By Wes Kenney, currently a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
A proper understanding of the role of the individual Christian in the fulfillment of the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary to the well being of the church and to the faithful fulfillment of that commission. Essential to this understanding is the recognition of the church’s place within the biblical witness as the guardian of truth. With this understanding in place, this paper will argue that the Great Commission is not given for individuals to fulfill, but to the church. This distinction is an important one, and much error is avoided when it is understood and embraced.
“These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:14–15, NKJV). The Apostle Paul’s words make it clear that the church itself is the guardian of the revealed truth of God’s Word. The repeated Pauline commands to churches to guard against error strengthen this idea. The church has a responsibility to guard the truth, and the authority to speak definitively concerning what is true. A true church, seeking the will of God and the mind of Christ, will never lack an understanding of the truth, and cannot shirk its responsibility to defend it. This especially is true with regard to the Great Commission.
Baptists are generally united in the belief that the ordinances of Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are commands given to the church to carry out. Though individuals and small groups sometimes seek to carry out these commands on their own, the consistent witness throughout church history has been that they are to be carried out within the church, and Baptist history has located this responsibility within local churches, and for good reason. Order is not maintained when individuals baptize converts outside the authority of the local church. The fellowship is not strengthened when small groups within the congregation observe the Lord’s Supper on their own, apart from the larger congregation. The eleventh chapter of First Corinthians makes this abundantly clear. It is just as important that the Great Commission commands to make disciples and to teach be closely associated with the authority and oversight of the local church.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:19–20, ESV). In this account of the Great Commission given in Matthew’s Gospel, baptism is integral. Disciple-making and teaching are presented on the same plane with this church ordinance, which is in itself a strong argument in favor of tying all these responsibilities to the local church. But this is not the only argument. In the complementary account of the Great Commission given in Luke, the disciples are not told to immediately get busy in making disciples, but rather they are to “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49, ESV).
The event for which Jesus commanded them to wait was, of course, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, widely regarded as the birth of the New Testament church. Had these commands within the Great Commission been intended for every individual to carry out on their own, they would not have needed to remain together to await this promised power. But these commands, the work of the Great Commission, are not given to individuals, they are given to the church.
The objection may be raised that this understanding of the nature of the commands relieves individuals of the responsibility to share their faith with the lost. That objection is understood, and rejected, for what is the church, if not individual, repentant, redeemed, and baptized sinners? No, the obligation remains upon all, but the local church must be at the center of all Great Commission activity.
Some may ask what harm may come from an individual carrying out this work apart from the local church. While many could be cited, two examples will suffice to demonstrate the great danger present when individuals carry out Great Commission activities, including disciple-making and teaching, apart from a relationship of accountability to a local church.
The first example offered is that of Joseph Smith. The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began his work with the contention that all churches then in existence were apostate, and that to him alone God had revealed the true gospel. His mission of “restoration” has led millions astray, but it could not have originated had he been accountable to a local congregation who could have disciplined him for his errant teaching.
A more modern example is that of Oklahoma rancher and television Bible teacher Les Feldick. This writer came in contact with the aberrant teaching of Mr. Feldick during the process of candidating for the pastorate of a local church. This church had members who had come under the influence of Mr. Feldick, and through them many were being led astray to a modern day version of the ancient heresy of Marcion. Mr. Feldick is very candid in expressing his appreciation for all churches and his connection to none of them. Again, this kind of pervasive error would be easily corrected were Mr. Feldick to come under the discipline of a local congregation. Absent that discipline, he is beyond correction.
It is because of our fallen, sinful nature that individuals need the church, and the accountability it provides, especially as we seek to be obedient to the Great Commission. Not only must baptism and the Lord’s Supper be carried out under the authority of the local church, but also our teaching, and even our disciple-making activities must submit themselves to this authority. Our fallen nature is prone to error, but the church, the “pillar and ground of the truth,” is able to guard us from error, allowing us to honor our Savior as we obey his commands.