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.

The Author’s Corner with Linford D. Fisher

Linford D. Fisher is Assistant Professor of History at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This interview is based on his book Decoding Roger Williams: The Lost Essay of Rhode Island’s Founding Father (Baylor University Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF:In some ways, Decoding Roger Williams came to me, not I to it. In 2011, an interdisciplinary group of undergraduates at Brown caught wind of a mysterious book at the John Carter Brown Library (JCB), the margins of which contained undecipherable coded writing, purportedly by Roger Williams, the seventeenth-century religious dissident and founder of Rhode Island. The then-director of the JCB, Ted Widmer, invited the students to tackle the project by forming a group independent study project. Although I had to decline a formal supervisory role, I gave input into the early phases of the project and kept tabs along the way. Like everyone else, I was a bit skeptical that these undergrads could do what computers, professors, antiquarians, and linguists had failed to do previously, namely, crack the code.

You can imagine our surprise, then, when, in early 2012, the team began making real headway on deciphering the writing by a combination of statistical analyses and good old fashioned historical legwork. What they learned is that the marginal shorthand in the “mystery book” actually contained three separate sections of writing. The first section was comprised of notes on a popular seventeenth century travel book by Peter Heylyn. The third section contained notes from an early modern medical textbook. But the middle (second) section! This was the exciting part. As they began the slow process of translation/deciphering, they realized they had stumbled on a brand new essay by Roger Williams on the topic of adult baptism, one that had never been published nor even seen (or at least understood) by anyone else. 

In this new essay (dated c. 1680), Williams responds to a 1679 pro-infant baptism essay by John Eliot, the minister in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and missionary to Native Americans. Eliot, in turn, was responding to a 1672 anti-infant baptism essay written by John Norcott, a Baptist minister in London, England. In this new essay, Williams defends adult baptism and spends a whole page critiquing John Eliot’s evangelization program.

In September of 2012, one of the primary code-breakers, a mathematics concentrator named Lucas Mason-Brown, and I decided that the team’s findings deserved a wider audience. We began working together on a fuller reconstruction of the essay, with the eye towards both an academic article and a full book. Happily, we were successful on both counts. In April 2014, a co-authored essay appeared in the William and Mary Quarterly on just the Indian conversion section of Williams’ essay. And the book—which contains a lengthy introductory essay, the reconstructed Williams essay, and annotated transcriptions of the Norcott and Eliot essays—was picked up by Baylor University Press, and is due out August 1. For the book, we were also pleased to collaborate with J. Stanley Lemons, a retired Rhode Island College professor and knower of all things Baptist and Rhode Island.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: Roger Williams retained throughout his life a strong belief in the importance of adult baptism (versus infant baptism). He also remained surprisingly critical of the widely-publicized attempts to evangelize Native Americans, especially with regard to the program under John Eliot in Massachusetts.

JF: Why do we need to read Decoding Roger Williams?

LDF: It is rare to find a new essay on an important colonial leader. Williams has long been an enigmatic figure, and this new essay helps make sense of 
him a bit more on at least two important issues (baptism and Indian evangelization). I also think Roger Williams is one of the most underappreciated colonial leaders. He was a little rough around the edges, yes, but he had a radical vision for church-state separation and full religious liberty (in both belief and practice) that was fully implemented in Rhode Island for the first time in the western world. In a day and age when religious intolerance repeatedly rears its ugly head in the US and abroad, Williams is refreshingly clear about how to handle religious differences: by persuasion, not coercion, suppression, or persecution.


We’ve also written the book in a way that takes the reader through the process of decoding the shorthand, so it is a neat window into early modern shorthand and cryptography. It’s not quite Da Vinci Code material, but it’s still fascinating. And for those who are interested in seventeenth century debates over baptism, the annotated transcriptions of the essays by Norcott and Eliot will be insightful. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LDF: I came to the field of history more generally through philosophy and theology as an undergrad. There was something about the study of the past that made me realize that nothing, really, is actually that new in terms of human experience, particularly with regard to religious debates. The past is interesting in its own right, of course, and yet it is also an incredible storehouse of human wisdom and experience, almost a crowdsourcing of the human condition. In my master’s program, I was initially more interested in the early modern period, particularly the era of the Protestant Reformation, but then I delved in more deeply into late nineteenth century American social reform in my master’s thesis. By the end of my first semester in my doctoral program at Harvard, however, I was hooked on early American history. I landed on Native American history for my dissertation topic because it seemed to me to be the underside of a colonial process that I thought deserved deeper investigation (published as The Indian Great Awakening in 2012). I still retain an interest in the wider early modern world, however, since I think most of American history is incomprehensible without a rich understanding of European history.

JF: What is your next project?

LDF: I am currently working on my next book, which is on Indian and African slavery in colonial New England and a few select English Caribbean colonies (Bermuda, Barbados, and Jamaica). Tentatively titled Land of the Unfree: Indians, Africans, and the World of Colonial Slavery (under contract with Oxford University Press), this book will explore the differences and similarities between the enslavement of indigenous peoples in North America and the Caribbean and the better-known rise of African slavery. The best part about the project so far is the requisite archival trips to the Caribbean. The worst part is the deeply disturbing and depressing nature of early modern slavery. But these stories need to be told.  

Thanks, Linford.  This is great stuff.  

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author’s Corner.