The Great Commission and Church Discipline

The Great Commission is talked about, promoted, and extolled, and rightly so.[1] The Great Commission is the mandate given by Jesus to the church (Matt 28:18-20). If someone preaches about reaching people with the gospel, everyone is rightly excited and supportive–even though some may not actually contribute more than an expected amen. When someone is baptized, there are numerous amens, hallelujahs, or applause because the Great Commission is being carried out. While people and churches may fail to live up to the challenge to take the gospel to our neighbors and the uttermost parts of the earth, at least there is a serious attempt by many and an esteeming of its importance by virtually every believer. To do less would be willful disobedience to our Lord who redeemed us.

However, there seems to be a profound misunderstanding of the Great Commission by many and a serious lack of clear communication of the nature of the Great Commission by others. This is evident when people view church discipline as unrelated or irrelevant to the Great Commission or even an impediment to evangelism. The prevalence of such is evidenced by the ubiquitously glaring omission by some regarding the importance of church discipline to carrying out the Great Commission. One may go for a lifetime to evangelism and missions conferences that passionately emphasize the Great Commission and evangelism without ever hearing the need for or even a mention of church discipline, much less its importance to following Christ’s command in making disciples. For if people deemed it relevant, church discipline would receive proportionally appropriate attention when discussing the Great Commission.

The very passage known as the Great Commission demonstrates the inextricable relationship between church discipline and the Great Commission. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20). The phrase, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” does not make His post-resurrection authority greater than His pre-resurrection authority, but rather the sphere in which He exercises authority is now all encompassing. This is both an encouragement and a call to submission. Although the assignment to follow is humanly impossible, we can be encouraged because the One commissioning has absolute power and authority to empower the commissioned. Additionally, there is also the idea of encouragement in the words “lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” The absolute power is always available because He not only sends His people, but He goes with them. This passage is a call to unwavering and unreserved surrender to Christ as God.

Having established His all-encompassing, absolute authority, He now sends His disciples into all of the world to reproduce. Three components of the assigned task are go, baptizing, and teaching. These three verbs are participles in the Greek. Matheteuo is translated make disciples. It is the main verb, and it is in the imperative, which makes it the central command in the passage. It means to make learners and followers of Christ. This command can be summed up in the following way. I command you to make learners who follow Me, who in turn continue the commission to make disciples who follow Me. The participles–go, baptizing, and teaching –are dependent on the main verb, and it appears that “at least some imperatival force tinges the participle.”[2] Go is an aorist passive participle, which can be translated having gone. To wit, since they were His disciples, they were to continue His work “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), which involves intentional going. In other words, He assumed as followers, they would go as He did (Matt 4:23; 8:35), and as He had previously commanded them (Matt 10:6). Only now, their sphere of ministry included all nations. With this in mind, it seems that the word “go” incorporates imperatival force, assumption by Jesus, and intentionality by the disciples.

The two other participles, baptizing and teaching, are in the present tense, which signifies continuous action. Baptizing and teaching are not the means of making disciples, but they do characterize it. In other words, a person becomes a disciple by faith in Christ, then as a disciple, he is to be baptized and taught. The biblical response of a disciple is to submit to baptism as a sign of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as well as obedience to His instructions.

The verb observe is translated from the Greek word tareo, which means “to attend to carefully, take care of”[3] and “to cause to continue, to keep.”[4] Thus, the clear meaning is to obey carefully. A disciple of Christ is a follower of Christ who both learns and applies what he learns. Consequently, a disciple seeks to advance the kingdom by helping people come to salvation and then teaches and trains them to live in continued obedience to the commands of Christ. Notice that disciples are to observe all. There are no exceptions. The word all emphasizes that the Great Commission is to make disciples through communicating the gospel, then baptize the new disciples, and train and teach them to follow Christ in everything He commanded. To do any less is to disobey the Great Commission; to tell others to do any less than to observe all He taught is to misrepresent and molest the Great Commission.

