed in a system of their
own making.” At the same time, Jesus stands in solidarity with people who are
shamed and excluded, even to the point of death.
“The cross reveals the extent of human sin and alienation, because we kill
God incarnate,” he stated. But, he added, it also reveals the character of God
since resurrection both provides us with forgiveness and validates the life of
Christ. Instead of responding to violence with violence, Jesus embraces those
who have failed him and offers restored relationship.
For Baker, this foundational narrative of the atonement is more universally
comprehensible, since it does not depend on a human sense of guilt—it applies to
Other speakers at the conference, which was sponsored by CMU, Mennonite
Church Canada Witness, Providence Seminary and Steinbach Bible College, included
Terrance Tiessen, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at
Providence College and Seminary, who made the case for what he called
“accessibilism,” or the belief that God has a means of revealing himself to
every person, even if they never hear the gospel in their lifetime.
Tiessen argued that despite this, the imperative for mission work
remains—both because Jesus commanded his followers to “Go and make disciples of
all nations,” and because of the love of neighbours. “We want our neighbour to
live in the fullest sense possible already now,” he said, “so we share with them
the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”
Hun and Sunny Lee, Mennonite pastors from London, Ontario, spoke about
Christianity in Korea, which they described as being “passionate but one-sided
evangelism.” Hun lamented that the salvation which many Korean Christians so
enthusiastically preach is shallow, emphasizing individual belief and a one-time
conversion rather than a life of discipleship in community.
Sunny added that salvation should be viewed as liberation, and she urged
Christians to pursue a relational rather than an objective faith.
Dorothy Yoder Nyce of Goshen, IN is a writer who has focused on
interreligious issues for more than a decade. She spoke about the possibility
that God might use other religions as avenues to bring people to himself,
reminding conference-goers that “religion always contains mystery” and that to
place a Christian monopoly on salvation would be to “strip God of the freedom to
save as He wishes.”
Hippolyto Tshimanga, Mission Partnership Facilitator for Europe and Africa,
countered by lamenting the current trend for mission workers to only go where
they are invited, stating that “every generation needs to be evangelized again
and again and again until the kingdom comes!”
The conference ended with a powerful presentation by Jonathan Bonk, Executive
Director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, CT. Bonk
discussed the fall of the church at the conversion of Constantine in the fourth
century, noting that when Christianity aligned itself with political power—a
tactic that Jesus consistently rejected, he stated—it lost its central identity
and integrity, mutating into the church-state culture blend known as
The result was that doctrine was divorced from ethics, the teachings of
Christ became irrelevant, and doctrine was dictated by councils chosen by the
Bonk asserted that many people who would consider Christianity don’t do so
because they see only broken families, militarism and economic hegemony in the
church. They want to follow the teachings of Jesus, he said, but they cannot
convert in good conscience since they see so many Christians not living as
For Bonk, mission and evangelism occurs when Christians live faithfully in
their context, rather than adhering to a particular doctrine. “We are called to
be disciples, not Christians,” he said.
AAM is a network of missions professors, missiologist scholars and writers,
current and former missionaries and church members with an interest in mission
studies and practice. The association, which meets annually, has 190 members in
the U.S., Canada and other countries.
Dorothea Toews is a student at CMU.
Posted October 20, 2007. Revised October 23, 2007.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]