• The Great Confusion
The Great Confusion
Outreach Letters

The Great Confusion

  • The Great Confusion

The Great Confusion

Of all the statements in the Bible which are used to motivate born-again Christians, Jesus’ words: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” are surely the most common. ‘The Great Commission’, as it is called, has been used to promote guilt and precipitate action. It has resulted in multitudes throwing themselves into missionary work and evangelism of many kinds, in many places and often at great personal cost. For such people, obedience to ‘The Great Commission’ is synonymous with obedience to God, and involvement in ‘soul-winning’ is identification with Jesus Himself.

With the above in mind, it may come as something of a surprise to such Bible-believers to realize that not only is ‘The Great Commission’ not a scriptural term, but those words of Jesus, recorded in Mark’s gospel, are never again quoted nor referred to in any of the New Testament teachings and exhortations by such as Paul, Peter and John. Even more startling is the fact that those same leaders of the Early Church, who themselves sacrificed their lives for the Gospel, never even encouraged – let alone commanded – their First Century flock to embark upon any ‘soul-winning’* or ‘witnessing’ activities.

What a contrast that is to the position of so many of today’s Christian ministers, churches and organizations who make ‘soul- winning’ the main, if not sole, purpose for their existence and who expect any Christian worth his salt to do likewise. In fact, to so much as question that traditional position would be considered by many to be tantamount to the worst kind of blasphemy.

Yet I intend here to do more than merely question it for, like so many other things which go under the title ‘Christian’, it is largely a man-made and devil-inspired distortion of what is really in the heart of God. As such it not only misrepresents Him but – worse – it provides a substitute for the real thing.

I doubt if there are any people on the face of the earth more prone to self-justification than Christians. Having taken upon themselves the ‘born-again’ badge of honor, they have also taken upon themselves the task of carrying out ‘The Great Commission’ – a preoccupation which has far more to do with man’s way than with God’s will. Worse still, it is very much rooted in man’s passion to prove the rightness of his decisions by persuading others to believe as he does.

As a young Christian attending a missionary-oriented Bible College I heard much about ‘passion for souls’ and ‘love for the lost’ but saw no real evidence of them (oh, what emotive, noble-sounding phrases Christians love to use for their self-justifying, self-satisfying activities). What I did see was many sincere, zealous young men and women being indoctrinated, groomed and conditioned – not, as they were told, to save a lost world but, rather, to become grist for the missionary mill. Despite the many harrowing accounts we heard of futility and frustration on the ‘mission field’, despite the general and monumental failure of Christian missions around the world for decades, despite the ravages wrought upon individual missionaries, their marriages and their families, all was considered worthwhile ‘for the Gospel’s sake’. And it would have been, had those missionaries really been sent out by God and equipped by Him for their task. Sadly, few of them ever were and, to this day still, few of those who embark on such activity ever have been. In the main they are both sincere and dedicated, but they are also the pawns of a religious system rather than the servants of God.

As has so often happened throughout history, God’s work has once again been taken over by men who, rather than represent Him, have created a system which replaces Him. Like any other militant, man-made system, Christianity must have a cause with which to motivate people, so as to draw and inspire the recruits who help feed it. So it is that a world full of ‘lost sinners’ provides a huge and enduring target group while a Church full of eager Christians – appropriately manipulated – provides an abundant supply of workers.

I well remember the manipulation to which I, as a young and impressionable Christian, was subjected. It was often laced with graphic descriptions of ‘the need’ and always shot through with pointed Bible verses. Guilt, of course, was heavily played upon but there was also the thrill of prospective adventure and challenge. Rather like joining the navy to see the world.

It was during those young and tender years that I was sent a card by one of my Christian friends. On the front of it was a reproduction of one of those holy looking paintings of Jesus and, on the back, an appropriately conscience-pricking rhyme: ‘Only one life ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.’ How could I argue with that one? I also recall being stirred at about the same time by the words of the rugged old pioneer-missionary C. T. Studd: “Some people want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell!” Inspiring stuff for a young recruit.

There was a time when my guilt over a perishing world was such that I felt like apologizing for needing to sleep at night because of the number of sinners who would be plunged into a ‘Christ-less eternity’ while I lay blissfully on my bed!

Which probably had something to do with a book I read about the same time titled ‘Great Personal Workers’. It contained several chapters, each of them devoted to a biographical piece featuring the ‘personal evangelism’ activities of a well-known Christian figure of the past. Of those, the one on the famous evangelist D.L. Moody springs to mind. According to the book, Moody made a vow that he would never go to sleep at night until he had spoken to at least one person about the Gospel. Hence if, as sometimes occurred, he did go to bed and then realized that he had not yet kept his vow for that day, he would arise, dress and walk the streets until he found someone he could ‘witness’ to. Such an account was, of course, calculated to inspire impressionable young Christians to emulate such a dedicated soul-winner. It certainly worked on me … for awhile at least. In later years, though, instead of admiration for Moody, I came to feel rather more sympathy for the hapless souls, walking along minding their own business only to wind up on the receiving end of Moody’s desire to discharge his vow and get back to bed!

If only this whole business of ‘soul-winning’ were really so funny. Unfortunately it’s not.

When Jesus came, it was as one sent from God and for a very specific purpose. He came to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ and He came to die for the whole world. He was not easily distracted from these goals and was most reluctant to respond to the personal needs of any but the Israelites to whom He had been sent. Even from among those, Jesus ended up with just eleven whom He specifically commissioned to represent Him to the world. But did He give them a blanket command to do it their way? No. Rather, He gave them a specific order of action and priority. He told them to first remain in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit who would give them the power they needed. Then they would begin to be His witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in Judea, then in Samaria and, finally, to the ends of the earth.

