We recently sat down for an interview with Gregg Allison. Gregg Allison is a professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological seminary. He is the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, as well as Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, and other books. And he is an elder at Sojourn Community Church East in Louisville, KY.
Zach Bradley: Does the Holy Spirit or the church send missionaries? It’s a simple question, but it has many implications that affect our practice. We think it matters how we answer, so how would you answer this question?
Gregg Allison: I would start with John 20:19-23. We must understand that it is the triune God who sends, and in this order—first, the Father sent the Son. Second, the Son obeys and is sent by the Father and becomes incarnate. And third, the Son sends the church on mission—“As the Father has sent me even so I am sending you.”—and he breathes and commands the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There is obviously a divine aspect to sending.
The church has historically believed in the inseparable operations of the three persons of the triune God in all the works of creation, providence, redemption, consummation, etc. Often, however, one of the works terminates on one of the three persons.
We can therefore say the sending of the triune God is one seamless garment, yet the work of the mission of the triune God ultimately terminates on the Spirit who calls, fills, and directs missionaries. In Acts 13:1-3 we see it is the Spirit in particular who does the calling and sending. The Spirit also gives the necessary gifts to the church planter. This is the divine dimension of sending.
The human dimension is the church discerning and affirming the sense the individual has of the divine call. It’s interesting, isn’t it? It gets messy. It demands the church be filled with the Spirit—which is subjective—to discern whether the individual is in and filled with the Spirit—which is also subjective. The church can get this wrong, but we don’t have any other alternative.
There are practical ways to check the individual’s call. Is this call in keeping with the Great Commission? Does it seem to be in line with the individual’s gifting and abilities? Is it in line with their experience? The Spirit, of course, could call someone who had no ministry experience, but it’s doubtful that could be discerned. The church can also utilize a missions agency to do further assessing and training, but the church needs to do this as well.
Discernment Gets Messy
ZB: I think that is so powerful to say, “Church, as you discern and affirm or deny this call, you have to be in the Spirit.” Even though we’re all about practical resources at The Upstream Collective, we don’t want to articulate a system where churches act apart from the Holy Spirit.
GA: That’s right. Discerning the Spirit in the Spirit is key. We see in Acts, Paul is convinced he must go to Jerusalem to suffer (20:22-24). Agabus in the Spirit is telling him what will happen (21:11). His friends are urging him in the Spirit—don’t go (21:4). There is a tension between Paul and his friends’ discernment in the Spirit, and Luke doesn’t resolve the tension.
Discerning the Spirit is going to be messy. An individual may sense the call to go somewhere, and the church in the Spirit has the opposite sense.
A couple of years ago, a couple at Sojourn East had a sense that they should go to East Asia. The church said no. They left anyway without any training—I’m not sure they knew what they were going to go do—but they said, “The Holy Spirit is leading us to go.” Then about a year later, I remember getting an email saying, “The Holy Spirit is leading us back.” We thought, “Oh my goodness! We told you the church wasn’t behind you because we didn’t have that sense.”
When the church has an affirmative sense, you train people and prepare them and so forth. When the church doesn’t have an affirmative sense, it can say, “You’re still free to go. Obviously, we can’t stop you from buying plane tickets and leaving. We’re just not going to support you financially.”
Two Competing Senses
Andy Jansen: Your two examples are interesting. Paul’s situation and decision seems radically different from the couple from Sojourn, although both are cases where the individual followed their own discernment. All speculation aside, I’m not sure you can definitively point to any disobedience in either case. When you have competing senses of the Spirit, how does the church place priority in guiding the individual?
GA: I engage with the individual and say, “Tell me how the Spirit has been leading you over the last three years.” You often discover a pattern of bouncing from place to place, always blaming the Spirit. When I see that pattern, I say, “You can do what you want, but I don’t think the Spirit is leading you in this.” But let’s say they stick it out through a really hard situation, perhaps without much fruit. That would catch my attention if they demonstrated they’re not someone who is just here today and gone tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve been experiencing weariness with younger people moving too quickly ahead with positions of leadership. If they’re very gifted, their success goes to their head. I’m becoming more cautious when I encounter someone who says something like, “Hey, I’m 22-years-old, and I’m going to go tackle the most difficult missionary situation. I’m going to go share gospel with ISIS!”
Maybe… or maybe not!
Hearing the Spirit Through the Mundane
ZB: That seems like an Americanism—equating the Spirit’s affirmation with what appears as quantitative outward success. We assume that tackling the hardest challenge is in line with the Spirit’s call, and we think “live radical” rather than perceiving the radical nature of a Spirit filled life.
When I was sent out, I wanted to go to the hardest place possible because I thought that was the only way I could experience the Book of Acts and live up to the standard I was being called to, both internally and externally. Lisle Drury said in a sermon not long ago, if your definition of the resurrected life doesn’t include doing the dishes, then you’re always going to be disappointed. I think the tendency in America is to always emphasize the extraordinary.
GA: Not to deny that the Holy Spirit moves in extraordinary ways, but Lisle is right—the Spirit acts in the mundane matters of life. He’s not just the supernatural, miracle- working Holy Spirit; he’s the providential, guiding, and directing Holy Spirit.
I’m working with a guy in Switzerland currently who is thinking about becoming a missionary, and it’s a very extraordinary case. The circumstances of how I met him, certain phone calls and experiences—it’s very clear that God is guiding him in an extraordinary way, but that’s maybe one of forty cases of which I’m aware. I welcome those cases of extraordinary guidance and direction, but we don’t need to be dependent on that.
Years ago, Nora and I ended up on Cru staff in Notre Dame through a very clear call to go. A few years after that ministry, we ended up in Italy because of a telephone call! A telephone call is a very ordinary thing, right? So God leads and God guides in various ways.
Please read the conclusion of this interview next week. We discuss issues that prevent churches from being proactive senders. We consider the posture of the sending agency in this interplay between Spirit and church as sender. And we think about what it looks like when churches exclude either the divine or human aspect of sending in their theology.