The man who brought the gospel and social justice together

A Tribute to the great Ecuadoran missiologist and theologian René Padilla

Stirling Theological College Principal and Director of The Global Church Project Graham Joseph Hill pays tribute to the late C. René Padilla, and shares an interview with Padilla he conducted at his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 29 May 2015.

The great Ecuadoran missiologist and theologian C. René Padilla passed away suddenly on April 7, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

René Padilla inspired a generation of disciples and leaders to follow Jesus in integral mission and the service of the poor. His life and words changed our lives, and knowing him transformed our theology, faith, and practice. He was a pastoral and theological prophet who founded or guided many organisations, including the Latin American Theological Fellowship (FTL), the Baptist Evangelical Church of La Lucila, INFEMIT (International Fellowship for Mission as Transformation), the Lausanne Movement, Micah Global, and Tearfund. His writings transformed the way many of us think about mission, theology, and faith. Thousands of Christians worldwide give testament to the impact of his life and teaching.

René was committed to the ministry of local churches. He once described how the church he pastored sought transformation in its neighbourhood. This church especially did this through ministry among drug addicts and their impoverished families. As René wrote in The Local Church, Agent of Transformation (co-authored with Tetsunao Yamamori): “The church that is committed to the poor becomes a sign of the new creation that burst into history in the person and work of Jesus Christ — a sign of hope in the midst of despair. So it is important that we should have a teaching ministry which combines theory with practice and is oriented toward creating, in the whole church and in each of its members, the Christian mind — a mind that conceives of the totality of human life as the locus of God’s transforming work. We can find many good reasons to criticize the church. Far too often it has been the primary cause of people’s turning their back on God, because they believe that the Christian faith has nothing to offer them. Often that is true. But it also is true that whenever the church opens itself up to people who are marginalized and poor, God surprises it, making it a Good Samaritan who responds to the needs of the neighbor with the resources of the Kingdom of God: faith, hope, and love.”

René was a champion of grassroots churches meeting together for worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to engage in acts of justice, mercy, and consciousness raising among the poor and oppressed

René was a champion of grassroots churches meeting together for worship, to celebrate the Eucharist, and to engage in acts of justice, mercy, and consciousness raising among the poor and oppressed. He rejoiced in the missional, liberating, educative, and fellowshipping dimensions of these grassroots communities. René wrote, “In the grassroots communities the rejects of society are discovering their own worth. They are learning that the evils of poverty and marginalization are not their God-given fate and that they have the power to change their situation through solidarity and mutual help, local initiatives, and a common struggle for justice. The power of oppression is thus broken and hope for a better future is born because the basis is laid for power to be exercised from the bottom up, not only in the church but also in the society.”[2]

René believed that integral mission must be both contextual and evangelical. We should take care that our mission is “truly evangelical­­—rooted in the gospel and consequently bringing about transformation in society.” This kind of mission requires an integral church that gives priority to: “(1) Commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of everything and everyone. (2) Christian discipleship as a missionary lifestyle to which the entire church and every member have been called. (3) The vision of the church as the community that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and lives in the light of that confession in such a way that in it can be seen the inauguration of a new humanity. (4) The use of gifts and ministries as instruments that the Spirit of God uses to prepare the church and all its members to fulfill their vocation as God’s co-workers in the world.”[3]

Such a church can’t merely imitate North American, European, or other models of the church. A truly missionary and disciple-making church needs both a global vision and local theology. “A xeroxed copy of a theology made in Europe or North America can never satisfy the theological needs of the Church in the Third World. Now that the Church has become a world community, the time has come for it to manifest the universality of the Gospel in terms of a theology that is not bound by a particular culture but shows the many-sided wisdom of God… The contextualization of the Gospel can only be a gift of grace granted by God to a church that is seeking to place the totality of life under the lordship of Christ in its historical situation. More than a wonder of nature, the incarnation is a wonder of grace.”[4]

Writing with Tim Chester about Integral Mission and the Micah Declaration, René  wrote the following reflections on the centrality of the local church’s role in mission today. “One of the greatest challenges we Christians have at the threshold of the third millennium is the articulation and practical implementation of an ecclesiology that views the local church, and particularly the church of the poor, as the primary agent of holistic mission. At the heart of integral mission is the local church… The New Testament does not describe development projects or, for that matter, evangelistic initiatives. Its focus is on Christian communities, which are to be distinctive, caring and inclusive. Integral mission is about the church being the church. There can be no sustainable Christian development that is distinctly Christian without sustainable Christian communities. This means that often the planting of churches that are committed to the inclusion of the poor must be at the heart of integral mission.”[5]