This is not to say that we can teach everything in the first day or year, nor is it to say that some things should not take priority over others within the discipling process. Additionally, it is obvious that no one comes to know and understand all the teachings of Christ (the New Testament) without time and dedication to do so. However, it is to say that when we neglect to teach and follow certain biblical commands, or ignore them because of their difficulty, we necessarily desert the command to “observe all” and “teaching them to” do the same. Thus, we fail to fulfill the Great Commission. A person’s failure to fulfill the Great Commission because he does not know or because of human frailty, even though his heart’s desire is to obey, is categorically different than someone who intentionally disassociates what Christ intentionally bound together.

Jesus always called people to follow Him. The call to follow was a call to obey (Matt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 10:38, 16:24). Both philosophers and Pharisees had disciples, but Jesus’s call to be a disciple was different. The primary difference between Jesus’s disciples and the disciples of philosophers and Pharisees was that Jesus’s disciples were committed to the person of Jesus–not just His teachings. Gerhard Kittel notes, “A unique aspect of NT discipleship is that it is commitment to the person of Jesus. His teaching has force only when there is first this commitment to His person. This personal commitment explains the deep depression of the disciples after the crucifixion (Luke 24:19ff.). It is not enough that they have the legacy of His Word. They have lost Jesus himself. The crucial importance of the resurrection reinforces this.”[5]

It is worth noting that the Scripture clearly teaches that some commands are weightier than others are. For example, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier provisions of the law while majoring on minors. However, it is important to notice that He then commanded them to keep the weightier commands “without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). Even if church discipline is not a weightier command, it is still quasi-Pharisaical to know the Scripture commands churches to employ discipline and consciously choose to elide the command.

Moreover, I would suggest that it is obviously not a less important command when considered in light of the direct and explicit command of Christ in Matt 18:15-20, the inclusive all in the Great Commission, and the things Christ referred to as “weightier” in Matt 23:23, which are “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” It seems reasonable to view church discipline as one of the weightier since discipline is an act of mercy, justice, and faithfulness, and is essential to the church maximally carrying out the Great Commission.

The conclusion of this passage brings us face to face with the stark reality that the local church cannot fully obey the Great Commission without teaching and practicing church discipline since it was commanded earlier (Matt 18:15-20), and is therefore, most definitely included in the phrase “to observe all.” Additionally, since the Great Commission encompasses the whole counsel of God, which includes the entirety of the New Testament, all of the commands regarding church discipline are included as well.

Jesus emphasized the indissoluble relationship between love and obedience many times. For example, He said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15; see also John 8:31; John 14:23-26). Selective obedience only demonstrates that a person’s love for Christ falls short of what He is worthy to receive and what He requires. There are many things in the Christian life which bespeak of how much we love Christ, but perhaps none so much as our willingness to follow the teachings of Christ in areas like church discipline, where the potential for personal loss, difficulty, and misunderstanding seems boundless.

This reality is most true for the pastor and his family. To follow Christ only where it is easy is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[6] (italics added)

The church must live out its faith in every area prescribed by the Scripture. She must live it out in the most difficult and unpopular areas if she expects to be taken seriously in the battle for the souls of individuals as well as the American mind. Dr. Francis Schaeffer said it succinctly; “In an age of relativity, the practice of truth when it is costly is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Cooperation and unity that do not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine are just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy which does not lead to a concern for and a reaching out towards those who are lost.”[7]

[1] It is important to note that the phrase The Great Commission is not actually in the biblical text, but rather it is referred to as such because of the comprehensiveness of the passage. Thus, it is the Great Commission in the sense that everything culminates in that commissioning. However it is, according to the biblical text, a command. Thus the added term “Great” does not make it more textually significant than the command to practice church discipline since it is also commanded (many times in the New Testament), and it is also an undeniable and inseparable part of this commission to the apostles and the church. The overarching mandate to the church is to glorify God, and we do that by obeying Him (Matt 5:16; Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 4:11).
[2] Frank E Gaebelin and J.D. Douglas, eds. “Matthew, Mark, Luke” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 595.
[3] James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, electronic edition (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996), s.v. “tareo.”
[4] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), s.v. “tareo.”
[5] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-), 390-461.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995. Previously published New York: Macmillan, 1959), 44-45. Citations refer to Touchstone edition.
[7] Francis A. Schaeffer, Trilogy: God Who Is There (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 197.

Ronnie W. Rogers