“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them…”– Matthew 28:19-20
The didactic1 nature of the Great Commission and the extreme importance of a right understanding of the gospel’s contents naturally lead us to the theme of our present chapter—Missions is a theological or doctrinal endeavor. As we have already stated in so many words, the Great Commission is not about sending missionaries, but about sending God’s truth through missionaries. Jesus commanded the church to make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching! Therefore, all the sending and all the missionary activity in the world is of little value unless the ultimate result is the propagation of biblical truth resulting in the transformation of lives in accordance with the revealed will of God.
In past ages of the church, theology was considered the “queen” of all sciences, the highest and most worthy occupation for the human mind. However, in recent years theology or anything that has to do with doctrine has fallen upon hard times. Often, doctrine is not only ignored, but even disdained; and not only by those who deny the trustworthiness of the Scriptures, but also by those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians! Furthermore, doctrine is often no longer viewed as the foundation of unity, but as the great divider of the church, and the poison that puts sincere believers at odds with one another. Finally, biblical doctrine is even frowned upon by some missionaries who see it as dangerous unless it is first carefully strained through the filter of cultural sensitivity.
How did it come to this? The answer is rudimentary and ancient. The serpent of old who asked our first parents, “Has God said?” is at it again.2 He has fashioned our culture into one that not only rebels against the truth, but also even denies that the truth can be known. However, his deception has not stopped at the borders of secular culture,. The plague has passed over into the land of Christendom and contaminated our fields also. For too long the church has grazed on the deadly weeds of relativism that denies the possibility of absolute truth and humanism which makes man’s opinion and culture to be the standard of all things. Throw into the mix an absolutely absurd view of tolerance, and you have a situation in which belief in the truth and the proclamation of it is scorned as imbecilic at best and immoral at worst.
All that we have mentioned above has eroded the mind and heart of Christianity and its missionary endeavors. We have been wrongly influenced by the erratic thinking of our times and it has eroded the foundation from beneath our feet. By denying the importance of doctrine, our missionary activity has become something of a contradiction, even an absurdity. In the remainder of this chapter, we will mention a few of the most glaring examples:
First, it has become popular opinion that Christians should lay aside their doctrine and unite around their common faith in Christ. However, the harsh reality is that there are many different versions of Christ being proclaimed on the earth today by those who claim to be His followers. How can we distinguish the true Christ from the multitude of false christs except through a careful study of the Scriptures and a faithful application of its doctrine? Are we to preach a Christ to the nations that is so general or vague that we fill the world and the church with countless contradictory opinions regarding His person and work? Unity cannot logically be founded upon our common confession of an undefined Christ and our contradictory opinions regarding the most basic fundamentals of the Christian faith.
Second, it is often stated that Christians should lay aside their theology and unite around the common cause of the Great Commission. However, the Great Commission is primarily a theological endeavor. To lay aside theology in order to advance a theological endeavor is logical suicide and destructive to both. It is absurd to think that the Great Commission can be the thread that binds together individuals who differ in major tenets of doctrine. Unity must be based upon a common view of who Christ is, what He has done, and what He taught.
Third, it has become a common maxim that Christians should only concern themselves with the major doctrines of the faith and not sweat the “small stuff.” The famous quotation attributed to Augustine reflects this wisdom: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”3 The statement is well founded and well worded, however, there are also some underlying, inherent dangers in such an opinion. One of the most serious has to do with the current trend in Christianity which increasing depreciates the importance of absolutes. As this trend continues, Christians relegate more and more doctrines to the “small stuff” category. Doctrines that were previously held to be absolute essentials are no longer considered worth arguing about. Another danger has to do with the practical realities of real-life ministry. Being unconcerned about everything except the absolute essentials works fine if you are meditating in an ivory tower or philosophizing with your friends in the seminary student center. However, when you begin to plant a church or when you begin to disciple real people with real questions, those small matters of doctrine become extremely important and demand definition.
Fourth and finally, it has become a common practice for mission organizations to reduce their doctrinal statements to the Lowest Common Denominator in order to include as many missionary candidates and supporters as possible. In most cases this is done with proper motives (to more quickly advance the Great Commission), however it is a blatant surrender to pragmatism, and it is ultimately self-defeating. This truth is best explained by Walter Chantry in his book “Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic:
“Those who believe in God’s Word have been grasping at the same superficial solutions that liberalism has adopted. Relevance, respectability (whether intellectual or social), and especially unity have become the aims of God’s people with the hope that these will revitalize a weakened church. ‘If only all Bible-believing people join together, the world will sit up and listen,’ thinks the church. Let’s merge our mission boards to pool our funds and our personnel. Let’s join giant evangelistic projects. If every evangelical joins in a common organization, we can have greater depth of evangelism. Thus, organizational unity becomes the aim of gospel churches. Having accepted the theory that unity is all-important for world evangelism, both the church and the individual must lower their estimate of the value of truth. In a large congress on evangelism we could not insist on a truth of God’s Word that would offend any brother evangelical. Thus, we must find the lowest common denominator to which all born-again Christians hold. The rest of the Bible will be labeled ‘unessential’ for missions. After all, unity (among Christians) is more essential than doctrinal preciseness. It is just for this reason that mission societies have been unwilling carefully to examine the root problem in preaching. Mission boards are hesitant to answer the question, ‘What is the gospel?’ Thoroughly to answer that would condemn what many of their own missionaries preach. It would destroy the mission society, which is a federation of churches who have differing answers to that question. To adopt the position of one church would be to lose the support of five others. The whole system built on unity and generality would crumble. The local church may not get too specific about truth either. It may affect its harmony with the denomination or association. To define the gospel carefully will bring conflict with the organizations working with teenagers. It will prompt irritating problems with mission boards and embarrassing disagreement with missionaries supported for years. It may condemn the whole Sunday School program. Giving too much attention to the content of the gospel will mean friction with other evangelicals. And unity is the key to success.”Walter J. Chantry, Today’s Gospel – Authentic or Synthetic? (Carlise, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), p.2-4
To conclude this already lengthy chapter, we must reiterate that the purpose of Christian missions is the propagation of biblical truth. Any attempt to fulfill the Great Commission by depreciating the importance of doctrine is a theological and philosophical contradiction, an absurdity of the worst sort. We must reject the lie that doctrine, except in the most fundamental matters of the Christian faith, is not essential.
Doctrine is not the antagonist of the Christian faith, but rather its foundation. Although there are those who do great damage by splitting hairs without love over truly minor issues, a great deal more damage has been done by those who depreciate the importance of doctrine and do not follow the Apostle Paul’s admonition to young Timothy:
“Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.”4
- The word “didactic” is derived from the from Greek verb didaskein which means to teach. An endeavor is didactic because it has to do with teaching and instruction.
- Genesis 3:1
- Although commonly attributed to Augustine, there is much debate as to the actual author of this famous quote. It is interesting that this quote is cited by “a dizzying variety of incompatible Christian traditions” (Web article posted by Steve Perisho, http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/ quote.html
- I Timothy 4:16
Paul is the founder of HeartCry Missionary Society and currently serves as its missions director. He also ministered as a missionary in Peru for ten years. He has preached hundreds of sermons and has authored a dozen published works. Paul lives in Radford, Virginia, with his wife Charo and their four children: Ian, Evan, Rowan, and Bronwyn.More By Paul David Washer