The Great Commission: Changing the Starting Point

The Matthew 28 version of the Great Commission speaks of developing Disciples. There appear to be three basic steps: They are Evangelize, Baptize, and Teach/Train.

GC Three Cycle

The question is where does it start. Within the context of the various Great Commission versions, the start seems to be with Evangelize. That is because the key issue of the Acts 1 version is for the apostles (“sent out ones”) to serve as witnesses of Jesus and proclaimers of Jesus’s message to the world. And since the recipients are people who are not followers, it rather makes sense that Evangelism is the first step.

Of course, things did change. As Christianity, as a religion, became naturalized to families and communities, there was more of a move toward the initial step being baptism. Babies of Christian families would be baptized and brought formally into the church. the children would be trained within the church until they become confirmed in the Christian faith. So Baptism in this case would be the first step. As a Baptist myself, I don’t really prefer that particular starting point, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

But it could also be argued that Training can (or even should) be thought of as the starting point. This can be seen in a couple of ways.

Number 1.   There has been a growth of “try before you buy.” Many seekers will become involved in church before they decide to believe. They want to see Christianity lived out. That can be awkward, because they may not just sit in the back of the congregation. They may want to jam in the worship team. They may want to discuss uncomfortable topics in Bible study or Sunday School. They may want to get involved with social ministries. They may want to join a short-term mission trip.

This first one can be awkward. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable in church with uncomfortable questions. I remember a woman standing up during church service after a deacon had given an (overly strong, and perhaps manipulative) appeal to tithe, and she asks the question to the entire congretation, “Does God’s love need to be bought?” It was a good question, but the church response was to guide her out of the church. Not ideal. I have sat in an evangelistic bible study with a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes. The bible study leader does a fine job for quite awhile and then the dam burst as she started rattling off every verse she knew that spoke negatively of homosexuality.

In both of those cases, I feel that the guests were handled poorly by Christians. They showed up at the church for some reason. Maybe their reasons were sincere… maybe not. The result was that the church pushed them out. The woman never returned, and although the young man did not walk out of the Bible study, he did not continue with the weekly studies.

Number 2.  Engel and Dyrness in “Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?” (InterVarsity Press, 2000) on pages 65 and 66 note that it is not really Biblical to start with transmitting a message without giving people a “taste” of Christian compassion and holy living. I kind of think that this statement is taken a bit far. However, I do believe it is generally true. Charles Kraft speaks of Power Encounter always preceding Truth Encounter. Again, I think that this pushes a particular tradition rather than expressing a Biblical principle. However, Jesus almost always gave a taste of the Kingdom first. This may be miraculous signs, and healing. It may be violating cultural taboos, and upending social structures.

Engel and Dyrness in the same book (see page 64) described Evangelism as it has become popular in the Market Evangelism of the late 1900s Evangelicalism. They noted the Great Commission became tied to two Omissions:

  • Evangelism became disconnected from Social Transformation. Many believed that social transformation would follow Evangelism. Engel and Dyrness noted that at least since the mid-1800s this has not happened. Social Transformation should work hand-in-hand with (or even precede) Spiritual Transformation. Focusing on cognitive change (without an understanding of how such a cognitive change is supposed to connect to a life lived for God) commonly leads to anemic Christianity.
  • When Evangelism drifts into Marketing a product to as many people as possible to get the most people to make some sort of identifying indication of response, discipleship as a total process tends to wilt.

Perhaps a better idea is to start in a better place:

  1.  Welcome people into the church, bible studies, ministry activities and more as seekers and skeptics to experience the Christian faith lived out, and where they can ask uncomfortable questions and get honest (unpracticed thoughtful) answers. In this way they can experience an aspect of the Kingdom that is tied to the message. Of course, this requires Christians to live out their faith socially, as well as doctrinally. This can result in 4th century Christianity where churches moved from small groups of the faithful to being large groups of the immature. But I don’t think this is a necessary result. A church can be a holy gathering of the faithful while maintaining it as a safe space for inquiry and doubt.
  2. Welcome these people to place their faith in Christ to become what they have been experiencing.
  3. Welcome believers into the mystical church— the body of Christ— through baptism.
  4. The people would were trained as believers become trainers of new seekers and skeptics, living out their faith with humility, and demonstrating holy brokenness and social concern to all. (And the cycle continues.)

