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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 11 "Evangelism and Missions"

"It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations. The new birth of man's spirit by God's Holy Spirit means the birth of love for others. Missionary effort on the part of all rests thus upon a spiritual necessity of the regenerate life, and is expressly and repeatedly commanded in the teachings of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has commanded the preaching of the gospel to all nations. It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ."

There is little, if anything, to criticize in the paragraph of the BF&M regarding evangelism and missions. Therefore that which follows should be understood not so much as any sharp disagreement I have as mere suggestions I would personally have for wording and categorizing things slightly differently from a theological perspective that emphasizes the corporate Church more than Baptist churches--congregationalist and governmentally autonomous by nature--tend to do. I also take mild issue with the particular translation of the Great Commission passage which is assumed here, because of some unintended overtones it often carries.

My first change would be to write a paragraph that makes clear that the Great Commission proper is not given to individual Christians, or even to individual local churches as such, but rather to the universal Church as a whole--the sum of all Christian bodies who faithfully confess the basics of the historic faith and believe the gospel of God's salvation by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Christ. Matthew 28:18-20 is addressed specifically to the "eleven disciples" (v. 16), those who would become official representatives of Christ and of the Church in the first century (although other disciples were probably also present on the mountain then, as well).

The BF&M at points almost makes it sound like the Great Commission is addressed to individual believers (or churches) without any qualification. To be sure, every believer must be involved with the catholic Church's endeavor to fulfill the Commission. But this way of phrasing it points up the second thing I would word differently. I do not believe that the sentence, "It is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness," taken in the most absolute sense of every word therein, is biblical or even possible. If all it really is saying is that every believer should be unceasingly concerned that the Church reach the lost, unceasingly (never giving up) personal prayer on behalf of lost friends/family/acquaintances, and unceasingly looking and praying for personal opportunities to verbalize the gospel to lost people, then Amen. But if someone were to take the sentence and try to insist that the normative Christian life for every believer is endeavors of personal evangelism literally whenever possible, I think that would be mistaken.

Far better, I believe, once again, to emphasize the Church as a whole as the institution which is to carry out the Great Commission. When it comes to the individual Christian, then, the charge could look something more like, "It is every believer's duty constantly to use his or her unique gifts to study [promote] his or her own local church's missionary and evangelistic endeavors, to the end of the catholic Church's fulfillment of the Great Commission." This grants significantly more freedom (I believe in a biblical way) for faithful, Great Commission-minded individuals to have Christian lives that look completely different from each other. I believe it does more justice to the picture of 1st Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 with regard to the charismatic gifting of the Church's various parts, and the appropriate divisions of labor.

It also recognizes more of the depth of the Great Commission's actual charge. While the BF&M splits up the section on evangelism and missions from Christian education, it is important that we keep in mind that the Great Commission keeps such things together, and the Church's mission has never been to make converts--it is to make disciples, those who continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord through instruction, exhortation, and all the ordinary means of grace. For this reason there are those in the Church who are especially gifted for teaching and exhortation, whereas others are especially gifted for evangelism. They should model for each other these tasks and learn from each other; nevertheless, not all are gifted alike.

Much that I have said so far could be abused by someone who reads it and thinks, "Ok, well I therefore don't necessarily have any personal responsibility for evangelizing those around me at all." I confess that unless I consciously fight this attitude, I can slip into behavior that fits it. But I don't believe it's a logical result of the theology of Church and mission laid out above. I believe the abuse of what I have said is what logically results in that kind of practice. I am trying to make the picture of Great Commission duties bigger for the Church, and for churches, and for Christian individuals; not smaller. But "bigger" in a certain way.

The gifts are useful for helping each other grow in areas in which we all have responsibility to one degree or another (personal evangelism). But another biblical principle is that much is expected from those to whom much is given (for example, in evangelistic gifting). These principles work together. But it is the Church which is responsible for fulfilling the entire scope of the Great Commission. This is why performing official preaching and administration of the sacraments should be limited (under ordinary circumstances) to officials of the Church (elders, specifically).

Speaking of "scope," my last suggestion at this point would be to abandon the unnecessarily ambiguous language so often used to translate the words of the Great Commission, "make disciples of all [the] nations." I have written about this elsewhere, but to summarize, my basic beef is this: whereas many translations use the ambiguous prepositional phrase "of all the nations," which introduces an ambiguous genitive relationship between "disciples" and "nations," the simple Greek is the verb "to disciple/to teach" with the direct object of "all the nations" in the accusative case. While the ambiguous translation leaves open the possibility of an interpretation that says the Church is to merely make disciples from every nation, the Greek NT simply says "teach/disciples all [the] nations," meaning either "substantially disciple every ethno-linguistic cultural group as a whole" or "teach/disciple the Gentiles as a whole"...the commonality being "as a whole," not a "remnant of believers from every nation."

Against the charge that I am introducing my eschatology unduly here (I am an unashamed postmillennialist), I may answer by saying that I have said nothing thus far in this post which would indicate that I believe the Church necessarily will fulfill this enormous charge (she will, but that's another post), only that the simple grammar of the Greek NT in Matthew 28:18-20 lays out the charge in this way, despite the ESV and NASB. The result of this is not only to challenge any latent pessimillennialism in my readership, but also to render more and more absurd the idea that the Great Commission is or ever could be meaningfully addressed to any individual Christian or local church, and thus to turn the reader's vision again to the corporate, global Church and her massive global charter for discipleship.

The job is enormous. Impossible, really. Except with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and His varied giftings. Let each Christian line up his or her heart more and more with the heart of Christ in the Great Commission and serve the Church in a maximally effective way according to his or her gifting, to the end of completing the Great Commission. And, on the basis of true new-birth love, let no Christian believer--I exhort myself here--ignore the lostness of the lost people around him or her. But for many people, addressing that lostness rather than ignoring it may look like getting more of the Church involved than has often been suggested. Take an evangelistically-gifted friend to meet someone for lunch. Have your small group pray. Get some apologetics training from the pastor-teachers. One body, many parts.

Lord, help us finish the task, and help us help each other.

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