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The Great Commission or Cultural Commission?

May 22, 2007

Given the fact there were a remarkable number of hits on my entry Two Great Commissions: Cultural and Evangelistic, I thought I would follow it up with a few more thoughts. In that post I simply raised the question: Are there two great commissions–the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1.27-28) and the disciple-making mandate (Matt 28.18-20)?

There are, of course, both mandates in Scripture, but various theologies have neglected one or the other. One could argue that mainline liberal theologies, and perhaps liberation theologies, have neglected the command to make disciples of Christ, teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded, by focusing on social justice, environmental issues, and family (fruitful, multiply, have dominion). On the other hand, there are soul-centered theologies and movements that have advocated spirit salvation to the neglect of the salvation of body, creation, and culture.

This practical division can be resolved by addressing interprerations of the commissions from various angles. One particular angle has been advocated by Andrew Walls. In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in Transmission of Faith Walls makes the simple but profound observation that the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations. We get the word “ethnic” from the word for nations, indicating that Paul was not thinking in modernist geo-political terms, but instead of distinct cultural and ethnic groups. Jesus leaves his Jewish apostles and the Church with a command to make disciples of these non-Jewish ethnic groups.

In the Early Church, there was a tendency to make Gentile disciples into Jewish disciples, that is for them to take up all the cultural trappings of Judaism (circumcision, dietary codes, etc.). This is akin to early Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary attempts to Westernize indigenous peoples. Walls points out that Jesus did not command us to make disciples from all nations–that is to extract people from their culture and conform them to our “christian” culture. There is no single chrisitan culture, certainly not a sanctioned christian culture. The beauty of the Great Commision is that it presupposes the diversity and creativity of the cultural mandate. We are to make disciples of not from all ethnic groups. As Walls writes:

Conversion to Christ does not produce a bland universal citizenship: it produces distinctive discipleship, as diverse and variegated as human life itself. Christ in redeeming humanity brings, by the process of discipleship, all the richness of humanity’s infinitude of cultures and subcultures into the variegated splendor of the Full Grown Humanity to which the apostolic literature ponits (Eph 4.8-13). The Missionary Movement, 51

This means that to a significant degree, one’s culture should be preserved as a Christian. In fact, the teachings of Christ should lead to a person becoming an agent of cultural renewal, not out of hand rejection.

The original text of Matt 28.19 does not have an “of” or a “from,” but the construction lends itself to an of interpretation. Grammatically, a from interpretation is not a possiblity, hence the English translations–make disciples of all nations. To make disciples of all nations is to redemptively reaffirm the pre-fall cultural mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill, rule and subdue the earth. The gospel renews culture and remakes its citizens to become a redemptive, creative, and culturally diverse influence in societies all over the world. This unique and diverse expression of the gospel of God throughout history and time redounds to his glory with each new encounter.

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