Editor: This is a continuation of the first post in what promises to be an excellent series. The first post can be found here.
Criticism of McGavran’s Understanding of the Great Commission
Various critics, however, have found elements of McGavran’s exegesis of the Great Commission to be seriously flawed.
The Meaning of Ethne
First of all, while it is undeniable that ethne as an isolated word refers to ethnic groups and not to nation-states, it is not so clear that matheteusate panta ta ethne implies discipling each and every ethnic group on a one-by-one basis. New Testament scholar Eckhard Schnabel, for example, argues that “in regard to the linguistic meaning of the Greek term ethne a collective plural has an all-embracing force, and that it is illegitimate to read a contemporary socioanthropologic definition back into the phrase panta ta ethne.”19 In other words, panta ta ethne in this context refers to Gentiles collectively rather than to each ethnic group separately.
The Meaning of Matheteusate
Next, it is doubtful that matheteusate refers at all to Christianizing groups of people or societal structures; it refers, rather, to enlisting individual human beings as disciples of Jesus.20 The grammatical structure of Matthew 28:19 includes one imperative, “make disciples,” which is modified by three participles: “going,” “baptizing,” and “teaching.” Assuming, along with many interpreters that, as an aorist participle, “going” serves a subordinate function, the clear implication is that the remaining participles, “baptizing” and “teaching” (both in the present tense), should be understood as the two joint components comprising the overall discipling process. If it is forcing the question to infer a metaphorical sense of “teaching” entire ethnic groups or “nations,” it is even more farfetched to think in terms of “baptizing” them. In other words, the means by which panta ta ethne are discipled is by way of baptizing individuals and teaching them to observe all of Christ’s commands.21
While it is undeniably true that in comparison with the rest of the world Western society and culture tend to be individualistic in their outlook, and that as Western interpreters we should beware of interpreting the Bible through the lens of our cultural biases, if one does not take Matthew 28:19 as referring to Christianizing entire people groups, the New Testament does not portray the decision to follow Christ as a collective process. Though there are examples in the book of Acts in which the various members of entire households make the decision to follow Christ on the same occasion, the New Testament consistently teaches that individuals become disciples of Jesus Christ as they personally repent of their sins, place their trust in Christ, and openly confess that decision through the symbolic act of baptism.
“Discipling” and “Perfecting”
If becoming a disciple means personally enrolling in the school of Jesus, however, that implies a lifelong process of obedient learning from that point forward. In keeping with the grammatical structure of Matthew 28:19, “making disciples” includes both bringing individuals to an initial point of repentance and faith, expressed publicly by “baptizing” them, as well as the on-going process of “teaching” them to obey all of Christ’s commands. According to McGavran, the ethical standards required at the moment of baptism are lower than those required later on in the discipleship process: “This is not to say the practice of full brotherhood, the realization of every aspect of equality and justice, ought to be made a condition for a person becoming a Christian.”22 Though he agrees that the seed of the gospel contains the religious root for overcoming racism and prejudice, according to McGavran, this root often does not sprout and bear fruit in the lives of individuals until some point subsequent to their Christian conversion. As a result, it is necessary to accommodate human tendencies toward ethnocentrism by the planting of homogeneous congregations.23
It is unquestionably true that after becoming a believer in Jesus, it should be expected there will be a subsequent lifetime of growth in the spiritual commitment and moral and ethical conduct of the new disciple. At the same time, however, there is a certain minimum level of commitment that accompanies an authentic conversion to Jesus Christ. In the teaching of Jesus in Gospels, he lays down some patently radical demands of discipleship. Perhaps most relevant to the question at hand is Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Apart from the thorny question of the apparently hyperbolic use of the term “hate” in this verse, the overwhelming force of what Jesus says comes through quite clearly. A decision to follow Jesus involves at the same time a decision to renounce all competing loyalties. If these loyalties include those to one’s most intimate family relationships, it is surely not stretching matters to assume they also include ethnic and cultural loyalties.
This does not mean, however, that in order to become a Christian one must be free of all sinful habits. Salvation is by grace, through faith, not works. Indeed, as Wagner observes, “Overloading the gospel with all the ethical issues on the agenda of the evangelizing culture always carries the risk of producing a moralistic gospel.”24 However, a gospel that teaches there are different classes of sins—some that must be forsaken on the front end in order to become a Christian, and others that may be dealt with later on—is alien to the teaching of Scripture. Indeed, the sin of racism appears to be one sin the New Testament specifically identifies as incompatible with the gospel.
