Great Commission or Great Omission?

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.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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5 responses to “Great Commission or Great Omission?

  1. Well written, great insight into the Great Commission –
    Could this possibly lead Pastor’s to neglect their own flock’s care by focusing primarily on the unchurched? How could this affect the new believers?

  2. Dear Curious,
    This is one of the concerns that have been raised by many regarding the intense push to focus solely on the lost. This is by no means to say we should not focus on them, as we most certainly should, but rather, that our focus on them should be consistent with our focus on the continued care of souls and discipleship of present congregational members. The reality is that people continue to be afflicted by this fallen world and their own sinfulness, regardless of how long they have been a Christian, and so need constant spiritual care and continued discipleship. And this is not to mention the regular number of individuals who become inactive members of congregations, of which, there is always a percentage of them that were at one time unchurched, and have now become inactive.

    Thus, I think one of the unfortunate draw backs of utilizing the so-called Great Commission as a mandate for the Church’s mission is that it certainly can facilitate the neglecting of a flock for the sake of the lost. Now, I realize the opposite assertion can also be made, that is, that the lost are neglected on account of caring for the congregation. It is, to be sure, a balancing act. But here is where the centrality of word and sacrament Lutheran Theology can help us to balance what it is the Holy Christian Church is to do, namely, faithfully administer word and sacrament to sinners, who then daily live out their faith in love and service to their neighbor, all in the name of Christ.

    Thanks for the post!

    Rev. Woodford

  3. The “Great Commission” is probably one of the biggest issues that I discuss with my Evangelical friends. I have come to realize that it defines who they are as a Christian and is heavily preached in the Church. I spent 6 months in a Non-Denominational Church and I’ll have to say that there is definitely a lot of pressure to go out and spread the good news. It gets to the point where either one of two things happen. (1) You feel extreme guilt for not “witnessing” enough to fellow Christians (2) or you begin to seem overbearing and not the least bit genuine in your deliverance of Christ and the whole Gospel. In fact I would be willing to argue that a lot of folks who suggest that our main function as a Christian is to tell people about Christ have little understanding of what the Scripture teaches as a whole. After discussing this issue with a friend of mine I decided to read the New Testament with one thing in mind, finding Biblical support for the idea that our main functions, as Christians, is telling people about Christ. I did this because my friend had suggested that “The Great Commission” was all over in the New Testament. I soon discovered that that was false. After reading through the books of the New Testament I didn’t acquire a guilty conscience about this issue because it seems that there isn’t a command for it. But what I did find was Christ at the center of it all. The mission of the Church is to preach Christ and Him crucified and serve the sacraments so that we, as lay people can serve in our daily vocations and be a light in dark places. Now could this potentially involve talking about Christ? Sure. But I certainly wouldn’t harm someone’s conscience by suggesting that they look at themselves and how much they are “witnessing” as their confidence as a Christian.

    Thank you for the post. I’m not sure if what I wrote was the best but its 1:20 AM in Montana and I tried my best.

    -Marcus.

    • Dear Marcus,

      Thanks for your post, especially so late in the night! Others have also shared your experience. Certainly our desire is to share the Good News of Christ, but, as you noted, in the fullness of what the Scripture says it is to be a disciple of Jesus.

      Yours,

      Rev. Woodford

  4. I came across this in my study. I think it speaks well to this issue.

    “Believers have always found their satisfaction in that divine utterance, which our ears heard recited from the Gospel at the moment when that power, which is its attestation, was bestowed upon us [in baptism]: ‘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 all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:19-20). What element in the mystery of man’s salvation is not included in these words? What is forgotten, what left in darkness? All is full, as from the divine fullness; perfect, as from the divine perfection. The passage contains the exact words to be used, the essential acts, the sequence of processes, an insight into the divine nature.

    “He told them to baptize ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ that is with confession of the Creator and of the Only-begotten, and of the gift of the Spirit. For God the Father is one, from whom are all things; and our Lord Jesus Christ the Only-begotten, through whom are all things, is one; and the Spirit, God’s gift to us, who pervades all things, is also one. Thus all are arranged according to powers possessed and benefits conferred; the one power from whom all exist, the one offspring through whom all exist, and the one gift who gives us perfect hope. Nothing can be found lacking in that supreme union that embraces, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, infinity in the eternal, His likeness in His express image, and our enjoyment of Him in the gift.”
    Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 2.1

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