There are times when it is overwhelming to be a believer. There are moments when we just look closely at the world surrounding us and wonder where to begin. Everything seems to be falling apart.
But when our vision becomes wide, then the problems become huge. When the problems become huge, then the solutions we consider are also huge. When the solutions are huge, we quickly descend into despair. But some of us will push forward anyway. We will put all of our efforts into trying to fix the world around us to be more “Christian.” The idea is simple – if the world is more Christian, then the problems just disappear. It’s a macro approach to disciple-making; change the system, change the people. The system is composed of civic organizations, like government, so the strategy is to eliminate non-Christian beliefs through legal means.
The recent laws passed by Alabama and a few other states regarding abortions are an excellent example of this strategy. The laws are draconian in structure, with harsh penalties and unrealistic assumptions. What’s more, making a law against something doesn’t change attitudes, values, or beliefs. Yet there are so many believers that seem to cling to the hope that making something illegal will convince everyone that it is immoral.
Jesus’ directive before His ascension is quite specific if we take the time to study it. The passage is quite well-known among believers:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”Mt. 28:16-20 (NIV)
Verse 19 is the troublesome one here. This verse can easily be interpreted as installing theocracies around the world. I suggest that Jesus meant nothing of the sort. There are two reasons for this: 1) a lot of readers don’t really understand what “disciple” means in the original language and have added their own meanings, and 2) the word “nations” has connotations today that the original author did not intend.
The word for “make disciples” is μαθητεύσατε (mathēteusate), which in this verb tense only occurs here. It means to teach, instruct, and develop something. It portrays one person guiding another into new knowledge and new vision, a relationship-based interaction. It is a “bottom-up” strategy where cultures are transformed one person at a time. It is micro-Christianity, not macro-Christianity.
Further, the word for “nations” in this passage is ἔθνη (ethnē). English gets words like “ethnography” and “ethnicity” from this word. The best translation for the word is “tribe,” but since modern society has long left tribalism in the annals of history, we have chosen the word “nations” as a substitute. Jesus was not telling us to change governments – He was telling us to change people, one at a time, until the culture that those people create is consonant with the will and teachings of God. This, again, is micro-Christianity, not macro-Christianity.
Churches that spend all their time and energy on social justice, social movements, political action committees, and the like have got it all completely backwards. The Church of God is not a social service agency, even though it often tries to be. The secular world doesn’t want the church to be in that role, and quite frankly, it isn’t very good at it anyway. The church is trading away its true and real gift (the transformation of souls by the grace of God through Christ) for a bauble (the transformation of earthly kingdoms). This has to change.
The world around us is doomed to perish. The people in it aren’t. Perhaps we should be focusing more on them.