Following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost those disciples – now apostles – did indeed bear witness to Jesus in Jerusalem. They also learned that their success had nothing to do with any of their own knowledge or abilities, for it was ‘the Lord [who] added to their number daily those who were being saved’.

Instead of teaching their new converts to be ‘soul- winners’, the apostles concentrated on making them into lovers – of Jesus and of one another. Hence those new Christians happily ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’.

It has been chronologically calculated that the first Christian church continued in this way for a full twelve years. Nobody – least of all the apostles – seemed concerned to embark on any missionary endeavour beyond the limited confines of Jerusalem itself. They obviously believed that Jesus, who had called and commanded them to represent Him, was alive and that He would direct them beyond Jerusalem when the time came.

And this He did in dramatic fashion, by means of the first great persecution of the Church which followed the martyrdom of Stephen. This resulted in many believers fleeing Jerusalem and settling in other parts of Judea as well as in Samaria. Interestingly the apostles, still needing to be sure that it was the right time to move out of Jerusalem, remained there despite the persecution.

The scattered Christians, meanwhile, did not embark on a campaign of ‘witnessing’. They simply shared with people that which had changed their lives (as has often been pointed out, the word translated ‘preached’ in Acts 8:4 is the same as the Greek word for ‘gossiped’).

According to the record, Philip was the first of the Early Church leaders to proclaim Jesus outside of Jerusalem. This he did in Samaria, with impressive results. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard how the Samaritans had responded to Philip’s preaching, they sent Peter and John to them so that, as apostles, they could gather together and establish the new Samaritan church.

The record of the expansion and growth of the early Christian church is not one of mass evangelism by entire churches nor of wholesale witnessing campaigns encompassing every believer. It is, rather, an account of apostles – sent ones – going out under God’s direction to people and places of His choosing so as to gather together His Church. It’s as simple and straightforward as that.

Paul, who became the definitive pioneer apostle of the Early Church, was clearly led time and again to place after place, by the Holy Spirit. The circumstances varied greatly, as did the way in which he was led, but the one thing he knew above all else, was that he was called by Jesus to be an apostle and that Jesus Himself was directing Him.

The very term ‘apostle’ – despite having been given a high and mighty connotation by the Christian Church – is merely a Greek word meaning ‘one who is sent’. Such sent ones are specifically called by Jesus and are sent out by Him – wherever and to whomever He chooses. Their responsibility is to represent Him and to gather people around Him.

Not every Christian is called to be an apostle. Far from it. On the other hand there are many more apostles than most Christians realize. In fact many of the apostles themselves do not realize it. Such is the unreality with which the Christian Church has surrounded not only the title but also the function. Call a man an evangelist, a pastor, a teacher, a prophet even, …..but an apostle?

Yet apostleship is vital both to the true representation of Jesus and to the growth of his Church. And never forget that it is His Church. Jesus is Lord of the Church and only that which is done in Him, through Him and at His direction is valid – no matter how convincing or spectacular anything else may be. He specifically said that the day will come when many will claim recognition from Him for the great things they have done in His name, yet His response to them will be damning: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Those who are called by Him to ‘go and bring forth fruit’ will unfailingly do so – provided they are obedient to their calling. If only men would unconditionally make themselves available to God, He would have His apostles. Then all that He wishes to accomplish in the gathering together of His people would take place.

None of us has any responsibility before God, other than to be and to do what He wants of us. The man-made forces of conformity, guilt and self-justification seek to snatch earnest, sincere people away from the twin joys of belonging to Jesus and living in love with Him and with one another.

Those who, if left to follow their hearts, would be so fulfilled in giving themselves to God and to their neighbours, are pushed and pressured into being that which they cannot be – and were never called to be.

All of us are called to live in love with God and with one another. We are all called to the glorious, privileged position of being priests to God: those who devote themselves to Him in love, worship and giving. That is our ‘high calling’. Anything else is to do with our functionSome have distinct functional callings, such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Some do not. Those who are thus called must exercise their function faithfully, whatever the cost. Those who are not thus called are required to be just as faithful and just as giving in the way they live out their lives as members of Jesus’ Body.

When God calls a man to be an apostle He calls him to gather people together around Jesus. Those people become a body – a local church. That church, in turn, is meant to grow into the representation of Jesus which was first embodied in the apostle who gathered it together. It is then that the church as a whole – rather than the individuals within it – becomes the light of the world, the salt of the earth and a city set upon a hill. And it is then that God is able to add people to it – for those who seek the light will be drawn to it.

This is achieved, not by all and sundry in the church going about ‘witnessing’ to all and sundry in the world – having been galvanized into action by ‘The Great Commission’. Rather it is the result of us all walking in the light with Jesus and with each other. It is the result of us living our lives, not pretentiously nor in a flurry of ‘spiritual’ activity, but in rest and in confidence before both God and man.

Then those whom God is seeking to gather into His church will be gathered. And instead of The Great Confusion of The Great Commission, and the misrepresentation of Jesus which goes with it, Jesus will be seen, known and glorified in the way He always intended.

* The term ‘soul-winning’ is a classic example of a piece of Old Testament scripture (‘he who wins souls is wise’) being wrenched out of its context and true sense so as to serve the narrow interests of evangelical Christian tradition. The ‘winning of souls’ spoken of in Proverbs 11:30 is not a reference to evangelism. It is a simple statement that a wise man knows how to win others to himself by doing them good. That’s all.