The Great Commission and YOU

I'm writing this article on the Great Commission at a health missions conference in Louisville, KY. It may be the best thing I've ever been to as a Christian ... or not.

Spiritual Cinema Circle

I have to cover two things, and I don't know which to do first; so, if you're going to skim this please skim the first paragraph of both sections, don't only skim one of them. There's a link so you can jump straight to the second one without scrolling.

  • Why I Object to Applying the Great Commission to All Christians
  • Why and How Christians Should "Go Everywhere Preaching the Word" (Jump straight there)

Why I Object to Applying the Great Commission to All Christians

Dr. Chuck and the Best Sermon I Ever Heard

Seven of us have come to this medical missions conference, where over a thousand people have gathered at the biggest church building I've ever been in. The topic is central to the Great Commission: reaching the world with the message of Christ and using health services to open the door. Thursday night was the first group session.

We had no idea what we'd be facing in this long preaching session. As it turned out we were absolutely captivated, inspired, and longing to know how we could do more.

Dr. Chuck (I'm leaving out his whole name on purpose) is leading Muslims to Christ—fulfilling the Great Commission—in Muslim countries with the blessing of Muslim governments!

Obviously, that's the power of God, but because he's got a strategy, we were filled with hope that we might be able to do the same. (He gives that strategy away in his book, Preach and Heal.)

We were—no, are—pumped! This conference walks! (Borrowed that pun from Chuck.)

Oh, Yeah; The Great Commission

The Great Commission

For those of you that don't know what the Great Commission is, it's Matthew 28:19-20:

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.

Mark 16:15-16 has somewhat similar wording.

Chuck really emphasized the Great Commission. He argued that it applied to all Christians.

I disagree. In the end, I believe he does, too.

The most amazing thing about Chuck's sermon was his use of Luke 14:26-33. No one preaches on Luke 14:26-33. You just don't do that in American Christianity, which Chuck referred to as American Churchianity. Or if you do preach on it, you explain why it doesn't apply or doesn't mean what it says. You certainly don't do what Chuck did and tell people what Jesus told them: that you can't be his disciple unless you do what's in those verses.

"Christian"

Here's the quick gist of what he said: You can't ask the question, "What is a Christian?" "Christian" is used only three times in the Bible, and never by Christians. So it's an undefined word Biblically. The word most use of Christ's followers is "disciple," and it's defined. It's defined in a lot of places, but one of the clearest is Luke 14:26-33.

Chuck used a very accurate early church definition of giving up all your possessions (Luke 14:33), by the way. They understood it to mean calling nothing your own (see sidebar), not actually giving away everthing so that you're naked and without possessions. All your possessions must be turned over to Christ and available for the use of his Gospel, his people, and the poor.

Anyway, he said that before a person tries to go to the mission field, he must be a disciple. He must fulfill the criteria found in Luke 14:26-33, as well as all the other criteria given in the Bible.

Giving Up Everything

The Early Church talked about this repeatedly.

  • It's in a tract called "The Way of Light and the Way of Darkness" that made its way into The Letter of Barnabas and The Didache, both early 2nd century documents: "You shall share in all things with your neighbor; you shall not call anything your own."
  • Justin Martyr's First Apology 14, c. 155: "We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common treasury and share with everyone in need."
  • Tertullian's Apology 39, c. 210: "The family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly possessions with one another. We have all things in common except our wives."

Then he said that the Great Commission applies to all Christians.

Why the Great Commission Doesn't Apply to All Christians.

First, you have no business going out until you're ready and you're sent out. The Scriptures say, "How shall they preach except they be sent" (Rom. 10:15).

Chuck agreed with this when he said that Luke 14:26-33 must be met before going to the mission field. He doesn't want to send just anyone. He wants only to send qualified people.

I listened to the leader of his home church speak at this conference as well. The leader of his home church, Rick Donlon, would surely agree with Chuck that the Great Commission applies to all Christians. However, he taught at this conference that the number one thing a church should do to ensure that a missionary is effective in the field is to have a good screening process. Don't let just any Christian through!

Chuck and Rick don't want all Christians to obey the Great Commission. They want some of them to stay, not go!

Now, of course, I know they would argue that those Christians should be being discipled so that they can qualify to fulfill the Great Commission. But let me just establish that, for now, all of us agree that not all Christians should "go into all the world."

The Great Commission and the Apostles

The apostles, of course, did go into all the world. They were there when the Great Commission was spoken, so we all agree that they were supposed to go into all the world. But what about everyone else?

