How Narrow is Your Great Commission?

Recently, I heard of a church that had cut off support to an orphanage in another country. Why? Because they believed that the helping children under 5 years old was not consistent with the Great Commission. Now I freely accept that any church has the right to support or stop support for any outside ministry. Since there are so many worthy projects and organizations, churches have to say “No” to the majority of worthwhile opportunities. But when one cuts off support to an orphanage because “Jesus said it’s not important” (at least by inference), we must think about the role of the church and the Great Commission.

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...

First page of the Gospel (Evangelium) of Mark, by Sargis Pitsak, a Medieval Armenian scribe and miniaturist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Question.  Is the Great Commission our ONLY Commission? We are to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the sorrowing, love enemies, be good citizens, support truth, and live at peace with others (among other things). What is the relationship between these commands (commissions?) and the Great Commission?

1.  Does the Great Commission negate (or take precedence) over these other commands?

2.  Is the Great Commission another command along with the other commands?

3.  Is the Great Commission a “different type” of command? For example are the other commands for individuals but the Great Commission for the church?

4.  Is the Great Commission being defined too narrowly?

I believe that all of these options involve some level of truth except for the idea that the Great Commission negates other commands or commissions.  But I would like to focus on the last option. Perhaps we are defining the Great Commission too narrowly.

The church listed above is not alone. Many or most (or all?) of us tend to do the same thing. Many appear to believe that:

-The Great Commission involves only international or cross-cultural work.

-Missions only has meaning within the context of “unreached people groups” (or where the Evangelical Christian population is below some arbitrary number).

-Evangelism or church-planting is the only worthwhile applications of the Great Commission. Social Ministry or social justice, for example, is not considered part of the Great Commission.

I think if people really delved into their own thoughts and theology, they would realize that the Great Commission is not that narrow. But because of their theology of endtimes, their application of the Great Commission is affected. If one thinks God is coming “any day” (and by this, they tend to mean… really, really, soon), one is tempted to dump the longer term, broader aspects of the Great Commission and focus on the ones that have short-term impact.

So how broad is the Great Commission? Let’s consider the Matthew version of the Great Commission in Matthew 28. It says that we are to:

-Create disciples.  Develop students, learners of Christ.

-Wherever we go.  Wherever we stay. Wherever we are.

-Baptizing them. Bringing them into the membership of faith.

-Training them to do everything that Jesus said.

This Great Commission is hugely broad. Creating disciples is a long-term process that involves individuals within a social network within a specific environment that starts well before salvation/conversion and continues long after. Wherever we go is everywhere. Teaching them to do everything that Jesus commanded is huge… and it has a subtle point that makes it even broader.

If we are disciples of Christ who are teaching disciples of Christ to obey everything that Jesus commanded… then we are to obey everything that Jesus’ commanded as well. One cannot separate the Great Commission from the broader aspect of Christian living. To separate the Great Commission from other aspects of Christian obedience is to violate the Great Commission.

 

Redemptive Analogy

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Don Richardson has done a lot of work with Redemptive Analogies, in Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts (among other places). Redemptive Analogies are important in faith, but are also problematic.

Consider some of the redemptive analogies in the Bible. This is not a complete list.

1.  The Vine. Those who are part of God are joined to Christ as a branch is part of, and dependent, on the main vine.

2.  The Two Ways. People are on a path. Either they are on the narrow path to life, or on the wide path to death.

3.  Redemption. We are as slaves who are up for sale to the highest bidder. We are bought by God.

4.  Justified. We are on trial… clearly guilty on all charges, but God declares us innocent on all charges because of Jesus.

5.  Ransomed. We are like one who is kidnapped, but Christ has paid the ransom for us.

6.  Saved. We are like people in a dangerous place about to die, but we are rescued from certain death by Christ.

There are newer analogies. The most well-known one is probably the Bridge Illustration. We are on one side of a deep deep ravine while God is on the other side. Only through Jesus, the bridge, can we be united with God.

There are a few dangers with redemptive analogies.

A.  Analogies always break down at some level. For example, if we see ourselves as ransomed or redeemed, the questions are Who was our kidnapper? or Who was our owner. With the two ways/two gates analogy, one can get the impression that to go from one path to another would be impossible (since real paths diverge). Taking an analogy too far can easily lead to error.

