by Dr Melba Maggay, Micah President

Dr. René Padilla, my predecessor as President of Micah Global, has been honored by Christianity Today as the ‘father of Integral Mission.’ This is a sign that the evangelical world has begun to appreciate that the mission of the church is not just evangelism, but all the parts of what we mean by the ‘whole gospel.’ Now this phrase, ‘integral mission,’ was a matter of initial debate in the committee that drafted the Micah Network Declaration in 2001, hot on the heels of 9/11 — the bombing of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The drafters were Señor René, Dewi Hughes, Tim Chester and myself. I had wanted ‘wholistic mission,’ as this seems more immediately understandable to the non-English speaking world than the more abstract  ‘misión integral’ in Spanish. But Señor René insisted that in Spanish it means all that is essential or necessary for completeness, the making of something into a whole by bringing all the parts together.

Upon reflection, I could see why Señor René insisted on the word ‘integral.’ None of us sees the gospel as a ‘whole’ at first instance. We are like the seven blind men who thought that the part of the elephant each had managed to grasp is the entire elephant, when it was merely the tail or the leg or the tusk, or the body that felt like a wall. What we think of as the ‘whole gospel’ is really a work in progress. We all see through a glass darkly. It is only when the “manifold wisdom of God” is fully revealed through the churches in their many-coloured cultural lenses that we can get a full picture of this vast mosaic we call the ‘whole gospel.’

This coming into wholeness is a long journey. It has been half a century since Señor René and Samuel Escobar and others from what is now known as the ‘Majority World’ fought for the inclusion of this statement in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant as drafted by John Stott: “We affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both parts of our Christian duty. Evangelism and social responsibility, while distinct from one another, are integrally related in our proclamation of and obedience to the gospel.”

We note, however, that there is a lingering dualism, a hint of the sacred-and-secular divide, even in succeeding Lausanne declarations. We see this in the statement put out by the Consultation on the Relationship between Evangelism and Social Responsibility held in Grand Rapids in 1982: “Social action can precede, accompany and follow evangelism; but evangelism is priority for it relates to people’s eternal destiny, and in bringing them Good News of salvation Christians are doing what nobody else can do.” It seems to me that Jesus in the course of his life and ministry saw all that he was doing as eternally significant, whether he was healing the sick or casting out demons; he saw the giving of a cup of water as just as spiritual as confronting demoniacs. (Mark 9:38-41)

It is this divide between the natural and the supernatural that these words of the Micah Declaration was speaking to: “It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”  Actions in the realm of the social or natural world, like Jesus healing the blind and dumb demoniac, advance the cause of the kingdom in ways that may be hidden to us. “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons,” he tells his adversaries, “then the kingdom has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:22-28) The kingdom’s presence is proclaimed whenever the church gains courage to storm the gates of hell.

This brings me to the other, yet unattended parts of this ‘whole gospel,’ as contained in the Micah Declaration: “Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change, belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of the integral task.” The valiant battle for wholism waged by Señor René and his contemporaries was necessarily defined by the perceived tension between evangelism and social action, between what is deemed significant for this life only and what is important for the next one. He was fighting theologians who were inheritors of the Greek mental habit of separating the ‘essence,’ the timeless, incorporeal things like the ‘soul’,  from the mere ‘form’ or appearance, like our bodies. Hence, all the talk in the West about the ‘minimum irreducible core’ of the gospel, in contrast to those of us who see the Bible as a rich treasure trove of concrete narratives speaking contextually to specific peoples.

The past 50 years has seen the churches moving towards serving poor communities. There has been a mushrooming of faith-based development initiatives, as indicated by the growth of the Micah community itself. This is all well and good. Experience shows, however, that the small gains we are able to achieve in grassroots communities get easily wiped out by disasters, both natural and political. Today, the global pandemic we are experiencing is in a way ‘apocalyptic,’ but not in the sense of doomsayers talking of the ‘end times,’ but in the sense of revealing to us, front and center, the systemic injustice more and  more uncovered by our broken health systems, and the wounds dealt creation which continue to be unaddressed.

India, Brazil and the Philippines are showing what happens when a disaster of this magnitude are presided over by demagogues posing as populists. Globally, there is a decided drift towards illiberal democracies, and a tightening of the noose on those captive to communist regimes. In the case of the Philippines, lockdown is used as a form of social control, an opportunity to red-tag all dissenters and clap them to jail or in many instances, kill them. Unfortunately, churches that are recipients of bad mission influences have yet to be decolonized theologically. Churches in much of the world continue to be demobilized by undue emphasis on securing a ticket to heaven, never mind the troubles of the world since it is anyway a sinking ship. I have been told again and again by well-meaning evangelical friends that we should just evangelize and not get too worked up about justice in society since we are in the last days.

This view of the ‘end times’ has been prevalent in these days of sickness and death. This is not new historically. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage during the outbreak of a plague that started in 249 AD and lasted for nearly 20 years, also felt that the end of the world was near. The plague at its height claimed the lives of 5,000 people a day in Rome and caused the death of  two emperors. This resulted in political instability as claimants to the throne jockeyed for position. Countryside populations were decimated as farmers fled to the cities and agricultural production stopped, resulting in famine. Lack of food weakened the Roman armies stationed in the frontlines. Political disorder and unstable leadership led to the eventual decline of the empire. In contrast, it is said that only the nascent Christian church benefitted from the chaos. Christians played an active role in caring for the sick, as well as in providing care in the burial of the dead. Cyprian was quoted as saying, as he saw the disintegration of the dying empire: “Let us stand upright amid the ruins of the world, and not lie on the ground as those who have no hope.”

This pandemic is showing up what we, as human beings and as Christians, are made of. In a liminal space such as this, when we can no longer go back to the ‘old normal,’ and what is ahead is volatile and uncertain, the temptation is to simply hang on to what is familiar and opt for more of the same. Instead of seeing this space as a gift given to us  so that we come face to face with what needs critiquing and changing, we may long to just fall back on social habits and old arrangements of reality that we think are normal because they have been routinized, even if shown to be bad or unjust. With all the restrictions, it may be that we are being invited to new ways of doing works of mercy. Where I sit, community pantries have sprung up all over the country, alongside the ubiquitous presence of the military. We are rediscovering each other as neighbor, the pull of compassion overcoming the fear of contamination, even of intimidation from abusive authorities.

At the same time, the narrowing of democratic space may also be an invitation for us as a global community to think of how to stand together for justice in places like Myanmar or even among the persecuted churches, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In times like this, I long for an older and wiser voice like that of our brother René Padilla who has blazed a trail for us through the thicket of tortuous theologies that have blurred our vision of each of our social realities and what can be done about them. I am also at a time in life when the range of where my energies can be deployed has been severely narrowed. However, the Lord himself tells us that when we are truly a confessing church, the Body of Christ witnessing to the historic presence of the risen Jesus on earth, we can have confidence that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D. President Micah Global