The Cultural Implications of the Great Commission

The Cultural Implications of the Great Commission

Rob Moley, in his blog Restore the Word, wrote yesterday on “The Great Commission: Discipling Individuals or Nations?”.

In it, he says this about the Great Commission:

Rather than being a command to influence nations with the principles and truths of God’s kingdom, the logic of the command in Matt. 28:19-20 is to make disciples from every nation. Then, as ambassadors of God’s kingdom, these disciples are able to influence all aspects of society, and God willing, even disciple whole nations.

His point is that the Great Commission is about transforming individuals into disciples who obey all that Christ commands, who in turn transform the world around them.

I like Rob’s blog, because it rejects the polarizing extremes of those who tell us we can’t or shouldn’t be engaged in redemptively transforming cultures and nations, while also rejecting the idea that we can do so apart from the Great Commission’s central focus on personal discipleship.

Although I believe the Great Commission includes a cultural mandate to transform “nations” (“ethne” in the original Greek, which means ethnic group or culture), Rob’s point is very important: It happens through transformed individuals. As we are transform into Christ’s disciples, we are then able to go and consensually bring His providence and precepts into all spheres of life.

In my experience, individual discipleship which does not impact the world around you falls short of the Great Commission.

In fact, history shows that when Christians use their individual authority as Christ’s disciples to bravely stand for Godly principles, time and again whole nations and cultures are transformed – through prophetic witness, sacrificially bearing the weight of some great social sin, and even direct political engagement.

Christian Nation?

Consistent with Rob’s central theme, I do NOT believe in the institution of the Church imposing Christ’s authority or His precepts on society. That violates the covenantal and thus consensual approach that we see throughout scripture in God’s dealings with humanity.

History shows the folly of the Church trying, as an institution, to disciple nations. It resulted in some of the greatest tyranny and persecution in Western history. For a host of reasons, I don’t want the Church overseeing the State by usurping the separate jurisdiction and role of the State.

Thus, I have always taught that the Great Commission is about discipling individuals and teaching them to obey all that Christ commands, but they in turn must be the kind of disciples who make a difference in whatever part of the larger culture they find themselves.

For this to happen, the church must equip individual believers to use their gifts (Eph. 4) to serve and extend His providence in whatever circumstances and arenas God calls them. (Unfortunately, churches seldom do this.) As they then seek to do the will of the Father (as per the Lord’s prayer) on earth as it is in heaven – each within their own spheres of influence – God’s Kingdom advances as it consensually permeates into all of creation. (Mark 16:15 and Col 1:15-23)

It’s not about Christian’s “taking over”, “imposing morality” or creating a “Christian Nation”. Those are grossly distorted stereotypes and boogeyman caricatures of fellow believers by those who deny that God’s providence extents to all spheres of life – and that God likewise can legitimately call us to serve Him through cultural engagement (including politics and civil government).

Salt and Light

As we exhibit and consensually promote His providence and the universally valid precepts He reveals in scripture, and they take root within our own spheres of influence, His Kingdom comes because His will is being done – there on earth as it is in heaven.

Every Christian is placed by God in positions and environments where they are part of their larger society – whether it is being a parent dedicated to raising Godly children within the context of your culture, a volunteer at the homeless shelter, an employee who works as unto the Lord, a citizen with the right to vote, or serving as mayor of your city.

Generally speaking, Christians are never called to be – and as a practical matter never can be – an insular enclave. Rather, as God sends us into the world, we bring the blessings of His providence and precepts to the world, even though we are not part of the world’s mentality.

As we each extend God’s providence into whatever arena He places us, we become His salt and light – bringing His flavor, preservation and illumination to all aspects of a world He yet loves and died to redeem.

If we are faithful ambassadors of His Kingdom, therefore, we can’t help but transform our secular spheres of influence – whether it’s in the arts, science, raising Godly children, media, the trades, politics, civil government, or whatever.

Our impact may not be dramatic, and just a little here and a little there, but God is sovereign and He only calls us to do our part – while trusting the big picture to Him.

