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THE GREAT OMISSION
Searching for Ecclesiology in Contemporary Missiology
by Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne

When it comes to the Great Commission, Christian churches and missionary agencies are looking for better methods. God, however, is looking for better churches. Because churches are God’s method. [1]

Regrettably, many seem to have developed biblical amnesia concerning God’s appointed method and means for missions: namely, the going forth of ordained missionary-pastors for the express purpose of establishing (and strengthening) biblical churches through the proclamation of Christ’s efficacious Word, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the making of mature disciples through comprehensive biblical instruction. [2]

Instead, the growing trend has been for churches (and agencies) to send out laypeople to be engaged in all manner of activity such as leadership training, art shows, economic reform, coffee houses, medical clinics, education, and sports. But do these things really constitute biblical missions? While not questioning the good intentions of those who give their lives to such endeavors, often with great sacrifice, it still must be asked: Do these activities fall under the Great Commission or the Great Commandment? In other words, should these kinds of activities be viewed as fulfilling our Lord’s parting words in Matthew 28:18-20, or should they more accurately be seen as a response to the Lord’s command to “love thy neighbor?” [3]

Perhaps in our zeal to share the love of Christ with the nations we have unwittingly blurred important biblical distinctions, thus fostering confusion regarding the true nature and goal of the Great Commission. Can we really say that the Church is fulfilling Christ’s pre-ascension mandate when our “missionaries” are not exercising the means of grace for the planting and watering of biblical churches? Are missiology and ecclesiology married in Scripture, or merely casual acquaintances? How is the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ building his Church throughout the world? Has he ordained a particular strategy for the gathering and nurturing of the elect from among the nations, or are we encouraged to create our own? I believe the answers to these questions will help our churches to be more biblical and faithful when it comes to the missionary mandate.

A Convoluted Recipe for Missions

While living in Edinburgh, Scotland, my wife and I became soup connoisseurs. Partially due to the dreary, bone-chilling weather, a bowl of soup (and a cup of hot tea) was a common part of the cuisine. Traditional Scottish soups such as Cock-a-Leekie (chicken, prunes, leeks), Cullen Skink (smoked Haddock, potatoes, milk) and Carrot & Coriander became some of our favorites. These traditional soups, however, would no longer be favorites if seventy-five ingredients were added to them. In the modern missionary movement, the simple, straightforward recipe found in the Great Commission has turned into a vast soup of endless, and frequently surprising, ingredients. For many there seems to be no standard, traditional recipe for missions. If there is a standard recipe - or definition - it is often so broad as to include everything from community development to pilates classes.

In the opening chapter of his classic and influential work entitled Christian Mission in the Modern World, John Stott describes the Great Commission as a combination of evangelism and social action. He confesses that he formerly adhered to a more traditional view of missions which “concentrated on verbal proclamation.” [4] He has since, however, grown to “see more clearly that not only the consequences of the Commission but the actual Commission itself must be understood to include social as well as evangelistic responsibility, unless we are to be guilty of distorting the words of Jesus.” [5]

Stott continues by asserting that the “most costly” form of the Great Commission is actually set forth in John’s gospel, not Matthew’s. He points to the High Priestly Prayer where Jesus states, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) In addition, Stott points out Jesus’ post-resurrection words, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” (John 20:21)

With reference to these two verses, Stott parallels Christ’s mission with our own. Jesus, according to Stott, is our model for missions. “Therefore,” he says, “our understanding of the church’s mission must be deduced from our understanding of the Son’s.” [6] He rightly qualifies this idea by stating, “of course the major purpose of the Son’s coming into the world was unique ... for the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world, and to that end to atone for our sins and to bring us eternal life.” [7] Indeed, Stott is correct in underscoring that Christians cannot imitate Christ’s mission to redeem sinners. Nevertheless, he believes that we can, and should, imitate our Lord’s mission insofar as it pertains to service. Service to our fellow man, therefore, becomes for Stott an integral part of the Great Commission. [8] Tim Keller, arguably one of the biggest influences on modern missions, follows Stott’s line of thinking when he writes:

“Exactly what did Christ commission his church to do, under the government of her officers? Most people turn to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 which seems to put all the emphasis on preaching and making disciples. However, Jesus not only commissioned his disciples on the mountain. John tells us that in the Upper Room, after his resurrection, Jesus also commissioned his disciples saying, ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (John 20:21; cf. 17:18).” [9]

Keller goes on to state:

“This is surely a more comprehensive statement than Matthew 28:19-20. As we have seen above, Jesus was ‘powerful in word and deed’ (Luke 24:19). He preached the good news of the kingdom, but he also healed the sick, comforted the afflicted, and raised the dead. We have seen that we do not expect ordinarily to follow Christ in a miraculous deed ministry, but we also are to go ‘into the world’ with both words and deeds.”

