by David J. Hesselgrave
From Reformation times reference to the missionary mandate of the Great Commission has raised serious questions.
The church’s missionary mandate is rooted in the Great Commission: "And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you—and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age’ —(Matt 28:18-20, NASV). One would think there could be no confusion among Christians about that, but there is. In fact, from Reformation times reference to this missionary mandate has raised serious questions.
Generally speaking, the Reformers were of the opinion that the Great Commission applied to the early apostles but not to them.
That the apostles entered strange houses and preached was because they had a command and were for this purpose appointed, called and sent, namely that they should preach everywhere, as Christ had said, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ After that, however, no one again received such a general apostolic command, but every bishop or pastor has his own particular parish.1
Luther used the analogy of a stone thrown in a pond. just as the ripples move outward until they reach the water’s edge, so the church should grow outward until it reaches the ends of the earth. John Calvin held to a similar view. The text of his commentary on I Cor. 12:28 is as follows:
…for the Lord created the apostles, that they might spread the Gospel throughout the whole world, and he did not assign to each of them certain limits or parishes, but would have them, wherever they want, to discharge the office of ambassadors among all nations and languages. In this respect there is a difference between them and pastors, who are, in a manse, tied to their particular churches. For the pastor has not a commission to preach the Gospel over the whole world, but to take care of the Church that has been committed to his charge.2
Since for Calvin the apostles were temporary officers in the church while pastors were permanent officers, it was clear that the Great Commission, as such, had limited applicability.
There may be some who question whether the Great Commission applies to the church today, but I cannot remember meeting any. I have met many, however, who disagree about how it applies. These differences must be resolved scripturally or the mission of the church will suffer.
AUTHORITY OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
One of the most significant missionary gatherings of all time was the Edinburgh Conference of 1910. At that time some 1,200 church and mission representatives met under the leadership of John R. Mott and others, in order to discuss ways and means of cooperation in fulfilling the Great Commission. With a view to making the conference as inclusive as possible, the planning committee decided to exclude questions of doctrine and polity from the agenda. That was a far-reaching decision. In effect, it meant that conferees believed cooperation in mission to be possible without consensus as to the nature of the mission. All cooperating churches and missioners remained free to maintain their own doctrine and understanding of mission.
James Scherer says that this approach is at the very heart of the ecumenical movement.3 No consensus is necessary beyond a "common acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as God and Savior."4 The missionary mandate of ecumenical groups is, therefore, an intrinsic mandate- "each member church interprets and applies this joint mandate in terms of its own doctrinal principles and ecclesiological self- understanding."5 Were this not the case – were the mandate to be understood as extrinsic to the churches and to be interpreted on its own terms– the ecumenical base would become altogether too narrow and ecumencial action much too restricted.
I do not question the sincerity of those who took this approach at Edinburgh, but I do question their wisdom, because of susequent history and contemporary events. In 1932 the Laymen’s Inquiry report edited by William Hocking called for a re-thinking of mission, which all but dispensed with the idea of conversion. In the middle 1960s the planning committee for the Uppsala meeting of the World Council of Churches was ready to "let the world set the agenda." A more recent consultation on the future of the missionary enterprise had as its theme: "Liberation, Development, Evangelization – Must We Choose in Mission?" The most prominent speakers had little to say about evangelization, somewhat more to say about development, and considerable to say about liberation – primarily in terms of the overthrow of capitalism and reinforcing revolutionaries.6 In line with this, the WCC granted $85,000 to black guerrilla forces fighting a biracial government in Rhodesia that promised majority rule.7
The issue here is one of authority. If the mandate is intrinsic to the churches and missions, all duly authorized interpretations and actions are thereby legitimized. If, on the other hand, ultimate authority resides in the word of God, every understanding must be subjected to scrutiny in the light of that Word. Dialogue concerning, and cooperation in, Christian mission have but limited benefits – and, indeed, are fraught with very real risks – as long as the issue of authority remains undefined or unresolved!
THE DEBATE CONCERNING PROPER EXEGESIS OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
Of course, a high view of Scripture in and of itself does not settle everything. Though their assumptions are different, evangelicals, like ecumenists, are inclined to arrive at the meaning of the Great Commission by reading meanings into the text rather than allowing the text to speak for itself. Distortions and confusion inevitably result.
Consider two illustrations of eisogetical misinterpretations of the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew – one simplistic, the other sophisticated.