I don’t think it is controversial to say that we teach unbelievers. It may sound controversial to say that we disciple unbelievers, but if discipleship is the entire process, of course one must disciple unbelievers. What probably IS controversial is to suggest that Proclamation/Evangelization is most commonly the wrong place to start.

And Evangelism that is built around marketing schemes does tend to lack the Biblical base and Spiritual foundation of regeneration.

I think we need to wrestle with this.





Which Comes First

I have never cared for the assumption that the foundation for Christian Missions is the Great Commission. There are reasons for this, some of which I have talked of elsewhere. However, let’s take a fairly simple case as shown in two options:

1.  Great Commission is given priority over the Great Commandment. Behavior is given priority over the heart. So what is valued?

  • Preaching the Good News
  • Baptizing (drawing people into the unity of the church body)
  • Teaching/discipling

What happens if behavior is given priority over heart? Missions would not be easily differentiated from secular marketing. Good missions is effective missions, and effective missions is one that which brings positive results (converts/adherents).

2.  Great Commandment is given priority over the Great Commission.  If the Great Commandment is given priority over the Great Commission, then the heart is given priority over behavior. In this case then, the attitude and motivation of the Christian is to guide the behavior. We share the Gospel of Christ because we love the people we share with.

In this case, good missions is that which is motivated by love of God and love of Man. Missions must be done in good faith and good will to be considered good missions.

Let me give an example. For several years, my wife and I were part of a group that we helped found with others that did medical missions throughout the Philippines. Medical Missions is a great mission ministry from the standpoint of statistics. We were with the group from 2005 to 2009 and we treated around 30,000 people. Those who came had the gospel shared and over 50% responded. The Philippines takes seriously the idea of implied debt (“utang ng loob”) so many will respond as a way to please those who provide care.

If we are simply motivated by the Great Commission, we are simply focusing on getting as many to respond as quickly as possible and get them into the church. We are then not focused on proper medical care. We are not focused on providing what we promised. We can do “bait and switch,” deceptive marketing, and pressure tactics. But in so doing, although we might get more positive responses, we probably would be getting more negative responses as well. Unfortunately, negative responses can be poisonous in the community.

If our missions is motivated by love, then we are focused on providing good wholistic care, keeping promises, and demonstrating good will in the community. Might it get less measurable missional results? Probably… but it is likely to have more positive long-term results. People respond to divine love more over time than top-notch marketing.

I would suggest that the second case here is the correct one. While we tend to applaud big results… there is a certain “creepiness” (I swear, I can’t think of a better word) of Christian missions that seeks to be judged by numbers rather than love. Even if one desires to value “success metrics” one should take the time to view not only positive numbers, but negative numbers. When love is not the motivation, success of converts is likely to be balanced by those who have been driven away.

Why do Christian Missions Anyway.

In “Ninety-two Questions on Humility in Theology and Science” (1999), Sir John Templeton listed as question #74:

“Is trying to help in God’s creativity processes a way to express our worship and thankfulness?”

I suppose that is a good question. One of the seeming defining characteristics of Man is the ability to

John 3:16
John 3:16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

be creative, and the desire to act on that creativity. At times such creativity is squelched or hindered with the argument that such creators are “playing God.” And perhaps they are right. Certainly creating for the sake of creativity, without the canvas of moral limitation is dangerous (and probably mediocre… creativity in humans seems best drawn out within the context of prescribed limitations).

But for me, let’s bring this back around to missions.

“Is trying to act in concert with the Mission of God a way to express our worship and thankfulness?”

It does make one wonder why we do missions anyway. I would like to suggest, first of all that joining God in His mission is NOT a challenge to His sovereignty, any more than being creative is a challenge to God as creator. That point never made much sense to me anyway. I believe He could act without me… but does that mean that He would find offense if I, in some small way, seek to join? So ignoring this, here are a few possible reasons:

1.  Obedience to God. The Great Commission (in its various forms) seems to be a general command to all Christians at all points in History. So I suppose one could argue that we are constrained by orders. But is “legalism” our sole or primary argument for doing missions? I am not sure that Christians live in a state of Grace, while missionaries live in a state of Law. (Yes, I am stretching the point… but we are considering if obedience to the Great Commission is THE or PRIME  reason for doing missions, not merely a factor.)

