I think first of all (as I've stated elsewhere) it's safe to summarize that the church as a whole is God's appointed means of corporate worship in society (Acts 2:41-42; 1 Tim. 3:15) as well as God's instrument for the conversion of souls and the transformation of the world (Mt. 28:18-20; cf. Rom. 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 9:19-23; Eph. 5:6-14) through the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18, 24).
But while the church as a whole is tasked with (at least in part) the missionary work of propagating the gospel, does this mean that every Christian within the church is a missionary or is called to evangelize in regular day-to-day experience? I think we need to reflect on what the Scriptures actually teach in that area.
True the church, as a body, is called to evangelize. But the task Christ gave His apostles (generally agreed to be representing the church) is far more encompassing. Here is what is considered The Great Commission and is generally thought to be the text on commanding all believers to be evangelist-missionaries:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt. 28:18-20)
There are many significant theological implications in this passage; yet I'm afraid many would still read this passage with the conclusion that really all it's saying is (1) we're all called to the work of evangelizing, and (2) evangelizing is the core of our mission.
But this view seems very short-sighted in context of the passage itself, the book of Matthew as a whole, and the rest of Scripture regarding the matter of disciple-making. So I think it's important for now to at least look at the immediate text and discover what Jesus said to the church. What is the Great Commission after all?
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
While it seems many tend to think of the Great Commission starting with the word "Go," it's important to know that, in context, Jesus offers a very important reason behind the commission for his command (which is not "go" by the way, but "make disciples"). The reason we're given the commission to make disciples of all nations is because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ the King of His Kingdom!
And lest we think His Kingdom is only pertaining to the spiritual realm, let us remember that He just said that His authority is over both heaven and earth! So with that authority, as the King over heaven and earth, He proceeds to give the church (represented by the apostles) her great commission.
Make Disciples of All Nations...by..."Going, baptizing, and teaching."
Of first importance, let us not lose sight of the crucial word "therefore." It is just because Jesus Christ has all authority over heaven and earth that His commission is so important to us. He is the rightful King over all of life (both the spiritual and the material, the special and the mundane, the realm of heaven and the realm of earth). And so from Him and His authority ("therefore"), we are to "make disciples of all nations."
Now the translation of this passage in most English Bibles can sometimes take us a little off the path. In the Greek (the original language of its origin), there is only one verb in the imperative (command) mood: make (i.e. "make disciples of all nations").
The command is not "go" (as is so often supposed),(2) but "make"!
The verbs for "go," "baptize," and "teach" are all participles, which means (in this case) they're words describing or modifying the main verb "make." Put simply: the way the church "makes disciples of all nations" is by going, baptizing, and teaching.
Now let's ask a real obvious question: is every single Christian commanded individually to go?
Here is where the answer is so often assumed to be yes. But we need to answer that question from a Biblical standpoint rather than presumptuous tradition. Would anyone argue this same "yes" answer applies to the other two participles in the verse?
Is every Christian commanded individually to baptize?
"I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius....For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel..." (1 Cor. 1:14, 17)
Obviously if that were the case Paul himself would be in disobedience to the gospel, or at least indifferent to one of its commands.
Is every Christian commanded individually to teach?
"Not many of you should become teachers..." (Jas. 3:1)
If that were the case James was unaware when the Holy Spirit was using him to author Scripture (also consider that the Holy Spirit seems to give believers various gifts, of which teaching is only one - Rom. 12:7 - while refraining from giving any one person all the gifts - cf. 1 Cor. 12:28, 29).
So if not all baptize or are called to baptize (1 Cor. 1:14, 17), and if not all teach or are called to teach (Jas. 3:1; 1 Cor. 12:28, 29), then why is there such a pervasive assumption that all should go and are called to go?
The only way to get to this view is to see it from the immediate text itself; but it's just not there. Contextually it seems if we're going to apply one modifying participle of the command "make disciples" to every individual believer, then we should be applying all modifying participles of the passage to every individual believer. Yet we're prevented from other very clear passages in Scripture from doing just that!
The command for every Christian is to contribute to the task: Make disciples of all nations. But how we go about that is very different from individual to individual. How is this phenomenon described in the New Testament?
"But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, ' I have no need of you.' ... If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it..." (1 Cor. 12:18-21, 26-27)
All of us have a part in making disciples of all nations, but that doesn't mean all of us teach, all of us baptize, or all of us go! It means we each use our own gift(s) of the Spirit in the building up of the body. The church body then, as a whole, is thus able to make disciples of all nations "when each part is working properly" (Eph. 4:15-16), that is, in accordance with the gifts God has given the individuals.
When the eye tries to be the hand it's not going to work. When the head tries to be the feet, it's not going to work. We will not be able to accomplish the great commission our Lord has given us when we try to do things contrary to the gifts He has given us! But instead of all thinking we have the same gift (like the gift of the evangelist - Eph. 4:11) or all thinking we must use the same gift - if we rather all use the gifts He has actually given us ("when each part is working properly"), then we will build the church up in love.
Then the church will grow both internally and externally. The body will feel the full strength of the members ministering to other members, and those who are called and gifted to preach the gospel to the unbelievers will be at full strength - themselves being ministered to fully by the gifted members in the church for that ministering and encouraging role.(3)
"And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Even at its base level the spiritual gifts are broken down into two categories: speaking and serving (1 Pet. 4:10-11). But Jesus is no less present with a believer who has a serving gift than He is with a believer who has a speaking gift. If you do not have a spiritual gift of speaking, then you are most certainly not called to the evangelizing work of missionary preaching. But Jesus is still with you in your own work of ministry!
