None of the caveats and explanations used to justify John Chau’s presence among the Sentinelese islanders matter if the premise which led him there is flawed. We can talk about his plans, purpose, preparation, and calling. You can ask if he is a martyr or a fool? However, if the theology that is motivating him, the Christology shaping his understanding of Jesus and the missiology guiding his call to share Jesus with others are wrong; there we must begin.
Why are they wrong? Because they rely on a faulty Biblical justification for Christian missions for the better part of two thousand years found in two verses of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew 28:18-19. Every church that’s planted (successfully or not) and preacher that’s sent is premised on fifty-eight words (as translated in English) from a book written forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death. How many innocent people have died for those fifty-eight words?
Even the United Methodist Church gives a tremendous amount of weight to these scant words in our own mission statement: “The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We repeat it at annual conferences, district gatherings, and print it on every conceivable kind of material. Our mission statement is the Cliff Notes version of the Matthew 28. As our own experience shows, even a mainline denomination has trouble letting go of a literal interpretation of Jesus’ marching orders.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Matthew 28 is a powerful opiate. I understand why bureaucrats, bishops, and missionaries don’t want to let go of Jesus’ command. Reread it. Under the totality of Jesus’ authority on heaven and earth, we are required to make disciples of everyone and baptize them to obey Jesus commands. “Obey” and “command” are strong words. What if they don’t want to obey? Perhaps they don’t follow your leadership? Is it then we use our authority? Sadly, this is the history of the church. In the 21st century, the armies at our disposal aren’t commanded by popes. The church is still a dominant force in that we use our moral authority to shape the world through political and social coercion.
For centuries these verses have been literally interpreted as a Biblical mandate to colonize, evangelize, kill, and conquer – all in the name of God. It worked; large portions of South America and Africa are now Christian, mirror images of the fundamentalist American missionaries who brought them Christianity.
The Great Commission isn’t a carte blanche permission to change cultures or destroy lives. Western Christianity has done too much damage in the name of the so-called “Great Commission” to continue using this dubious scriptural justification as reasoning for planting churches and sharing the Gospel.
We cannot take the Great Commission literally. Matthew puts words into Jesus’ mouth that I’m certain Jesus would have never said. Jesus’ position on divorced people leaves me out of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:31). Matthew loses me there. Yes, I’m a little skeptical of his sweeping statements.
It’s like watching the President of the United States. You can tell when he’s on the teleprompter and speaking off the cuff. Matthew’s gospel is much the same way. I think you can tell when Matthew’s writing the script and driving the agenda. There’s also no doubt when Jesus is speaking.
Oh, if there’s some unreached people group who hasn’t heard of Jesus or seen the Jesus film there’s this thing called Grace. Jesus will work it out with everyone in their own way in His sweet time.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (nor having met a missionary), will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Richard Lowell Bryant