René’s vision of the kingdom of God shaped his vision of mission and of the church. Contextual mission in kingdom-oriented. René once said, “Because the kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, the mission of the church cannot be properly understood apart from the presence of the kingdom. The mission of the church is an extension of the mission of Jesus. It is the manifestation (though not yet complete) of the kingdom of God, through proclamation as well as through social service and action.”[6]

René felt the sting of claims that he was pro-Marxist or that his theology was insufficiently biblical. He denied these accusations. After describing the central features and contributions of liberation theology, René outlined the dangers inherent in each:

1. Liberation theology rightly emphasizes the importance of obedience (praxis) for an understanding of the truth, but is in danger of lapsing into mere pragmatism…

2. Liberation theology rightly emphasizes the importance of the historical situation but is in danger of succumbing to historical reductionism…

3. Liberation theology has rightly emphasized the importance of the social sciences but is in danger of becoming exclusively sociological…

4. Liberation theology has rightly emphasized the importance of recognizing the ideological conditioning of theology but is in danger of reducing the gospel to an ideology.[7]

René was convinced that we address these dangers by developing a disciplined approach to reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible. We must learn to engage Scripture, the humanities, the church’s praxis, and the historical situation. We must put these four things into critical, mutually enriching dialogue. None is adequate in isolation from the others.

René put Jesus at the center of his life. And he challenged us all to do the same. That is at the heart of his legacy. Our discipleship is forged in suffering—this has been the way for millennia. As witnesses to the mission of God through Jesus Christ, we endure suffering, as we follow the Crucified Christ and find him among the poor, marginalized, and suffering. The Spirit enables us to be suffering and vindicated witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. René put it this way: “Christian mission and Christian discipleship are two sides of the same coin. Both derive their meaning from Jesus, the crucified Messiah, who even as Lord remains crucified. The Christian mission is the mission of those who have identified themselves with the Crucified and are willing to follow him to the cross. Mission is suffering.”[8]

The impact of René’s life is eternal, because his life points us to Jesus Christ and his life, death, resurrection, and integral mission.

On 29 May 2015, I had the opportunity to interview René at his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. René was warm, generous, and inspiring, as usual. Here is the video of that interview and you can also listen to it here. A transcript of our conversation is provided below.

C. René Padilla | Pursuing Integral Mission

Graham Joseph Hill interview with C. René Padilla on Integral Mission, recorded at René Padilla’s house in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 29 May 2015.

Graham Hill: Hello, and welcome to The Global Church Project. I’m Graham Joseph Hill. René Padilla was born in Ecuador and raised in Colombia. He then moved to Argentina. He was a founding member of the Latin American Theological Fellowship and the president of Micah Global. René Padilla taught about Integral Mission worldwide. His primary work, Mission Between the Times, was a bestseller. It was published in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, German, and Korean. Out of his mission in Latin America, René Padilla brought the concept of Integral Mission to the broader world. For René Padilla, Integral Mission is the local church’s mission as it seamlessly integrates the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.

Graham Hill: René Padilla, welcome to The Global Church Project. You’ve long been a proponent of Integral Mission. Not everyone knows what that term means. Can you describe what Integral Mission is?

René Padilla: We have concluded that biblically, you cannot separate one’s lifestyle from action and concern for other people, especially those in vulnerable places. And what do you do in terms of oral evangelism? The traditional position has been to proclaim the gospel, but often without making sure that your lifestyle backs up what you say. Our actions must show God’s love, which has to be expressed in terms of love for one’s neighbour.

Graham Hill: Have you seen the idea of Integral Mission develop over the decades?

René Padilla: I’m thankful to God for what has happened within the last three or four decades. When we started talking about it, there was a lot of opposition. A lot of people were saying, “You’re pro Marxists. You are too concerned about the poor, too concerned about justice. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the gospel today.” If I accepted all the invitations to talk about justice and mission, I would never be home.

Graham Hill: How do you think the church can engage in Integral Mission today?

René Padilla: There are so many ways you cannot talk about every situation as if it were the same everywhere. It all depends. In some places, people need to have their basic needs satisfied. I mean bodily needs. But often, it’s a question of helping people to organize themselves. And I think God is concerned about the wellbeing of everyone, everyone in society. Life has a lot to do with biblical teaching. Shalom means harmony with God, with one’s neighbour, God’s creation, and so on. God wants that for everyone. And, of course, in every situation, you have to find a way to help people become satisfied that their needs are being met.

