Another Look at the Great Commission
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 16 June 2022 |
On July 23, 1983, Air Canada flight 143 left Montreal bound for Edmonton with 61 passengers and 8 crew on board. What seemed to be another routine flight turned out to be nothing of the kind: while cruising at 41,000 feet over Manitoba, the Boeing 767 ran out of gas (which is, if I may add, one of my great fears about flying).
The pilots managed to land the jet on a rural airstrip in Gimli, about 90 km north of Winnipeg. Early assumptions were that the plane had a faulty fuel gauge. But an investigation showed there was nothing wrong with the fuel gauge. The ground crew in Montreal saw that the so-called “fuel quantity information system computer” on Flight 143 was malfunctioning, so they loaded the fuel manually using calculations involving the specific gravity of jet fuel.
But the ground crew didn’t use the metric measurement of 0.8 kg/litre; instead, they worked with 1.77 pounds/litre. The result: the plane had half the fuel it needed. A metric conversion error almost cost the lives of 69 people.
Mistakes of understanding can have consequences. I want to briefly discuss one biblical misunderstanding that I believe could prevent some spiritual tragedies.
After his miraculous resurrection, Jesus met with his disciples by a mountainside in Galilee. The disciples were still trying to make sense of their last three years as students of this great Rabbi—especially the events that had occurred during the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem.
In this conversation Jesus commissioned them thus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
But what exactly did they hear? What did making disciples mean to them?
It appears that even after their years with Jesus, the disciples saw little difference between becoming a disciple and becoming a Jew.
We know that because Jesus had to liberate them from that belief through dreams and visions (see Acts 10:9-23) and through the teachings of Paul. Even after ministering with Jesus, his followers didn’t understand the wider reach of the gospel. When Paul tried to tease apart the difference between becoming a disciple of Jesus the Messiah and being a Jew, the issue was so controversial that the Jewish-Christian religious establishment called for a council in Jerusalem to address the issue (Acts 15).
On that day by the mountainside in Galilee the disciples misunderstood their commission. But through a variety of Divine encounters Jesus showed them that one didn’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian. If Jesus had not interrupted them by his intervention recorded in the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, we can only imagine what the Christian movement would have become. It would most likely have dissolved back into Judaism.
Early church fathers
Half a century or so after the apostles, history shows a hierarchical administrative system taking over the church. Bishops (episkopas, 1 Timothy 3:1–7) emerged as key figures, and over time, the bishop of Rome (denominated “Pope”) rose to be the most powerful of them. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage would capture this shift when he wrote,
The bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop; and if one is not in communion with the bishop, he is not in the church.
The church held numerous church councils, including the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. In these meetings the church crafted a system of creeds that governed what true discipleship should look like.
These leaders declared the church “catholic,” meaning universal. There could only be one church—theirs—and all Christians had to be subjects of it. The understanding of making disciples in this era came to mean subjection to the church’s authority and theology—including, at times, church leaders’ mercurial whims. (There were some extremely wicked popes throughout this period.) Failure to obey the church could result in excommunication, persecution, or death.
Jesus had to step in with yet another disruption, because being a disciple of Jesus the Messiah wasn’t contingent on being subject to the bishop of Rome.
Protestantism was a rebellion against years of spiritual neglect and abuse by the Catholic religious establishment. Protestant leaders such as Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Zurich, Knox in Scotland, and Cranmer in England all had different answers to the question voiced by the jailer in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved?
The Catholic religious establishment had said that following the authority of the bishops was essential to salvation. The church held the keys to salvation. But the reformers argued otherwise. The Bible was their authority. But what does the Bible really say?
Sometimes historical terms leave misleading impressions. When you hear the word “reformation” you might imagine a united movement whose goal was to bring the good news of justification by faith alone to the masses.
While justification by faith was an important teaching of Martin Luther, each of the great reformers had his own view of salvation. They were far from united, instead arguing and fighting one another. The followers of these reformers established religious denominations based on differences that seemed important to them, but to us appear subtle and sometimes unimportant.
In the end each group seemed to feel that salvation was found in accepting their teachings and creeds, and rejecting those of their rivals. The great commission became to them an effort to rescue people from the errors of other religious institutions. Making disciples was inevitably taken to mean people joining their denomination.
Jesus stepped into each denomination’s stories and experiences with much-needed disruptions. Read the stories of these Protestant churches, and you’ll see how repeatedly God had to reform and re-reform even the reformation churches.
As Adventists, we too appear to have embraced the notion that making disciples is synonymous with joining our church. I often hear sermons among us insisting that bringing people into the Seventh-day Adventist Church was all that Jesus was trying to say to the disciples in Matthew 28:18-20.
I think a conversation on the differences, or the lack thereof, between discipleship and church membership is not only necessary but long overdue. Does a person need to wear my religious badge to be accepted into God’s Kingdom?
Often we have discredited the spiritual experience of those who are not Adventists as at best semi-religious, the people Jesus described in Matthew 7:23 as appearing to be godly but who hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.” We, on the other hand, see ourselves as the personification of verse 24: the wise people “who hear these words of mine and put them into practice.”
You see above how many times God has intervened in Christian history to convince us that it is Jesus—not our institutions, leaders, or creeds—who saves people. Will there ever be a time in our denomination’s mission when helping people to accept Jesus becomes more important than joining the church?
It is time, it seems to me, that we start seeing, acknowledging, and celebrating God at work in the experiences of those who do not wear our denominational badge.
Please understand me; I think my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has a lot to offer to Christianity. But I am not convinced that becoming a disciple is synonymous with becoming a Seventh-day Adventist. Discipleship does not consist of militantly aligning oneself with any denomination (or for that matter, against other denominations, as some of us do).
It seems clear to me that Jesus has many sheep who are not part of this fold (John 10:16), and that alone should encourage us to embrace the oxymoron of “generous orthodoxy.”
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.