Monday, August 25, 2008

Great Confusion or Great Commission?

Words mean things. As Christians, we are to be inherent truth-tellers so our words may to be “as apples of gold in settings of silver.” Our words are to bring clarity and truth to a world jaded with more gray than a battleship. More often than not, in our Post-Modern culture words are used to obfuscate and muddle as opposed to clarify and enlighten. People even write books on the “art” of “wordsmithing!” Frank Luntz, the TV pollster has just written a book called Words That Work – It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, a totally pragmatic documentation of how politicians, corporations and every day people choose “buzz words” that send conscious and unconscious signals to others as they try to “reflect” the “felt needs” of their communicants. Do Americans not only no longer mind being manipulated by others, do they actually long for it? Sadly, many do.

Word obfuscation is alive and well in the churches of Christ as well. Many among of us today no longer use the words “mission” or “missionary.” Instead we hear the word “missional,” a new word, so new my instant spell check program has it underlined in red! We will explore the “missional” philosophy shortly for nothing more makes greater confusion of the Great Commission than do things “missional.” First, we must explore some background.

One prominent area of recent confusion is the meaning of our purpose in life as Christians. Instead of turning to God’s Word for our purpose in life, we’ve been driven to Rick Warren and his evangelical and Emergent (mis)teachings. Until recent years we understood with clarity the Great Commission. Brethren wrote many books about the subject such as Go Ye Means Go Me by Ivan Stewart. We were clear because Jesus was clear! Jesus understood His mission and purpose with laser beam precision.

• “I have come to seek and save that which is lost.”
• “For this reason have I come into the world, to preach the gospel to the poor.”
• “I am the way, the truth and the light, no man comes to the Father but by me.”
• “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”
• “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, he who does not believe shall be damned.”

Not only was Jesus clear on His mission, He was clear on the mission of each and every follower until the end of time, including you and me. Let’s listen again to what was once crystal clear in our minds:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.” – Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

The Great Commission has three distinct and separate components that must be fused and connected to fulfill the Will of God, what we might describe as a holistic approach. Our Lord modeled this for us. He “went about doing good,” ministering to the physical needs of the people while showing them the “way to the Father,” all the while preparing them for their own ministries for post-resurrection times. We, therefore, as He says must disciple, baptize and teach. Our Lord cited these components in precise order. Not only that, He gave each component equal significance. The Word tells us that we must have all three components, we must have them in correct order and we must give all three our total attention. Should humans elevate one component over another, leave one or more out or rearrange the correct order, error and it’s predictable consequences, are the sad result. Regretfully, during the past few years some have elevated, ignored and rearranged these aspects of our lives mission and purpose, all to our great detriment. The Great Commission is fulfilled ONLY when we understand that all three components are absolutely essential, absolutely equal in gravity and are rendered in absolute order without addition or subtraction. Since World War II, three variances causing great confusion to the Great Commission are identifiable. Two are past us for the most part though the third…and by far the most devastating… is upon us like a tsunami.

The oldest variance among us regarding the Great Commission that caused great confusion is the practice of some to require a working knowledge of nearly every aspect of dispensational detail, Christian living and the full range of Patristic, Apostate, Reformation and Restoration history as prerequisites for repentance, confession and baptism. When we implement the “teach all things commanded” component prior to baptism, we literally change the Word of God. Though well intentioned, this practice established a de facto vetting system unknown during the 1st century. “And now, why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” - Acts 22:16 (KJV) Here’s how the Great Commission compares to this variance:

Jesus: Disciple, Baptize, Teach All Things
Variance: Disciple, Teach All Things, Baptize

Changing the divine order of the Great Commission becomes downright Thomistic and causes great confusion. Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century that we come to God not by faith but by reason, specifically our senses, which includes, according to Aquinas, “imagination.” On another level, misplacing “teaching all things” prior to baptism requires the pre-convert to “prepare” him or her self for baptism, in some ways like the Romanesque catechism. This process might take some time and becomes very subjective because of 3rd party human supervision. The Ethiopian eunuch didn’t have to take an eight week course!

See, here is water! What hinders me from being baptized? Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and he baptized him. – Acts 8:36b-38 (NKJV)

The immediacy of baptism after repentance and confession, as revealed in the New Testament, has been set aside for the sake of human reasoning by some among us. Thankfully, we are seeing less and less of this variance as time goes on. The “teaching of all things commanded” is a post-baptism activity. To “teach all things commanded” prior to baptism makes great confusion of the Great Commission.

Another variance that caused great confusion regarding the Great Commission is one not seen often but was apparently widely accepted in overseas mission points in years past. I have personal experience here. During my college years I was part of a short term mission trip to a third world country. In those years, this particular country was the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. The people and the times were desperate. Though the need for all kinds of physical ministry (“making disciples”) was clearly present, we were strongly cautioned against rendering any kindness to those with whom we shared the gospel. The reasoning (thanks, again, Thomas Aquinas) was that if we rendered kindnesses to the people they would become Christians for the “wrong reasons.” In a similar vein, we often used to wring our hands trying to “reason” as to who is and who is not among the “deserving poor” when we rendered benevolence. Again, here is how the Great Commission compares to this variance:

Jesus: Disciple, Baptize, Teach All Things
Variance: ______, Baptize, Teach All Things

The pragmatic reasoning of this approach is clearly wrong on a number of levels. This approach amounts to little more than pre-screening of candidates for repentance, confession and baptism. Worst of all, the “disciple” component is essentially abandoned. So doing would nullify the Great Commandment; “Love the Lord thy God with all your heart mind and soul while loving your neighbor as yourself.” Paul make this principle very clear to us. “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” - I Cor. 13:3 (NKJV) Paul taught the Corinthians that the pursuit of lesser spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues, was a waste of time compared to the greatest spiritual gift of all….LOVE. Agape love for our neighbor is the KEY ingredient of “making disciples.” Leaving it out makes a mockery of the gospel (the death, burial and resurrection of Christ – I Cor. 15:1-5) and turns the saving grace of God to little more than just another religious system. Leaving the “making disciples” component out of the Great Commission causes great confusion. Thankfully, we hear little of this variant view today.

