All human responsibility can be summarized by three universal commands, and each of these commands have to do with relationship. The command to love God wholeheartedly (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-38; Luke 10:27) summarizes the responsibility that all humans have toward their creator. It is the greatest commandment because it stems from the greatest of all relationships. It is also very difficult to obey this commandment, since the sinful human nature limits one’s capacity to love God as he should, and tends to redirect genuine love towards self or other lesser beings. Becoming a true Christian involves reestablishing this vertical relationship with God, and nurturing it for the rest of one’s life. The ultimate outcome of this reestablished relationship is what Christians call worship.
The second greatest commandment is that which results in reciprocal love among all human beings (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; 1 John 4:21). The scope of this command is just as universal as the first. No human being has the right to segregate his love by choosing to love himself more than others, or to isolate a segment of humanity to whom he will manifest love, and ignore or hate the rest. Human nature also makes it difficult to obey this command, since it is motivated by self-interest, and tends to foster chauvinism and prejudice. Becoming a Christian involves a radical adjustment of those kinds of attitudes towards others, and results in reconciliation and unity on the horizontal level.
Defining Discipling: A look at the Great Commission
The third greatest commandment is in some respects just as universal as the others,
but in other respects it is limited or particular. Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) was only given to believers whose repentance had already restored the two relationships indicated by the first two commandments. In other words, by restoring their devotion to God and their love to humanity they had already become true disciples of Christ. But Jesus required that these disciples reproduce themselves, and that is where the commandment becomes universal. The scope of the command to make disciples is all nations (Matt. 28:19; Luke 24:47), the whole creation (Mark 16:15), or the world (John 17:18). Thus a true Christian cannot be a universalist. He must see a clear distinction between disciples and non-disciples, and be committed to infesting the planet with others like himself.
Rick Warren indicates that “The Great Commission is your commission, and doing your part is the secret to living a life of significance.”1 Discipling is one of the God-given purposes that drive Christians. But not all Christians understand what making disciples entails. Many are frustrated because their church attendance and involvement do not seem to make the kind of impact on the world Jesus’ Great Commission suggests they should.
A careful look at the Great Commission text shows that the frustration is appropriate. Jesus was very specific in his commandment as to what the result would be, and as to how his disciples should go about the task. Unless she is accomplishing the task Jesus commanded, using the means he implied she should use, the Church has no right to claim obedience to the Great Commission.
After You Go
There is only one command in the text: Jesus commands his disciples (and the Church that would follow them) to reproduce themselves by continuing the discipling process that Jesus himself began. Although most translations take the word “go” as a command as well, it is best taken as an adverbial participle that simply explains the fact that the disciples are presently in Galilee (cf. Matt. 28:16), and would need to go to Jerusalem and await the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:8) before they began their mission to the nations. When functioning as a time marker, an adverbial participle in the aorist tense refers to action taken one step before that of the main verb. Thus, I translate the term “after you go.”
The other two adverbial participles in the text are best understood as marking the means whereby the command will be carried out. This is actually very helpful, as it provides the church with a way of determining if discipling is actually being done. Discipling involves both baptizing and teaching. If these two terms are interpreted in a minimalist fashion, it would seem to imply that almost every church is fulfilling the Great Commission.
A more accurate understanding of these two terms (baptizing and teaching) comes from reviewing how they are used in the Gospels. The quintessential baptizer was John the Baptist. He established himself as a prophet, proclaiming the message of the coming Messiah to the people of Israel, and leading them to repentance and commitment to the Messiah’s coming kingdom (Matt.3:1-12; Mark 1:2-8; Luke 3:1-18; John 1:6-8, 19-28). The quintessential teacher in the Gospels was Jesus himself. In fact, the term was used as a title for his ministry (Matt. 23:8,10; Mark 10:38; Luke 7:40; John 13:13,14). Before his atoning death, most of his ministry was focused on the nurture and development of his twelve disciples.
The task of the Church, then, is to testify the gospel of Christ’s kingdom in a variety of ways until it leads people to acceptance of the gospel, and commitment to the kingdom, as demonstrated by the public act of believer’s baptism. But that is only one-half of the equation. The outcome of this baptizing (what we usually refer to as evangelism) is the convert. The church must teach these converts to assure that they are nurtured in their faith, and trained in their works, so that all of Christ’s commands are obeyed, and an accurate witness to his person is reflected. The outcome of this teaching (what we often call discipling) is a reproducing Christian. Since both of these activities are mentioned by Jesus as comprising the means by which discipling is done, both must be incorporated into the work of every church. When one of these means is overemphasized to the exclusion of the other, the result is inadequate discipling.
