The man who brought the Gospel and social justice together

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 linked below, with original published story.


[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.

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