2.  Duty to God (or Calling). This is related to the first. However, the first could be seen as acting on a general command to all Christians. This second may be more individualized. I feel “called” uniquely by God to carry out a unique aspect of God’s mission… so I act in accordance to the duty associated with God’s calling. If one accepts this as the primary or only reason for our doing missions, then we are using as justification a doctrine that has (frankly) little Biblical support. Not a good basis for missions. Second, since few of us really have an “Isaiah” or “Burning Bush” experience anyway, in practice such a basis has stronger roots in our passions or desires. Is the primary motivation for missions really that we “feel like it”? I hope not.

3.  God’s Glory. God has done much to restore a broken world, so when we join in the task to restore it, we reflect or increase God’s glory. I guess I have a problem with this as well. I really enjoy the book “Cat and Dog Theology.” In the book, Sjogren and Robison make a strong point that everything is to be for God’s glory and everything God does is for His own glory. Although there are verses that can be used to support it, I can’t quite accept it (not attacking the book as a whole… just questioning a bit of how I interpreted parts of the book). First, the term “glory” is pretty vague, so even if everything is to be for God’s glory, such a fact is not very informative as to what I should do. Second, if everything God does is for His own glory, then some pretty nasty things (floods, disease, and human misdeeds) were also part of God’s self-glorification activity. Again, if these things can be for God’s glory, what things could I do that would NOT be glorifying. Third, some statements seem to cast doubt on glory as the end all. Take the classic John 3:16. It says that God’s mission was motivated by His love, not His desire for personal glory.

4.  Love of Man. If John 3:16 says that at least a major part of God’s mission was motivated by love for man, perhaps that could be our prime motivation as well. It seems like our love for man should at least be a sizable part of our response to God’s initial love for us. Caring for people because we care about people is good but seems pretty limited. Our mission is greater than a social gospel. Our role is more than doing nice things because we are nice people.

5.  Great Commandment. Our activity as a response or an outflowing of our love for God (and Man) seems to be closer to the truth. Of course, one problem is that love is a concept that doesn’t give much guidance in how to act.

To me, the Great Commandment and the Great Commission together provide a pretty good justification. We respond to God’s love by loving God and loving what God loves. This is the Great Commandment. The Great Commission provides one important guidance in how to express that love.

Another way to look at it is that God loved us and we respond in like fashion due to thankfulness (the Great Commandment) and then respond in service as worship (Great Commission). Maybe the statement, “”Is trying to act in concert with the Mission of God a way to express our worship and thankfulness?” both true and highly relevant for our basis for missions.

Nitpicking Words for a Moment

Recently I have seen a couple of organizations that have as part of their vision statement that they seek to “fulfill the Great Commission.” When people say Great Commission, they are normally thinking of Matthew 28, starting in verse 18, but there are others. Actually, a lot of mission groups have similar statements, it just kind of struck me more

English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of ...
English: Folio 9 from the codex; beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

lately. Is there anything wrong with the statement? No… but… well no I guess… but… well… kind of. As I said above, this might be nitpicky, but words matter.

The term fulfill means “Bring to completion or reality; achieve or realize (something desired, promised, or predicted).”

The term fulfill is fine, I guess. The problem is that fulfill tends to center on the completion, not on the doing (I told you I am being nitpicky). What’s the difference? All of the versions (there are at least 6 in the Gospels and Acts) of the Great Commission (if I remember right) describe something one does, not something one completes.

Additionally, Jesus gave some relevant teaching as far as carrying out God’s work, such as Matthew 24:45-51. Jesus there compares two servants. The faithful servant was one who was found doing his job. The unfaithful servant was one who was trying to “time” the return of his master and so was found not doing his job. I can’t help but wonder whether the unfaithful servant, who said ‘My master is delaying his coming’ and so was lazy and irresponsible, came to that state after focusing too long on being ready for his master’s return, rather than being focused on his job.

