The Great Commission

I have re-read the Great Commission in Matt 28 recently, and I have some observations about (a) the commission, (b) what we in the church have called "discipleship", and (c) how we often reduce the Commission to less than its full self.

First, the Great Commission is as near a complete definition of what it means to be church that you will ever find. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all I have commanded." The Commission has three main parts: making disciples, baptizing disciples, and forming disciples. In other words, evangelism, sacrament, and formation. Doesn't this sum up a lot of what the church is about?

Second, the Great Commission uses the idea of disciple-making in a different way than most evangelicals do. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus charges his followers to make disciples... of whom? People from "all nations." Those would be the Gentiles, to whom Jesus was not called. He was called to the "lost sheep of Israel." Salvation would surely go to the ends of the earth, in fulfillment of prophecy, but it would not go there through Jesus. Rather, his followers would take his gospel all around the world.

"All nations" was another way of saying "people who do not know Yahweh." Therefore, let me ask again: who is being made a disciple? That's right, a non-disciple. In other words, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of those who are not disciples.

In contrast, evangelicals use the word "discipleship" to refer to training believers to become more mature in their faith. We have constructed an entire science of making disciples. Discipleship has become so complicated and intimidating that most Christians won't even attempt it without a step-by-step manual.

However, if we look at Matthew's words, disciple-making includes what we would call evangelism. It is making disciples out of people who are not disciples and training them.

In addition, let's notice who is being baptized and taught to obey Jesus' teachings. It is disciples! So the picture is this. Make new disciples, baptize those new disciples, and teach all disciples to obey all Jesus commanded. The process of bringing someone into discipleship is blurry. Matthew's text does not support a sharp differentiation between evangelism and formation. Rather, formation begins when someone becomes a new disciple and is baptized. Even in those early days, one is already being formed as a disciple.

So if we want to use the word "discipleship," let's allow it refer to the whole process of bringing someone into the faith, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey Jesus. In fact, if we wanted to drop the term 'evangelism' completely, maybe we would the better for it.

Third, it occurs to me that most churches do not fulfill the Great Commission. Most churches have a preference for either gaining new believers or forming believers into the image of Christ -- but not both. A lot of those churches that are strong on teaching and formation gain new people not because individuals are newly finding Christ but because old believers are transferring from one church to another. Growing a church through transfers is a rather sad way to expand the membership roster. The reason is that transfers are often people with a consumeristic mindset who are at your church because they like the product you are offering more than the product the other church is offering. When consumerism is too rampant in a church body, true growth and formation is stunted.

Most churches are either evangelism oriented or teaching/formation oriented. These churches might defend themselves by claiming that they are fulfilling their unique calling. "We're a discipling church -- that's our role." Or "we bring people into the faith -- that's our specialty." But what is a "unique calling" that fulfills only half of the Great Commission? Maybe it's not a calling at all. Maybe it's a human preference dressed up like a mandate from God.

Here is the point. The church must work until it is proficient at all aspects of the Great Commission, not just half to two-thirds. That goes for any church. We need to be equally committed and excellent at disciple-making, all the way from someone's entry into the kingdom to his or her maturity in the likeness of Christ.


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