What is the Great Commission?

Great Commission

Yesterday I did a post on John Allen Chau, the missionary killed at the hands of an indigenous tribe on the island of New Sentinel off the coast of India.  You can read it here.

It is hard to gauge exactly how the post was received based on “likes,” retweets, and Facebook comments, but I think its fair to say that about half of the readers (or at least those who responded in some way) liked the piece and half of the readers hated it.  Most of my academic historian friends disagreed (some stronger than others).  Most of my evangelical friends seemed to like it.  This doesn’t surprise me.

I have received comments on almost every point in the post, but I was particularly struck by the criticism of something I wrote under point #1:

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more….

Here is one tweet that is representative of the criticism I received:

Several folks like Mr. Bailey have suggested that I don’t believe in social justice.  Not true.  Anyone who has read this blog or read Believe Me would know that this is not the case.  Here was my response to Mr. Bailey:

So I ask the question again?  What does the Great Commission mean to Christians?  Not just evangelical Christians, but Christians of all stripes?  Here is the passage from Matthew 28:16-20:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore 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 everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

As I noted above in the excerpt from my Chau post, I am specifically curious to hear how Christians interpret the phrases “make disciples” and “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Is the Great Commission just about caring for the sick and feeding the poor?  Or is it something more? What does “baptize” mean here?  And if it does not mean literal water baptism (or baptism with the Holy Spirit?), then how do we distinguish what is a literal exhortation in the Gospels from a symbolic or metaphorical passage? It seems that progressive Christians take the words and message of Jesus very literally when it comes to his comments about the poor, the rich, or the stranger.  I take them literally too.  But is there something I should know about biblical scholarship on Matthew 28 that would lead me to conclude that I should not take literally Jesus’s words about “making disciples” and “baptizing” them in the name of the Trinity?

And if the Great Commission is just related to acts of social justice, then how is Christianity any different than a non-religious group that does these things?

I am not necessarily interested in hearing from conservative evangelicals.  I already know how you are going to answer this question.  I want to hear from progressive Christians (evangelical or mainline Protestant) or Catholics or even Mormons.  What does the Great Commission mean in your understanding of Christian faith?  How do your churches interpret it?

Maybe I need to go to the library and take out a few biblical commentaries.

I apologize in advance to readers who are not interested in this conversation.  Thanks for indulging me as I work out some of these questions in such a public forum.

2 thoughts on “What is the Great Commission?

  1. Hey, John! I don’t think that there will ever be any consensus on this. Nor, perhaps, a totally agreeable hermeneutic to be drawn. It’s important, however, to understand that the imperatives are, like you indicate, on the Make disciples and Baptize. Not, as too many think, on the Go. That being said, an argument can be made that the making of disciples and baptizing occur within the normal relationships that folks develop. Family, work, social, etc. Not in the purposeful disregard of what strangers may think or hold near and dear. If, then, the great commission is not necessarily a mandate to invade others’ space, but rather an invitation to engage others relationally, doesn’t that put a little different color on things? Just thinkin’ out loud.
    Thanx!

    Like

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