Making sense of Paul’s mission

Apostle PaulAs I have been thinking through Rob Bell’s [amazon_link id=”006204964X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Love Wins[/amazon_link], I began to think through the implications of his position. This kind of “What if he is right?” exercise has helped me think through other issues. The question tends to clarify matters for me.

One of the questions that arose is, “If Rob Bell is right, what becomes of evangelism and missions?” At a personal level, I wonder about the validity of the mission to which I feel that God has called me. I also wonder about the history of missions. Were the efforts of William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson, and the like wasted on what was already a foregone conclusion?

My thoughts turned to Paul’s mission expressed in 1 Cor. 9:19-23 as  I listened to D.A. Carson’s lecture “That By All Means I Might Win Some: Faithfulness and Flexibility in Gospel Proclamation”. Carson is responding in part to the discussion among missiologists about contextualizing the gospel in evangelism and missions. In the introduction Carson makes reference to the seminal EMQ article that introduced the C1 – C6 scale of contextualization. 1 Cor. 9:19-23 is a common proof-text for those who allow for more flexibility in gospel ministry. “To the Jews I became as a Jew. … I have become all things to all people.”

Carson argues, in part, that our understanding of contextualization must make sense of Paul’s mission:

“Now get this. This is the important bit. If Paul is in this third position, then as a Christian he is trying to win these non-Christians on his right and left, if you like, to become Christians like him. If he wants them to be Christians like him, he does not wish to leave them where they are. He is himself in a third position; he’s a Christian; he’s under the new covenant. He’s not saying, ‘I go to the [Jews], and I eat kosher so that I can form a nice kosher Messianic community where they still believe that you have to eat kosher in order to accept Jesus the Messiah. And then I come over here to the weak Gentiles and I don’t eat over there and I’m very careful not to offend their sensibilities (they’ve got a weak conscience), so that I can win them to Jesus and they can remain where they are and they can form a kind of neo-pagan Christian society, a messianic paganism perhaps. Because he wants to win them. He wants to win them out of where they are to where he is in the third position, the Christian position where you have freedom and that means that if they become Christians as Paul is a Christian then they will have to learn to flex to reach their own people.”

At great personal cost (2 Cor. 11:23-28) and refusing to exercise his rights (1 Cor. 9:3-18), Paul’s emphatically stated mission was to save some by all means (1 Cor. 9:19-23). His choice of words is striking. His goal is to “win more of them”, “to win Jews”, to “win those under the law”, to “win those outside the law”, to “win the weak”. So I wonder, if Bell is right, does Paul’s mission make sense?