A simplistic misinterpretation, heard in hundreds of missionary meetings and conferences, goes something like this: The most important requirement of the Great Commission is that we be willing to go to the ends of the earth – or, if that is not possible, that we send someone in our place. Those who do go are to "evangelize" with the result that some people will make decisions for Christ, thus becoming "converts" or "disciples." Finally, these disciples should be baptized and instructed in Christian truth by the one who won them to Christ, or by someone designated to "follow them up."
It has been repeatedly pointed out by careful exegetes that this simplistic interpretation will not hold up.8 The single imperative in Matthew’s statement of the Great Commission is "make disciples." "Going," " baptizing" and "teaching" are participles which take their force from the main verb. All are essential to the central task of discipling. Properly understood, the command corrects such common mischiefs in mission as: (1) sending almost anyone who is "willing to go," regardless of his or her preparedness for carrying out the larger task; and (2) choosing to carry out a particular aspect of the larger task (termed "our calling," "our work" etc.) with little regard to the whole.
A sophisticated misinterpretation, expounded in various books on church growth, goes something like this – When our Lord commanded us to disciple the ethne, he meant that we should go to the tribes, the castes, the families of mankind and approach them as units. When the gospel is presented to these groups properly, groups of people can become Christian together and without the wrenching apart that accompanies one-by-one conversion.9
It has been shown that careful exegesis will not support this socioanthropological understanding of our Lord’s words. 10 If he had had this meaning in mind, there were other readily understood and more appropriate words, such as genos, phule, laos, and glossa, which he could have used. Most serious exegetes agree that, in context, ethne means Gentiles, i.e., those individuals who do not belong to the chosen people. Missionary approaches based on. such concepts as homogeneous units and people movements have a certain validity (until they are pressed too far), but they cannot be based upon the Great Commission as such.
We are not engaged in nit-picking here. Granted the English construction of Matthew 28:19 (which seems to put primary emphasis on going into all the world), it is understandable that church and mission leaders make foremost the appeals for volunteers who will go and funds with which to send them. And granted the openness of the missionaries (who have responded by going) to new strategies for winning men to Christ in greater numbers, it is understandable that they are impressed by interpretations of Scripture which are based on the social sciences and which hold promise of breakthroughs in missionary work. Nevertheless, the Word of God should not be made to serve evangelical ends any more than it should serve ecumenical ends. When we force it to do so, evangelical theology is discredited and Missionary practice is misdirected into side eddies.
THE QUESTION OF PRIORITY AMONG THE STATEMENTS OF THE GREAT COMMISSION.
As is well known, there are several forms of the Great Commission – those of the four Gospels and that of Acts chapter one. Bypassing for now the textual problem in the longer ending of Mark’s gospel, it is safe to say that the various forms complement one another and support the view of mission most generally held among evangelicals – namely, that the mission is primarily one of proclaiming the Christian gospel and bringing people to repentance, faith and fellowship, and conformance to Christ in his church.
Recently, however, it has been argued that the traditional understanding of the Great Commission is faulty.11 According to this line of reasoning the "crucial form" of the Great Commission is the Johannine: "As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you" (John 20:21). In this statement, it is maintained, Jesus made his own mission a model of ours ("as the Father hath sent me, so send I you"). This does not mean that we become saviors. But it does mean that we become servants. Just as Christ "fed hungry mouths and washed dirty feet,…healed the sick, comforted the sad and even restored the dead to life" so our mission is to be one of service.12 The mission encompasses all that the church is sent into the world to do, including humanitarian service and the quest for better social structures. In short, according to this view, social and political activities are partners of evangelism and church growth in the Christian mission.
Sensitive evangelicals will applaud this concern for the material, physical and social, as well as the spiritual, needs of people. In fact, in spite of a generally bad contemporary press, missions have often (usually?) combined social and spiritual ministries while carrying out their mission. This is as it should be. The Great Commandment makes it clear that Christians – all Christians are to love their neighbors (Luke 10:27). The story of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that our neighbors are those who are in need. Moreover, our Lord insisted that his followers were to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s" (Matt. 22:21). Clearly, Great Commission mission requires that these injunctions be lived out and taught as a necessary part of discipling the world’s peoples (Matt. 28:20). This can be seen in the life and ministry of Paul – the missionary par-excellence, He supported a charitable effort on behalf of "the poor among the saints in Jerusalem" (Rom. 15:26). He admonished believers to "do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). In life and teaching he reinforces Christ’s words regarding the responsibilities vis-a-vis human government (Rom. 13:7).