In their quest to make Christ-like service an essential ingredient of the Great Commission, and not a consequential fruit of it, Stott and Keller fail to mention Christ’s declaration that the specific “purpose” for which he “was sent” by his heavenly Father was to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God” in all places. (see Luke:4:42-44) Even as the crowds were lining up at Peter’s door, presumably to receive the kind of healing and demon expulsion that occurred the night before, Jesus did not go to them. [10] Rather, he expressed to Peter that he must go to the next towns to preach the Word, “for I was sent for this purpose.” (v.43) We must also remember that Christ’s miracles of healing were not a pattern for future, ongoing ministry. Rather, they served to testify of Christ’s true status as God’s Messiah. They would also provide us with a marvelous glimpse of the coming kingdom of God where sickness, demon possession, sin and death would be no more. Christ’s miracles demonstrate, in part, what will happen, in full, at our Lord’s second coming. They are not meant, therefore, to be understood as a part of the Great Commission. Social action is the Great Addition to the Great Commission, thus confusing our Lord’s specific mandate in Matthew 28:18-20.

The purpose of Christ to “preach the good news of the kingdom” in all places was clearly passed along to the disciples - and all future ministers - in the Great Commission. (Luke 4:42-44; Mark 1:15; 35-39; Romans 10:14-17; II Timothy 4:1-5) Indeed, it would be through the proclamation of the Word, not social action, that Christ would advance his kingdom throughout the nations. The authoritative, powerful and efficacious Word of Christ is sufficient to build his church, and it will “increase and prevail mightily” in the lives of his elect. (Acts 19:20; c.f. Isaiah 55:10-11; Ezekiel 37:1-10; Acts 2:42)

Stott concludes his chapter by stating:

“If we can accept this broader concept of mission as Christian service in the world comprising both evangelism and social action - a concept which is laid upon us by the model of our Savior’s mission in the world - then Christians could under God make a far greater impact on society, an impact commensurate with our numerical strength and with the radical demands of the commission of Christ.” [11]

Stott’s burden to see Christians love their neighbors through good deeds, whether next door or across the world, is a commendable one. Even so, his “broader concept of mission” blurs important biblical distinctions and adds countless ingredients to a divine recipe for missions that is meant to be easy to remember, even if difficult to execute.

Christian missions, properly understood, therefore, is the establishing and strengthening of visible, biblical churches by Christ’s ordained ambassadors through Christ’s appointed means. Those divinely chosen means are the Word, sacraments and prayer, “all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.” [12]

Befriending people at the local pub in Ireland, feeding a homeless person in the Bronx, and building a new hospital or school in Africa are all honorable tasks, even when done by unbelievers. And when done by Christians these pursuits may serve as a kind of platform for evangelism. Even so, they should not be viewed as fulfilling the Great Commission, but rather, as fulfilling the commandment to “love God and your neighbor.” To be sure, loving your neighbor by sharing the gospel with him in the cul-de-sac may be viewed, in a sense, as a wider application of our Lord’s Commission, especially when the goal is church membership through conversion, baptism, and lifelong discipleship. Nevertheless, we should not allow this wider, less central application to marginalize or diminish the primary one.

Under Stott’s view the Great Commission and the Great Commandment eventually collapse into one. This is arguably what has happened in many of our churches, denominations and missionary agencies where social action and mercy ministry have overshadowed the ministry of Word and sacrament. Over time this causes evangelicals to look alarmingly similar to mainline liberals in their response to the Great Commission, that is, placing deed ministry on the same level with (or, as in many cases, above) the ministry of the Word.

When we negotiate the Great Commission, adding our good works or service to the equation, the gospel too easily becomes what we do for others rather than an announcement of what Christ has done for us. We are not the gospel, no matter how many good works we may do before a watching world. Therefore, carefully heeding the Great Commission for the advancement of his kingdom, we must pay closer attention to the unambiguous command to send forth - and support - called, qualified and trained missionary-pastors to do the not-so-dazzling work of establishing and strengthening biblical churches through the unadorned means of grace.

The Great Commission: Christ Will Do It!