To me, Paul answered that clearly when he said, "How shall they preach except they be sent?" (Rom. 10:15). He held to that himself, and he did not go until he was sent (Acts 13:1-4).

To this the other apostles give silent assent by never writing any commands to the church to evangelize except by example. There are no verses commanding the church in general to evangelize anyone, except by example!

Did you know that?

The apostles did not pass on the Great Commission to the church; not a single command to "go" anywhere.

Peter does tell Christians to answer if they are asked about the hope in them (1 Pet. 3:15). If we obeyed what the apostles said to the church, then likely that would happen to us, and often. In fact, I know it would because the members of the church here get asked a lot about the hope that is in them.

The apostles also regularly command (and commend) the church to be a good testimony (e.g., Matt: 5:13-16; Col. 4:5-6; 1 Thess. 1:7-8; 4:11-12; 1 Pet. 3:16).

But they never exhort anyone to evangelize.

The Great Commission and the Early Church

There's an interesting passage in Justin's First Apology, written in A.D. 155 or so. In his Apology Justin mentions some ways that Romans have been converted to Christ. Note the three examples he gives (from ch. 16):

[They were] overcome …

  1. "by the constancy which they have witnessed in their neighbors' lives."
  2. "by the extraordinary forbearance they have observed in their fellow travelers when defrauded."
  3. "by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted business."

None of these things mention preaching or the Great Commission at all. Apparently, the majority of those converted in the 2nd century were converted by the lives of the Christians, not by preaching.

Don't get me wrong. Preaching happened. One of my favorite early Christian writers is Ireaneus, who left his home in Smyrna, in modern day Turkey, to preach to Celtic tribes in Gaul, near what is now Trier, Germany. That's a very, very long trip without a car or train. He started several churches there.

But that's the point. The point of preaching is to start churches. Once a church is started, you do not exhort the church to preach.

The apostles and those they trained didn't!

We saw already what the apostles exhorted. What did their trainees exhort?

Pray without ceasing on behalf of other men, for there is in them hope of repentance that they may attain to God. See, then, that they be instructed by your works, if in no other way. Be meek in response to their wrath, humble in opposition to their boasting: to their blasphemies return your prayers; in contrast to their error, be steadfast in the faith; and for their cruelty, manifest your gentleness. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 10, c. A.D. 110)
He has exhorted us to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame and the love of evil. … If we persuade even a few, our gain will be very great; for, as good husbandmen, we shall receive the reward from the Master. (Justin, First Apology 16, 44)

Protestants Emphasize Evangelism Because They've Forgotten the Church

Protestants, in throwing out Roman Catholic authority, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Just because the Roman Catholic Church is not the pillar and support of the truth does not mean that the local church is not the pillar and support of the truth.

It's the Bible that says the church is the pillar and support of the truth! (1 Tim. 3:15).

Protestants have problems believing that. Part of the reason is because they don't experience it. Their churches are divided, and it's a normal state of affairs for them.

Many or most of their members are nominal, lacking any deep commitment to Christ. It's common for Protestants to teach people to believe in Christ without obeying him. As a result, their churches are full of people who are not disciples, most of whom have never even heard of Luke 14:26-33, much less actually agreed to it.

Are the things I'm saying about Protestants true?

Therefore Protestant churches have very little light.

They sing, "This little light of mine," because they don't understand this immense light of ours.

Jesus said that when the church is together, their light is like a city set on a hill that can't be hidden (Matt. 5:13-16). Matthew 5 is not about the little light of the individual Christian; it's about the world-invading light of the city of God.

Read sometime what the Bible says will happen when God's people arise and shine (Is. 60:1ff). When that happens, you won't have to go get the lost, they will come to your door. That's what the Bible says!

Paul tried that. He raised up churches and taught them to obey Christ and be together (Php. 1:27-2:4). He even taught them to serve one another first before serving the world (Gal. 6:10).

Then he neglected to tell them to evangelize or pass on the Great Commission. In fact, he told them to mind their own business in order to win the world (1 Thess. 4:11-12).

The result was that where they did that, Paul didn't need to preach (1 Thess. 1:7-8).

Why and How Christians Should "Go Everywhere Preaching the Word"

I don't believe that the Great Commission is for all Christians. I believe it was just for the apostles. I believe that Christians should only go if they're called to go.

