Brian Stanley: Great omissions from the Great Commission

A professor of world Christianity offers three aspects of the Great Commission that are all too often neglected.

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached on April 5, 2011, in the chapel of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School.  

Matthew 28:18-20 is not the only missionary commission in the New Testament. Mark, Luke and John all have their own versions of the missionary commission which the risen Jesus entrusted to his disciples, none of which we should forget.

StanleyThere are dangers in the fact that -- especially since the publication of the Scofield Bible in 1909 (whose headings affixed the title “The Great Commission” to Matthew 28, but not to Mark 16) -- evangelical Protestants have dignified Matthew’s version, to the exclusion of the others, with the title “The Great Commission.”

Evangelicals have too often grounded their theology of mission in this text alone, rather than in the whole witness of Scripture to the loving missionary purposes of God, as if the only reason we do mission was because Jesus has commanded us to, and we had better obey him.

However, there is more than enough meat in Matthew’s version of the commission to keep us going for one sermon, so I invite you to consider with me some aspects of the Great Commission that are all too often neglected.

Here are three great omissions from the Great Commission.

1. “All authority” is given to Jesus, not “all dominion” to us.

In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew depicts a group of mysterious figures from the East -- the magi -- who find their way to the infant Jesus. As they present their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, they bow their knees in worship before him: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11 NIV).

This is a quite staggering emphasis from a Jew writing for Jewish readers. “You shall have no other gods before me,” affirmed the first of the Ten Commandments. But here is a human infant receiving worship from representatives of the Gentile nations, worship that rightly belongs to Yahweh alone.

Matthew reiterates the point about the unique authority of Jesus throughout his Gospel. Jesus taught, he tells us, “as one who had authority” (7:29). He claimed that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). In chapter 21, what is at stake in his encounter in the temple with the chief priests and elders is his authority to teach. And the climax of Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives in chapter 24 is when he dares to appropriate to himself Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man “coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.”

So when the risen Jesus asserts that “all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me,” he is not making a claim that would be totally novel to Matthew’s readers.

Nevertheless, in the light of the resurrection, the all-embracing nature of the authority of Jesus as the Christ can be proclaimed with a clarity that was not possible before: the unique authority over all nations given by the Father to the Son is now fully revealed and displayed to the eyes of faith by the resurrection.

Just like the magi in chapter 2, the disciples, doubting and half-believing though some of them, now bow the knee and worship the man Jesus -- something they would not have dreamt of doing hitherto. And it is this cosmic authority that is the basis for the missionary commission given to the disciples, indeed to all disciples until the end of the age, which includes us.

We should note that the text does not say, “All authority is given to you; therefore, go.” If it did, we would have a text that implied that God has handed this whole enterprise of world mission over to us, lock, stock and barrel. Converting the world would then be our business, not God’s, and it would be a business, a simple matter of employing the right methods with sufficient resources. Our understanding of mission should never degenerate into that kind of business mentality.

But neither does the text say, “All authority is given to me; therefore, there is no need for you to go.” If it did, we would have a text that displayed impeccable hyper-Calvinist logic and invited the church to sit on its backside and await the singular and sovereign moving of God to draw all humanity to himself.

That, of course, was precisely the view that William Carey set out to combat when he wrote his famous pamphlet, “An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” in 1792. Carey was endeavoring to refute those English Particular (i.e. Calvinistic) Baptists who believed that to take any initiative in bringing the gospel to the world beyond European Christendom, which they supposed to be the “normal” sphere of operation of the Holy Spirit, would infringe the sovereignty of God. Carey, evangelical Calvinist that he was, had it exactly right: “All authority is given to me -- therefore, you go.”

If we forget the first part of that statement, mission becomes just another process of human persuasion or propaganda, an attempt to capture or colonize the minds of men and women so that they should all think just like us. That is not Christian mission.

But equally, if we forget the second part of the statement, we end up with a view of the missio Dei, which leaves the church comfortably marginal to the salvific activity of God. That is a view that is now most assiduously promulgated, not so much in our day by hyper-Calvinists, but by advocates of a radically secular view of mission that places little emphasis on the necessity for the actual proclamation by Christians of the good news of the reign of Jesus.

2. The commission speaks of making disciples, not converts.

If all authority belongs to Jesus, the mission of the church is not to convert people -- only the Spirit who mediates that authority in the world can do that -- but to invite or urge others to join us on the road of following Jesus. That means that the commission given to us is not fully discharged when people make a profession of faith and are baptized, because that is only the first step on their long road of Christian discipleship.

Christian nurture is not to be seen as a separate business from evangelism, as too often it is in the Protestant evangelical tradition. The evangel we are called to proclaim is itself a call to follow Christ -- and to go on following him.

German mission theorists in the early 20th century, who were the first to grapple seriously with the problems of Christianity and culture, developed the emphasis that the call to discipleship is not individual but corporate. They noticed that the text strictly does not say “go and make disciples from all nations” but “go and make disciples of all nations” (panta ta ethnē).

The idea that the gospel might be addressed, not to individuals alone, but to peoples as collective entities was taken up by the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement in the 1930s to suggest that there was a peculiarly German way of being Christian, a distinctively Germanic pattern of Christian faith, rooted in the “blut und boden” (blood and soil) of German national life.

Karl Barth -- that stalwart opponent of the German Christian heresy and of all nationalistic distortions of the Christian faith -- regarded such teaching as “painful fantasies.” A celebrated exegetical study of Matthew 28 expressed his contempt for the idea that the nations as such are called into their own unique patterns of national discipleship, a view he dismissed as “worthless.”