Inadequate Discipling: Communicating Alone
For example, if a church feels it can fulfill the Great Commission by merely “getting the gospel out” and new means of doing this emerge historically, the church might be tempted to discard its old tried and true methods, like cross-cultural missions:
“With the new information technology (of the twentieth century), however, Christians did not have to leave home to fulfill the Great Commission; they could send a telegram, set up a radio station, gain access to television air time, develop satellite telecommunications networks, or establish a ‘home page’ in cyberspace”2
Such thinking leads to inadequate discipling precisely because it confuses merely one aspect of discipling with the whole process. While it is true that the mass communication methods of the 20th and 21st centuries will enable the church to do many things more efficiently, they can never replace “leaving home” and the incarnational work that implies. Discipling requires the exchange of lives, not merely the exchange of information.
Inadequate Discipling: Evangelism Alone
Neither has the church accomplished the whole task when she has merely converted a significant portion of the world’s population to Christ. There are some that are convinced that the church has made a major dent in the task because there are now a number of confessed Christians in most of the non-Western people groups around the globe:
“The ‘Great Commission’ found in Matthew 28 has shaped our evangelical movement as much as any passage of Scripture. … Whereas in 1500, only 19 percent of the world’s population was Christian and more than 83 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, by the year 2000 more than 32 percent of the world’s population was Christian and most Christians were non-Western people of color.”3
McGavran has pointed out that “discipling was to be followed by perfecting, that is, by the whole complex process of growth in grace…”4 What McGavran calls perfecting is that second means of discipling that Jesus referred to in the Great Commission text. In the church growth movement which McGavran represents, “discipling dealt mainly with conversion and was viewed as the primary responsibility of the church, while perfecting, or the maturing of believers, was relegated to secondary status.”5 As a result, much energy was spent getting churches to make converts, but little in making the converts mature enough to sustain the growth.
Inadequate Discipling: Perfecting Alone
Others have emphasized the nurture and development of those who are already Christians in such a way as to define that as discipling:
“One of the most biblical and valuable uses of your time as a pastor will be to cultivate personal discipling relationships in which you are regularly meeting with a few people one-on-one to do them good spiritually.”6
These “personal discipling relationships” are not the whole task of fulfilling the Great Commission either. The church must intentionally do both. Each individual Christian and each congregation must assess their Great Commission productivity by asking 1) am I winning people to Christ?, and 2) am I nurturing and developing the faith of those within the church. Since both are part of the task, both must be part of the assessment.
The Role of Theology
Theology plays an important role in both parts of the discipling task. First, a good biblical theology makes the believer confident and competent as an apologist. With a good grasp of theology, the Christian feels she can answer the kind of questions that the seeker or the skeptic might ask. Having asked those important questions herself, and having found God’s answers to those questions in his word, she is much more likely to connect with her peers who are still struggling with the issues. She is also more likely to challenge those who are hiding behind current philosophical fads (Acts 17:18; Col. 2:8).
Secondly, a good biblical theology empowers the believer to mature and persevere in his Christian walk. Theology does not ruin true discipleship. It enables the believer to engage his mind in response to God’s revelation. Thus it improves the relationship with God because it enables the Christian to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). Theology is not an enemy of faith; it supplements it (2 Pet. 1:5). This supplemented faith keeps Christians “from being ineffective or unfruitful” in their Christian walk (2 Pet. 1:8). This means that more unbelievers are likely to seek Christ, because they recognize the Christ-likeness in the thoroughly trained disciple.
On the other hand, when theology is dry, outdated (that is, unresponsive to the questions asked by society today), or heretical, it hinders both evangelism and nurture. Such theology will hinder discipleship because it is incapable of doing for the church what good theology alone can do. Therefore, the discipling mandate of the Great Commission becomes our primary reason for doing theology, and our primary motivation for seeking to get it right.
1 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 304.
2 David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History. (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 540-541.
3 3 Douglas A. Sweeney, “Introduction,” in Martin I. Klauber, et.al., The Great Commission. (Nashville: B&H Publishing
Group, 2007), 1.
4 Donald Anderson McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, (Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), 123.
5 Elmer L. Towns, Gary McIntosh, Paul E. Engle, Howard Snyder, Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: 5 Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 82.
6 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. (Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2005), 37.