Graham Hill: And you say that the first experience some people have of the gospel is a blanket or a meal or some clothing. The church needs to get better at this.

René Padilla: Absolutely. We try to show that Jesus Christ was concerned for the whole human being, not just the soul. He was concerned about bodily needs. The healing ministry of Jesus shows that.

Graham Hill: When you were a pastor, you discovered that many people are looking for understanding, warmth, and acceptance. How can the church be a family, a household, and a place where people feel that they’re accepted?

René Padilla:  The leadership has a lot of responsibility concerning that. Much depends on the attitude of the pastor and the family of the pastor. I was thankful that in my family, we had an open home. And so we would receive people from all kinds of situations, including impoverished people, drug addicts, educated people, rich people, and so on. And often, it was the only place where people from different strata of society met, and they learned to love one another. They learn to accept one another.

Graham Hill: When you were a pastor, how did it shape your understanding of Integral Mission – and especially when you’re working on the ground in pastoral ministry?

René Padilla: I understood that this is not the task of a few chosen people. It’s the task of the whole church. And the more members of the church that become involved, the better that Integral Mission functions. You cannot have just a little group trying to do things. The whole church has to be engaged in an Integral Mission.

Graham Hill: We live in a world that’s full of violence, division, and conflict. But you say the church is to be an alternative culture and an alternative to racial, social, and sexual violence and express the freedom of Christ. How do you think the church can best express that alternative culture today?

René Padilla: By taking seriously what the gospel is all about. The commandment to love God is at the centre of everything, but it’s not alone. It’s also a question of loving one’s neighbour as you love yourself. And I think that the church has to learn to love. We all have to learn to love, and we never graduate in love. So there is room for growth.

Graham Hill: It’s challenging to define Western culture these days because it’s changing and diverse. But how do you think that Western cultures have absolutized their values at the expense of the gospel? Do you have any thoughts about how Western culture has specific values like individualism that undermine the gospel today?

René Padilla: Absolutely. I think individualism is one main problem and, of course, materialism. Now the question of greed is always present in society. It’s an old problem. And greed is translated into oppression and abuse of power. And that is, unfortunately, what often prevails in consumer society. That is why the church has to become an alternative society that embodies other values and the gospel of the kingdom of God.

Graham Hill: When you look at the growth of the Latin American churches, what are the good parts of their development and the dangers?

René Padilla: Absolutely. I think individualism is one main problem and, of course, materialism. Now the question of greed is always present in society. It all depends on what should grow. Some churches are concerned about numerical growth. Interestingly, the New Testament touches on the question of numerical growth, but it’s not the only kind of growth. It seems as if the main thrust in the Bible is growth in the love of God. This is growth in understanding what His promises are, what the church’s responsibilities are, and so on. Many years ago, a friend of mine wrote an excellent article on church growth. He showed biblically how the understanding and practice of the gospel comes before numerical growth. In Latin America today, we have placed a lot of emphasis on numerical growth. And some churches are growing, growing, and growing. But they make no difference in society because they have no spiritual power. They have money, perhaps, and they have large numbers. And one of the most damaging things in Latin America has been the so-called prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel teaches that the more you give in the offering, the more you’re going to be materially enriched by God – and that is sad. That is very sad.

Graham Hill: Do you think that as we focus on growing the church and promising prosperity that we forget about the values of the kingdom of God?

René Padilla: Absolutely. I’d rather have a small church where people take the gospel seriously than a large church where they don’t. And I always come back to God’s promise that where two or three are gathered in Jesus name, there he is the midst of them. I’d rather have many small churches impacting the world than one huge church that doesn’t really live the gospel.

Graham Hill: When we consider Latin American evangelical churches, we see they are a diverse and broad group. Do you see them engaging in social and political issues today, or are they avoiding political matters?

René Padilla: It’s tough to say because there are all kinds of churches. Still, there’s a growing number of churches that are very much involved in Integral Mission nowadays. And I’m delighted with that. They are making an impact on society – the kind of impact that is derived from the gospel itself.

Graham Hill: The world is changing quickly, and parts of Latin America are getting wealthy. Not everyone in society is benefiting. How do you think that the church can serve communities where wealth is unequal? And we live in societies where some are getting very rich, and many people are struggling daily. What is the church’s role in dealing with that environment?