As mentioned, the prior two variances seem to have very few adherents today among us rendering their effect insignificant. Not so with the third variance. The third variance, at best, robs new Christians of the “sincere milk of the Word. (I Peter 2:2) At worst, it “turns the truth into fables.” (II Timothy 4:4) This third and final variance deletes the 3rd component of the Great Commission and causes the greatest confusion of all! Wanting to cling only to the so-called “core gospel,” many well meaning Christians among us focus almost entirely upon “making disciples.” At the culmination of the “mission,” they baptize those who have been ministered to. They then celebrate and then leave for the next “mission.” This is how this most deadly of the three variances compares with the Great Commission rendering the greatest confusion of all:

Jesus: Disciple, Baptize, Teach All Things
Variance: Disciple, Baptize, _____________

Making disciples, baptizing and then leaving to “help” someone else is what is called today “missional.” “Missional” sounds like “mission” and “missionary” but is entirely different for “missional” focuses on the “here and now” and gives little or no attention to the “here after.” Contrasting the “missional” Emergent church of the 21st century with the Great Commission of the 1st century, we find a complete contradiction. “Missional” is 180 degrees opposite of the focus of Jesus Christ who “came to seek and save that which was lost.” “Missional” would say that we should “seek and render assistance with 3rd party resources those who are impoverished.” The tail wags the dog and the means become the ends. “MIssional” theories abound in the church of Christ today primarily because of the influence of one man, Brian McLaren. McLaren is not even a Christian in the New Testament sense of the term and yet has expanding influence among some in the church of Christ to the extent that he is slated to be a headline speaker at Abilene Christian University’s “Summit Lectureship” in September, 2008! Even more sobering is McLaren’s close alliance with the agnostic and activist San Francisco cleric, Alan Jones. Here’s how McLaren defines “missional:”

"But my mission isn’t to figure out who is already blessed (saved-RM), or not blessed, or un-blessable. My calling is to be blessed so I can bless everyone. I’m going to Los Angeles!" [In lieu of heaven – RM]

"Recently I received an e-mail saying, “I heard a rumor that you’re a universalist. Is that true?” Since I don’t offer my exclusivist (those who believe that some people will go to heaven but most will not-RM) friends their expected answer to “the hell question,” I can see why this rumor would spread. Rumors like this make me want to be an exclusivist who believes that only universalists go to heaven – after all, they have the highest opinion possible about the efficacy and scope of the saving work of Jesus! Or else I could be an inclusivist (universalist – RM) who believes that all but exclusivists are going to heaven. But no, that’s ridiculous. Anyway, I’m going to Los Angeles. The old universalism pronounces that the Good News was efficacious for all individual sold AFTER (emphasis Brian McLaren) death, in heaven, beyond history. Inclusivism says the gospel is efficacious for many, and exclusivists say for a comparative few. But I’m more interested in a gospel that is universally efficacious for the whole earth BEFORE (emphasis Brian McLaren) death in history."

Those who would deny the essentiality of the “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” component of the Great Commission add great confusion among those who long to hear and obey the Word of God. When the teaching of the “whole counsel of God” is neglected, apostasy and spiritual decay soon become normative.

In conclusion, we repeat our premise, The Word tells us that we must have all three components of the Great Commission, we must have them in correct order and we must give all three our total attention. Should humans elevate one component over another, leave one or more out or rearrange the correct order, error and it’s predictable consequences, are the sad result of great confusion.

Though many are staying into the error of failing to “teach all things commanded,” many still faithfully fulfill the Great Commission. For example, each year for the last several years, the Archdale church of Christ has sent anywhere from 5 to 22 people to Honduras on short term missions. Working with a brotherhood organization called T.O.R.C.H. Missions, many have been blessed by the results of fulfilling the Great Commission in its entirety! When present in Honduras, our people “make disciples” by building homes for the poor, visiting the dying at the hospital, distributing clothes to orphans, giving food to the starving and rendering medical and dental care to the desperate. While these activities are going on, other team members preach and hold Bible studies for the adults while still others keep the children occupied with a Vacation Bible School. Our group joins several others to form a team of about 70 people and there normally is about 1 baptism for every person on the team, thus fulfilling the “baptize” portion of the Great Commission. Finally, upon a persons conversion, they become part of a living and active congregation of the Lord’s people who have a full time preacher trained by the stalwart Baxter Institute of Tegucigalpa, fulfilling the “teach all that I have commanded you” portion of the Great Commission. Part of the holistic Great Commission implementation is a dedication to proactively build church buildings AND obtain a commitment from a Baxter graduate to work full time in ministry BEFORE a campaign goes into a certain village or neighborhood. As a result of faithfully adhering to the Great Commission, there is no great confusion in the church of Christ in Honduras! Praise God form whom all blessings flow!