Showalter: What is the gospel?

Oct 28, 2019 by

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What is the core of the gospel and the mission that flows from it? Western churches agonize over this question.

Richard Showalter


Most of us believe the gospel centers on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor­in­thians 15). Yet there are many ways to qualify that core. Some contrast Paul with Jesus, especially the synoptic Gospels’ portrait of Jesus.

It is said that Jesus came preaching the reign of God, not primarily his own death and resurrection. This view has been particularly attractive to Anabaptist Christians, who emphasize the Sermon on the Mount, with its focus on love of enemies and faithful living rather than intellectual belief.

The Western mission movement in the 19th century emphasized the need for “primitive” people to become “civilized” before they could receive the gos­pel. In a similar way, the 20th century saw an emphasis on relief and development as a precondition for salvation: “Don’t preach to the hungry, but first feed them.”

Sometimes the gospel’s prerequisite took the form of literacy. “How can people know Christ unless they can read the Bible?” So we placed high importance on Bible translation.

Or, contextualization is a qualifier: “How can we expect people to receive the gospel in a form that is culturally foreign? The key to mission is enculturating the Good News in theologies and ways of life they are familiar with.”

The qualifications seem endless. Jesus is at the center, but the question of how to express the gospel is complex.

What if we took the question to brothers and sisters from Asia or Africa?

This autumn, an Asian academic symposium of leaders from the Global South wrestled with questions of contextualization, witness and church planting in their contexts. In one session, a brother from Myanmar was repeating the usual Western perspectives on the importance of enculturation in Buddhist terms for the Buddhist world.

Then an Asian Anabaptist spoke.

“I grew up in a strong Buddhist family,” he said. “Let’s face it, Buddhists are basically all folk Buddhists who do not know or care much about Buddhist theology or philosophy. I ­didn’t become a Christian because the gospel was contextualized for me in a Buddhist worldview or in Buddhist thought forms. I became a Christian when someone preached the gospel to me and I met ­Jesus. I experienced the power of God to save, heal and deliver me from the evil spirits to which I was bound.”

His words were simple, clear and profound. They were irrefutable. In just a few sentences he had cut through the complexities encasing the gospel and pointed to its core.

Our discussion wound on, stripped of its qualifiers. We were re-centered in Jesus.

The next day a Western leader critiqued the Western mission movement. “The Western church is dying!” he said. “Do we have the right to train others in how to do missions? Our attempts have failed miserably.”

Maybe his critique was exaggerated. The Western church might not be dying, but it is weakened by its dependence on educational and material wealth rather than on the power of the Holy Spirit. None of us can afford to ignore the dynamic witness of the global church to the simplicity of the core of the gospel.

Richard Showalter, of Irwin, Ohio, travels as an overseer, mentor, consultant and teacher in the U.S. and global church and is adjunct faculty at Bethany International University in Singapore.

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