But the argument that the Johannine statement of the Great Commission is primary, and that it demands socio-political action, is suspect on at least three grounds.
First, it is questionable on exegetical grounds. The particular verb for send (apostello) and its form (the perfect) in John 20:21 do make it clear that our mission is an extension of the mission which the Father enjoined upon the Son. But the phrase "as (kathos) the Father sent me" does not indicate something beyond that fact; and the translation "I also send you" is to be preferred to "so send I you." There is no warrant for reading activities into the Johannine form of the Great Commission that are not found in the parallel statements in the Synoptics.
Second, the argument raises serious theological problems. From John 20:21 we are taken to Luke 4:18,19 and 7:22 where we have a description of the ministry of Christ (releasing the oppressed, giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, raising of the dead, etc), which then becomes the model for our mission. But it is clear that these activities involved miracles. Is it impossible to obey the Great Commission without performing such miracles today? Most interpreters will reply in the negative. In that case, do such things as social legislation and medical ministration measure up to the model? Careful interpreters will not be quick to answer in the affirmative. The theological dilemma this problem poses admits of no easy solution.
Furthermore, this emphasis on socio-political action does not grow out of the record of the ministries of missionaries in the New Testament. Barnabas and Saul delivered a contribution from the Antioch church for the relief of the brethren in Judea before they were set apart for the work to which the Lord had called them (Acts 11:29, 30; 12:25; 13:1-3). And, as already mentioned, Paul communicated the same concern to the new churches he established. But in spite of the presence of Luke the physician and in the context of obvious needs of every sort in the societies where they ministered, the evidence is overwhelming that, primarily, the early missionaries gave themselves to preaching the Word of Christ and establishing the church of Christ in new areas.
Third, the argument requires a careful appraisal on practical grounds. In the first place, experienced missionary practitioners know that even when social enterprises are understood to be "secondary ministries" they possess a perennial potential for usurping the attention, time, talents and energy that the "primary ministry" desperately needs. In the second place, it is often extremely difficult to determine what social and, especially, political actions can and should be undertaken in the foreign contexts where expatriate missionaries usually live and work. In the third place, the primary means of effecting social betterment in any society is to increase the number of those who – as Christian laymen, evangelists and pastors – will give allegiance to Jesus Christ and become the salt and light of that society.
As evangelicals, we agree that the Great Commission applies to us today. We also agree that the Great Commission constitutes an authoritative command and is not to be interpreted according to the vagaries of the contemporary agendas of either the world or the churches. But if we do not exercise care, confusion growing out of unwarranted exegesis and prioritizing will first distract and then deter us from fulfillment of the Great Commission. Of course, we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Often immobilized by inertia and creature comforts, Christians need to be challenged to "go with the gospel." Often confined to the ruts of past methodology, missionaries can profit from the searchlights social scientists have trained on new methodological trails. Often lulled into quiescence by spiritual exercises and numbed by overwhelming world-wide physical, social and political needs, all Christians need to respond in obedience to the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. But, united in our commitment to Great Commission mission, it is imperative that we examine our marching orders carefully and respond to them obediently. In that examination and obedience we must not be inordinately influenced by Madison Avenue salesmen, university researchers or social engineers who, as the Pled Pipers of our secular cities, persistently prod us to march to their tantalizing tunes.
1. D. Martin Luthers Werke (kritische Gesammtausgabe, Weimar, 1897, Vol. 31) pp. 210-11; quoted in Harry R. Boer, Pentecost and Missions (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961), p. 19.
3. James A. Scherer, "Ecumenical Mandates for Mission" in Norman A. Horner, ed., Protestant Crosscurrents in Mission: The Ecumenical-Conservative Encounter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1968), pp. 28-30.
6. David J. Hesselgrave, "Views and Vibes at Ventnor," Christianity Today (June 2, 1978), pp. 42-44.
7. "Rising Furor Over Role of U.S. Churches Abroad." U. S. News and World Report (Sept. 4. 1978), pp. 25-26.
8. See, for example, Robert D. Culver, "What is the Church’s Commission?", Bibliotheca Sacra (July, 1968), pp. 239-253.
9. Cf. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 310.
10. Walter L. Liefeld, "Theology of Church Growth" in David J. Hesselgrave, ed., Theology and Mission: Papers Given at Trinity Consultation No. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 175.
11. John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World: What the Church Should Be Doing Now (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1975), pp. 22-28.
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