Mission/Legalism/Tradition Hinders Spiritual Growth

Welcome back from a break. Thank you, admin, for your labor in the Lord!

Emphasizing mission. Since 1961, UBF’s strength has been our emphasis on mission. When I studied Genesis 1 three decades ago, I loved the catchphrase “Man = Mission.” I taught this in Genesis 1:1 Bible study repeatedly for a quarter of a century as my mission until a few years ago. I still treasure my life of mission and Bible teaching. I am as driven and passionate to teach the Bible today as I was when I became a Christian in 1980. The only subtle change is that I now wish to primarily “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), and to proclaim/preach “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2) as my primary emphasis, rather than emphasizing mission imperatives. So, my point of Genesis is no longer mission, but Jesus (Jn 5:39,46).

A mission focus avoids Christ. When I emphasized mission (though it is biblical), I focused on verses that compelled me and others to strive for mission. “Deny myself and take up my cross” (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23) was my favorite for 2 decades. So were “make disciples” (Mt 28:19) and “feed sheep” (Jn 21:15-17). Though I “denied myself, made disciples and fed sheep,” I failed to draw closer to Christ and felt burdened and stuck. Why?

A mission focus led to legalism, traditionalism and phariseeism. Emphasizing mission made me legalistic by emphasizing our UBF traditions, such as singing certain hymns, having a fixed format for worship service, emphasizing duty and faithfulness in methodologies, meetings and prayer topics and announcements, etc. In short, I became rigidly inflexible, sectarian and very intolerant of anything done in a “non-UBF way.” I so despised “mega-churches,” “non-discipling churches,” “nominal Christians,” “non-missional Christians,” etc, that I would trash them at every opportunity. I became a Pharisee of Pharisees.

Mission burdens; the gospel gives freedom and rest. From my experience, a repeated (over) emphasis on mission (while assuming the gospel) burdens and wears out Christians. I suffered from CFS: Christian Fatigue Syndrome, while pushing myself to “try harder!” and “don’t be lazy!” It also hinders spiritual growth and maturity. I had to rethink my Christian life. God helped me to find freedom (Gal 5:1) and rest (Mt 11:29) in the gospel after 25 years of Christian life. When I experience freedom and rest in the transforming power of the gospel, God energizes and empowers me to work harder and happier with passion and zeal. This is nothing but the grace of Jesus to me.

With all my heart, I still value and treasure my life of mission of making disciples. But Jesus is greater than my mission. Do you enjoy Jesus more than your mission?


  1. “Do you enjoy Jesus more than your mission?”

    Yes! I do now!

    I think the word I would use would be “heritage”. I think mission and tradition are fine actually, and should not be grouped together with legalism, which is not fine.

    My current church has existed for over 120 years. From what I see, tradition and mission helped them survive that long (which is really not that long actually). I see that they transformed their tradition and renewed their mission continually.

    Churches become unhealthy, in my observation, when they hold onto their heritage. When churches become fearful that they are losing their heritage, they react with legalism, elitism or some form of accommodation.

    So to me, mission is not burdensome. When passing on church heritage becomes our mission, then we can say mission is burdensome. Burden and guilt are two clear indicators of whether a church understands the gospel, which is the grace of forgiveness of sins through Christ crucified.

    I say that a codified heritage is the fastest way to kill a church. God’s ways are not the ways of accommodation, appeasement or guilt. God’s ways are transformation, renewal, redemption and resurrection.

  2. Thanks, Brian. Yeah, heritage or perhaps tradition could be a more appropriate word than mission.

    Also, mission the way I thought of it was something I and others had to do and was expected to do. When I rethought the way I taught mission, I realize that mission is the fruit and the result of the love of God and the grace of Jesus. It cannot really be forced and imposed on others, which I often did for over 2 decades.

    That’s why I am now consciously attempting to do a major paradigm shift from Mission to Gospel or Grace.

  3. James Kim

    Hi Ben. it depends how we define mission. You probably interpreted mission as a narrow sense that something we have to do as Christians in legalistic way. In Genesis 1:27, God made man as stewards of God’s world. In this verse we can find the meaning of our existence. I used to think mission in a very narrow sense, growing in UBF for many decades. These days I learned a new definition of mission from David Bosch’s book.
    David Bosch said in his book, “Transforming mission” that “Mission is not merely evangelism (more than evangelism). Mission is the church sent into the world, to love, to serve, to preach, to teach, to heal, to liberate”. This means our mission in broad sense is to love our neighbor as ourselves wherever we are, at home, in the church and in our working place. This is new paradigm shift. In this sense man=mission. This is a wonderful privilege to live in His created world as stewards of God.

    • Timothy Ha

      My maths background tends to say that man includes mission, but not equals to. In other words, mission is just one part of a man. And what if a man fails to achieve his mission (which he does understand in some measure)?

    • James is right in saying that there needs to be a paradigm shift towards love. To love one another is the highest and only command Jesus gave. But it is not right to say love = mission. Maybe you can say love > mission. But love is much more than only mission. Redefining love as mission, and then redefining mission as training is the big mistake that has been made.

