When Chad Vegas and I wrote Missions by the Book: How Theology and Missions Walk Together, our aim was not just to lay out a biblical basis for missions for our own theological tribe, but also so that we could contribute to the broader missiological conversation.
That’s why I was grateful to see Dave Coles of Beyond interact with our work in his article “Responding to Anti-CPM/DMM Voices,” posted in June of this year.
I also appreciate the tone Dave seeks to strike, citing 2 Timothy 2:24-26 and ascribing generally good motives to CPM/DMM critics. These intramural debates are opportunities to practice Christian love amid disagreements within the missions community.
Still, I thought it important to provide a rebuttal to Coles’ article in a spirit of grace and kindness. But before I proceed, two notes are in order: first, if you are not familiar with the ongoing controversy around movement methodologies, this post will not make much sense. And second, Dave was gracious enough to review this piece before my posting it here, and did not complain of any mischaracterizations or the like. We regard each other as brothers in Christ, and so we intend to engage each other as such.
The Crux: What Counts as ‘Biblical’
Coles is right to locate the center of the controversy on the notion of what is “biblical.” He is further correct in pointing out the temptation to equivocate here: “Two of the meanings are similar but vitally different in their application. 1.) ‘consistent with biblical teaching, principles, and values.’ 2.) Explicitly taught or modeled in the Bible. Two of the meanings are similar but vitally different in their application.” So far, I agree with Coles. We distinguish.
Coles then asks: “Should we do only things mentioned specifically in the Bible?” Without using the terms, Coles is raising the question of the regulative principle versus the normative principle—terms ordinarily applied to worship but applicable to others areas of Christian practice. (For a definition of the regulative principle, see Derek Thomas’ helpful article from Ligonier.) This is a question we too ask and answer in the introduction of Missions by the Book (pp. 5-6):
The central contention of this book is that Christian doctrine and missions methodology must walk together, hand-in-hand. Our ministry tactics always derive from what we really believe. Hence, methods are not a matter of liberty but fall under the express prescriptions of Scripture.
At root, this thesis is simply an application of what theologians have named the regulative principle to the church’s missionary task. In the context of public worship, the regulative principle is that Scripture’s teachings, explicit and implicit, regulate church practice. Thus, worship should involve such things as congregational singing, prayer, reading and explanation of Scripture, preaching, confession of sin, fellowship, and observance of the sacraments, as these elements are explicitly put forth in biblical teaching. This differs from the normative principle some hold, which maintains that Scripture merely norms Christian worship in the sense that what is not explicitly forbidden may be practiced. In this model, impressionistic painting or dance performance could be included in the church’s public worship since they are not explicitly prohibited. However, we hold, as a rule, that Scripture is to regulate (not merely norm) the practice of the church, and that this rule applies to missions as much as it does to worship. Within this, we also recognize that Scripture gives the people of God enormous liberty in every area of life, including both worship and missions practice. We savor this freedom in Christ! Yet our aim is not merely to find the outlines of biblical missiology so that we may freely color within; rather, this book is meant to draw out what Scripture clearly prescribes for missionary activity and build on this foundation. . . . [W]e believe that because the word of God regulates and prescribes the missionary task, everyday believers (like us!) can be a part of God’s exhilarating work in drawing the nations to himself.
In short: Chad and I affirm the regulative principle in that we believe Scripture not only issues the missionary mandate but prescribes means.
But Coles’ summary of our position (“in missions we should only do what we see in Scripture”) is a bit too simplistic. Both Chad and I, following the Reformed tradition, recognize a role for “good and necessary consequence” in deducing conclusions from Scripture (WCF 1.6). This distinction is absent from Coles’ characterization, as is evident from the straw man argument that follows:
Usually, these two different meanings of “biblical” work as a sleight of hand—a hidden trick to win an argument at an emotional level: “The Bible does not mention Discovery Bible Study (DBS), so it’s unbiblical.” By that definition, holding a copy of the New Testament in your hands is unbiblical. Nobody in New Testament times ever did that! It would also be unbiblical to read the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles together. Nobody in New Testament times ever did that either.
I will leave aside whether the accusation concerning “a hidden trick to win an argument at an emotional level” comports with Coles’ initially charitable tone. I must also point out that, despite the use of quotation marks, the statement made about DBS (“The Bible does not mention…”) nowhere appears in our book. But what I really want to point out how Coles’ attempted reductio ad absurdum backfires.
The regulative principle is limited by the scope of Scripture—that is, Scripture regulates that which it is intended to regulate. That domain includes matters pertaining to “good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17; contextually, primarily the work of ministry), “saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (2LCF 1.1), or “faith and life” (WCF 1.2; cf. 2LCF 1.2). Thus, Scripture regulates such things as Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and the right administration of the sacraments. It does not expressly regulate such things as how to properly field dress a deer, except in the sense that every activity undertaken in life is to be done for the glory of God, under the moral law of God, with an eye towards love of neighbor, etc.
