Have you got your taxonomies straight?

“For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). This year marks the 300th birthday of the “father of modern taxonomy.” It is possible that you have missed the occasion. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707. Mr. Linnaeus named things. He developed, in fact, a complete and elaborate system for naming things. Some things became part of … [Continue Reading]

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

This year marks the 300th birthday of the “father of modern taxonomy.” It is possible that you have missed the occasion.

Lima BeansSwedish botanist Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707. Mr. Linnaeus named things. He developed, in fact, a complete and elaborate system for naming things. Some things became part of the “Plant Kingdom.” Other things became part of the “Animal Kingdom.” Lima beans became “Phaseolus lunatus” (“lunatus” because they look like little moons.) Dogs became “Canis lupus familiaris” (“familiaris” because these are a familiar sort of canine friend.) And on and on, thousands and thousands of things. Mr. Linneaus was a “taxonomist.”

The word derives from two Greek roots: taxis, meaning “arrangement,” and nomos, meaning “law.” Taxonomy is literally “the law of arranging things.” A taxonomist orders the world by naming the world and its many phenomena. He structures the world in a logical sort of way. Literally, he calls things what they are.

There are taxonomists of Christian mission, too.

Jesus named the world “a field ready for harvest.” Not a desert; not a waste. Paul understood himself an “ambassador” and a “servant.” Not a lord; not a master. These are taxonomies of mission. They help us understand the world and our role in it. Jesus and Paul called things what they are.

One of my favorite contemporary taxonomists of Christian mission is James Scherer, for many years Professor of Missions at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. As well as anyone I know, Scherer describes a clear taxonomy of “mission”:

Churches draw up ‘mission statements’ which are often little more than declarations of organizational goals, e.g., how the church as an institution can survive, and even improve its performance. It is not unusual to hear that some particular activity of the church — e.g., its preaching, worship, education, or stewardship — has been designated as ‘the church’s mission.’ Such loose references to ‘mission’ as designating either the total work of the church or some particularly favored activity are not wrong, but they have the effect of blurring the issue.

“The problem with this approach,” Scherer explains, “is that ‘when everything is mission, nothing is mission.’” He goes on to describe a practical definition: “Mission as applied to the work of the church means the specific intention of bearing witness to the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ at the borderline between faith and unbelief” (italics added). “The heart of mission,” Scherer writes, “is always making the gospel known where it would not be known without a special and costly act of boundary-crossing witness.”

Professor Scherer, really, is doing taxonomy. Maybe you can tell the difference between a Lima bean and a pea without understanding their phyla and order — a la Carl Linnaeus. But it is not as easy in the world of Christian missions. Can you tell the difference between “loose references to mission” — and the real thing?

Mission StatementThe real thing aims “at the borderline between faith and unbelief.” It has “the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ” on its lips and in its mind. It is “always making the gospel known,” by word and deed at every opportunity. And the real thing yearns to make it known where it has not been heard before — and where it will not be heard without “a costly act of boundary-crossing witness.” The real thing is always aiming for the boundary. It is determined to live the gospel, share the gospel, make the gospel known, whatever the cost may be.

This is a “Biblical taxonomy of mission” — and it is important to keep it squarely in mind. Botanists may want to remember the Latin name for lima beans. But missionaries — and people like you, who care about the mission of Jesus Christ — will want to remember that “borderlines” remain in the world. We will want to remember that people and cultures remain who will not hear the Good News — unless someone crosses a cultural boundary to tell them. This is the very heart of Christian mission. This is what mission is and what mission always does.

You just need to develop the proper taxonomy.