Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 2, Number 1



Ed Mathews

Missionaries have often gone to distant lands for reasons other than preaching the gospel and planting the church. Moreover, on occasions, they have been preceded or accompanied by politicians, soldiers, and traders. In certain instances, missionaries have intentionally prepared the way for commercial enterprises--believing that the superiority of western ways would prove beneficial to the local people. In other words, Christian missions have been compromised more than once by those whose purposes were not completely spiritual (Delavignette 1964; Fairbank 1974; Neill 1966).

The story of the advance of the gospel is not altogether one of association with secular enterprises. For example, William Hutchinson (1987) offers persuasive evidence that even at the apex of western influence there were missionaries from both America and Europe who challenged the claims of cultural superiority (and the mission strategy based on these claims). The fact remains, however, that much mission activity has been built on an inflated perception of western culture.

It must be admitted that missionaries at times have attached little importance to their position as servants. They have entered other lands with a "master mentality," assuming that their God-given role was that of patron (Koyama 1974:117-132). In such cases, the missionary went as a superior, not as an equal, as a supervisor, not as a partner (Koyama 1975:74). Again, it would be misleading to imply that all Christian missionaries have had imperialistic notions. This is certainly not so. The history of missions is replete with stories of men and women who have epitomized a commitment to servanthood. Many have manifested a willingness to sacrifice, believing with good reason that their calling included submission and suffering. Yet, the very nature of the missionary vocation breeds a subtle inclination toward cultural and theological superiority.


This is a time in which difficult (and often troubling) questions are being raised about the legitimacy of mission. To some, mission is proselytism, neo-colonialism, or cultural imperialism. Additional consternation arises from the declining interest in missions among mainline denominations (Coote 1986:39,40). Notwithstanding, the ambivalence toward missions among many Protestants and Catholics, the same decline has not been experienced by conservative evangelical groups.

Statistics are an important criterion for most people because they are viewed as convincing indicators of missionary vitality. Quantification is more often than not used to corroborate an involvement in mission, to measure the value and success of a missionary effort, to establish the legitimacy of a mission project. Is that appropriate? Or is this propensity toward statistics more a reflection of western culture? One could wish that interest in Christian mission was based on something other than numbers. One could wish that slogans about augmenting the missionary force, about increasing the missions budget were based on the incarnation of Immanuel.


In one way or another, many missionaries have learned the nature of mission from the local people. For nationals often expose the insensitivity of the missionary. It is a painful experience to have a patronizing or pretentious attitude unmasked by those who are supposed to be recipients of western assistance. Nevertheless, they become the teachers. The insight they express--usually in candor without malice--is voiced in words like these: "What you say will be important to us when we are important to you!"

In a nutshell, that is the message of the incarnation. The words of Jesus are important to us because He demonstrated that we were important to Him. The apostle Paul wrote:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, Philippians 2:5-7.
The key phrase in verse 7 is variously translated "emptied himself," "made himself nothing," or "gave up all he had." The root verb is kenos which means "to empty" or "make empty," cf. Romans 4:14; I Corinthians 1:17; 9:15; II Corinthians 9:3.

It is only applied to Christ in Philippians 2:7. The Lord, then, did not selfishly exploit his divine form but laid it aside to take the form of a servant (Bromiley 1985:427).

The kenosis of Christ minimally involved: (1) the suspension of the exercise of His divine prerogatives; (2) the need to study and learn as other mortals; (3) the refusal to rely on human strength to accomplish His mission; (4) the willingness to risk failure in winning disciples by self-effacing love; and (5) the necessity to maintain a relationship with His Father through faith, prayer, and obedience.

The self-emptying of Christ is meant to be a model for imitation rather than a proposition for theological debate. Paul wrote the Philippian letter to a local congregation, not to a society of Bible scholars. To view kenosis as evidence for substantiating dogmatic speculations is to obscure the grandeur of this sublime concept. The phrase "to empty himself" is a figure of speech that states a profound truth, a metaphor that holds up a compelling example. As Alexander Bruce in his classic study of kenosis said:

It is true that the act by which the Son of God became man is inimitable; but the mind which moved Him to perform that act is not inimitable; and it is the mind or moral disposition of Christ, revealed both in imitable and in inimitable acts, which is the subject of commendation...Of Him whose mind is commended as worthy of imitation, the apostle predicates to acts through which that mind was revealed: First, an act of self-emptying, in virtue of which He became Man; then a continuous act or habit of self-humiliation on the part of the incarnate One, which culminated in the endurance of death on the cross (1876:20,21).
Despite his radical condescension, the person of Christ remained the same, namely, He who emptied Himself was the same as He who humbled Himself, two acts of the same mind dwelling in the same person (Bruce 1876:29). From the manger to the cross, the life of Jesus was consistently a life of service. Throughout His earthly existence, He was not a helpless victim of a prearranged scheme. "I lay down my life," the Lord said. "No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord,"

John 10:17,18. His birth, His life, and His death are tangible evidence of His self- emptying.