We explained this in Missions by the Book:
To say that Scripture is sufficient is not to say that frontlines gospel workers should not learn language, culture, professional skills, or other key strategies for surviving missionary life. The Bible gives us “all things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” (2LCF 1.6). It does not tell us how to speak Swahili, change a flat tire while stranded on a dirt road, or balance a checkbook. Such practical knowledge comes to us as God also blesses his people with insight through the realm of common grace. Yet the Holy Spirit has given us his Word as a sufficient resource to enable us to fulfill the Great Commission by his power, disciple the nations through the spread of the gospel, and teach total obedience to the lordship of Christ. We do not gain the necessary edge in ministry by availing ourselves of the latest trends or self-help techniques or theories from psychology or sociology. We do not gain an advantage by playing fast and loose in our translations of the Bible for new languages or audiences, tiptoeing around unpopular words and ideas. With the Word of God in hand, men and women of God are sufficiently armed for every good work (p. 16).
What in the above quotation would support the rejection of codices and movable-type printing presses? Nothing at all. Further, by framing his own position as “consistent with biblical teaching, principles, and values,” Coles all but grants our essential premise that methodologies must pass the Scriptural sniff test—a standard of which CPM and DMM fall short, as I’ll proceed to demonstrate.
Using Unbelievers as Evangelists?
Coles next asks, “What is the biblical basis for an unbeliever leading a DBS if a believer is available to lead it?” Confessing the lack of direct biblical example, Coles then argues that the essential difference is made by the completion of the New Testament canon. In other words, he seems to argue that verbal proclamation was only normative in the apostolic because the Scriptures were not yet available(!).
He summarizes his case thus: “When unbelievers hear or read God’s word and interact with it for themselves, is that a good thing or not? Is God for it or against it?” Presumably the answer is “yes.” But this bald pragmatism fails Coles’ own biblical sniff test cited earlier. Exposing unbelievers to Scripture is always “good”—in the same sense in which Paul rejoiced that Christ was proclaimed even by selfishly-motivated preachers (Philippians 1:18). But ends do not justify means. Some methods are unwise and even sinful. I am not permitted to deface property with evangelistic graffiti or mail tracts in place of my annual tax returns.
These examples are absurd, but are they more absurd than knowingly tasking unregenerate unbelievers, still dead in their transgressions (Ephesians 1:1-2), with facilitating discussions of the revelation of the God they hate (Romans 1:30)? Or, using Coles’ terms, is it, “consistent with biblical teaching, principles, and values”? I contend not.
Coles then explains the role of the spiritual gift of teaching within DMM. I am grateful to see Coles engage this criticism of the model. But what follows is essentially a defense of Socratic dialogue as an instructional method, and I am not aware of any serious CPM/DMM critics who would question the utility the role of dialogical modes of evangelism or discipleship. This is one area where our brothers advocating movements have simply misunderstood our position.
The Words, and Not Just the Way, of Jesus
I have some concerns with Coles’ conclusion: “The focus of discipleship is not just conveying information but on transferring a lifestyle shaped by the ways of Jesus.” Perhaps he simply means that discipleship is learning to follow Jesus. That is certainly true. But in the context of the article, “discipleship” refers not to instructing believers in Christian life but primarily to evangelizing unbelievers (the sense of “disciple-making”). Is it true, then, that we are seeking to transfer onto unbelievers a lifestyle shaped by the ways of Jesus? In some sense, yes; we want, after all, to convey the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), which includes law and gospel, precept and promise. But adopting the lifestyle of Jesus never saved anyone.
Christ alone saves sinners, and he does so through faith granted by the Spirit who works through the hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17, James 1:18). This saving faith has doctrinal content which must be taught with words. It cannot simply be assumed or absorbed passively. If the animating principle of faith is works (James 2:26), then a lifestyle modeled after Jesus’ ways without embracing the content of the once-for-all delivered faith is a disembodied phantom. I assume that Coles would agree with these statements. But the methodology he promotes, rather than emerging organically from a biblical doctrine of conversion, subverts it.
In summary, I am thankful to Coles for interacting with Mission by the Book and for seeking to do so in a spirit of brotherly affection. There is real common ground between our position and his—we believe dialogical modes of teaching matter, and we share a desire to work towards long-term, multi-generational multiplication of church planting efforts. My encouragement to Coles would be to critically research what Protestants have always meant by the regulative principle and its implications.
There is no sleight of hand; Chad and I are not bare biblicists. We are confessional Protestants who seek to distinguish rightly between form and function in practical matters of ministry. The difference is key. Contrary to the mischaracterizations, we do not reject all forms of innovation whatsoever. We simply believe that innovation cannot transgress the foundation of gospel ministry itself—which entrusting unbelievers with the work of evangelism, while effectively sidelining missionaries with gifts of proclamation, does.