However, the German missiologists’ interpretation was not killed off by Barth. It was taken up by Donald McGavran, founder of the church growth school.

As a Disciples of Christ missionary in India from 1923 to 1954, McGavran observed the remarkable “people movements” of his day, which saw people of the same caste unit or village moving toward Christian faith through corporate decisions, led by the natural leaders of the community.

McGavran drew the conclusion that India would never be won for Christ by piecemeal individual conversions but only by a mission strategy that enabled people to move toward Christ without having to cross the barriers of caste or culture. That was the origin of what we know as church growth theory.

It was not borrowed from the German missiology of nations, although McGavran later became familiar with one of its leading exponents, Christian Keysser, and endorsed his approach.

McGavran’s theory was also the seedbed of all those subsequent seeker-friendly strategies with which we are now so familiar that endeavor to make it easier for people to follow Christ by customizing the presentation of the gospel or the experience of Christian worship to their existing cultural frame of reference: the famous, or infamous, “homogenous unit principle,” which affirms that people prefer to become Christians without having to cross a cultural barrier and thus leads to the logical conclusion of Christian congregations that are culturally or ethnically homogenous.

There is a lot to be said for McGavran’s view, but his theory made a fatal and exegetically dubious distinction between discipling -- understood as the initial process of evangelization -- and the supposedly separate second stage of “perfecting” (“teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”).  

Church growth theory deduces a whole series of apparently logical steps from the apparently attractive initial premise that the most important thing in mission is to maximize the rate of conversions. But Jesus does not command us to maximize conversions but to enable people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds to become true and lasting disciples.

Integral to that process of discipleship is learning to walk the road alongside other disciples of different ethnic or cultural allegiance. That difficult lesson is not some advanced-level Christian education module to be bolted onto a profession of faith at some later stage but is rather integral to becoming part of the disciple community.

3. In mission, those who teach are disciples, not dominators.

Too often in the history of mission the missionary has begun to imagine that he or she represents the gold standard of Christian spirituality and that the calling of the disciple is therefore to submit to his or her authority as the missionary teacher.

But in Matthew’s account of the commission given by Jesus, the disciplers remain disciples, still themselves learning to observe and obey all that Jesus has commanded (28:20). The disciples in Matthew’s Gospel are more than once called by Jesus the “little ones.”

We are all “little ones” in the kingdom. Remembering this is essential if the missionary teacher (the dominus) is not to become a dominator.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that greatness in the kingdom of heaven belongs to whoever “practices and teaches” all the commands God has given us (5:19), which surely meant both the law of God as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and the law as fulfilled and embodied in Jesus himself. To be great in God’s kingdom is not a matter of power or status but of being consistent between what I say and how I live, between what I teach others and what I carry on learning myself. It’s about “walking the talk.”

Why has the church in Africa grown so phenomenally over the last century? There are many possible answers to that question, but one may be the fact that the gospel has been spread by those who are still young in the faith themselves, by ordinary Christians who are still very conscious that they are disciples even as they enthusiastically disciple others.

The vast majority of the black missionaries who have shared their Christian faith with their fellow Africans will never be known to us by name, but I’ll choose just one whose name we do know as an example.

Her name is Hana Kageye. She was a widow whose husband had been a senior chief in the kingdom of Toro in what is now Uganda at the end of the 19th century. She thus had high social status and was selected by the first Protestant (Anglican) missionaries as one of the first women to be taught the precious gift of literacy.

The missionary who taught her to read -- and who led her to Christ -- was a remarkable woman serving with the Church Missionary Society named Ruth Hurditch (later known by her married name of Ruth Fisher). Ruth was the first white woman to climb the peak of Ruwenzori in Uganda and a person of considerable spirit. According to her obituary, in her grand old age in the 1950s, she volunteered to go into space in a sputnik!

In 1901 Ruth began to teach a little group of Toro women who had volunteered to take the gospel to outlying parts of the kingdom. One of these was Hana.

Hana traveled to the neighboring kingdom of Ankole in 1902 as a catechist, teaching the Christian faith and reading to the women at the royal court there. She caused a sensation by being the first woman in Ankole to wear spectacles. Later, she returned to the Church Missionary Society’s girls’ boarding school at Toro, where she taught knitting and handicrafts. The first converts in Ankole to be baptized, in June 1902, were her pupils. She is last heard of in 1914, still teaching in the school.

So Ruth Hurditch first taught Hana Kageye to read, and in so doing she introduced her to Jesus. Hana then went on to disciple others, both influential women in the royal court at Ankole and her pupils in the school in Toro. She taught them knitting, and in so doing she introduced them to Jesus.

Ruth did not dominate Hana, and Hana did not dominate those she discipled. What Hana saw in Ruth, and what her pupils saw in Hana, was a “little one” who sought to “obey everything I have commanded you” and who went on learning to follow Christ, even as she urged others to follow him, too. No doubt Hana also saw in Ruth -- and others saw in Hana -- that indefinable extra that is imparted by the presence of the Spirit.

In this task of teaching others to obey everything he has commanded us, Jesus promises that he will be with us always, to the very end of the age in which his kingdom continues to grow.

How? He is with us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That is not just a cause of comfort. It is only through the presence of the Spirit that the authority given by the Father to the Son is made available to us.

Without the presence of the Spirit, it simply makes no sense for us to go when the authority belongs to Jesus and not to us. But with the indwelling presence of the one through whose power the Father raised the Son from the dead -- and through whose power men and women can be raised to new life in Christ -- obedience to the “Great Commission” becomes possible.