Go therefore make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Jesus, Matthew 28:19-20)Jesus' words sent his followers out into the wider world and began the worldwide outreach that is our mission as Christians. The great commission is vital to the foundation of the church. But vital in what way? We have been looking at "axioms" -- how we place something at the beginning of a logical system. Consider two different ways the Great Commission could be viewed as a foundation for the Christian movement:
Possibility #1: The Great Commission is the starting point for our actions as Christ's followers.
Possibility #2: The Great Commission is the whole purpose for our actions as Christ's followers.
Under the first possibility the Great Commission is where we begin, but it does not limit us. From that beginning, we branch out into other questions of theology that may occur to us, or seem important to us. We search out more mysteries. We have a healthy curiosity about God, and we do our best to read between the lines of Scripture to find answers to questions that were never directly asked or answered in those pages.
Under the second possibility, all of the above is well and good but shouldn't be mistaken for what Jesus asked us to do. Under the second possibility, the Great Commission is the whole purpose of the church. If Christ said to teach everything he taught, then that is what we are to teach. If he said we are to obey everything he commanded, then that is what we are to do. If we are teaching something else or doing something else, it's not what he asked us to do. A teaching or belief or action cannot be required if nobody in the apostolic church showed it coming from Christ. Teaching other things may be interesting but it's not any essential part of Christianity.
Looking at the history of Jesus' followers, we can see that the Great Commission was definitely a starting point. It is not a controversial thing to call it a starting point. The question I mean to raise is this: when Jesus spoke those words, what was it that he meant to start? The commission calls us to be taught, and to do, and to teach everything that Jesus taught to those first disciples. Are we commanded -- or invited, or permitted -- to teach things besides that?
The issue is not necessarily simple. At what point does not knowing fully, not understanding fully, interfere with our ability to teach and to follow? At what point does seeking other answers distract us from what Jesus said? And each person sees one topic as more vital than others. But the questions I mean to raise are these: At what point are we no longer teaching what Jesus actually taught us? At what point have we hijacked the church and used it as a license to teach our own theories? At what point does Jesus' commission no longer control what the church is doing?
When Martin Luther started the original Reformation, he had not meant to divide the church but to curb some abuses, and so he posted some debating points. His 95 Theses were largely about purgatory and indulgences. Those 95 Theses might have been summed up like this: "Where did you get a license to teach that?" The point here is not to pick on the church of Rome. Instead I'd invite us all to ask, for everything we teach: Is that something that Jesus taught?
As we head back to the anniversary of the Reformation, I think instead of 95 Theses, I'd invite people to consider one axiom: The church exists to fulfill Christ's commission.