When the General Council of the Mennonite World Conference met in Guatemala in 2000, I noticed something striking during the discussion of global mission. When less affluent Christians spoke, it was clear they were not hampered by a split between peace and mission. They could discuss the Church’s mission in the same breath as the problems of racism, street children, hunger, prostitution and war.
It was clear that in the hearts and minds of these people, there was no division between mission and peace, or between the soul and the body. For them, the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses both body and soul, and it calls Christians equally to both the ministry of proclaiming the good news and to living out the new reality of God’s kingdom of peace.
One Integrated Mission
Unfortunately, for much of the Church in recent history, evangelism and peacemaking have been seen as separate tasks. The Church’s witness to Christ has been clouded by the myth that we have to choose either/or; either evangelism or peacemaking. The two are not seen as one integrated witness that the Church must undertake simultaneously and holistically.
In the face of such a mythic dualism, we need to recall that the good news of peace that Jesus has brought includes, indeed starts with, reconciliation with God, but also encompasses reconciliation and wholeness in our relationships with other people, both interpersonally and collectively. Jesus’ messianic peace has to do not only with the forgiveness of sin and guilt, but also has a vital social dimension.
The Church’s witness to Christ has been clouded by the myth that we have to choose either/or; either evangelism or peacemaking.
The Bible’s understanding of peace is much broader than an absence of violence or conflict. Shalom—the Old Testament word for peace—and its New Testament counterpart, eirene, encompass material well-being, just relationships, moral integrity and spiritual wholeness of humans and all creation.
The peace-giving power of God’s salvation becomes clearly visible when individuals and people groups who are enemies, like the Jews and Greeks at the Church’s birth, become reconciled, and when our communal relationships are marked by justice and integrity where there was once oppression, exploitation and broken relationships. Jesus’ messianic peace is indeed both deconstructive and constructive. It is deconstructive in that it breaks down human barriers that have divided people. Yet it is also constructive because it establishes a new community consisting of former enemies with a new way of life.
Thus our ability to proclaim God’s good news of salvation is measured by how well we, as the Church, embody the new reality of God’s kingdom of peace in our communal life. When churches reflect the same divisions, injustices, unresolved conflicts and violence of our world, the integrity and credibility of our witness to God’s transforming salvation is severely damaged. A good litmus test involves asking ourselves two questions:
- Where in the world do the churches grow the most?
- Where in the world do brutal and bloody civil wars take place the most?
If the answer to both questions is the same, that indicates a serious problem for our ability to faithfully proclaim the gospel. On the contrary, when churches understand embodying peace as an integral part of their mission, they become compelling, living signs of God’s reconciling love that attract people to love Jesus Christ and follow him.
Church History and Peacemaking
Church history and the New Testament both demonstrate that many of the earliest Christians understood embodying a culture of peace in their churches as an integral part of their calling. Justin, a teacher who was martyred for his faith in Rome in the second century, stated an early Christian understanding; namely, that Isaiah 2:2-4, in which the prophet anticipates the transformation of swords into ploughshares, has been fulfilled in the Church. Justin reported about their experience:
We…delighted in war, in the slaughter of one another, and in every other kind of iniquity; [but we] have in every part of the world converted our weapons of war into implements of peace—our swords into ploughshares, our spears into farmer’s tools—and we cultivate piety, justice, brotherly charity, faith and hope, which we derive from the Father through the crucified Savior.1
Justin knew that God had done something new for the human race through sending the crucified Savior Jesus and causing people from many nations to gravitate to Jesus, the new Zion. The result was a people of peace made up of former enemies. People of different tribes and nations, who used to hate each other, now shared life together and dismantled the ways of living that had divided them. Together, they created a culture of justice, faith and hope. For Justin, as for Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen and other early Christian fathers, God’s peace, which Isaiah anticipated, has been realized through Christ. The Church, in which former enemies have become reconciled as brothers and sisters, is evidence of this new reality.
Justin’s belief that the Church is called to embody a culture of peace comes from the Church’s earliest beginnings. In Acts, the founding of the Church was the product of God’s peacemaking activity. Pentecost brought together Jews from many parts of the ancient world (Acts 2:9-11) who spoke many languages. The linguistic chaos of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) was transformed at Pentecost as God united people who had previously been separated into one body.
In an even more dramatic act of reconciliation, Acts 10 tells us that God, through divine visions, brought together Peter, a devout Jew, with the Roman officer Cornelius for a shared meal. God called Peter to cross the boundary between Jews and Greeks, both by daring to enter the soldier-filled Roman-garrison city of Caesarea and through eating the non-kosher food offered by his host. The Holy Spirit came upon all those at the gathering, both Jew and Greek, confirming that God’s work in Christ had broken down the dividing walls and reconciled these historic enemies into one new people.
As they recognized this reality, the Church responded by baptizing the new Gentile believers and welcoming them as brothers and sisters. Receiving the good news of Jesus Christ meant, for these early believers, receiving the good news that those who had been their enemies were now their family. Their changed social relationships with each other were a visible sign of God’s reconciling presence in their midst.
Peacemaking in Today’s Conflict-ridden World
Brian McLaren has correctly warned that contemporary Christians need a radical rethinking of our understanding and practice of evangelism. He argues that we need to recognize that we may not fully understand the good news of the gospel, and therefore, we need to rediscover it. We need to understand that the gospel is not first of all “information on how one goes to heaven after death…but rather a vision of what life can be in all its dimensions”2 and a way of life to bring that vision into reality.
For many skeptical observers of the Church, the most convincing apologetic for Christianity is seeing the power of God’s reconciling love at work in a living community of faith.
McLaren also urges Christians to redefine our understanding of discipleship, bearing in mind that evangelism is not about recruiting refugees from earth to heaven, but recruiting revolutionaries who are willing to compassionately “bring the good and healing will of heaven to earth in all its crises.”3 In addition, McLaren emphasizes that our faith must involve actively doing good, including pursuing reconciliation with other Christians. If we fail to live out the Great Commandment, our pursuit of the Great Commission will be fruitless.
Justin, writing to the Roman emperor in 165 AD, reported, “Many who were once on your side have turned from the ways of violence and tyranny, overcome by observing the consistent life of their neighbors.”4 Communities today that seek to embody cultures of peace will experience similar conversions by those who are watching their communal life.
For many skeptical observers of the Church, the most convincing apologetic for Christianity is seeing the power of God’s reconciling love at work in a living community of faith. For those whose people groups have historically suffered wrongs at the hands of Christians, only our genuine repentance and an honest desire for reconciliation will open the way for them to receive Christ as truly good news. As we embrace the work of the Holy Spirit in making a new family out of enemies, our communal life will bear witness to the good news of Christ’s peace.
1. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 110.2-3.
2. Brian McLaren. 2004. “A Radical Rethinking of Our Evangelistic Strategy.” Theology, News & Notes. Fall: 4-6, 22.
4. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 16.