René Padilla: In Latin America, we have some countries that are becoming much more concerned about social policies. And I think the church has to make sure that it contributes towards that. One way is by example. The church has to become concerned about the poor. But the extent that this is possible depends on where you are. God’s people should try to influence politics so that governments recognize their responsibility to provide enough for people to satisfy their basic needs. And among their basic needs, of course, is the need for God. That spiritual need is significant, but not the only one. People also need food, shelter, security, clothing, water, and so on. Human needs must be satisfied, and the government has a responsibility toward that.

Graham Hill: Do you think that Latin American evangelical churches just reflect the West? What’s your feeling? I know there are different kinds of churches.

René Padilla: There is a big difference between some churches that are still predominantly pro-capitalist in outlook and structure – those that were significantly influenced by the missionaries who came mainly from the US – and the churches that are now trying to find their own way. The latter churches are much more concerned about making sure that local, indigenous culture plays a part in the way they worship, how they preach, and how they try to relate to society.

Graham Hill: When you read about what others say about Integral Mission, what is most misunderstood about Integral Mission?

René Padilla: Recently there was an interview of two professors at a university in Brazil. They were talking about Integral Mission and about me. And I was amazed at their misunderstanding of what we are saying. They said we are not interested in evangelism and that we are pro-Marxist. This makes no sense to me. This is a big misunderstanding of what I am saying. If you say that justice is at the centre of God’s concern, just as the question of love is at the centre of God’s concern, this does not make you pro-Marxist. That allegation makes no sense. Scripture is full of references to justice and God’s justice. God is a just God, and he loves justice.

Graham Hill: Is that a criticism you regularly hear these days? I wonder whether people have become more familiar with Integral Mission and don’t say things like this as often, or whether you still hear these things regularly. Do you hear people trying to separate justice and evangelism?

René Padilla: I’ve recently been accused of being pro-Marxist because I talk about the poor, justice, and so on. Fewer people are accusing me of being a Marxist these days. But all those concerned about these things based on biblical teaching are charged with being pro-Marxist. It makes no sense whatsoever. I’m very thankful that a Bible is coming out soon that emphasizes passages on God’s justice. It’s going to be translated into several languages, showing the teaching of scripture on the question of justice. And there is plenty in the Bible about God’s justice.

Graham Hill: When you listen to the younger generation of Integral Missionaries in Latin America and other parts of the world, do you see them exploring new ideas and new things? In other words, what excites you about the thinking in the next generation of people who are interested in Integral Mission?

René Padilla: A couple of weeks ago, we had a conference at the Kairos Center, and Ron Sider was the main speaker. I was amazed at the number of young people coming from far away. We had people from Peru, Columbia, Chile, from the interior of Argentina, and various provinces. These were primarily young people. And they were so enthused about the whole idea that they are called to be engaged in society for the sake of the kingdom of God – working for God’s justice and working for justice and humanity.

Graham Hill: We’re noticing the same thing in Australia. If you put on a justice conference or a conference on Integral Mission, it will be full of young people.

René Padilla:  That’s wonderful. That’s the future for this cause.

Graham Hill: Yes, that’s right. And some Christian leaders who have never emphasized justice will say to me, “We don’t even know how this happened. We don’t talk about justice, but all the young people in our church are interested in justice and mission.”

René Padilla: In the English-speaking world, many people don’t even realize that the Bible has so much to say on justice. I think there is a problem with biblical translation. The King James version has “righteousness” repeatedly as the translation for the two Hebrew words. But in the Spanish versions, we have “justice” all over the Bible.

Graham Hill: Our English translations don’t always help.

René Padilla: Righteousness, righteousness, righteousness. But in the Old Testament, there are about 2000 references to justice. And in the New Testament, of course, there are plenty of them too.

Graham Hill: When I was at Bible college, somebody got a Bible and cut out every passage related to God’s heart for the poor with a pair of scissors. He would go around and open the Bible, and there’d be hardly anything left. This was how he illustrated how much of the Bible is about God’s concern for the poor. And somehow, Westerners often fail to see this.

René Padilla: That is the problem. When you realize that missionaries often came from the West, you understand why teaching on justice is too often missing in Latin American, Asian, and African Christianity.

Graham Hill: What’s been the most challenging part of your ministry?

