18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV).
Over the last number of years, in what might be considered an all out effort to seek and save the lost, denominations, congregations, and pastors alike have rallied behind the mantra of what has come to be known as the Great Commission. As a result, good or bad, many pastors have preached more than one sermon using the Great Commission—the actual text of Matthew 28:18-20, as well as the phrase “Great Commission”—as a sort of divine set of marching orders for the church. In fact, whole denominations have passed official resolutions using the Great Commission as rationale for their directives.
The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod is certainly not exempt in this regard. Consider the emphasis at the 2001 LCMS Synodical Convention where Resolution 2-01 was adopted, which required that a Great Commission final resolve be added to every resolution that remained for consideration: “Resolved, That all action taken in this resolution shall be used to help carry out ‘The Great Commission’ and shall not in any way detract from the primary mission of God’s kingdom here on earth.” A result of this is that many Lutheran congregations, ministries, missions, pastors, and laymen alike are now being evaluated on their faithfulness to the Great Commission—whatever that means.
Some may ask. What’s wrong with that? How bad can it be to have scripture as a guiding principle? After all, isn’t the Great Commission the very words of Jesus?
True, scripture is certainly good, especially verses that focuses on the Gospel. It is, after all, as the Small Catechism says, how the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, and enlightens the whole Christian Church on earth.” However, does using this phrase (The Great Commission) and the corresponding verses (Matthew 28:28-20) actually provide greater clarity for the mission of the church? In other words, does the full message of Jesus Christ—his life, his death, and his resurrection, for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting—remain the central thrust of the church and her mission?
Many aren’t so sure. In fact, there is the concern that the movement to use the Great Commission as a set of marching orders is actually causing the beginnings of a great omission, namely, the omission of the full Gospel message and therefore the true understanding of the mission of the Holy Christian Church. One noted pastor put it this way: “The central focus in preaching is often ‘go and tell,’ while the redemptive work of Christ upon his cross seems to have gone out of focus.” Is this just simple nitpicking? Or are there legitimate dangers to using the Great Commission in this way?
The renowned South African missiologist David Bosch had much to say about this. In his seminal work, Transforming Mission, Bosch gives a clear and profound word of caution to those who might simply lift this verse out of its context as a mere motto or slogan:
“Today scholars agree that the entire gospel points to these final verses: all the threads woven into the fabric of Matthew, from chapter 1 onward, draw together here. All this means that the way the ‘Great Commission’ has traditionally been utilized in providing a biblical basis for mission has to be challenged or at least modified. It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without any reference to the context in which they first appeared. Where this happens, the ‘Great Commission’ is easily degraded to a mere slogan, or used as a pretext for what we in advance decided, perhaps unconsciously, it should mean.”
At a minimum, these words should give us pause to consider the integrity with which this text is used. Even more interesting is that the use of the Great Commission as a proof text for the mission of the church remains a relatively recent phenomenon. It was Baptist missionary William Carey who first used the text this way in a 1792 paper designed to motivate the church to do overseas missions. Prior to this, little exists on the text being used in this way, most notably, in the witness of the New Testament church. Once again, David Bosh is invaluable, this time in an article titled, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20”:
“The first point that strikes the careful reader is that none of the passages which are usually referred to as parallels to the Matthean Great Commission (Lk. 25:45-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8) contains a command to do mission work. As a matter of fact, the Great Commission does not function anywhere in the New Testament. It is never referred to or appealed to by the early church. It is therefore quite clear that the early church did not embark on the mission to Jews and Gentiles simply because it had been told to do so. This would place mission in the context of legalism.
Many in the LCMS would echo this concern, noting that there is the potential to make the Gospel into a new law to obey rather than leaving it as a gift of grace to be proclaimed. Yet, Bosch is not alone. Also recognizing that the Great Commission “does not function anywhere in the New Testament,” noted missiologist, Rolland Allen, in his book Missionary Principles, also makes a thoughtful observation: “Had the Lord not given any such command, had the Scriptures never contained such a form of words…the obligation to preach the Gospel to all nations would not have been diminished by a single iota. For the obligation depends not upon what he orders, but upon what He is, and the Spirit of Christ is the Spirit of Divine love and compassion and desire for souls astray from God.” It becomes readily apparent, then, that the Great Commission was not used as a directive for the early church or even for subsequent centuries of church history.
This can also be observed in the Lutheran Confessions (Book of Concord). To be sure, the biblical text is certainly referenced, but not as the sole means to establish the mission of the church. The emphasis placed on this text within the body of the confessions surrounds two general issues: the “authority” that has been given to the resurrected Christ, and Christ’s instruction on “baptism.” Thus, in short, the confessions take the Scriptures as a whole. The Great Commission does not separately or formally have a part of defining the work and mission of the church apart from the greater context of the scriptures in which it occurs.
Thus, given all the above, is it healthy or wise for our church body to continue using the Great Commission as a slogan for her mission? The depth of our Lutheran theology would suggest this as inadvisable. Yet, given that so many congregations, pastors, and even our Synod-in-convention, have adopted this practice in various ways, what would be the best course of action?
As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully, honestly, and collegially, talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.
NOTE: This post is an extensively shortened and revised version of a chapter from my doctoral dissertation.