Again, nitpicky. But I have seen too many groups come up with unreasonable goals (AD2000 movement anyone?) built on a fulfillment philosophy, groups that do sloppy Bible interpretation to justify a “fulfillment” philosophy (abuse of Matthew 24:14 comes to mind), and groups that use short-term strategies rather than long-term programs for change based on focus on some sort of short-term fulfillment (such as “saturation evangelism” versus community development and transformation).

If we knew for sure, if we could correctly time, Christ’s return date, the focus on fulfillment makes sense I suppose. But since Jesus made it VERY CLEAR that we can’t,  we should focus on the task of the Great Commission (based on our love for God and His Creation). Focus on the “Task of the Great Commission” or “Living out the Great Commission” I believe leads to less counterproductive thinking and acting.

Of course, words are just words. We can have all of the right words and still do poor ministry. We need a solid foundation of theology and motivation to be faithful servants of God. But leave the concept of having the Great Commission “fulfilled” to God.

Both/And and In-Between

Cover of "My Utmost for His Highest"
Cover of My Utmost for His Highest

Quote from Oswald Chambers, “My Utmost for His Highest

 In mission work, the great danger is that God’s call will be replaced by the needs of the people, the the point that human sympathy for those needs will absolutely overwhelm the meaning of being sent by Jesus. The needs are so enormous, and the conditions so difficult, that every power of the mind falters and fails. We tend to forget that the one great reason underneath all missionary work is not primarily the elevation of the people, their education, nor their needs, but is first and foremost the command of Jesus Christ– “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19)

Now, my first response to this is that I certainly agree with it. However, it is also true that I could agree with almost the exact opposite as well.  Try this made up quote (by myself):

In mission work, the great danger is that God’s call be replaced by a sense of grudging obedience. This will replace concerns for the needs of the people, to the point that human sympathy for those needs, the meaning of being sent by Jesus, will absolutely be overwhelmed by a form of legalistic duty. The needs are so enormous, and the conditions so difficult, that every power of the mind falters and fails. We tend to forget that the one great reason underneath all missionary work is the love of God that compels us to reciprocate with love for Him and all people. In response to that love, we seek the elevation of the people, their education, and their needs. After all, it is because of God’s love for all people that came the command of Jesus Christ– “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19)

As I said, I am not disagreeing with the quote by Oswald Chambers. We do missions as an act of obedience. Yet the Great Commission was given because of God’s love… a love that we are supposed to share and reciprocate (the Great Commandment). Which is the higher perspective… giving primacy to obedience of a command or giving primacy to the reason for the command? For example, does one love and care for one’s children because the Bible says we “gotta?” Or does one love one’s children because God loved us and created us to love (especially our own children) in like fashion?

It is hard to judge which should take first place. But maybe we shouldn’t worry about that. After all, Jesus served the Father as an act of duty, but also as an act of compassion for those in need (Matthew 9:36, 14:14). And the call for Jesus to serve came from God’s prior love (John 3:16).

Instead of arguing which is the higher or primary motivation, it may be best to see them as interconnected to the extent that separating them is dangerous. We obey because we love (and were loved by God first). And obedience to God is an act of love.

Missions in Samaria

Acts 1:8 speaks of missions outreach beginning in Jerusalem and expanding to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Of course, this statement simply could be looked at as descriptive… what has actually happened in missions. Additionally, it could be looked at as thematic… providing the structure for the book of Acts. One can also look at this passage as prescriptive… providing a structure for missions. If the last of these was the case, one could say that missions exists as:

Samaritans, from a photo c. 1900 by the Palest...
Samaritan group ca 1900. Image via Wikipedia

-Jerusalem. Local or E-1 missions

-Judea and Samaria. Regional or E-2 missions

-Ends of the earth. International/cross-cultural or E-3 missions

If one looks at these places as describing different types of missions, it DOES affect how mission work is done. Some missionaries in the Philippines taught local people that Jerusalem was family, Judea/Samaria was neighbors, and ends of the earth is regional outreach. 30 years later, the churches planted by these missionaries still don’t see value in international missions.