Does this mean you're not called to contribute to the task of making disciples of all nations? Absolutely not! You are most definitely called to contribute to the great commission. But it's through your gifted service to the church that you will most effectively carry out that role. It's through your gifted service to the church in which you will bring most glory to God in your life! And it's through your gifted service to the church where you will experience most fully the promise of Christ's presence in your life!
Do not fear if your gift is not one of evangelizing. Use the gift God has given you to serve the church, and pray that God will send His gifted evangelists into the mission field (Mt. 9:38). But no matter what your gift is, Christ is present with you and will be with you to the very end - even as His Spirit is giving you the gift(s) of His choosing to bring about that end.
What if someone comes up to ask you "How do I get right with God?" or something else to that effect? Obviously the thing to do would be to present the gospel to them as best you can (Col. 4:5-6). But if you're not the Spirit-gifted evangelist then it's simply not your role to try to be that one whose primary task is evangelizing and going into the mission field.
The eye cannot be the hand no matter how hard it tries! Bringing the gospel to the lost is something powered by the Holy Spirit through His own appointed means. Trying to work a spiritual gift that you do not possess is working not by means of the Spirit but by means of the flesh (something we're not supposed to do - Rom. 8:5, 12-14). It does nothing for the church and will leave you with an empty experience of Christ's presence in that gift.
If evangelizing was truly something which all individual believers were called to do, wouldn't it be so much more prevalent in the New Testament? We can't find any textual or grammatical grounds for that thinking in the Great Commission text. And what else do we have left?
But we never see Paul or any other New Testament writer commanding believers to make it their own prime ambition to go out into the world for the sake of evangelizing the lost.
Yes, evangelizing is part of the great commission, but it is only a part. Making disciples of all nations is the great commission. And disciple-making involves much more than evangelizing. It involves baptizing (entailing brining someone into a local fellowship of believers which holds them accountable) and teaching (continually ministering through the Word of God the will of God for the life of the believer). It involves continual, intentional building up of the body through whatever gift or gifts God has given you:
Rom. 12:10, 14:19, 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 1:10, 10:24, 12:14, 20, 26-27; Gal. 5:25-6:2, 10;
Eph. 2:22, 4:1-3, 29, 32, 5:18-21; Phil. 1:27-2:4; Col. 1:9-12, 3:12-17;
1 Thess. 3:11-13, 4:9-12, 5:12-14; 2 Thess. 1:3, 2:16-17, 3:13;
Jas. 5:16; 1 Pet. 1:22-25, 4:8-11; 1 Jn. 3:11, 16, 18, 4:7, 11-12
And it is there where Christ is ever present with His church (Jn. 15:4-5)!
So while evangelizing is a vital role to the great commission and missionaries are indispensable to the task of the great commission, we must simply realize that the best way to fulfill the great commission is to stop this thinking that we're all called to be the same body part of the church. We must be submissive to the Spirit in being the part that God has actually gifted us to be. We must stay connected to the Vine (Jn. 15:4-5) so that we will bear fruit in accordance with the gifts He has given us. And we can do this in the confidence that He is with us to the very end!
And that will surely bring about much more reaching of the lost than we could ever even imagine (Eph. 3:20-21); and it will heal the church in its stumbling efforts to work against the Holy Spirit's gifts and calling (1 Cor. 10:22).
Not every Christian is a missionary, is called to be, or should even try to be. But all have a part in the Great Commission of making disciples of all nations. And all are called to use their individual gifts (whether serving or speaking) to build up the church as it seeks to fulfill that commission. But the key is, we must use the gift(s) that the Holy Spirit has actually given us (Rom. 12:4-8).
(1) Maybe it won't cause any contention at all (praise God if that happens!). But I remember being a in a small group Bible study when I briefly mentioned this idea, and my goodness was I given some weird looks with some matter-of-fact comments to the contrary! The comments, however, were not backed by Scripture - an indicative clue as to how many in the evangelical world operate from what they hear preachers or others say rather than what Scripture actually teaches...
I'm not at all trying to sound like the ideas I put here are infallible. Obviously for me to put these thoughts in writing I'm going on the premise that I've studied the Scriptures and I think this is an accurate (though certainly not exhaustive) compilation of what they teach in this area. But as I've said often in this site - I'm teachable. And if the Scriptures teach something other than my understanding indicates - I wish to know immediately.
(2) I once was present at a missions conference when a speaker was talking about the implications of the Great Commission being a direct command to all believers individually. She said (referring to the King James translation, "Go ye therefore"): "When he says 'Go' He means go! And when he says 'ye' He means ye!" Yet another example (in my estimation) of the mass confusion for how the Great Commission is to be accomplished according to Scripture.
(3) I only wish here to point out that there is a precedent for this kind of thinking set even in the Old Testament. When David returns from a battle there were about two hundred who weren't able to go because they were too exhausted from an earlier conflict (you might say they weren't gifted - naturally at least - with endurance). But they put what they did have to good use and watched over the baggage (something that was actually very important).
Yet when David and his men returned the text says "all the wicked and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David said, 'Because they did not go with us, we will not give them any of the spoil...'" (1 Sam. 30:22). And what happens next? David answers: "'For as his share is who goes down into the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike.' And he mad it a statute and a rule for Israel from that day forward to this day" (1 Sam. 30:24-25).
It seems many in the church today want to give the highest accolades to the missionaries and evangelists (and probably even pastors). Yet Scripture seems to clearly show that when a great mission (or great commission as in the case of the church) is in view, the front line men and the support roles are seen as equally valuable! This is something I truly hope the church starts to take into account in its view of how we all work together toward our mission of discipling the nations.
I'm a sinner saved by God's amazing grace through the the precious blood of Jesus Christ and the glorious quickening of the Holy Spirit.
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