The Power of the Great Commission

If we deny God’s providence over all aspects of society, then we have gutted the first part of the Great Commission – which is Christ’s triumphant declaration that He now has “all authority in heaven and on earth.” (In the Greek, “all” means … all!) (Matt 28:18)

The attempts by some to limit or deny God’s call on others to serve Him in various spheres of life (like civil government and cultural engagement) is disturbing. Regardless of how one thinks the Great Commission should work, I hope everyone at least affirms that it results in nations and cultures – one way or another – being transformed.

If I understand Rob’s blog correctly, we likewise agree that there is no room for a theology of disengagement in the Great Commission. In fact, it directly refutes the existentialists among us, who want only “spiritual” engagement and a purely personal, individualistic Jesus who’s providence is limited to them and their insular, introspective churches.

Hopefully, though, even existential isolationists agree that a transformed individual – as a disciple who obeys all that Christ commands – is central to the Great Commission.

However, a transformed individual who does not in turn transform his or her own spheres of influence for Christ, who denies the universal relevance of His providence and precepts, or who tells Jesus that He has no business calling us to this or that sphere of influence, denies the full scope and authority of the Great Commission.

Authentic Discipleship

So let’s go, make disciples, and change the world!

Christians in the past have done it. In other parts of the world, they are doing it.

So how about now, how about here, and how about us?

~ Jim

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16 responses

  1. Good Post Jim!

    I’ve found that when one insists on Making Disciples of Nations to the exclusion or minimization of the individual, there’s actually very little, if any, discipleship going on.

    Here’s a quote you might appreciate:

    “[Discipleship] training cannot be done on a mass scale. It requires patient, careful instruction and prayerful, personal guidance over a considerable time. Disciples are not manufactured wholesale. They are produced only one by one, because someone has taken the pains to disciple, to instruct and enlighten, to nurture and train one that is younger.”

    Oswald Sanders

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  2. Great post. I totally agree with the emphasis you bring here. We are called to make disciples who will be salt and light in their world. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world–we don’t transform society via political systems but by changed lives. Disciples who make disciples.

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    • Yet, Felicity, I want to be clear. God can, and does, call some even into political systems. There is no sphere of life, culture or society that is outside His providence, and as to which He has ceded His authority. Some are called to redeem politics and political systems as faithful disciples even there, and tangible social good comes from them doing so. History is full of examples which prove that point.

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  3. “Consistent with Rob’s central theme, I do NOT believe that the institution of the Church is called to impose Christ’s authority or His precepts on society. That violates the covenantal and thus consensual approach that we see throughout scripture in God’s dealings with humanity.

    History shows the folly of the Church trying, as an institution, to disciple nations. It resulted in some of the greatest tyranny and persecution in Western history. For a host of reasons, I don’t want the Church overseeing the State by usurping the separate jurisdiction and role of the State.

    Thus, I have always taught that the Great Commission is about discipling individuals and teaching them to obey all that Christ commands, but they in turn must be the kind of disciples who make a difference in whatever part of the larger culture they find themselves.”

    You’ve nailed it, Jim, and framed it beautifully, to boot. Great, great post.

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  4. Hear, hear – well put. I recently discovered Landa Cope and her research, driven by the realization that lots of modern “discipleship” has not impacted the culture like the early church and other moves of God have. See http://templateinstitute.com/2011/09/read-the-old-testament-template-book-online/ and start with the intro … I’m still reading and absorbing, having heard Landa speak three times, I think she is on to something.

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    • I’ll look into her book.

      For folks that don’t make the connection, Rob Morley (who I mention in my blog) heads up Light and Live Bible Ministries and posted the previous comment.

      He’s posted a follow up blog on “Changing a Nation”, which continues the conversation with some additional wise perspective. I recommend folks read it, at http://realchurchlife.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/changing-a-nation/.

      Thanks, Rob, for your insightful contributions to this much needed dialog within the Body of Christ. Your recent blogs are very much in line with my own perspective, borne of decades of experience and Biblical exegesis regarding cultural engagement, yet they also helped me refine some of my understanding as I tried to put it into writing.

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