A Triperspectival Mission of the Church

November 16, 2011 — Leave a comment


[This post is part of the Perspectives on Triperspectivalism series]

Over the past several days, several prominent reviewers have turned their eyes to Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s What is the Mission of the Church?

Ed Stetzer offers a round up some of the criticisms before giving his own take on the book (to which DeYoung and Gilbert responded). In his pre-review summary, he observes that “most of the reviews appreciate how they have worked through the biblical text, focused on the gospel, and did not denigrate social justice. Yet, there were several areas of concern,” which can be narrowed to two areas:

  1. The book narrows the mission, particularly missing the connection between discipleship and the actions that flow from such.
  2. The book is written to the convinced and does not accurately engage the views of those who differ.

As just a validation of that last concern, take for example Rachel Stone’s review. Though Stone makes a less than compelling case for her own position, you can see her disdain for DeYoung and Gilbert’s position. Their “exegesis” of Scripture (she used the scare quotes) wasn’t at all convincing to someone who already had their mind made up that the point of the church’s mission lay elsewhere.

Now, I haven’t read the book, and don’t particularly plan to at this point. I passed over it for a review option from Crossway, and I’ve read enough about it elsewhere to have my fill. I do however want to make a quick point about how triperspectivalism helps mitigate some of the controversy.

For starters, notice that the subtitle of the book is “Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission.” The reader is immediately given three dimensions, which triperpsectivally, I would sort this way:

  • Social justice is the situational perspective on the church’s mission
  • Shalom is the existential perspective on the church’s mission
  • The Great Commission is the normative perspective on the church’s mission

Because social justice is focused on fixing situations and changing the world (or at least aiming to do that) it is the situational. Its focused on the here and now and attracts activist minded individuals. I am guessing that shalom is focused on bringing peace to either the world in general, or to individual people (helping them find true peace with God and then with their other relationships as well), and so it is the existential perspective. Lastly, the normative perspective should be self explanatory. The gospel, and the command to carry it to all the world and make disciples, is the normative perspective on the church’s mission since the church. Each of these perspectives could additionally be parsed into its own tri-perspective. Just so you can see how this works itself out, here’s all three parsed out further.

The Great Commission

  • Normatively, the Great Commission is declared by Jesus on the basis of his death, burial, and resurrection (i.e. it announces a new norm)
  • Situationally, the Great Commission is repeated by the church as it spreads into all the world (i.e. into all situations)
  • Existentially, the Great Commission is a command to be applied by the church as it makes disciples.

Social Justice

  • Normatively, social justice is a result of the coming of the new creation that was inaugurated by Christ’s death, burial, and resurreciton
  • Situationally, social justice is changing the injustices of this world to match the justice of the new creation
  • Existentially, social justice is an activity of the people of God, carried out in an attempt to more fully love their neighbors


  • Normatively, shalom between God and man was acheived by God reconciling the world to himself through Christ
  • Situationally, shalom is communicated through the church as it expands into all the world
  • Existentially, shalom is brought to individuals through faith in the saving work of Christ

If you were asking me, the church’s mission should have this 9-fold approach. I would imagine, though am not going to take the time to run this to ground, that each review that highlights a criticism points to one of these 9 areas as not being emphasized to their liking.

Certainly this is the case with Stone, who is clearly arguing for more emphasis on the situational perspective of the church’s mission. Stone is clear she doesn’t deny the normative; she just thinks the situational should be primary. While there is nothing wrong with wanting more emphasis on the situational, you can’t really make a case exegetically or otherwise that it is the primary mission of the church. If anything, you could argue only the normative perspective is unique to the church, since non-Christians can certainly work for social justice. But, even then, social justice should be done with an end toward the normative.

In other words, an implication of seeing the church’s mission triperspetivally is that all three perspectives need to be interlocking and working out in harmony. Emphasizing one aspect or the other may come naturally to one particular group or another, but all three need to be actively expressed for a church to actually be on mission.

Everyone will have their favorite facet in the multi-faceted church mission:

  • Prophets will gravitate toward the normative and toward declaring the gospel and preaching the word
  • Priests will gravitate toward the existential perspective and helping hurting people
  • Kings will gravitate toward the situational and devise systems and plans for remedying the injustices in the world

These characterizations aren’t mutually exclusive, because like I showed above, each perspective can be further tri-parsed. Some prophets will want to preach (prophet-prophet), some will want to start teach and send out others (prophet-king), and some will want to be intimately involved in the discipleship process (prophet-priest).

The same kind of parsing could be done for people who gravitate toward social justice. The point is that every person is naturally going to want the perspective they are most comfortable with to be the primary perspective. Nobody, that I’m aware of, argues that an aspect of the church’s mission that they are not heavily invested in should be primary.

To riff on Ed Stetzer’s thought (HT: Trevin Wax), sometimes the disagreement comes down to theologically minded individuals thinking deeply but engaging weakly arguing with activist minded individuals who engage deeply but think weakly. I think both sides should listen more patiently to the other, but I also think Frame’s triperspectivalism helps to synthesis the differing perspectives and show how in principle they all fit together and shouldn’t be sharply separated.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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