The Great Commission Must Be Our Guide in These Polarizing Times

By Kathy Keller

This issue marks the one-year anniversary of The Gospel in Life Quarterly Journal. Our tagline is “The Gospel Changes Everything” and the stories we publish are meant to show how the Gospel has changed minds, hearts, lives and entire communities. The world has changed enormously since our first issue in March 2020, but the world’s need for the Gospel has, if anything, only become more desperate.

During these polarizing times where battles for political power or division from cultural struggles are crippling the influence of the Christian church, we need to refocus our attention and commitment to fulfilling the great commission.

Galatians 4:4 says, in various translations, that when the “right, appropriate, set, chosen, fullness” of time had come, God sent his son. Jesus didn’t arrive in occupied Palestine by accident; he, the incarnate God/man, had chosen before all eternity to enter and save his creation at the perfect moment. 

Looked at from our perspective, it might not seem like it was such a great time. Israel was a conquered country, occupied by Roman soldiers and oppressed by Roman taxes. The Roman emperors who ruled at the time and the Jewish leaders they used as their puppets are remembered as violent, sadistic demagogues. Caligula, Nero, Herod.

Despite his careful teaching, Jesus’ thickheaded disciples pressed Jesus for an earthly, political kingdom just moments before his Ascension in Acts 1:

6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time [finally??!] going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [emphasis mine]

It’s hard not to notice that when Jesus is asked, “Is it time to take power and create God’s kingdom on earth?” Jesus answers that he wants them to preach the gospel, convert people and grow the number of disciples in the world. Matthew gives us even more details of this Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20):

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Yet today, even among believers with a high view of Scripture and of Jesus’ words in their red-letter Bibles, these sweeping commands from our savior to evangelize rather than seek political clout are being brushed aside as irrelevant in favor of other pursuits that are touted as more “necessary, relevant, and appropriate” to the highly charged political culture in which we now exist.

Today there are many groups who, despite some very sharp differences, agree that in a new, more hostile culture, the older emphasis on preaching the gospel must be abandoned in favor of other strategies. What is being said by many in a variety of media (social, print, broadcast) is that the former approaches of Christian ministry, preaching, and community life no longer address the reality of our culture today.

In the past, leaders expected the Christian church as a gathered community to bridge human political differences, to preach the gospel and help people come to faith in Christ, but to also set before the world a vision for a human community based on love and justice rather than a quest for human glory and power. Then the church was to send Christians (as discipled believers) out to be involved in the public square—in the arts, media, politics, business—being ‘faithfully present’ within the culture. The degree to which this changed the culture depended on both the growth of the church (and therefore on the number of believers serving as ‘salt and light’ in society) and the receptivity of the populace, all under the providence of God.

Today even Christians who disagree about everything else do agree that times have changed and this agenda is no longer appropriate or effective.

They rightly observe that the enemies of Christianity in the secular, progressive Left want believers to be socially marginalized and ‘cancelled,’ excluded from public influence or gone completely. Powerful voices want to forcibly impose a new regime that will eliminate religious freedom to dissent in speech and in practice (in the realm of modern views of sexuality and gender, for example).

This progressive ideology has captured the high places in the culture—the academy, the arts, and much of government. If it is allowed to have its way, believers may soon be excluded from jobs in large corporations, universities, and the government. So for many, it would appear that the time for balance, civility, political neutrality, and “winsome cultural engagement” is over. Preachers can no longer be “above politics.” Christians will not be allowed to be faithfully present in their professions. The old model won’t work, so they say.

It is important to recognize that there are genuine believers who have what are viewed as “right-wing priorities” (ending abortion) or “left-wing priorities” (caring for the already-born who are suffering). It is their solution (political power) that unites them, not their ideology. Many of these individuals and churches started out with good motivations, but got pulled into the vortex of current events. The sermons from these church pulpits are barely different from op-ed columns, scolding those they fear are less committed to whatever causes their particular church leadership holds most dear.

Tim and I, and many of our friends and colleagues, have had agonizing conversations with members and leaders in sister churches who are ready to leave because nothing but social justice is preached and prayed about week after week. These are mature Christians who deliberately joined multi-racial congregations in order to advance the gospel by demonstrating its ability to break down barriers, but who now experience every kind of barrier against fellowship and conversation.

