Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from The Gospel Coalition eBook Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: To Change the World Five Years Later, edited by Collin Hansen. Download the book for free in ePub, MOBI, or PDF files.


The thesis of this brief essay is twofold: In post-Christendom America, Reformed and evangelical Christians need to (1) rethink their current understandings of the Great Commission and associated notions of the “lordship of Christ over all of culture,” and (2) rediscover the concept of slow discipleship from the early pre-Constantinian church.

These thoughts have been provoked by three “game-changing” events of 2015 that, in retrospect, will in all likelihood be seen as marking the “end of Christendom” for Christians in America (and Western Europe): the national vote in Ireland legalizing same-sex marriage; the highly publicized transgender transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner; and the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing gay marriage in all 50 states. “Christendom” could be seen as having begun in AD 380 when the Roman emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the legally established religion of the Roman Empire, beginning a more than 1,500-year period in which biblical values were foundational for both public law and private life.

These recent “end of Christendom” events are part of a long trajectory of secularization in America that began in the 19th century and accelerated in the 1960s with Supreme Court decisions effectively removing Bible reading and prayers from public schools; with Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in 1973; and with no-fault divorce laws and the broadening acceptance of sex outside of marriage. Biblical sexual ethics no longer form the basis of American law, the larger culture no longer supports Christian sexual morals, and we as Christians are no longer in charge of the “high places” of the public culture—the media, the elite universities, the law schools, and the courts.

In light of these new realities, Reformed and evangelical Christians need fresh thinking about the meaning of the Great Commission and the nature of discipleship in our time. In his final marching orders to his disciples, the risen Christ declared: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20).

In the history of interpretation, the church has often missed key elements of this commission, reading the text in terms of the church’s own immediate internal concerns—such as disputes over the proper forms of baptism or over the doctrine of the Trinity.[1] Today, we need to take a fresh look at these key terms in the Great Commission: nations, disciples, teaching, and obey. I would also argue that churches in America need to make three important “moves” in their understanding of mission: (1) from a focus on “lordship” over the culture to a focus on in-depth discipleship of the Christian; (2) from a primary emphasis on correct belief to a renewed emphasis on transformed behavior; and (3) from a prioritizing of quantitative metrics for success in the church to a qualitative metric (e.g., John 13:34–35; John 17:21) that focuses on the unity, harmony, and quality of relationships among Christians.

While Christ will indeed finally be confessed as Lord by every tongue and tribe and nation, with every knee bowing to him (Phil. 2:10­­­–11), his own strategy of spreading the kingdom of God was not a “top down” political agenda but more of a “bottom up,” one-by-one process of leavening (Matt. 13:33) with high standards for following him as a disciple (e.g., “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Luke 9:23]). 

The Lordship of Christ: Beginning with Us

While the concept of the “lordship of Christ over all of culture” is indeed biblically and theologically valid—and dear to the hearts of Reformed Christians—we must realize that in our own time a phrase like the “lordship of Christ over culture” can be heard and interpreted by non-Christians as the lordship of Christians over themas the recent backlashes against the political efforts of the Christian Right and Moral Majority would seem to suggest. If Christ were to comment on the Great Commission today, perhaps he might tell us that if we want to see his “lordship” over all of culture, we shouldn’t begin in Washington; we should begin in our own churches and with ourselves. Rather than focusing on public opposition to same-sex marriage, we should work on making our own marriages more lasting and loving. His commission was not just to make “converts” or to seek “decisions for Christ,” after all, but to make disciples willing to live—and to die—for him.

We also need to notice that the commission to “teach” (Matt. 28:20) explicitly focuses not, in the first instance, on belief, but rather on behavior: “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Jesus’s new commandment was that his disciples were to love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34–35). This love for one another—rather than mere profession of correct belief—was how the world would know they were followers of Jesus. His commands also included specific instructions about the need for continuing forgiveness (Matt. 18:21–22) and the way to resolve conflicts and disputes within the church (Matt. 5:23–24; 18:15–18)—injunctions that have been unevenly and inconsistently practiced in the history of the church.

In an important historical study Alan Kreider has shown that, in the early church prior to Constantine’s conversion in AD 313, Christian catechetical instruction for church membership was extensive—at times lasting for several years—unless candidates could demonstrate credible evidence of changed lives with positive answers to questions such as “Have you given to the poor? Have you helped those who were sick? Have you visited those in prison?” (cf. Matt. 25:34–36).[2] 

By the fourth and fifth centuries, however—likely in reaction to Arianism and other heresies—the focus in catechesis had shifted from changed behavior to correct belief. By the sixth century, with the virtually universal practice of infant baptism and fewer adult conversions, catechetical instruction in many parts of the church essentially disappeared altogether. And though at the time of the 16th-century Reformation Luther, Calvin, and the English Reformers attempted to revive the practice of catechetical instruction, for the most part the focus continued to be on right doctrine, with right behavior given less attention. Today we would do well to recover the early church’s catechetical emphasis on transformed lives, without neglecting the teaching of sound doctrine.

The Need for a Qualitative Metric for Success in the Church

Churches today would do well to adopt Jesus’s own qualitative metric for success in the body of Christ. His final, climactic prayer in John 17 reveals his understanding of the highest and final goal of Christian life and salvation—“that all of them might be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In this one astounding verse, Jesus reveals the ultimate goal of his life, death, and resurrection: to bring about a state of affairs in which the intimate, harmonious, and united relationships among his followers would mirror the unity and intimacy of his own relationship with the Father. According to Jesus, then, such unity and quality of relationships would be the key to success in the church’s great mission—“that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus was saying, in effect, that we should seek first not numerical growth but quality and depth in relationships. Quality precedes quantity, not the reverse.

Fresh reading of the Great Commission for our own post-Christendom America could, in effect, tell us to go and make disciples—but to slow down and make perhaps fewer but deeper disciples. Let the “lordship of Christ over all of culture,” then, take shape in your own church and in your own life. May we begin the work of making disciples anew, seeking to obey all that Christ has commanded us.

[1] John Jefferson Davis, “The History of the Interpretation of the Great Commission and Implications for Marketplace Ministries,” Evangelical Review of Theology 25:1 (2001): 65–80.

[2] Alan Kreider, “Ressourcement and Mission,” Anglican Theological Review 96:2 (Spring 2014): 239–261.

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