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.