The Great Omission
by Doug Lee
Jesus said to them, “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:18-20).
It is next to impossible for us evangelicals to hear this passage and not think of this as THE biblical basis of missions. This is, after all, the “Great Commission” that charges every Christian to be active in the missionary effort. This final, authoritative charge given by Jesus divides every group of Christians into those who are faithfully missions-minded and those who have their minds on themselves, those who are committed to the task of evangelism and those who are committed to maintaining the church, those who are on the cutting edge of Christian faith and those who are stuck in mediocrity. No “serious” Christian would ever want to be caught on the wrong side of the claims of this passage.
So great is the weight of this passage that it can become the justification of everything done in the name of “missions.” It becomes so that nothing is more important than the task of world evangelization. No one can ever argue with being missions-minded. No project or program aimed at helping people become Christians can be wrong. Thus, it becomes inconceivable to say “no” to any proposal or initiative for missions, ministry, or evangelism. THE CHURCH HAS ADOPTED THE MANTRA OF OUR AGE – THAT WE MUST BE OPEN TO EVERYTHING – AND HAS APPLIED THIS CONVICTION TO ALL THINGS EVANGELISTIC. So long as something works to bring about the completion of the task given by Jesus, we should support it.
When anything can be justified by this sense of mission, however, mission has lost its gospel meaning. When any means of mission is justifiable so long as it works, we have left the gospel behind and embraced pragmatism. Essentially, we have followed Esau’s example and sold our Christian calling for a bowl of stew. To be Christian means more than saluting anything that flies the flag of the “Great Commission.” To be Christian requires saying “no” to many forms of ministry and mission because they are inconsistent, often violently, with the gospel.
As soon as I assert this, however, I recognize that I have stepped over the line. Saying “no” to anything in our day is heresy. It is arrogant. It is judgmental. It produces tension.
But when every form of Christian mission appears valid, we reveal that we do not know who we are. Our inability to say “no” demonstrates that we are formed more by our experience as postmodern consumers who view the world as one great, big shopping mall than as a people called to serve the purposes of a Risen Messiah. The problem is that we do not know what it means to be consistent with our story. When we do not know the story that defines us, then anything is permissible and nothing is inconsistent.
In Transforming Mission (Orbis Books, 1991), perhaps THE book on missiology, David J. Bosch challenges the narrow use of the Matthew 28 passage as the basis for mission: It is inadmissible to lift these words out of Matthew’s Gospel, as it were, allow them a life of their own, and understand them without any reference to the context in which they first appeared. Where this happens, the “Great Commission” is easily degraded to a mere slogan, or used as a pretext for what we have in advance decided, perhaps unconsciously, it should mean…Matthew 28:18-20 has to be interpreted AGAINST THE BACKGROUND OF MATTHEW’S GOSPEL AS A WHOLE and unless we keep this in mind we shall fail to understand it.
When we lift the verses of Scripture out of their context, we can make them justify nearly anything – including any of our pet forms of ministry and mission. But digging out the nuggets of Scripture and ignoring the rest leaves us impoverished and malnourished. A McNugget approach to Scripture leads to a McTheology of missions.
Mission that is distinctively Christian, and not merely mission in our image as postmodern consumers, must therefore recognize the whole of the gospel of Matthew, not just the last few verses, as foundational for mission. Jesus not only commissions the disciples for mission in Matthew 28, but when he says, “Go therefore and make disciples…teaching them to obey EVERYTHING THAT I HAVE COMMANDED YOU,” he is telling them that the very means of mission is found in Matthew 1-27. What Jesus taught and built into the disciples throughout the story told in the gospel of Matthew is inextricably bound to the mission given in the “Great Commission.”
What, then, will authentic Christian mission encompass? To borrow the categories of New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays in his pivotal work The Moral Vision of the New Testament (Harper SanFrancisco, 1996), mission in the shape of the gospel will embrace New Creation, Church, and Cross.
* New Creation: Jesus begins his teaching, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….” The Beatitudes are not a statement about the way things are or can be by our efforts. They are a clear statement that God, IN GRACE AND POWER THAT ARE HIS ALONE, has determined to bring about an entirely new state of affairs in his creation. God is bringing about the complete reversal of the fallenness of his creation. In the New Creation, the poor in spirit will receive the kingdom; the mournful, comfort; the meek, the earth; and the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, their fill (Matt. 5:3-6). God and God alone will do this for his glory, and there is no other ultimate goal toward which the gospel aims.
* Church: Of all the Gospel writers, Matthew alone makes explicit reference to the church (Matt. 16:18; 18:17). From the lineage of the Jewish Messiah in chapter 1 to that Messiah’s call for his people to disciple the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) in chapter 28, Matthew demonstrates that God has not given up his plan to form a people for his purposes. What God began with Abraham and continued through Israel is at work and is being brought to completion through Jesus and the church. The church does not have a missions strategy. The church is God’s missions strategy. The church is a people who demonstrate the white-hot, distinctive character of God through a lifestyle of mercy, forgiveness, and love of enemies (the Sermon on the Mount). Thus, the church shines with the glory of God like a city on a hill (Matt. 5:14-16).
* Cross: What brings about the New Creation and sits at the heart of the character of the church is the self-giving love of God demonstrated in the Cross. It is not by the exercise of force or violence that God triumphs over sin and death. But God demonstrates his distinctive form of power by taking on the nature of a servant and taking those evils upon himself and extinguishing their power.
These images are valuable in themselves in helping to focus our attention on the core of the gospel. But the true importance of these images in our postmodern era may be how well they enable us to discern what is NOT consistent with the gospel and, more specifically, WHAT FORMS OF MISSION are not consistent with the gospel:
* A heroic view of missions that assumes that God cannot accomplish anything except through us and that makes us responsible for making things happen (a denial of New Creation).
* Ministry that achieves results because it offers a gospel dissociated from any life-reorienting connection to a local congregation (a denial of the church).
* Leadership development that prizes giftedness, resources, or academic credentials rather than character and faithful service over the long haul (a denial of the Cross).
When we pursue missions based on a thin understanding of Matt. 28:18-20, what we are actually engaged in is not radical ministry but empty self-effort. Ironically, when we say “yes” to everything, we are actually guilty of leaving out the heart of the gospel. We are not being faithful to the Great Commission but are engaging in the Great Omission. We have left behind the good news entrusted to us and settled for the refuse we can manufacture in our own strength.
Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco, CA, where Doug Lee is on the pastoral staff.