But if we see Acts 1:8 as prescriptive, not merely descriptive or thematic, should one separate between Judea and Samaria? Both are regional. The obvious difference is that Judea was populated by people that the Apostles would be fairly comfortable with. Samaria, however, was populated with people who were not appreciated. The term Samaritan was used not only to describe people from Samaria, but also “bad” Jews. Jews disliked the Samaritans as a group but tended to deal with them by ignoring them.

Perhaps we look at Samaria as describing the people near us that we ignore. Perhaps they are ignored because we have stereotyped them. Maybe because we don’t appreciate their qualities. Maybe because we don’t understand them… or are made uncomfortable by them.

Often Christians are not good at recognizing their own Samaria. It’s logical. If Christians thought about them, they wouldn’t be Samaritans to them.

In Baguio City (where I live) a number of church leaders have told me that they wanted to reach out to the upper classes… the professionals in the community because they are ignored. While I might agree that Evangelical churches here have typically targeted the most responsive group, the working poor, the professional class clearly isn’t Samaria to them. If it was, churches would not be targeting them. Internationals are not the Samaria in Baguio. Many Internationals are specifically targeted by churches in outreach.

To me, there are two fairly obvious Samaritan groups in Baguio. One of them is the Muslim groups that have moved up to Baguio from Southern Philippines. I have heard a number of local Christians talk about how “the Muslims” are trying to take over Baguio. Having spoken to the head imam here in Baguio a few years back, it is true that they are training up dozens of young men with hopes that they will spread their faith in Northern Luzon. However, most of the Muslim families who have moved to Baguio have come to improve their economic status and to avoid the violence of Southern Philippines, not “take over” Baguio. When local Christians fear and distrust a group, they get ignored. Strangely, the few who do reach out to the Muslims in Baguio, often find them surprisingly responsive.

A second group that is often ignored by Christians in Baguio are the night entertainers (or “GROs”). These include, but are not limited to prostitutes. While some mission groups reach out to them, churches are quite uncomfortable with them, because of job, behavior, psychospiritual problems, and (often) appearance. It is hard for Christians to accept people without affirming their behavior. A third group are the desperately poor.  The desperately poor often provide a drain (financially) on a church so they are not sought out.

I am not picking on Christians in Baguio. Every church has its Samaria. I am blind to groups myself. I wouldn’t know who they are… or they would not be blind to me. American churches tend to be blind to illegal immigrants. They may talk about illegal immigrants in negative stereotypes, but what about reaching out to them to help them and integrate them into the church?

All Christians (definitely myself included) need to consider who and where is their Samaria.

The Trinity in the Great Commission

I recall back in 1984, the first time I had bumped into the argument over Baptism… specifically whether one should baptize in the name of Jesus Christ or in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is amazing at how intense the emotions rise in some people on an issue that seems… well… fairly trivial to me. Of course, for those who believe in a modalistic theology, I suppose I could see why it might be an issue. However, for those of us with an orthodox Trinitarian view of God, I fail to see why one should get stressed. But some do. Some argue that the Trinitarian formulation in Matthew was a later redaction (editing). I wouldn’t know… but I can’t really see that as the case.

Jesus Sending Forth His Apostles

But it got me thinking about looking at the Great Commission from the perspective of the Trinity. The following are 4 of the major recordings of the Great Commission (I am not including the Mark passage since it (curiously) does not explicitly mention God.)

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
 “This is what is written, the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high.” Luke 24:46-49
“Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me. I also send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” John 20:21-23
“It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:7-8  (All passages in CSB version)

Looking at these passages, consider the prominence of each member of the Godhead…

  1. God the Father:  1 in Matthew, 1 in Luke, 1 in John, and 2 in Acts
  2. God the Son:  3 in Matthew, 3 in Luke, 2 in John, and 1 in Acts
  3. God the Holy Spirit: 1 in Matthew, 1 in Luke, 1 in John, and 1 in Acts

Now, suppose one combines these points into a Great Commission relating each of us to the Godhead. We might get something like this:

We are to be:

  •           Empowered by the Holy Spirit, promised by the Father, and sent by the Son
  •           Made confident by presence of the Son, sent by the Father
  •           Accepting our calling from the Son to go into the world.
  •           Giving the message of God to others
  •           Being witnesses of Christ
  •           Baptizing believers in the name of the Triune God
  •           Training up people in the teachings of Christ
  •           Doing all of this until the end, as decreed by the Father

To me, this is not a bad description of our calling based on the Great Commission. It also has the benefit of not being unbalanced in our relationship with God.