B.  Related to “A”, there is a tendency to theologize analogies. Therefore, terms like justification and redemption lose the idea of being an analogy and become terms of propositional truth.

C.  Related to “B”, analogies require commentary. It is dangerous to give an analogy without explanation. Without commentary, analogies are as likely to lead to confusion as much as enlightenment.

D.  Related to “C”, it is not always clear to the extent that an analogy is useful. In Biblical times, the Christ as the Good Shepherd is useful. However, in the Philippines, very few tupa (sheep) are raised so the reference is quite obscure. In the US and Australia, sheep are raised in ways that are very different than in Biblical times. When too much time is spent trying to explain the usefulness of an analogy, it may not be useful. Biblical analogies of Jacob versus Esau or Isaac versus Ishmael requires such high level of understanding of the Biblical history, it is doubtful that it would today be useful for many.

E.  Related to “D”, analogies that may be useful for one group and one time may be useless in another. Jewish believers in Biblical times would understand the Isaac versus Ishmael. However, most people today would not understand. Muslims could be deeply confused because their belief system is built around a revisionist historical view that gives preeminence to Ishmael. Many others today would might confuse the story with a sort of divine racism (problem of taking an analogy way too far). Bruce Olson in the book Bruschko, gives another example. He pointed out that the analogy/ parable given by Jesus about the wise man (building on a solid rock) and the foolish man (building on sand) would not be useful in some places. In the tribal group Olson worked with, they built using bamboo technology. For them building on rock would ensure instability while driving their bamboo frames into deep sand would provide stability.

Analogies are useful (or useless or counterproductive) depending on the culture of the respondent. Redemptive analogies are important, but they must be chosen wisely, carefully explained, and cautiously used.

<Note: This is part of my book, “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture>

The Cross or the Sword? Part 1

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Christianity was a peaceful faith for the most part for many centuries. As the church became institutionalized and nationalized there was a tendency to link the church to the military and to coersion. With Charlemagne, the gloves came off. With his Grandfather (Charles Martel) having to fight off Muslim invaders, and his own wars with the pagan Saxons, Christian missions gained a militaristic edge. The result could be described as “the cross or the sword” or “convert or die”.

The following is a case study in this. It is from the writings of some of the friends of the Conquistador Pizarro, as compiled and recorded by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of  Human Societies.” Although this is not a missions book or even a “Christian” book, it has much of value in missiology. The Conquistador Pizarro (more of a vicious and greedy criminal than a Christian missionary) meets Atahuallpa, Emperor of the Incan Empire.

“Governor Pizarro now sent Friar Vicente de Valverde to go speak to Atahuallpa, and to require Atahuallpa in the name of God and of the King of Spain that Atahuallpa subject himself to the law of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the service of His Majesty the King of Spain. Advancing with a cross in one hand and the Bible in the other hand, and going among the Indian troops up to the place where Atahuallpa was, the Friar thus addressed him: ‘I am a Priest of God, and I teach Christians the things of God, and in like manner I come to teach you. What I teach is that which God says to us in this Book. Therefore, on the part of God and of the Christians, I beseech you to be their friend, for such is God’s will, and it will be for your good.’

“Atahuallpa asked for the Book, that he might look at it, and the Friar gave it to him closed. Atahuallpa did not know how to open the Book, and the Friar was extending his arm to do so, when Atahuallpa, in great anger, gave him a blow on the arm, not wishing that it should be opened. Then he opened it himself, and, without any astonishment at the letters and paper he threw it away from him five or six paces, his face a deep crimson.”

“The Friar returned to Pizarro, shouting, ‘Come out! Come out, Christians! Come at these enemy dogs who reject the things of God. That tyrant has thrown my book of holy law to the ground! Did you not see what happened? Why remain polite and servile toward this over-proud dog when the plains are full of Indians? March out against him, for I absolve you!’

“The governor then gave the signal to Candia, who began to fire off the guns. At the same time the trumpets were sounded, and the armored Spanish troops, both cavalry and infantry, sallied forth out of their hiding places straight into the mass of unarmed Indians crowding the square, giving the Spanish battle cry, ‘Santiago!’ We had placed rattles on the horses to terrify the Indians. The booming of the guns, the blowing of the trumpets, and the rattles on the horses threw the Indians into panicked confusion. The Spaniards fell upon them and began to cut them to pieces. The Indians were so filled with fear that they climbed on top of one another, formed mounds, and suffocated each other. Since they were unarmed, they were attacked without danger to any Christian. The cavalry rode them down, killing and wounding, and following in pursuit. The infantry made so good an assault on those that remained that in a short time most of them were put to the sword.