Then we hear from pastors who are viciously attacked for even mentioning the need to work for a more just society; or, alternatively, because they don’t preach about it enough. We also hear from pastors who have lost members and even seen their churches split because they have required facemasks at meetings.

Teaching and persuading others to recognize and end the evil of abortion is certainly one of the church’s priorities. Calling it murder and demanding that it end is right to do, but how can it be done most effectively? If a church preaches nothing but pro-life messages, it again is not following the Bible, since the Bible speaks of many other subjects, first and foremost, God and his salvation. How will you reach those who will only ever be convinced on this issue after bowing to Jesus as their Lord? Why should anyone care what we think about unborn babies unless they first acknowledge the One who knit them together in their mother’s womb?

If the Good News of Jesus’ saving life and death is preached and hearts are changed with the Gospel, those who previously rejected a pro-life position will then work to support mothers and families and teenagers to reduce the number of abortions to the vanishing point. It does happen. We have seen it happen.

But any discussion of these problems leads to a divergence on what to do now. Impassioned advocates of all positions hate what used to be called civility, balance, and humility when speaking of political and social policy. Instead of recognizing that abiding sin and common grace exist in the full range of political ideologies, they call for the church to become overtly political, identifying with just one point on the political spectrum.

Extremists say that it’s time for smash-mouth tactics, returning to “them” what is being done to “us.” Jesus’ commands to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… If you love those who love you… And if you greet [be kind, welcoming to] only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5) are ignored or even denounced as unmanly. Jesus’ warnings to the Pharisees about elevating man-made opinions to the level of unquestioned biblical authority are also ignored. 

There is no doubt about the alarming and serious corruption of our culture and the hijacking of the high places of cultural influence by a mostly secular, illiberal Left Progressivism. New ways of being faithfully present and engaging in civil dialogue with this group will have to be found. But there is also an alarming rise of a right-wing belief that marries religious faith to Nationalism and political power, and even accepts fanatical conspiracy theories as fact. These people must be listened to, cared about, and given the Good News that Jesus is our only hope as well.

This is not an example of “both-sides-ism.” It is rather a criticism of every point on the spectrum. In Romans 3:10-17, Paul says (quoting the Psalms and Isaiah in turn):

As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”

There is not one of us (at any point on the spectrum of political and social values) who does not hold opinions, beliefs, and practices that, from God’s point of view, are foolish, self-serving, erroneous, harmful, sinful and even wicked. And there is not one of us who is not made in the image of God and deserving of respect for that reason. No one is beyond the saving grace of Jesus, and once you have experienced the New Life that trust in the Gospel brings, it is impossible not to want to share it with others. As Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller) has said,

… I’ve always said that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? [] [1] How Much Do You Have to Hate Someone?

But it is absolutely certain that the current state of the church in the U.S. is inadequate for forming disciples who are distinctively Christian in their thinking and behavior. We have much to do to strengthen our communities and our worship and catechetical practices, so that they can engage the world in which God has placed them. But, tellingly, very few of the most passionate promoters of any point of view have an evangelistic strategy for this new social world.

So the question becomes, does the church want to be effective in changing hearts and making disciples, as Jesus commanded, or are we going to be content with preaching only to the already converted who agree with one another on the particular way they think gospel translates into social policy? The Gospel has the power to change hearts, but:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)

The early church was every bit as marginalized as we are and more—but it had an enormously effective strategy for spreading the gospel so that lives were changed. It grew and grew, especially in the cities. It also became, in spite of its marginalization, famous for its care of the weak and the poor, all while it was experiencing far more persecution than we are now or are ever likely to.

What was that evangelistic strategy for believers who existed in an even more hostile and marginalized culture than do we? It was to spread the Gospel message, in any and every opportunity–that Jesus was the crucified and risen Lord, come to bring new life. Scholars such as Michael Green and Larry Hurtado tell us that the early Christians did evangelism largely through informal, interpersonal communication within their networks of relationships. They learned how to both embody and articulate the gospel persuasively to people with the Greco-Roman pagan worldview.  And it worked.

