Dec 27th, 2012 · Categories: Christianity · 5 Comments

Who Does the Great Commission?

The Great Commission includes three specific tasks: “… [1] make disciples of all nations, [2] baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [3] 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.

Implications

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.

5 Responses to “Who Does the Great Commission?”

  1. Steve Dungan Says:

    December 28th, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Steve,
    I agree that as members of the Body of Christ, we have all received our own unique gifts. We are not all gifted to fulfill the Great Commission on our own but we can be expected to do what we can. I agree that I am not entirely comfortable when I am called to perform tasks that I am not partioularly gifted for but sometimes I think that this may be God’s attempt to stretch me into becoming more than what I am. As leaders of the congregation we would be remiss if we did not prod our members into becoming more than what they already are. To allow them to sit comfortably in their pews and rest on the fact that they are children of God would be tantatmount to allowing them to die. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”. He did not say that any of us are righteousness but that we should hunger for that righteousness. If we sit back satisfied with what we have previously accomplished then we are not striving to do what we have been called to do. The goal is to become progressively more Christlike. Perhaps as we strive to attain that goal we will accidently also fulfill our part of the Great Commission.

  2. Jerry Van Auken Says:

    December 30th, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    Steve,
    I always love your desire to grow in your knowledge, your love for the Word of God, and your love for Jesus Christ. Of course we don’t always agree and I’m fine with that. I followed you all the way through your entry and agree. However your implications are a little confusing to me. I guess the underlining question is how does the church equip the saints to do the works of ministry without educating and exhorting the saints to do what God wants them to do; or how He has engifted them? The great commission is for the entire church not just for individuals. So although not all are gifted in evangelism or pastoring or teaching, however they are gifted their gifts will be used to fulfill the great commission. The roll of the church then is to shepherd the saints to do the works of ministry, equip them, exhort them, call them to repentance, care for them (not meant to be an exhaustive list). The church must be intentional about this.

    Your brother Jerry

  3. Joyce Harris Says:

    December 31st, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Steve,
    Concerning spiritual gifts which seem to be something which is spoken about in this “Great Commission conversation” I find myself praying about what Chip Ingram in the study “Divine Design” (offered this past fall here, 8 sessions, so this is just a summary!) suggests.

    He suggests that we have 3 kinds of spiritual gifts: motivational (Rom 12:6-8), ministry (Eph 4 & I Cor 12: 28ff) and manifestation (or impact the believer will receive) I Cor 12:8-11.

    1) Every believer has one primary MOTIVATIONAL gift (Rom 12: 6-8) He suggests our role is to focus on discovering this primary gift “6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.”
    2) That motivational gift can express itself through a variety of MINISTRY gifts (Eph 4 & I Cor. 12: 28ff) and include: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastor/teacher, teachers, working of miracles, gifts of healing, helping, tongues, administration.
    3) When we exercise our motivational gift through our ministry gift the Holy Spirit determines what MANIFESTATION or impact the believer will receive. I Cor 12: 8-11. Which includes: Word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

    He says, “As you go through the Bible you discover that we are commanded to do all seven of the MOTIVATIONAL gifts. And every church needs these seven things and every believer needs these seven in order to fully grow. So our of a servant’s heart, we will exercise all seven of these things, but there is one area where we are most gifted and that is where we need to focus our effort.”

    So food for thought on this topic….. I know it is my responsibility to steward with a sense of God confidence the gifts which He has entrusted to me for his glory, and trusting others can do the same.

    Joyce

  4. Grumpy Says:

    January 1st, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    Jerry –
    I agree that the Great Commission is for the whole church but would go further and say (for the reasons given) that it probably isn’t for any individual. As I wrote initially, the two things I think are for all individuals are apologetics and a process for discovering, developing, and applying each member’s combination of gifts, talents, passion, and calling. In that way, all willing members are prepared to do the work of the church in whatever situation God puts them in.

  5. Grumpy Says:

    April 12th, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Posted in response to another blog (here): To this layman, the charge in Matthew 28:18-20 is given to the church as a whole; it is the work given to that body of which Jesus is the head. The body metaphor tells me that no one Christian is responsible for accomplishing the Great Commission, but for faithfully doing his/her part as called and gifted by God. To use an analogy, the purpose of my company may be to build and sell cars, but no one employee does that. Instead, all employees do their part to accomplish the work of the company. For that reason, I am skeptical of “disciple-making” programs that purport to equip Christians to do the Great Commission. To extend the analogy, that is like having a corporate training program that means to equip every employee to design, build, and sell cars without regard for their talents, abilities, and interests. We must look elsewhere to understand what it means to be a disciple and therefore what it means to “make” one.

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