Editor’s Note: This article was first published at “Through Him and for Him,” and has been republished by the author’s permission.
One missiological debate among North American evangelicals has to do with terminology. Some Christians reserve the terms “missions” and “missionary” to refer exclusively to those who are sent out as foreign missionaries among a people group that has not been reached with the gospel. Others only use these words to refer to all Christians, for they hold that we are all missionaries because we all have been sent out by Jesus to fulfill his Great Commission. So who’s right?
Before we can adequately address the terminological issue, we have to deal with a deeper, underlying question: just what is the Great Commission anyway, and who fulfills it?
Understanding the Great Commission
In the Great Commission, our Lord says to his apostles (Matt 20:18–20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.
This great commission clearly requires the church to care about reaching every people group on earth with the gospel. The church is to make disciples of παντα τα εθνη—all the nations, the ethnicities, the people-groups. When this passage is compared to other NT texts, it becomes clear that local churches should not wait until they have thoroughly evangelized their own area before they send out missionaries to other cultures, places, and peoples without the gospel; rather, Paul speaks of his ambition “to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named . . . but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’” (Rom 15:20, 21). Paul scans his map from Jerusalem all the way over to Illyricum and concludes, “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:23). In terms of “cultural reformation,” there remained yet much work to be done at the time Paul wrote this. Nevertheless, he says, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (Rom 15:23).
Looking at the book of Acts, it becomes clear that Paul’s practice fit within a broader pattern: the NT church was eager to send out foreign missionaries to share the gospel among those who had not heard. They did not wait until they had totally won over everybody in their own regions before doing so. This means that churches in the U. S. should not reason, “How could we think about trying to reach Nepal or Indonesia when we have so much work to do here in America?” The work of cultural reformation—evangelizing and discipling one’s own culture—should in no way replace or stall the work of frontier missions.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that the Great Commission cannot be limited to the work of frontier missions—it’s not smaller than that, but it is bigger. The Great Commission includes the work of cultural reformation. The Great Commission is not a cosmic game of tag; we’re not charged to merely touch each nation with the gospel and run. What we are actually commanded to do is disciple the nations, and we do that by baptizing them and by teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded. When Paul scanned hundreds of miles of the Mediterranean shores and wiped his hands and said, “Done,” he said that precisely because there were established churches there that could work toward that area’s further evangelization and discipleship. If all the churches Paul planted said, “Right! Done. We’re coming to Spain with you,” Paul would have objected. That would have negated the work he already completed. Paul can move on precisely because others won’t.
When the churches of Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae worked for the permeation of their regions with the gospel, they were playing their part in making disciples of all nations. And when the churches of Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae supported missionaries like Paul who were headed to other regions with the good news of the kingdom, they were playing their part in making disciples of all nations. The church can’t choose one of these options; it is called to do both. The church makes disciples of all nations not only by sending missionaries to all nations, but also by working towards the discipleship of the nation each church finds itself in. The work of cultural reformation, then, is included in the Great Commission. When a Christian shares the gospel with a non-Christian, or when a Christian seeks to disciple their own family or fellow church members and teach them all that Christ has commanded them, they are obeying and, in their own small way, fulfilling the Great Commission.
There are two implications to this. First, we should never so emphasize the task of cultural reformation that we fail to send out and support foreign missionaries. In this vein, many evangelical circles are big on using words like “mission” and “missional” to describe Christian living. Christians should be “on mission” at work, at home, and wherever they are. All Christians are “missionaries,” since we are all called to bear witness to Jesus and extend his grace to others. The danger with this sort of language is that it can betray a lack of emphasis on the responsibility of every church to care about making Jesus known not only in our cities and neighborhoods, but also far beyond, among those who have never heard or seen. In describing evangelization and day-to-day Christian living as “missional,” we must consciously work against losing the category for foreign, Paul-type missions. If a “missional” church has its sights set only upon their own neighborhood, city, and nation, their vision is too small, and they neglect an important aspect of the Great Commission.
On the other hand, we must not so emphasize foreign missions that we create the impression that working for the evangelization and discipleship of our own family, church, neighborhood, city, and nation is unimportant. These efforts, too, are mandated by the Great Commission. Here again our language about “missions” may reflect an imbalance. Some evangelicals reserve the term “mission” and “missions” and “missionaries” to refer only to foreign missions—taking the gospel to another people group, and preferably one that does not have any churches. But doing this may create the impression that there is no sense in which Christians who work for the evangelization and discipling of their own nation and culture are fulfilling the Great Commission, and that the only sense in which the Christian can be obedient to the Great Commission is by supporting a foreign missionary. This may lead the Christian to not find much meaning or significance in what they do in their day-to-day lives: after all, they’re not doing anything to fulfill the mission Christ gave his church, except inasmuch as they support others who are actually fulfilling it. It also can lead to a diminished concern for the evangelization and cultural reformation of one’s own neighborhood, city, and nation.
Better, I think, to teach that all Christians are called to fulfill the Great Commission, both by working for the evangelization and discipleship of their native land and by sending and supporting foreign missionaries to plant churches in every people group—churches that will, in turn, work for the cultural reformation of their own societies and send even more missionaries to plant churches in other unreached areas.
Who Is a Missionary? What Is Missions?
At the end of the day we are going to have to decide how we are going to use words. I think that we would do well to retain the use of the traditional terms “missions” and “missionary” to ordinarily refer to the task of bringing the gospel to an unreached people group, and those who do so. We are going to have to call those people something, and “missionary” is as good a term as any. We should retain this technical usage as primary.
With that said, I think it can be permissible to use these terms in a more generalized sense from time to time to drive home that all Christians are called to fulfill the Great Commission through the at-home work of evangelization and discipleship. I say “from time to time” because if this happens too often, we run in danger of losing sight of the specific task of foreign missions altogether. We must not obscure the necessity of the unique office of the foreign missionary and the unique task of frontier missions.
Some may object to the traditional terminology on the grounds that all Christians are “sent” into the world (John 17:18) and can be said to fulfill the Great Commission; therefore, they would reason that it is inappropriate to designate some Christians as “sent ones” or as those who carry out the Great Commission, since it implies all other Christians are not sent and do not carry out the Great Commission.
The problem here is that the very same argument would hold against the Biblical terms for the offices of elder and deacon. By calling a certain church officer an “elder” (πρεσβύτερος, Acts 14:23; 1 Pet 5:1–4), Scripture does not imply that no other Christian in the church can be an “elder” (πρεσβύτερος) in a different sense–such as, those who are advanced in age (Luke 15:25; John 8:9; 1 Tim 5:1). Similarly, all Christians are called to be servants (διακονος) of Christ and of one another (Mark 10:43; John 12:26), and yet the NT designates some officers of the church as “deacons” (διακονος), or servants (1 Tim 3:8).
So, since we already call some positions of the church by the name of “elder” and “servant”—even though there are broader senses in which all church members of advanced age are “elders” and all church members of any age are “servants”—then there is nothing intrinsically wrong with calling a certain position “missionary” and a certain endeavor “missions”—even though there are broader senses in which all Christians should be carrying out the Great Commission and are sent by Christ into the world to do just that. Furthermore, since this is the traditional terminology that has been widely used and employed, and there is no other alternative that is widely agreed upon, we would do well to by and large stick to the traditional terminology, to avoid confusion and unnecessary dissension.
The terminological dispute is important, and all sides have dangers that they should be especially careful to guard themselves against. But what’s most important is that we agree on what the Great Commission is, how we fulfill it, and who fulfills it; and then that we allow this to be reflected in and clearly communicated to our churches.