From this weeks World Religions discussion on Christian evangelism being offensive to other religions.
This week’s discussion about Christian evangelism being offensive to others of different faiths brought up some interesting points. It just seemed to me that some assumed we all understood each other’s language and doctrines, when in fact I believe we did not. Words such as ‘gospel’ and ‘salvation’ were used with the assumption that we all had a common understanding of what others were talking about. While I think this may have an element of truth in it, I believe there are major discrepancies between Evangelical beliefs (at least the quasi-commonly held ones) and the Bible’s actual teachings on gospel, salvation, and evangelism. And it is these discrepancies that cause unnecessary friction between Christians and those of other religions.
Most Christians would generally agree that sharing the gospel is a command of Jesus that Christians (= little Christs) are to follow. The principal text for this is what Bible editors have subtitled, “The Great Commission” (Mt. 28:18-20). The command of Jesus to make more Christians is rooted in the idea of panta ta ethne – “all the peoples/Gentiles” (sorry for my crappy Greek transliteration). The Greek word ethne has behind it the idea of ethnicity; in the Matthean context: non-Jewish individuals. This, of course, does not exclude Jews from becoming disciples of Jesus, but rather releases restrictions of the Matthean (Jewish) community that excluded those outside of their ethnic circle (cf. Mt. 7:6, 15:26-27).
What is strangely absent from Matthew’s Great Commission is the ever quoted, “preach the gospel” phrase claimed to be part of this passage (cf. NRSV, which reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”). So, if we are to include this widely held notion as part of a larger Commissional Doctrine, we must first come to an understanding of whether or not it is a Biblical doctrine. If preaching or prophesying is used in the sense of proclaiming a message from God, then it is assuredly Biblical (cf. Mt. 24:14). However, our definition of ‘gospel,’ is quite different from the connotation with which Matthew employs the word. In modern evangelicalism, gospel (= good news) refers to the good news of salvation from an eternal punishment in Hell. This is not, however, the understanding Matthew or his audience perceive the word ‘gospel.’ Then, what is?
Matthew understands the good news of Jesus to be the discipleship he offers. According to Bet Talmud, only the best of the best students of the Scriptures could go on to become disciples of a Rabbi (Bet Midrash – meaning House of Study). Discipleships were coveted positions. And here we have a Rabbi who goes to fishermen and tax collectors (seen as traitors for the Roman Empire), and offers them the opportunity to be disciples. Such an offer would only be made to those whom the Rabbi thought could successfully carry on his yoke (= interpretations). And we have Jesus telling these normal people that they can do what he does. They are not the scholars that the other Rabbis are sorting through to find their disciples; they are average people who want to seek God. Positions of discipleship were not taken lightly by Rabbis or disciples. Discipleship basically meant following your Rabbi around, doing everything he did, and learning to be just like him in every way. In the Mishnah, Yose ben Yoezer says to disciples, “Cover yourself with the dust of [your Rabbi’s] feet.” In other words, follow your Rabbi so closely that the dust of his sandals will be caked all over you. This is the mindset from which Matthew’s audience understands discipleship of a Rabbi. Being a disciple of Rabbi Jesus was a coveted position (cf. Mt.19:18).
To take this a step further, Jesus was a Jew who grew up in the Galilee. Around this time there were many Messianic movements. Many men claimed to be the anointed one from God, who would set in motion God’s plan (for Israel). Around 6 C.E., one of these Messianic movements was led by a man named Judas of Galilee (not to be confused with Judas Iscariot or any other Judas for that matter). He gained a large following and led them in a revolt against Rome. It was quickly extinguished by the Roman army and 2,000 of Judas’s followers were subsequently crucified. Rome was making a statement. Now, if Jesus was born, as scholars believe, about 5 B.C.E., then he would have been about 11 years old when this occurred. Jesus lived in Nazareth, a town in the Galilee region. This would have been something he would have witnessed or at least heard about. 2,000 followers of a Messianic movement crucified by the Roman military. Puts a new meaning on ‘take up your cross and follow me’ doesn’t it? Jesus had a context in mind when he said this. And his disciples understood this as well. It was one thing to have the coveted place of being a Rabbi’s disciple; it was another when that Rabbi starts claiming to be the Messiah (cf. Mt. 16:16-17). The disciples understood that death was a real possibility for their discipleship. And this was the gospel as they understood it. The good news was discipleship even unto death, because they understood themselves to be a part of a larger Kingdom of Heaven.
Now that we have gained an understanding of ‘gospel’ in the context of Matthew, we can now draw some larger implications. The gospel is not a fire insurance policy against damnation in an eternal Hell. The gospel is the discipleship of Christ. This fits perfectly into the Great Commission from Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples” (NRSV). He does not say, “Go and save against damnation in Hell,” or anything of the sort. Discipleship is Jesus’s call to everyone (panta ta ethne). This is the gospel.
This has an impact on our understanding of salvation. In Matthew, Salvation has quite a different meaning from our usual understanding of it. Salvation is not saving from the fires and brimstone of a Hell, but rather salvation is participation in the Kingdom of God. Salvation is the path to God, not just the path away from Hell. This distinction is important in that what is now (the Kingdom of God) is more relevant than a time of final judgment. Therefore, discipleship is the core meaning of salvation, not Heaven.
What seems to be offensive to other religions is that Christians are preaching the damnation to Hell of all who do not follow Jesus. But such a doctrine is not what Jesus preached or advocated. He preached and encouraged discipleship. It was only in his pronouncement of the God’s Final Judgment that the issue of punishment is mentioned. This is not what Jesus was talking about in the Great Commission when he said, ‘make disciples.’ He was calling his current disciples to enlist others who willingly follow his message and teachings (cf. 28:20). This is Biblical evangelism – not scaring the Hell out of people (literally) or talking about ‘washing sins away.’ While I believe these are true doctrines, they are not the gospel that Jesus commands his followers to proclaim. Discipleship is the Gospel that Christians are to take to “all nations.”
So, if “preaching the gospel” means proclaiming discipleship in the dust of Jesus, then it fits comfortably into an larger Commissional Doctrine. This is evangelism according to the Bible. Evangelism is not ‘winning people to Heaven;’ it is gaining more disciples of Christ. Evangelism is following the Great Commission the way Jesus intended his followers to. This cannot be done by simply preaching, but rather is most effectively presented by the modeling of this discipleship by Jesus’s current disciples.
So, the answer is Yes, evangelism is a Biblical concept, but what we evangelize is often an erroneous perception of the Gospel that has little Biblical basis.
If our evangelizing is going to be offensive to others, let’s at least make sure we’re Biblical about it. We offer discipleship of Jesus, not a free pass out of Hell. We don’t scream condemnation; instead, we offer love and peace. If we preach the gospel Jesus preached (discipleship), then we avoid many of the issues in approach that other religions often find offensive.
I think I just wrote a sermon. Yikes!