“But It’s Not Churchplanting…”

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce. Image via Wikipedia

Our main ministry here in the Philippines is a Christian Counseling center (with a few other things as well).  We are also on the board of directors of an orphanage. At one time, it was pretty easy to convince people that supporting an orphanage is a good thing. But this viewpoint seems to be going away, as far as I have seen.

I know a missionary family that was completely cut off by their home church because they ran an orphanage. That church believed that churchplanting and evangelism was the only valid mission work (to be funded by Missions money).

I know an orphanage that almost shut down because of lack of church support. Churches did not want to support it because “it’s not involved in churchplanting”.

Where does this idea come from? I fear that there is a “pop missiology” going around that has drifted away from the Bible. It takes the Matthew version of the Great Commission (go, baptize, and make disciples) while ignoring the last part (and teaching them to do everything I have commanded). It also ignores Christ as the example of missions.

I guess I see this rejection of aiding the helpless and innocent (social care and social justice) as a Christian ministry as flowing from four things (although I am open to amending this theory):

1.  Evangelical rejection of the “social gospel”. William Wilberforce was a great social reformer and Evangelical Christian, but with the growth of the social gospel (coined by Walter Rauschenbusch) movement near the turn of the century (as in 1900, not 2000), some see social ministry as being in opposition to “spiritual ministry.” The American tendency toward dualism makes it hard to see Christian ministry in terms of synthesis. If one is good, the other must be bad. Of course, the growth of religious pluralism in mainline groups tend to emphasize the risk Evangelicals see in too much focus on social work.

2. Apocalypticism. Christ’s return is meant to guide us to live a consistent faithful life. But some like to date set, and use that as a motivation to prioritize quick, short-term missions. Mission groups tend to fall into that trap as well. Back in mid-20th century missions organizations gave a strong priority to evangelism because of “Christ’s imminent return.” The AD2000 movement and others tend to create an artificial pressure for quick fixes rather than long-term change.

3.  Spiritual dualism. Some tend to think that there are spiritual and non-spiritual activities. Traditional understanding of religion says that one of the purposes for religion is to label some things as sacred and others as secular. However, Christianity is founded on a more wholistic understanding. Love the Lord your God with all Your heart, mind, soul, and strength (very wholistic even at this point) is inextricably linked with Love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 25 points out that loving Jesus while ignoring the plight of the hungry, thirst, homeless, sick, and others, is inherently a contradiction. A desire to “save souls”, while letting people starve, is not Christian.

4.  Church Growth Movement. Don’t get me wrong. It is good for a church to grow. And I don’t believe that MacGavran, Rainer, Wagner, Hybels, Warren, Schwartz, or anyone else in the church growth movements, would see church growth as necessitating a rejection of social justice and social ministry. However, I suspect that the focus on the church growth as a good thing has led some churches and people at the grassroots level to see church growth as the highest goal, resulting in the deemphasis of other ministries that they don’t see as being directly connected with that growth. However, as the church growth movement went from missiological church growth, to popularized church growth, to 3rd wave church growth, to church health movements, there needs to be a broadening of perspective. Is a growing church in a dying community a good thing? Or should church health see itself as being bound to community health?

Churches need to be trained in a solid missions theology that is drawn from a solid Biblical theology… not from pop missions fads.

I do support evangelism, churchplanting, and discipleship. But the Bible makes it clear that God’s call is much greater.  A church should never feel bad in caring for orphans, widows, the homeless, the downtrodden. This does not negate evangelism… in fact, our care for others makes the message of Christ more real, more relevant in this selfish world.


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.