Who Does the Great Commission?
The Great Commission includes three specific tasks: “…  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."
But is each follower meant to perform each task? It depends on who Jesus’ intended audience was. If his words were meant only for the eleven apostles who met him on the mountain, we can be confident that Jesus meant for each one of them to carry out his Commission in full. The Bible gives examples of individual apostles performing all three tasks. If this is the case, then the commission was fulfilled, the men who were bound by it are long gone, and the Commission no longer places any demands on today’s believers.
That interpretation, however, is belied by the words “all nations”. Jesus could not have meant for those eleven men to reach every nation that existed at the time. So rather than orders for a small group of apostles, the Great Commission was clearly intended to be a commandment the church throughout the ages. In that case, we need to look at how Jesus organized his followers to do his work.
Division of Labor
One of the consistent themes in Paul’s epistles is that the work gets divided up. To be sure, all believers have universal responsibilities (i.e. obedience to God, prayer, repentance, confession, worship, and so on) and to each other. But Paul’s metaphor for doing work is the body of Christ – many parts, each doing what it is meant to do, all under the headship of Christ: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
In Ephesians 4:11-15, Paul wrote that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
Without getting too bound up in the specific duties of each role Paul named, it seems that the three tasks of the Great Commission are closely tied to three of these roles: (1) “make disciples” is generally the work of the evangelist, (2) “baptizing them” is generally the work of the pastor, and (3) “teaching them” is generally the work of the teacher. Of course, these lines are not sharply drawn and roles overlap.
In Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, Paul related the roles enumerated in Ephesians 4:11-15 to spiritual gifts. He also wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 that manifestations of the Spirit are “given for the common good” but, like roles and gifts, are not distributed evenly or universally. Surely everything that Paul wrote about the body, roles in the body, and the equipping of members to perform in those roles applies to the most fundamental work of the church, the Great Commission. In that case, the answer to the original question – “Who does the Great Commission?” – is “It depends.”
Just as the Spirit equips believers differently, so believers’ parts in the Great Commission will differ. Not every believer is equipped to be an evangelist, pastor, or teacher, much less all three. But at one time or another, every believer is placed in a position to help accomplish the Great Commission. So what is the responsibility of the believer who is not specifically equipped for one of the three tasks?
It may be Peter who provides the answer: “… In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” (1 Peter 3:15-16)
There are no qualifiers; there is no antecedent text that limits the application of Peter’s words. All believers are always to be prepared. No particular roles, gifts, or manifestations of the Spirit are required, merely a grateful heart and knowledge of what one has received and how. In this way, a believer without the gift of evangelism may have the opportunity to serve temporarily as an evangelist when asked for the reason for his or her hope. Similarly, a believer without the gift of teaching may yet teach. “Baptizing them” still seems a little specialized for the average believer (see below).
When they are ready to give an answer, believers are prepared to fulfill Jesus’ admonition to his followers that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8) There is, of course, a name given to the discipline of preparing to give a ready answer – apologetics.
Every church should be attentive to its members’ spiritual growth. But does that mean training them for the Great Commission? A church can’t graciously expect its members to be effective at tasks for which they are not spiritually equipped. Furthermore, a church that sets out to equip its members to fulfill the Great Commission must prepare them for the second task, baptizing new believers. This can be a problem for a church or denomination that allows only ordained pastors or elders to perform baptisms.
Members may feel guilt or a sense of failure if they are pressured to perform tasks for which they have not been equipped by the Holy Spirit. They may be reluctant to participate in spiritual growth programs if the objective is to go out and do the Great Commission. Evangelists and apostles may approach their calling proactively, even aggressively. The beauty (and utility) of Peter’s admonition is that it allows other believers to be reactive and respond to the situation they are in, rather than to go out and create a situation on their own. We should expect that members will be both more motivated and more enthusiastic when given the opportunity to do what they have been equipped and called to do.
This suggests that churches might well follow a dual path to members’ spiritual growth. All members should be given the opportunity to learn basic apologetics and discover how their own experiences present evidence of the truth of the Gospel. All members should also be given the opportunity to discover their own spiritual gifts, together with training and opportunities to use those gifts whether in direct performance of the Great Commission’s tasks or not.
When every member of the body knows his or her function and is equipped to carry out that function, the body will be healthy and vital and the Great Commission will be fulfilled.
Note: The Curmudgeon notes with gratitude the blog entry that planted the seed of this post:
This entry was posted on Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 3:10 pm and is filed under Christianity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.