Credit an interesting title to the late Dallas Willard, known by many for his writings on spiritual formation in Christ. The words “The Great Commission” aren’t actually in Christian scripture. What the 19th century burgeoning missionary movement from the West termed as the Great Commission may now appear in your Bible as a helpful subtitle for ease of reading, and obeying. In the above-named book, Willard laments that the interpretation, application of Matthew 28:18-20 developed by many translators, commentators, churches and missionaries –into our time—contains what he calls the great omission. That is, to be learners.
Christians have responded to Christ’s last command by making “Christians,” not “disciples of Christ.” Hence especially the Western Church’s Great Omission – training in discipleship and following Christ’s life example. Emphasis shifted to gathering converts and memberships. But Christ’s call was for us to be and make disciples, learners. All of the assurances and benefits offered to humankind in the Good News presuppose such active life as followers. Willard boldly challenged the thought we can be Christians without being disciples, or without applying this understanding of life in the Reign of God to every aspect of our living here on earth. We can’t “export” what we don’t possess.
From various writers, people(s), you’re likely familiar with other enduring destructive effects of misinterpretation of the Great Commission, or even of Christ’s actual words. This, too, warrants serious rethinking of the Matthean text. Womanist theologian Mitzi J. Smith addresses churches having laced the Great Commission with colonialism. Christ used imperial language, but as was his habit and pattern, he turned it on the empire! For Christ to say “all authority has been given to me” was a counter-empire, counter-imperial word in lands subjugated and oppressed by Roman emperors! Christ’s words weren’t about domination, supremacy, creating a social hierarchy, nor even about extension. We need to begin with courage to listen to the witness of people who have suffered the traumatic effects of wrong approaches. Canada is still experiencing hard learning about this.
Throughout Christ’s ministry, he announced, and encouraged, his followers his Reign was counter to that of the empire, the dominant culture. Christ’s claim is encouragement and imperative to us also.
True authority comes from Christ’s integrity, from congruity between his just words and just practice.
So, what about our teaching? Does it include dialogue with “followers,” ”pupils,” “students?” Teaching can be a good learning profession!
At a Mennonite Economic Development Associates convention in 2016, Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee encouraged me, “Every day, say something that you don’t usually.” (But I mean to continue to learn to do so kindly.)
So, half-mast Canada and lifelong learners, let’s open our hands, hearts, and minds. Hands, perhaps palms up, receiving. The Spirit beckons, and moves among us all.