People groups and the missionary task of the church

Author: Dr Jonathan Ingleby, Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College


The emphasis on people groups is an over emphasis. It is based on poor exegesis, it does not reflect the missionary practice of the early church, and it does not match the present needs of worldwide mission.
I am not happy about the way that we are investing in the ideology of reaching unreached people groups as a basic missionary strategy. I think there are exegetical and missiological reasons why we may be mistaken about an undue emphasis on doing mission in this way.
The meaning of ethnos
First of all, I have my doubts about the current exegesis which suggests that the language of the New Testament can be used to describe ethnic groups in a ‘scientific’ way. Take the word ethnos for example, often translated ‘nation’. This is a key term in the debate because it is the word used in Matthew 28:19 and other key missiological passages. Now it is certainly true that the word did not mean ‘nation’ in the sense that we use it today – the ‘nation’ of India for example – as denoting one unified nation state with a centralised government. This idea did not emerge fully until the European Reformation and it would be anachronistic to suggest that this was the sense of the New Testament word. Equally, however, we must be careful not to give the word meanings which reflect the understandings of twentieth century anthropologists. The idea of a particular ‘people group’ defined by its own language and culture is not what the Biblical language is necessarily referring to either. The Bible refers to Greeks, for example, and has neither a nation state nor a people group in mind. In the Bible the word for ‘nations’ (ethne) probably means ‘everybody’ (Mark 11:7), or perhaps ‘everybody except the Jews’ (Luke 21:24) or ‘everybody, however various their backgrounds’ (Revelation 7:9).

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