After training missionaries for more than two decades, it has become quite obvious that the kenosis of Christ--and the implications of that self-emptying--have been generally ignored in missions. This has left both the discipline of missiology and the aspiring missionary proportionately impoverished for the task of world evangelism.

1. Neglected Truth. Many books reputed to be theologies of mission have been published (Anderson 1961, 1967; Anderson 1955; Blauw 1962; Braaten 1977; Culver 1984; DuBose 1983; Glover 1946; Gilliland 1983; Kane 1976; Lindsell 1949; Love 1941; Neill 1955; Newbigin 1978; Peters 1972; Piet 1970; Scherer 1987; Schillebeechex 1973; Senior and Stuhlmueller 1983; Shillito 1936; Soper 1951; Vicedom 1965; Warren 1948, 1951). Only a few have alluded briefly to the kenotic motif (Warren 1961:234,235; Webster 1966: 50-56).

Why have the majority of mission theologians neglected this central concept of the Christian faith? No one knows for sure. Several possible reasons can be suggested. (1) The kenosis of Christ has been (since the third century) a matter of intense controversy. It is easier to debate the issue than practice the idea. (2) When self-emptying is pressed to the limits of logic, it raises unnecessary and unanswerable philosophical questions. And (3) kenosis is associated with certain theological points of view--now generally rejected--that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Newlands: 1983:316).

2. Impelling Idea. What, then, is the rationale for presenting kenosis as a missiological imperative? There are at least two reasons. First, in order for a missionary to communicate accurately an understanding of God as revealed in Jesus, he must include the divine self-emptying. For Donald Dawe said, some semblance of kenosis "is an inevitable part of any Christology that claims to be rooted in the New Testament" (1963:142). The humiliation of the Lord is not limited to one or two passages of scripture. It is a thread that runs throughout the fabric of His life. Self-emptying, therefore, is the essence of the incarnation, the essential nature of God (Dawe 1963:200).

Second, the idea of kenosis is important to the way a missionary conducts his ministry. It has the potential for transforming the aims, the structures, and the means for doing mission work. Such a transformation could occur if mission was less a mirror of western culture and more a reflection of Christ's self-emptying, namely, if mission was more "subordinate, inconspicuous, and available" (Hoekendyk 1984:146). Must evangelism and church planting be done elsewhere as it is done in Texas, according to a western agenda, with the missionary in complete control?


Verkuyl correctly asserts that the kingdom of God is the goal of the Missio Dei (1978:197). Kenosis is the means whereby one becomes part of the mission of God. In the New Testament, especially the gospels, the reign of God is a dominant, overriding theme. For instance, as part of the limited commission, the Lord sent the apostles "to preach the kingdom of God," Luke 9:2. When He was before Pilate, Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world," John 18:36, namely, His reign or rule was different, a kingdom established and maintained by a self-emptying love for those who did not deserve it. It is a different kind of kingdom because no one is compelled to be a part of it. All are invited. Indeed, the most unlikely--the poor, the handicapped, the disenfranchised, the nobodies--are given special encouragement, Luke 14:13,21.

What, then, are the implications of kenosis for missions? Two are suggested.

1. An understanding of the self-emptying of Christ can lead to a fuller comprehension of the character and work of the Lord.

The criterion of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus Christ permits us to identify him today. This criterion leads us not only to discover who he is...but where he is to be found...and what he is doing...(Costas 1982:15,16).
2. An understanding of the self-emptying of Christ could result in a conversion of the missionary to evangelism. It is discomforting to talk about missionaries being converted. And, for some, it is even threatening. Should it be? Should it be considered preposterous? No! For as a rule, it takes exposing their patronizing and pretentious attitudes before missionaries are prepared to serve. Pride must be confronted, cultural superiority humbled, nationalism surrendered and confidence in evangelistic skill broken.

There is much to learn--which western culture and the American Church do not teach--about being a messenger of God. Can the essential attributes of the missionary--faith, hope, suffering, obedience, patience, and authentic proclamation--be learned and lived? Yes...if the missionary answers a crucial question correctly. The question is: CAN HE BE CONVERTED TO THE LIFESTYLE OF THE SELF- EMPTYING CHRIST? (Boff 1988:64). The answer is "yes" if he renounces his thirst for power and his attachment to past strategies that prevent kenosis. The answer is "yes" if he (re)discovers his role as a pilgrim and stranger. The answer is a resounding "yes" if the missionary becomes a living replica of Him who "emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant."

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