Just before our Lord ascended into heaven he declared that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” With that preeminent authority he commanded his ordained ambassadors (present and future) to go forth into all the world announcing the good news, the good news that Jesus has purchased redemption for sinners with his precious blood. They are then called to baptize those who, by grace through faith, believe this good news. Baptism, replacing circumcision, is the new covenant sign of initiation into the visible church for believers and their children. (Acts 2:38-39; 16:15) Lastly, these appointed ambassadors are commanded to make disciples of the baptized. This disciple-making is neither quick nor easy. On the contrary, it takes place through life-long attendance to the means of grace. This is why God’s missionary-pastors should not “shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God,” that is, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 20:27) The Lord concluded his command with the wonderful promise that he would always be with his church as they carry out this mission, even “to the end of the age.”

Perhaps even more comforting than the knowledge of Christ’s presence in mission is the knowledge of his involvement in the work itself. In fact, Jesus himself will accomplish the task of world missions. He will do it! Christ promises that he will do it! “I will build my church,” he says, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Notice, by the way, that he does not say, “I will build my sports complex,” or “I will build my classical school,” or “I will build my economic development center.” No, our Lord states that he will build his church. This should be no surprise to us since God has always promised to sovereignly build his church.

God promised Abraham that he would be the “father of a multitude of nations,” and that he would establish an unconditional, everlasting covenant with him, to be God to him and to his offspring after him. In addition, God promised him land as an everlasting possession, and that through his seed “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-8) In Galatians we learn that the “sons of Abraham” are those who are justified by faith in Christ. (Galatians 3:7-9) These true sons and daughters of Abraham, who are also, by faith in Christ, sons and daughters of God, will inherit an everlasting possession of land, namely, the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (Galatians 4:6-7; II Peter 3:13) All of this, even the faith to appropriate it, is a divine gift. (Ephesians 2:8-9) God will build his church.

The Old Testament is teeming with glorious reminders that God will be faithful to his covenant promises and therefore build his church. One example is found in Ezekiel 36:26-28 where God declares:

“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Notice how many times in these verses God refers to himself as the initiator and primary cause of salvation. He will do it. He will save his people. He will build his church. Peter later writes, “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (I Peter 1:3) The fact that Christ will sovereignly build his church, however, does not negate the use of secondary causes or objective means to accomplish it. In the Great Commission our Lord reveals what those divinely appointed means are and who is to go forth employing them.

A Great Commission Metaphor

After toiling all night and catching nothing, Luke 5:1-11 reports that Peter, Andrew, James and John were washing their nets by the lake. After Jesus had finished teaching the large crowds from Peter’s boat, probably around noon (a terrible time to fish), he said to Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter’s initial response was one of doubt and hesitation. Perhaps he thought, “What does a carpenter’s son know about fishing anyway? I’m the professional. Besides we’ve already begun cleaning our nets, and any fisherman knows you cannot catch fish at this time of day.” But faith in the Word of Christ won out over his fallen reason in the end. Peter said, “at your word I will let down the nets.”

When Peter and the others obeyed the Lord and let down their nets in the deep water, they caught so many fish that their nets were breaking and their boats began to sink. Suddenly Peter was struck with a deep sense of his own unworthiness before the holy Son of God and he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Jesus responded, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” In other words, “Peter, you’ve spent your life casting fishing nets into the sea to catch fish, bring them into the boat, and kill them for food. But now you will cast the net of the gospel into the world in order to catch sinful mankind, bring them into the church through baptism, and give them abundant life in me through my Word.”

The calling of these first disciples provides a helpful metaphor for the Great Commission, and it reminds us that ecclesiology should never be divorced from our missiology. The fisherman (Christ’s ordained ministers) are called to cast out their nets (preach the Gospel) into the sea (the world) in order to catch fish (mankind). Once the fisherman catch some fish they do not throw them back into the sea, but rather they bring them into the boat (the visible church). Christ will build his church. But he will do it using external, objective, divinely appointed means and instruments to do it.

Like Peter, we often doubt Christ’s Word. We struggle to believe that Christ really wants to build his church through preaching, water, bread and wine. It seems counterintuitive. There must be better methods and more effective means for missions than what we read in Matthew 28:18-20. After all, this is the 21st century. We know better. Surely our approach to missions must adapt to more contemporary strategies. At least in some global contexts, social action must take priority, right?

