Does Our Emphasis on the Great Commission Reveal Sin?
Without a doubt the Great Commission is one of the most quoted Bible passages used to motivate people to be involved in missions today. It is the cornerstone for any missions conference or organization. But, could our emphasis on the Great Commission be a symptom of a deep sickness in modern Christianity?
In his book, Spontaneous Expansion of the Church and the Causes Which Hinder It, Roland Allen states:
They [St. Peter, St. John, and the apostolic writers] do not seem to feel any necessity to repeat the great Commission, and to urge that it is the duty of their converts to make disciples of all the nations. What we read in the New Testament is no anxious appeal to Christians to spread the Gospel, but a note here and there which suggests how the Gospel was being spread abroad: ‘the Churches were established in the Faith, and increased in number daily,’ ‘in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad so that we need not speak anything’; or as a result of persecution: ‘that they were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.’ (Kindle Location 95)
Allen points out that it doesn’t seem that anyone had to remind the early believers to share the gospel. They simply spoke the good news of Jesus everywhere they went. It was as if a part of the DNA of the gospel was that it spread uncontrollably.
The early church saw growth rates that were incredible. In less than 300 years “The Way” went from 120 people in an upper room to the official religion of the Roman Empire. And yet during that time, at least in their writings, it seems the believers felt little need to emphasize the Great Commission over and over.
While Christianity is still growing today, we’re not seeing it expand at anywhere near this pace. But you won’t be at any of our missions conferences long before you hear someone mention the Great Commission.
This brings us to the crucial question: How did the early church expand so much faster than Christianity does today while (seemingly) emphasizing the Great Commission so much less?
For Roland Allen, the answer to why Spontaneous Expansion rarely happens today lies with us, and with our sin:
I set out the difficulties which hinder us from giving place to [spontaneous expansion], the terrible fears which beset us, fears for our doctrine, our moral standards, our ideas of civilized Christianity, our organization. In doing this I argue that such fears are real and natural but wicked, that the standards we so highly prize are not our Gospel, and the attempt to maintain them by our control is a false method. Spontaneous Expansion must be free: it cannot be under our control….” (Kindle Location 78, emphasis added)
Ultimately, if we are honest with ourselves, we are afraid of spontaneous expansion. We are afraid that if we let the gospel run unchecked among our students or in our communities that heresy might creep in. We think, “They’ve only been a believer for 6 months, they shouldn’t lead a Bible study yet. What if they start teaching something wrong?” We worry that converts might not live up to our moral standards. People might even start to live the Christian life in ways that we disagree with.
So because of our fears we seek to control the situation. It is a normal and natural response, but it is wicked. Our fear of the uncontrollable growth of our movements causes us to subtly put safeguards in place. It is these safeguards and rules that prevent our movements from growing. And it is these safeguards that finally require us to go back to the Great Commission over and over again. Our movements lack the freedom to expand spontaneously, we’ve taken that away from them with our list of rules. So we have to try to keep motivating them over and over with the Great Commission.
Obviously I’m not saying there is anything wrong with the Great Commission or with sharing it (Jesus gave it!). But I do think it is incredibly important to be ask ourselves why we emphasize it so much but see so little growth as a result. The problem lies not in the Great Commission but with us. We are fearful and controlling, and as a result limit what God wants to do through us.
Discussion Questions (respond in the comments):
As you read the first two chapters of the book, what stuck out to you? Do you agree or disagree with Roland Allen’s diagnosis of the current state of the church?
What would happen if we stopped trying to control our movements and instead starting empowering them? Is this really even the problem?
What if we as leaders stepped out in faith instead of fear? Would we need to emphasize the Great Commission as much? Or would it just happen now that we’ve gotten out of the way?