Jesus called his disciples to be both “salt and light.” Each image depicts a perfect balance between difference and yet involvement. Salt only helps the meat if it is chemically different from the meat, yet is spread out into it. Light only pushes back the dark if it is both different from the dark, yet perceptible instead of being hidden under a basket (Matthew 5:15). So the Christian church must both keep its distinctiveness—not assimilating to the non-believing culture—and it MUST stay engaged and involved in that culture, rather than separated from it. We must remain in relationships and conversations with non-Christian people and secularized institutions and fields—not treating them simply as opponents. We must do so even when it costs us.

When and where did we get permission to abandon the Great Commission in order to invest our energy, time and money to instead gain political power?

To those who object, let me ask this: When and where did we get permission to abandon the Great Commission in order to invest our energy, time and money to instead gain political power?

As we have seen, Jesus’ original disciples were forever asking when he would restore the kingdom, i.e. kick out the Romans and reestablish Israel as a godly nation instead of one oppressed by pagans. But Jesus’ first coming was to die in order to reconcile men to God, not to provide a temporary fix for oppressive political orders. In fact, he promised his followers that they would be hunted, killed, hated, but that they should nevertheless follow in his own footsteps. And so it proved: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.

In our own time, Christians living in China are oppressed, jailed, tortured, and have their churches burned down by government officials. They are nevertheless set to pass the 100 million-person mark, possibly this year. It is estimated that by 2030 they may reach 300 million in number, all while enduring the harshest opposition. Yet they have not responded with violence or attempts to seize political power; they have worshipped and witnessed publically (though carefully) and continued even when arrested and punished. The western church might consider learning from our brothers and sisters in Asia. [] [2] See the link in this issue of the Quarterly to Tim Keller’s sermons to the persecuted church from the Book of Revelation, preached in January 2020 in Kuala Lumpur.

It is in the great tradition of FALSE prophets who tell us to battle against earthly powers, when Scripture explicitly tells us that we are NOT fighting them, but spiritual powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12). The only weapon that will avail is the Word of God, and that must be preached, taught, lived, and not exchanged for a mess of pottage (power). We are to serve, not to rule–to influence with our words and our lives rather than by force. As imitators of Christ, who came to serve rather than be served, we cannot hide and protect ourselves by living only among like-minded believers. We are to obey Jesus, who engaged sinners and tax collectors over meals.

So what does an evangelistic strategy for our day look like? Lesslie Newbigin was an Anglican missionary to India in the 1950’s. When he returned to Britain he found to his shock the Christendom that he had left no longer existed, and instead a secular, pagan culture had arisen. The returning missionary had to become a missionary to the culture that had originally sent him out!

Newbiggin writes:

We have good news to tell. Before we think about how it is communicated, it is well to begin with a negative point. It is not communicated if the question uppermost in our minds is about the survival of the church…. Because our society is a pagan society, and because Christians have in general failed to realize how radical is the contradiction between the Christian vision and the assumptions [of our culture], we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking of the church as one of the many “good causes” which need our support…If our “evangelism” is at bottom an effort to shore up the tottering fabric of the church (and it sometimes looks like that) then it will not be heard as good news. The church is in God’s keeping. We do not have the right to be anxious about it. We have our Lord’s word that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The nub of the matter is that we have been chosen to be the bearers of good news for the whole world, and the question is simply whether we are faithful in communicating it. [] [3] Newbigin, Lesslie. Evangelism in the City

The kind of community that will result from the power of the Gospel used as Jesus commanded was outlined in Romans 12:9-21. It is a dizzying mixture of social aspects that will sometimes please, other times upset, people of all persuasions:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It sounds like a mash-up of conflicting commands: Hating evil, check. Living at peace with enemies, even to the point of blessing them, check. Be zealous, but patient, check. Share with those in need, wait, was Paul a Marxist?? Bless those who persecute you, don’t curse them. Associate with those of a different status than your own. Live in harmony with one another, and don’t pay people back if they’ve offended or hurt you. How can this be possible?

The Gospel comes equipped with the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus to change hearts. No other message has either that dynamic or that joy: that Jesus lived a perfect life and exchanged it with us in order to die the death our sin required. And that he rose and is making all things new, until he finally returns to remake the heavens and the earth. That message changes everything: hearts, minds, lives, communities, and it is our privilege to take it to the world.

Other Spring 2021 Articles