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Review: The Cross and Christian Ministry (DA Carson)

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I was intrigued to see a chapter dedicated to World Christianity in a book by an author whom I would not regularly engage- he is a Reformed scholar and the leader of The Gospel Coalition, which trends much more conservative and evangelical than my typical fare. Unfortunately, the book did not deliver on my optimism.

The book  is an adaptation of a series of lectures D.A. Carson provided previously and the tone reads like an expository sermon. This is helpful for a reader who is not accustomed to exegetical commentary as it positions the material as if Carson is speaking to you rather than  writing to you. This style makes the book very accessible and can be read in a dedicated hour. Carson identifies five areas to focus on: The Cross and Preaching (1:18-2:5), the Holy Spirit (2:6-16), Factionalism (3), Christian Leadership (4), and the World Christian (9:19-27)

The most interesting chapter to me (and, I would suspect, readers of this blog) was his treatment of 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 under the title The Cross and the World Christian, which I will discuss below. Unfortunately, this section does little to incorporate the phenomenon or perspective of Christians outside of the West.

The definition he provides as to what defines a “world Christian” (quoted from 133), he writes:

Their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his kingdom is self-consciously set above all national, cultural, linguistic, and racial allegiances.

Their commitment to the church, Jesus’ messianic community, is to the church everywhere, wherever the church is truly manifest, and not only to the manifestation on  home turf.

They see themselves first and foremost as citizens  of the heavenly kingdom and therefore consider all other citizenships a secondary matter.

As a result, they are single-minded and sacrificial when it comes to the paramount mandate to evangelize and make disciples.

This last point provides a basis for critiquing the others, as the single-mindedness and sacrificial nature that Carson expects for evangelization and discipleship neglect to account for the need for reconciliation and decolonization of Western-led institutions (of which Carson is a product and leader). By ignoring the power structures that affect the relationships between Christians of European inheritance and Christians from other social locations, Carson’s exhortations remain bound in his priority of social position. Carson seems to be uneasy (if not outright critical) of the presence of (Third) World Christians, writing “Nevertheless, in my experience, very few ‘Third World’ leaders spend much time criticizing the West and stressing the need for properly contextualized theology until they have spent a few years studying in the West. … Very few of these leaders, for whatever reason, actually engage in much contextualized theology. Instead they make their reputations criticizing the West” (152, emphasis in original).

As he fails to properly account for the presence and perspective of others, his definitions remain dependent on the priority for the Western church. The first point reinforces cultural erasure in the name of Christian unity. The second point provides  a scaffold for “reverse discrimination” and making the marginalized responsible for supporting the fragility of the powerful. The third minimizes the effect of “citizenship”, which carries a colonial legacy that populations of the Global South have held for less than a hundred years. As the rights of citizenship are unevenly applied, the renunciation of rights is a privileged expectation as the marginalized can rely upon them for basic hope of survival. By labeling the definition for “world Christians”, the assumption holds that these facets apply to Christians “around the World” primarily and not Christian “at home” in Europe and North America.

Beyond the introductory paragraphs, the chapter could easily dispense with the title of “World Christian” and not lose any of its coherence. In describing the material concerning the weak/strong in the community, Carson’s example is about social drinking- a classic example from North American Evangelicalism. Missing from his analysis (140-142) about eating food sacrificed to idols is any recognition of Christians for whom this remains a contemporary issue.

Later, in an illustration of how cultural difference affect the church, he describes seminars with theologians from “around the world” with generalities about the personalities of Italian, German, British, and Japanese participants, then the time-keeping practices of Americans and Nigerians (148). These examples of diversity may resonate with a  Eurocentric audience, but fails to represent real challenges or capabilities within World Christianity.

Ultimately, this book may be effective for leadership teams within a Protestant Evangelical church, though the book does not meaningfully address diversity in leadership and would need to be supplemented with additional material to be more effective. Without comparing this material to its earlier printing, I do not know if chapter represents an earlier era in his thinking in regards to representation of World Christianity or an attempt to shoehorn in a contemporary ministerial and exegetical reality.

2 stars out of 5.

(The material is originally from 1993 and had been published as The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of 1 Corinthians. It is unclear what, if anything has been updated or revised. I received a copy of the text for the purpose of providing a review and did not receive compensation.)

Michael Shepherd is a professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, USA.


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