Affirmation and Challenge

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Jesus retreated once with his disciples north of Nazareth to Caesarea Philippi, where he asked them what they were hearing people say about his identity and purpose. Their responses ranged from reincarnations of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet. Then Jesus asked them for their own beliefs about his identity: “Who do you all think I am?”

Peter piped up and declared: “You’re the Messiah, the Son of God!” Peter believed Jesus was the long-awaited deliverer of Israel.

Jesus responded positively to Peter’s declaration: “Bless you, Peter! The beloved community I’m founding will rest on the kind of faith you just expressed.” Jesus promised Peter that he’d have spiritual authority in this new community.

Jesus then explains that he’s a different kind of messiah than what most of Israel was expecting — he won’t subjugate Rome with military might; instead he’ll take on the role of suffering servant and be killed and then raised to life. 

Peter, likely high on the spiritual authority just bestowed upon him, takes Jesus aside and scolds him. “That is unbecoming of the messiah, Jesus! May it never happen to you.” 

Jesus turns the rebuke right around: “Back that up, Satan. You’re playing for the wrong team. You aren’t aligned with God but with broken humanity.”

Jesus reveals something to us about discipleship in this story: as we follow Jesus, we need both affirmation and challenge to become more like him. We need to be blessed and encouraged when we’re on the right track, when we’re bearing the fruit of the Spirit. And we need to be challenged when we’re at odds with Jesus’s way — especially when we think we’re actually on the same page! This happens healthily in relationships with people we love and trust, to whom we’ve given permission to speak honestly with us about what they see in our lives.1

This same posture of affirmation and challenge is appropriate for mission, too — the way the church relates to its neighbors. There are elements in our culture to affirm that reflect the heart of God: it might be a hunger for justice and righteousness, or expressions of generosity and hospitality (the list goes on and on, really). It shouldn’t surprise us — if God is the creator of the cosmos, Jesus is Lord over all, and the Spirit is at work in the world beyond the church — to find the image of God reflected in our neighbors and neighborhoods. At the same time, certainly there are elements in our culture that need to be challenged because they are at odds with the heart of God: like injustice, greed, and selfishness.

Missiologist Andrew Walls describes affirmation and challenge with two principles: the “indigenizing” principle and the “pilgrim” principle.2 The indigenizing principle describes the way Christianity historically has indigenized itself, or made itself at home, within cultures, empowering people to live as Christians and at the same time members of their own society. The indigenizing principle, in other words, affirms and inhabits the elements of culture that reflect the heart of God.

The pilgrim principle acknowledges that while God accepts and works through human cultures as they are, God also desires to transform the brokenness of cultures — elements in which the church is not at home in a culture but rather is a pilgrim, elements which are challenged by the reign of God. 

Notice what these principles reveal: Christianity is always “cultured,” or embedded in culture. There is no such thing as a “culture-less” Christian community that somehow stands outside of its surrounding cultures. The church is at once within cultures and its own culture, and so must discern which elements to affirm and which to challenge.

I want to highlight two temptations for predominantly white churches in our U.S. context (the context with which I am most familiar). The first is to focus on affirmation in our own discipleship to the neglect of challenge (e.g., “it’s all about grace”). The second is to focus on challenge in relation to culture/neighbors to the neglect of affirmation (e.g., culture wars; demonizing the non/religious other). And yet, where the church’s witness has been compromised by spiritual abuse and trauma and by complicity with systemic racism and nationalism, we must emphasize the challenge of the gospel in our discipleship. In mission, we must affirm the beauty and goodness we see in our neighbors who have been harmed by the church, or who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness in the public square. 

Wouldn’t this contextual emphasis — opening ourselves to challenge in discipleship and offering affirmation to our neighbors in mission — reflect the heart of our humble, non-coercive Messiah?

1 Hat tip to Mike Breen, Building a Discipling Culture, for helping me to see this story in this way.

2 Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. 

Charles Kiser is a minister with Storyline Christian Community in Dallas, Texas. You can follow his other writings, including a forthcoming book project on trauma-sensitive evangelism, through his Facebook page or Twitter.

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