René Padilla: I’m very thankful that I haven’t had any attempts to take my life or anything like that. It has been hard sometimes to see false accusations like “you are a Marxist” with no basis for it. But I believe you have to be ready to do all you can to help people. And then, all of a sudden, the people you helped turn against you, with false accusations. And sometimes, ungratefulness is a big issue. Thankfully, I haven’t had much experience with ungratefulness, but I have had some, and it’s hard. At those times, you learn that what you do is only for God and for his glory.

Graham Hill: What have you enjoyed most about your ministry?

René Padilla: That’s hard to say. I enjoy preaching very much. People used to ask me when I was travelling a lot, where do you teach? What seminary or university do you teach at? I would say I don’t teach in any university or any seminary; I teach in my church. And I enjoy teaching in my church. I believe that one of the most rewarding things that I have done is to see how God is shaping people through the teaching of the Word in the local setting, and, with all my limitations, as I have sought to exemplify what I’m talking about. I’m very grateful for the family God gave me. They are an open and loving family, and they often receiving all kinds of people at home, eating with them. I learned the value of eating with people. You know, Jesus Christ did a lot of that – eating with people in open homes. We need to open our tables and our homes. I have enjoyed that, and I feel that this is one of the most wonderful parts of ministry.

Graham Hill: Your children have been very active in ministry too, which is great to see. Now, which of your writings are you most proud of?

René Padilla: I haven’t written many books. I’m amazed that people think I’ve written a lot of books. Most of the books that I have published are compilations of articles that I have written, but I haven’t had the chance to write a book from the beginning to the end. The one that has been translated into several languages is Mission Between the Times. It has just come out in Spanish, again, as a third edition. That has been the book that has had quite an impact and spread. It has been translated into Korean, French, German, English, Swiss, Spanish, and Portuguese. Recently, there was another edition in Spanish.

Graham Hill: Is there anything else you want to say to us today?

René Padilla: I believe that God is still in charge of the world. Many, many things seem to be so difficult. And one sometimes wonders where the world is going, with so much injustice and so much violence. There is still abuse of power everywhere. But God is still in charge, and I believe in his purpose. He will show that truth, justice, peace, love, and Shalom will have the last word.

Graham Hill: And what’s your great hope for the church?

René Padilla: My prayer for the church and for myself is that we may be faithful to Jesus Christ, who is at the centre of our faith. This is what gives meaning to my life and our lives – to serve him, worship him, and be ready to do what he expects from us.

Graham Hill: There’s a lot of talk in the West today about the church’s mission. Sometimes I think that’s because the Western church is in decline. People are thinking a lot about what it means to be missionary. How would you define the mission of the church?

René Padilla: The church’s mission is to live out the mission of Jesus Christ in the world, which is the mission of a loving God who calls us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Our mission is to make sure our lives reflect our submission to Jesus Christ. I long to see more people, including myself, being faithful representatives of Jesus Christ in the world so that people may say, “When I met Jesus’s followers, I met Jesus Christ.” That is my prayer and my longing for the church.

Graham Hill: Thank you for spending time with me today.

René Padilla: Thank you, Graham, for your visit.

Graham Joseph Hill is the Principal of Stirling Theological College (University of Divinity) in Melbourne, Australia. His author website is here. Graham is the author or editor of ten books including Holding Up Half the Sky, Hide This in Your Heart (co-authored with Michael Frost), Global Church, Healing Our Broken Humanity (co-author with Grace Ji-Sun Kim), and Salt, Light and a City. Graham also directs The Global Church Project.

Footnotes:

[2] C. René Padilla, “A New Ecclesiology in Latin America,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11, no. 4 (1987). 158.
[3] C. René Padilla and Tetsunao Yamamori, eds., The Local Church, Agent of Transformation: An Ecclesiology for Integral Mission (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Kairos, 2004). 19–20.
[4] C. René Padilla, “The Contextualization of the Gospel,” ibid., no. 24 (1978). 28–30. Italics added for emphasis.
[5] Chester, Justice, Mercy and Humility. 7–8.
[6] C. René Padilla, Mission between the Times: Essays on the Kingdom  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985). 192.
[7] C. René Padilla, “Liberation Theology: An Evaluation,” Reformed Journal 33, no. 6 (1983). Compare Boff’s concerns and hopes for liberation theology: Boff and Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. 64–65 and 88–89.
[8] C. René Padilla, “Bible Studies,” Missiology 10, no. 3 (1982). 338.