<After the emperor was captured…> “The Governor said to Atahuallpa, ‘Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and of His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.’”

I am not listing this to show how bad Christians are (or can be). I have yet to see a religion whose members do not behave very badly when they have the physical power to do so. Nor is it to show the dangers of religion. The non-religious are at least as bad and have the eerie ability to justify gross evils with “religious” fervor. Rather this is to consider the dangers of linking church and state, and kingdom of heaven with the kingdom of man.

Also, since the region of the former Incan Empire is over 90% Christian today, does this prove that the Cross/Sword method a success? Or is evil just plain evil? And, regardless, is the cost too bad.

The Back Door of Faith

There is a big disagreement as to whether someone can “lose” their salvation. Jesus seemed to set up a stark separation between those that were in God’s hand and those where weren’t. John certainly expressed doubt that the elect could ultimately be deceived. On the other hand the writer of Hebrews seemed to suggest that perhaps they could.

I will leave that for the Biblical Scholars. Part of the problem comes from the fact that we cannot know who is saved. The Book of 1st John tells how we can know that we are children of God, but not how we can know that others are. Paul emphasizes that it is the outworking by God of our faith, but we cannot tell whether others truly have faith or not. James notes that faith without visible outworkings is not real faith. Jesus even noted that those who have some visible manifestations of faith (even miraculous acts) may not be saved or have ever been known of God. Evangelicals tend to focus on the “Sinner’s Prayer” as evidence, but it is not so much a Biblical requirement for salvation, as a formula of sound doctrine tied to a vocal declaration of faith. It does not necessarily express the working of the heart and mind. Therefore, it is not necessarily a good assumption that a person who has said the Sinner’s Prayer is saved, any more than it is a good assumption to believe that those who have not verbalized this prayer are not saved.

Rather than get into a fight over this… let’s simply accept the reality that some people we THINK are saved fall away into faithlessness or into false faith. This is a reality, regardless of what is truly going on on a salvific level.

How do we close the back door of faith? There have been many different methods.

1.  Separatism. I was raised in a Separatist tradition. Those who believe are taken into the church and shielded, as much as possible, from outside influences. Extreme versions of this may be cultic in structure, if not in doctrine. Milder versions may be of value. Certainly, there needs to be changes and often it is easier for these changes to occur if old connections are severed.

There are, of course, problems with this as well. I already mentioned the temptation to want to control the lives of the members. Jonestown was simply the most extreme of a very common tendency to completely regulate and separate members. Also, removing influences from new members also removes the member’s potential to be an influence on others. Finally, there is a tendency of separatist groups to create their own sub-culture. This sub-culture is likely to have little influence on the broader culture around, and may gradually become irrelevant.

2.  Emotional Event. I worked at a Christian Summer camp for several years. At the end of the week we would have what was called the “Burning Bridge” ceremony. We would gather in the woods at night around a bonfire. We would sing appropriate meditative gospel songs (“Pass It On”, “Seek Ye First”, etc.). Testimonies would be given. Then a call was given for those who are ready to give their lives to Jesus tonight, or have given it earlier in the week. They would get up and cross a small bridge that was built over a stream. The rest of us would keep singing. Next those who have “assurance of salvation” would cross next. Then those who dedicate (rededicate?) their lives to Christ would cross next. Finally those who are committed to Christ but have made no new decision this week would cross last. In theory those who have decided not to follow Christ would stay behind (can’t remember if that ever actually happened). We would sing “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus” as the bridge is set ablaze and eventually crashes into the stream (the ropes suspending the walkway were what actually burned).

Other methods can be used. Baptism can be used as a visible symbol, or First Communion. Other groups expect some sort of “miraculous” manifestation. These are meant to be visible and emotional signposts that one can grab onto to demonstrate to oneself and others one’s faith. One used here by some groups in the Philippines is EGR (Encounter God Retreat). It is a couple of days of lectures tied to some acts that are meant to be symbolic in the mind of the individual of spiritual change.