      Another paradigm shift is needed concerning the “target” of love and mission. The Bible tells us to love our neighbour. So love starts with the inner circles, with ourselves (yes, we also need to accept and love ourselves in a certain way), then with our partner, children, family, neighbours, colleagues etc. We should not start with the outer circles, like students in another country, people who are not really related to us. You can’t just skip the inner circles and neglect your children and family to execute “world mission”. Or, if you really want to do that, then don’t marry (that is also something that has been said by Jesus and Paul, but it seems few people take it seriously).

  4. From some private conversations, I was told that “man = mission” is no longer taught in some UBF chapters. I wish to apologize to those who think that I am making a generalization that “all UBF chapters teach this.” So I wish to humbly clarify that I was simply sharing my “personal testimony,” and that I am not making a generalization about “all UBF chapters.”

    Thanks, Chris. I believe the biblical “order” is God, Family, Mission. Perhaps, some communicate that it should be God, Mission, Family. Again this is just my subjective sense of our UBF values or expression from hearing what many people have shared privately and in blogs.

    Thanks, James, for quoting from Bosch’s magisterial book, which I am sure all evangelical Christians would agree. Bosch’s most often quoted statement regarding mission might be:

    “Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to believe. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world.” (Transforming Mission, 519).

    A point I was attempting to make was simply that though we agree we Christians should be stewards of the world, we practice and communicate it in a narrow, tribal, sectarian way, that is often quite offensive and unattractive to indigenous people. That is why I wrote this.

  5. Dear Dr. Ben,

    This is Jim Rarick. I am the one who spoke with the Elders and this is what I wrote. It is my faith.

    God bless you,

    Jim Rarick

    Dear Dr. James and Dr. Sohn,

    My faith is that God created me for a purpose–first of which is to enjoy him and second of which is to do his work, as Dr. Kim said which is to steward God’s world. Because of sin, my mission and meaning was lost. I could not carry out the purpose for which I was created.

    Jesus’ work is to restore what sin had destroyed. Jesus restored me to a right relationship with my Father God and to do the work I had been created to do. By his grace my work is no longer meaningless, and, worse, grieving to God, but I can please God. I worship Jesus and do his glorious work. As Dr. Kim said, this is not a once in a while task, but a lifestyle, life commitment, and essentially, who I am.

    So, to denigrate man’s mission, is to really deny what Jesus came to do. In a sense, it is really denying Jesus, though it sounds very spiritual. We cannot separate who Jesus is from what he came to do, which is to restore me to him, and God’s purpose for me.

    This is really my faith.

  6. Thanks, Jim, for sharing your lovely testimony to the marvellous grace of Jesus upon your life! I share your sentiment exactly regarding Jesus, our restored mission, and the gift of faith.

    Just to reiterate from my article how passionate I personally am about mission, I wrote:

    “I still treasure my life of mission and Bible teaching. I am as driven and passionate to teach the Bible today as I was when I became a Christian in 1980.”

    “With all my heart, I still value and treasure my life of mission of making disciples.”

  7. Thank you Dr. Ben. I am glad we can clear up any misunderstandings. I see your point. Somehow I didn’t get that point reading your post. Sorry about that.

    It is a delicate issue, I guess, having mission without being sectarian. There are many ways to serve God’s mission. One way is serving through a ministry like UBF, Navigators, or whatever, if we are called to that. Of course we have to pray for the success of all ministries of Christ. But when Jesus said “Love one another” I believe it means in a practical way through a commitment to a specific body of Christ. Are we the only body of Christ? Of course not. But we should love one another, pray for the blessing of one another, serve one another, encourage the growth of one another, etc, in our ministry. Isn’t that correct?

    1John 4:19-21 says, “19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” All Christians are my brothers and sisters. But to me that is too vague for practical service and love. I can love people practically in my particular body, which by God’s grace is UBF. Loving others is not easy, because we have conflicts, egos, misunderstandings, etc. And these are exposed when committing to a particular body of Christ, but through which we have to come to God for to grow, both us and others.

    In conclusion, we agree that mission is God’s grace through Jesus. And particularly I think serving a particular body of Christ is critical aspect of that mission. I don’t believe that is sectarian, but rather how we can express Jesus’ love practically in our day-to-day lives.

    Again, that is my faith.

    God bless you,

    Jim Rarick

  8. James, Jim, Ben: Essentially I agree with your comments, and given the spirit in which they were written, I could even accept them.

    I want to point out the additional bindings that have caused me (and others) so much grief, heartache and anxiety. I was taught this: man=mission=ubf=holiness=blessing. The result of this equation was nearly shipwrecking my faith and near death to my soul.

    Even after over a year out of UBF, I find that I must keep unbinding my mind from this equation. This equation has to be broken in order to find the grace and truth of God.

    UBF is not anyone’s mission. UBF is merely one (of many millions) context of the same mission for all Christians everywhere.

    We have only one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, and one Father of all (Ephesians 4:1-7). Grace has been given to each of us as Christ apportioned it. Thus we will have many mission contexts, none of which are more important than others.

    The church’s role is not to conform people’s behavior to our mission context, but to enable them to be free to find their unique role for God’s redemptive purpose.