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
This is me in Ethiopia.

footpath in Ethiopia

I further believe that exhorting the church to evangelize is not a good thing. I believe it's a bad thing that yields bad results.

Nonetheless, I have been to Myanmar, India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Scotland, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and numerous American states preaching the Gospel of Christ to the best of my ability. We have a team in Africa right now.

Why?

For the same reason that those "scattered abroad" from Jerusalem "went everywhere preaching the Word."

A disciple can't help it!

Disciples and the Word of God

Disciples are made by the Word of God. Jesus said that disciples live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).

One of the more fascinating facts about the book of Acts is that whenever the disciples multiplied, the Word of God grew and multiplied, too. That didn't have anything to do with more books of Scripture being written. Disciples are intimately tied to the Word of God, and the more of them there are, the more Word of God there is.

Did you know about these verses?

  • The Word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly. (Acts 6:7)
  • The Word of God grew and multiplied (Acts 12:24)
  • The Word of God grew mightily and prevailed (Acts 19:20)

The Word of God is capable of spreading, growing, and increasing. It does this as the number of disciples multiply or as they become more full of the Word of God, which grows in them like a seed planted in good soil (Jam. 1:18-22; 1 Pet. 1:23-2:2).

A disciple lives and grows by the Word of God, which can grow inside of him. That being true, what will come out of a disciple's mouth but the Word of God?

Why You Do NOT Want to Exhort Disciples to Evangelize

If you have to exhort a disciple to evangelize or fulfill the Great Commission, then what you will get out of him is not the Word of God.

If the Word of God were inside of him, you wouldn't have to exhort him to evangelize. Everywhere he went he would preach the Word, by action or word, because that's what's in him. And if the Word of God is in someone, it will be growing, expanding, and working its way out of him wherever he goes.

That's why the first major formation of churches was not accomplished by sent preachers, nor even by apostles. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem while the others spread everywhere (Acts 8:1).

There's no indication the apostles exhorted them to preach, but the Word of God is the Word of God. It is alive, and it's powerful. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and where he's taken up residence, he will do what he's always done: change the lives of those around him.

We need to make disciples, not evangelists. The Word himself will make evangelists. It's our job to make disciples.

Conclusion: The Great Commission and the Church

I spent some time debating this whole issue with a commenter on my blog. He wasn't bad at coming up with arguments, but to me the issue is completely settled by three things:

  1. The apostles didn't exhort Christians to evangelize or obey the Great Commission
  2. The early churches exhorted Christians to evangelize by their lives, not by preaching.
  3. Exhortations to evangelism produce far more backsliders than real converts.

Anyone who's ever done evangelism knows this is true. The person debating me on my blog knows it's true. His buddies preach every day, and they can show almost no fruit for their daily preaching. They certainly can't show any fellowship as a result—not one person. After years of preaching and evangelism, they're alone.

I have done door to door and street evangelism for years. I saw many converts, two of which continued with Christ. The rest fell away pretty much immediately. Almost everyone who does evangelism gets the same results. Ray Comfort has written a book giving the horrid results of even great evangelists like Billy Graham and Luis Palau. He has a suggested solution, but Ray's solution doesn't work either.

The church works. It works because it's God's plan and purpose (Eph. 1:9-10). Those converted by the church last because they are joined to the church. John 15 isn't about some spiritual, mental "abiding." It's talking about a good, real, earthly, living, concrete attachment to the body of Christ on earth.

Practical—if Frightening—Steps

Protestants need to give up their division. Not only will denominations keep you out of heaven (Gal. 5:19-21), but they stop evangelism because the most powerful method of reaching the world is the united testimony of the church (Is. 60:1ff; Matt. 5:13-16; 1 Thess. 1:6-8; Jn. 17:20-23).

We further need to make disciples, not Christians who've never heard of what it means to be a disciple. Churches are made up of disciples. The most effective weapon the devil has ever had against the church is filling it with non-disciples, so that the sheep of Christ are separated from one another by having their sheepfolds—the churches—crowded with goats and wolves. (See my booklet, How to Make a Church Fail)

It should be self-evident that this is a huge problem, but we have our own ways that we don't like to give up.

God's ways are too costly. There'd be a lot of upheaval in the churches. A lot of pastors would lose their salaries as most of their goat and wolf members left. Christians would lose much of their wealth, first to their needy brothers and sisters and then to the needy in the world.

Apparently, that cost is too high to pay or God can't find people to lead the charge. May you be the answer.

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