While these forms of events may be helpful for some, their problems hardly need to be noted (but will be noted). First, there is a tendency to confuse the act with the faith. That is why some groups will require people to go through one of these experiences even if they have demonstrated their faith and love for God in more reliable (and Biblical) ways. Second, since the act is not salvation itself, it can confuse and delude the people involved. It is not without reason that Jesus said there would be some “doing miracles” in Jesus name that He did not know, and others whose behavior satisfied a religious group but were considered unacceptable by God (see Matthew 25 for example). Often those who crossed the burning bridge one year for salvation would cross it for assurance the following year (because the emotions wore off over the year). Finally, some groups provide an experience that can do more harm than good. EGR varies from church to church here in the Philippines, but the standard version is of such poor quality theologically that one must wonder whether people may come out of it more damaged and deceived than anything else. Some groups looking for a physical sign leaving those who can’t muster up the sign and have too much integrity to “fake it”  in a state of doubt and confusion.

3.  Small groups. Small groups have been around for a long time. Monastic groups, Sunday School groups, Accountability groups, Cell groups, Growth groups, and Ministry teams are but a few. They provide the socialization of faith and (hopefully) the place for nurture.

I like small groups (particularly ministry teams and growth groups). But they may not be the best setting for a young believer. A group that may be supportive and helpful for a member of two or three years can be a very foreign setting utilizing an arcane lingo to new believers. Some fight this by making the groups more accessible to new believers, but the risk is then that the group provides no challenge for the new believer to spur growth. Either way, there is a gradual drift to the back door for many.

4.  I would suggest that God judges the heart so we can’t, but we can work on the back door issue. My suggestion is that the best method is not separatism (although everyone needs a little help in breaking destructive relationships and habits). The best method is not emotional events (even though symbols and milestones of faith may be helpful for some). The best method is not small groups (although they can have value later on in the discipleship process). I believe that one-on-one mentorship with a mature and trusted (and trustworthy) member of the church is the best start. As time goes on, the new believer can be integrated into other groups (such as Sunday School, cell groups, ministry teams, and so forth).

At least that is my thought. The biggest problem is that churches have so few mature and trustworthy members who are able AND willing to take on this role.

“150 Percent Person” Quote

“If we desire to be obedient to Jesus’ command to carry the good news of his resurrection to the world, we must be willing to become 150 percent persons. We must accept the value priorities of others. We must learn the different definitions and rules of the context in which they live. We must adopt their patterns and procedures for working, playing, and worshiping. We must become incarnate in their culture and make them our family and friends.” -Sherwood Lingenfelter  and Marvin K. Mayers in  “Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships” (final paragraph of book)

For those unfamiliar with the terms in cross-cultural missions:

1.  “becoming incarnate”. Lingenfelter and Mayers are using the incarnation (enfleshment, birth) of God with us on earth as a model for how we should serve on mission. They note two related ideas here. First, Jesus came as a helpless infant into a foreign culture (the world). He did not come as a ruler, or in a privileged state. Missionaries should not come in as rulers, leaders, conquerors. Second, Jesus came as a learner. He learned local language and culture, living with the people and working within the existing systems. Missionaries should see themselves first as learners… long before becoming teachers.

2.  “150 percent person”. We describe Jesus as “fully man” and “fully God”. We could quantify this as 100% man, 100% God. We could then describe Jesus as a 200% person. When missionaries work in a new culture incarnationally, we learn and grow in that culture. It is not realistic that we ever fully enculturate. We will always fail to fit in on a certain level. The practical ideal is that we achieve 75% fit in culture B. We also have our home culture. We retain our home culture, but we begin to lose qualities that make us fully fit in back home. We trend towards perhaps a 75% fit in culture A. So for Lingenfelter and Mayer, the ideal for a missionary is not to be a 200% person, which is beyond our capability, but to be a 150% person– 75% enculturated to both home culture and new culture.

Missionary Methods: St. Barnabbas’ or Ours?

Cover of "Missionary Methods: St. Paul's ...

Cover of Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours?

Roland Allen‘s classic book, “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” is an important book that examines how we do missions. It certainly has good points. If I wanted to be honest about it… the obvious answer to the question of Roland Allen is “Ours”. That is because we always need to tailor our methods to the culture and time we live in. There is no way we should use St. Paul’s methods for missions anymore than we should Hippocrates’ method of medical treatment or Alexander the Great’s method of warfare.

