Evangelism and witnessing are technical words used to portray the way a Christian shares his/her faith. The Great Commission, Matthew 28.19-20, provides a rubric for conceptualising these acts in a unique way: through a paradigm of discipleship.
Discipleship for many has come to focus merely on spiritual formation where the pursuit of a dedicated life to God is assumed. Texts such as Matthew 8:19-22; & 16:24 and scholars such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Greg Ogden, are invoked to validate this focus. Here the Christian concentrates on spiritual exercises and reflection, which in turn shapes their inward motives – the epicentre for both attitudinal and behavioural change. While this, in many ways, is an all too neglected emphasis of the SDA church today, Matthew 28:19,20 (The Great Commission) presents a much broader paradigm for discipleship, albeit inclusive of it. And it is within the Great Commission that notions of evangelism and witnessing might best be understood.
The immediate context of the Great Commission has the disciples returning to Galilee (v.16), the multi-religious region where Jesus began his ministry and now the context for a new ministry/mission. Notice that doubt accompanies the worship of Jesus on the Mount (v.17), and is not repudiated. Indeed, their doubt is answered, first, by the global and cosmic authority of the resurrected Jesus, which governs the inclusive scope of the commission to make disciples of all nations (vv.19-20a), and, second, by the covenantal promise given at the end of the commission, “I am with you always right to the end of the age” (v.20). Nevertheless, the answer does not mask the reality that when undertaking the most daring of missions, their holy boldness might often be challenged by uncertainty. They will not know everything!
Now to the commission itself. Clearly the goal of the commission is in the imperative verb, “make disciples” – i.e. to persuade people to become like you, Jesus followers. The hint of how this might happen is within the paradigm of v.19-20. Here there are three participles, verbal words, which inform the way the action of the main verb, ‘to make disciples,’ is carried out. They are going, baptising and teaching. The grammar and syntax of the commission suggest that when these phases are carried out, the individual – the object of discipling – is discipled.
The precise way the first of these participles function is debatable. Yet, however one may wish to label it, it is clear that it is pregnant with intentional going, directional going, purposeful going: i.e., given that you are going, now go; or, as you go, whichever way you go, ‘make disciples’. This is because, Jesus presumes that the disciples would go and inevitably share what they have just externally and internally witnessed. Hence, implicit in the notion of going is the personal sharing of the good news of what the risen Jesus has done to their lives. This is the phase of discipling that may correspond to what the Sabbath School lesson refers to as ‘witnessing,’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘evangelism’.
The second participle, baptising, is more instrumental in nature, although, arguably not entirely so. Again, however one may wish to label it, baptism, the formal, public declaration of allegiance to God through Jesus, is evidently a deliberate part of the process of discipling. Many may refer to this phase (falsely) as the goal of evangelism. The text does not entertain this notion. Baptism is only ‘part’ of the journey towards discipleship.
The third participle, teaching, is also more or less instrumental in nature. Hence, a person is not fully discipled until (s)he is witnessed to, baptised and taught. The question is: what are we teaching new converts – newly baptised individuals – to do? Well, according to the text we should be teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded his disciples to adopt and do. The two creeds that Jesus hung all his teachings on were, ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and, second, love your neighbour as yourself,’ (Matthew 22:37-39).This kind of teaching cannot be done in a classroom! You can only show someone how to love as Jesus loved. In fact, the phrase, ‘teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you,’ is, rhetorically speaking, mentoring language.
Therefore, Jesus is here talking about holistic teaching through mentoring. This is not merely rationalistic, doctrinal teaching. It is a reference to Jesus’ specific teaching of righteousness: that righteousness can only be had by going beyond the letter of the law and obeying the spirit of the law, which essentially is love. It is a love that is defined by self-denying, cross-bearing humility. Tough love. A love that involves justice, for justice is what love looks like in public. In short, it is showing the new Christian that only a right heart matters, the kind that comes through repentance. Mentoring is a personal, demonstrable, practical teaching by a mature person. It is person-to-person. This is done through showing the mentee (or in our context, the new Christian) how to live out the values and teachings of Jesus Christ in a saving relationship with Him (that is sustained by spiritual disciplines); how to organically share this lived-reality of transforming love (to witness); how to persuade someone to give allegiance to the God of this love through baptism; and how to mentor that person. So the cycle repeats itself.
The text can now be rephrased, ‘make disciples of all people groups when you share (i.e. as you intentionally witness), and by means of baptising and mentoring. And through it all, I am with you always (the authority of heaven and earth), right through till the end of this age.’ It is the third phase, mentoring, that completes the discipleship cycle, where the discipled becomes a discipler.
This paradigm of making disciples is organic and appropriate for a postmodern generation that privileges experience over reason, compassion over correctness, relationship over status, people over tradition. Naturally, not every relationship we form would progress into a disciple making one. However, whatever mode of witness we give (individually or corporately) the end in sight must be to form redemptive relationships of love, even if we don’t get a chance to persuade that new friend to become a disciple of Jesus. Indeed, the Holy Spirit will dictate. Likewise, whatever mode of evangelism the church employs the end in sight must be to make disciples, where the discipled becomes disciplers. For, the true object of evangelism is discipleship. And true discipleship is a lifestyle.
Gifford Rhamie is a lecturer in the Theology Department of Newbold College, UK, where he teaches in Biblical and Pastoral Studies as well as co-directs the Centre for the Study of Religious and Cultural Studies.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3901