The Apostles could have spent the bulk of their time involved with social action. There were as many needs then as there are now. However, when we read the book of Acts (and the New Testament epistles) what we find is a faithful response to the Great Commission. Indeed, the Apostles went forth into all the world establishing and strengthening biblical churches through preaching, teaching, discipleship, administering the sacraments, appointing elders, exercising discipline, and shepherding God’s people. [13]

To be sure, deeds of love and mercy always trail in the wake of faithful ministry, “especially to those in the household of God.” (Galatians 6:10) Our faith is dubious at best if we do not show sincere love to our neighbor. But these good works are not the Great Commission: they are the fruit of it. If we confuse these categories, we will end up not only negotiating the Great Commission, but eventually also the gospel.

Let’s Go Fishing

Recovering a healthy ecclesiology for our missions by heeding the words of the Great Commission will change the way we approach missions as laypeople, ministers, and churches. Some may conclude from this article that there is no role for Christian laypeople in the Great Commission. But this is light years from the truth. All believers, if able, are called to faithfully support the Great Commission through their earnest prayers, sacrificial giving, and steadfast encouragement. And these things should not be minimized. They are the fuel for world missions. The fact is, if Christian laypeople fail to carry out these crucial tasks, missions would be non-existent. In light of this, what are you personally doing to help fuel the Great Commission?

Secondly, ministers of Word and sacrament should be personally challenged to respond more faithfully to the Great Commission, and not just view it as someone else’s job. It’s not. If you are a lawfully ordained minister, it is your responsibility to preach the gospel, baptize, teach and make mature disciples of all nations. Of course this starts in our own churches, but it does not stop there. As a minister, how can you be more involved in the work of the Great Commission, helping to establish and strengthen churches around the world? There is much work to be done. Is it obvious that you are participating? Perhaps you could commit to one overseas missions trip a year to help plant and strengthen the church. Perhaps you could go long term. Are you willing? Could it be that, as ministers, our reluctance to respond to the Great Commission has fostered much of the confusion mentioned earlier?

Thirdly, a proper view of the Great Commission impacts our Sessions, consistories, and mission committees. Churches are always hearing from a long line of “missionaries” who need financial support. From personal experience, these “missionaries” are raising money to do everything under the sun, from childcare to secondary education to computer networking. [14] How, then, should we prioritize our missions giving? The answer is easy if we rightly interpret the Great Commission. Our priority for missions giving should be in support of those ministers who are called, qualified, trained and seeking to labor in response to the specific criteria of the Great Commission. [15]

The Great Commission becomes the Great Omission when the God-ordained, Kingdom advancing means of grace - and the missionary-pastors who administer them - are no longer the priority. So let’s go fishing. But let’s fish the way our Lord commanded us to ... on his terms, not our own.

 

[This article was first published in Modern Reformation magazine in the Oct/Nov 2011 issue and is used here by permission.]

 

1. This is an adaptation of a statement I heard made by Sinclair Ferguson several years ago.

2. See Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42; 13:1-4; I Corinthians 1:21; Acts 18:23; Colossians 1:28-29.

3. Faithfully carrying out the Great Commission is always “loving your neighbor.” However, loving your neighbor does not always mean you are carrying out the Great Commission. Diaconal ministry, when done by the church (even overseas), is a fruit of the Great Commission, not an element of it.

4. John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois), p. 26

5. Ibid., 37. Emphasis mine.

6. Ibid., 38

7. Ibid.

8. Ironically, in order to support his point, Stott quotes Mark 10:45 which states that Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” -- a plain reference to the mission we cannot do.

9. Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy (Presbyterian & Reformed: Philipsburg, N.J., 1997), p. 87. In a footnote on page 91, Keller directs his readers to Stott’s interpretation in Christian Mission in the Modern World. Thanks to my friend Dr. Bill Schweitzer for pointing this out.

10. A similar occurrence took place in the the following chapter when the crowds were gathering to be healed. (Luke 5:15-16)

11. Ibid., 54.

12. Westminster Larger Catechism Q/A 154

13. See Acts 2:14-42; Acts 6:4, 7; 13:44; 14:7; 15:35, 41; 16:5; 19:10, 20; 20:25-27; I Corinthians 1:21; 2:1-5; 5:3-5; Galatians 3:1; Colossians 2:28; I Timothy 5:17; II Timothy 4:1-5; Titus 1:5.

14. It’s interesting to note that these kinds of jobs are understood to be secular vocations only until an individual begins raising loads of kingdom money to carry out these things on the “mission field.” A healthy two-kingdom view helps to remedy this kind of category confusion. See David VanDrunen’s, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.

15. Our congregation supports gifted, ordained church planters in Peru, Germany, England, Albania, Myranmar and America. These ministries, while unmistakably Word driven, are full of wonderful diaconal ministry to the poor and needy.