However, this is misleading since Roland Allen wasn’t really talking about missionary methods (despite the name). He was talking about principles for mission strategy.

I would like to suggest, though, that we focus on the missionary methods (principles) of Barnabbas rather than (or at least in addition to) Paul. There are a few reasons for this.

1.  It appears that the major mission strategy was from Barnabbas rather than Paul. Paul appeared to be a disciple of Barnabbas in the early years and the early part of Paul’s first missionary journey appears to show Barnabbas as the leader. This is supported by the fact that the first missionary site sought Jews on the island of Cyprus. Barnabbas was a Jew from Cyprus. After this site was done, they went to southern Turkey to minister to Jews there. Paul was a Jew from this region. This suggests that Barnabbas modeled and Paul imitated at the beginning.

2.  Paul’s biggest innovation from a mission method appeared to be his decision to go directly to the emperor of Rome. There is a lot of difference of opinion as to whether this was God’s plan or not. Even Luke described Paul’s determination with a certain level of ambivalence. Regardless, the plan appears to have resulted in little tangible fruit.

These first two points are not that important. I certainly don’t wish to downplay Paul’s importance as an apostle, theologian, and writer. I am just suggesting that Barnabbas’ role as a missionary is seriously underestimated. And this brings up a third point.

3.  Barnabbas’ determination in developing people is an important aspect in missions. This appeared to be his primary role… thus his nickname– son of encouragement. Missions does not move forward by supermen. It moves by people following Christ’s example of discipling and modeling being a faithful servant.

John Maxwell describes 5 levels of influence. The lowest is position (listen to my job because you got to). The next is permission. Next is performance. Then comes people development. The highest is personhood. Personhood is not an uncommon result. However, Barnabbas’ influence was that he believed in people (such as Paul and John Mark) and developed them into being great ministers. John Mark later worked with Paul and Peter, and Paul followed Barnabbas’ pattern as one who disciples others to became great servants of Christ.

Missionaries would be wise to look to St. Paul for basic principles in missions, but don’t forget Barnabbas, son of encouragement.

Missions and the Resurrection of Christ Part II

Is the resurrection of Christ important to missions or tangential. beyond what was covered in part I, I would suggest it is important because it was central to the early church. And that centrality also adds credence to the historicity of the resurrection. How do we know the early church focused on the resurrection?

A.    The first Sermon given after the creation of the Church emphasized the Resurrection. Less than 2 months after Jesus died.. (Acts 2:29-38)

“My friends, it is right for me to speak to you about our ancestor David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is still here. But David was a prophet, and he knew that God had made a promise he would not break. He had told David that someone from his own family would someday be king. David knew this would happen, and so he told us that Christ would be raised to life. He said that God would not leave him in the grave or let his body decay. All of us can tell you that God has raised Jesus to life! Jesus was taken up to sit at the right side of God, and he was given the Holy Spirit, just as the Father had promised. Jesus is also the one who has given the Spirit to us, and that is what you are now seeing and hearing. David didn’t go up to heaven. So he wasn’t talking about himself when he said, “The Lord told my Lord to sit at his right side, until he made my Lord’s enemies into a footstool for him.” Everyone in Israel should then know for certain that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, even though you put him to death on a cross.”

B.    The first known confession of faith used in the church, I Corinthians 15:3-7(and then 8), says:

I told you the most important part of the message exactly as it was told to me. That part is: Christ died for our sins, as the Scriptures say. He was buried, and three days later he was raised to life, as the Scriptures say. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. After this, he appeared to more than five hundred other followers. Most of them are still alive, but some have died. He also appeared to James, and then to all of the apostles. Finally, he appeared to me, even though I am like someone who was born at the wrong time

C.   The earliest sacraments of the church (communion and baptism) focused on the resurrection.

1.  The communion (Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) does not focus on the good teachings of Jesus, or what a good person he was, or what a good example he was for us. Rather, it focuses on his death, and his return. It was the death and return of Jesus that the early church saw as most important. While we often do the Lord’s Supper in a rather solemn or sad way, the early church did the Lord’s Supper as a joyous event… almost a party.

2.  Baptism also focused on Resurrection. In Romans 6:2-4

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

The resurrection is central to our mission as Christians… and for Christian missions.