Yoder comments on Paul’s rebuke of the false gospel taught by the Judaizers in the Epistle to the Galatians:
Paul does not say that it is an elementary or rudimentary or an immature gospel needing to grow up. He does not say that Galatia as a whole has been Christianized and needs only to be perfected, nor even that the Jewish population in Galatia as a homogeneous unit had been Christianized and had not yet learned mature Christian ethics about brotherhood. He rather says that they are denying the true gospel, or preaching a false gospel, if the overcoming of the barrier of the Jew and Gentile is not being lived out in their daily communal and sacramental life. What they are practicing is a different gospel (1:6), a gospel contrary (1:9) to what he is free to preach. They deny the gospel because they think they can have valid messianic faith without overcoming the barrier between Jew and Greek.25
He further clarifies:
This does not mean that an individual cannot have all by herself or himself a valid religious experience. Nor does it mean that there cannot be a valid Christianity in mono-cultural or homogeneous situations. It does not mean that young churches or new Christians must be morally perfect. It does, however, mean that when we seek for trans-cultural and trans-generational ecumenically usable criteria to measure which expressions of the gospel are more or less authentic, and which strategies for its propagation are more or less adequate, we must certainly include the element which Paul in Ephesians claimed had been revealed especially through him, and of which in Galatians he claimed that to deny it is to advocate another gospel entirely.26
DeYoung et al. add: “We even go so far as to say that a Christian, by biblical definition, is a follower of Jesus Christ whose way of life is racial reconciliation.”27
Communicating the Demands of Discipleship
With regard to evangelistic and church planting strategy, it is necessary to communicate clearly the demands of discipleship on the front end. It is interesting to note that when Abraham, the father of faith, responded in faith to God’s call, it was a call to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household (Gen 12:1). When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came to John to be baptized, he told them to first “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:7–8). When the rich young ruler came to Jesus expressing an interest in following him, he told him forthrightly, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). When another came to Jesus, asking him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” Jesus replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:21–22).
Once again, it is essential to hold firm that salvation is by grace, through faith, not works. But biblical faith also implies a repentant disposition to forsake one’s sins. And biblical evangelism involves a call to forsake not just some sins, but all those of which one is personally aware. It is not a bait-and-switch offer of eternal life, in exchange first of all for certain commitments, and then later on, once one is already admitted into the Christian community, in exchange for deeper commitments.
Paul, commenting on the evangelistic strategy used by his missionary team, wrote that, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2). In the parable of the sower, “the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it” (Matt 13:23). Certainly, there is an implied responsibility here on the part of the gospel communicator to sow the seed in such a way that the demands of the gospel are clearly understood on the front end.
In practice, people groups which have initially been evangelized with an intentional de-emphasis on racial and social reconciliation have often not, as McGavran and Wagner suggest, manifested signs of growing in their renunciation of racism and prejudice later on. The question must be faced when planting churches intentionally organized along homogeneous unit lines, when, if ever, the transition to a more biblical approach to Christian unity will be introduced, and how it will be done. The historical results of such an approach have not been encouraging.28
(to be continued…)
19. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 366. See also David J. Hesselgrave, “Confusion Concerning the Great Commission,” EMQ 15, no. 4 (October 1979): 200.
20. McGavran himself agrees that “the Greek word matheteuein means to enroll in a school or to persuade to become a follower.” McGavran, Momentous Decisions in Missions Today, 22.
21. See, for example, Bosch, “The Structure of Mission: An Exposition of Matthew 28:16-20,” 231; Orlando E. Costas, The Church and Its Mission: A Shattering Critique from the Third World (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1974), 142.
22. Donald A. McGavran, Ethnic Realities and the Church (Pasadena, Cal.: William Carey Library, 1979), 257.
23. Ibid. See also Wagner, Our Kind of People, 32–33, 101; McGavran, The Bridges of God, 39; McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 229–30.
24. Wagner, Our Kind of People, 102.
25. John H. Yoder, “The Social Shape of the Gospel,” in Exploring Church Growth (ed. Wilbert R. Shenk; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 280.
26. Ibid., 283. For a similar line of reasoning, see also Padilla, “The Unity of the Church and the Homogeneous Unit Principle,” 286, 300.
27. Curtiss Paul DeYoung et al., United by Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 129. See also John Piper, Bloodlines (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 160, 165.
28. For specific examples, see Yoder, “Church Growth Issues in Theological Perspective,” 37–38; Yoder, “The Social Shape of the Gospel,” 278; C. Douglas McConnell, “Confronting Racism and Prejudice in Our Kind of People,” Missiology 25, no. 4 (October 1997): 391–98. Barro, “Unity and Diversity in the Family of God.”