The Great Commission and Romans 13

Most reading this will be familiar with the text of the Great Commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, “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.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, ESV)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15, ESV)

Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45–47, ESV)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”” (Acts 1:8, ESV)

Each of these commissions give essentially the same commands: go, teach, proclaim, witness, make disciples, etc.

I believe that the failure of the church today rests upon a failure to understand and therefore carry out this commission. We have failed to carry out the commands of Christ. Not only so, but we encourage this failure.

Consider Matthew’s version: “make disciples of all nations (ethnē). The word nation is translated “Gentile” when it contrasts “Jew,” or simply “nation.” It is sometimes translated “pagan.” It is correct to see a command for an exclusively Jewish church to preach to the Gentiles. This began to happen in Acts 10.

What has changed, however, from the past centuries to today is that the term nation has come to be understood by Christians to apply only to the individuals within a nation. To disciple the nations was once understood to be both individuals within the nation (for a nation is at its core a collection of individuals), but to the nation as an entity: the nation itself was to be discipled. It was expected that a nation of Christians would express itself as freely submitting to God’s Law.

How does this work? The Gospel teaches a man how to be a godly man, a son, a husband, a father, employee, employer, etc. It teaches a woman how to be a Christian woman, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a mentor. The Gospel teaches obedience to what it means to be a Christian human in the settings in which God has placed them. The Gospel instructs Christians what it means to be a family. Teaching the nations includes the individuals and groups within those nations.

The Gospel has ordered the church: its task, its authority, structure, organisation; it identifies ministries within the church and how they are to be conducted.

But the Great Commission demands a discipleship of the nations. Just as we are to teach each person to be godly, we are to teach each nation what it means to be a godly nation. This means that there are roles and responsibilities placed by God upon all nations, and all nations are either obedient or disobedient to those roles and responsibilities. God’s Law is the definition of the responsibilities of the individual, and therefore the nation.

Jesus said in Matthew 28:18, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given me, Go therefore . . .” Please note:

  1. There is no authority in heaven or on earth that exceeds Christ’s authority. This means that any individual nation is answerable for its laws, morals, collective behaviours to Christ. God’s Law is the standard. This submission, willing or not, is not something that can be refused by a nations. A nation that claims to be secular, atheistic, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Animist—all are under obligation to Christ’s rule. He is King of kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 17:3, 14). This is the meaning of Christ’s Ascension. His rule is present. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . .”

  2. The ministry of preaching and teaching of the church is based upon Christ’s authority: go therefore. Because of His authority He has the rights and privileges of a king to order His subjects: the Christians. Christians are commanded to go and make disciples of the nations. Because a nation consists of individuals, nations are discipled when the individuals in that nation are discipled. People become Christians, and when that happens, the nation becomes Christian.
  3. Like individuals, all nations are either covenant keepers or covenant breakers. An individual cannot, before Christ, say, “I don’t believe in Christ, therefore He has no authority over me.” This is, of course, said by many. But this doesn’t make it fact. Likewise ungodly nations cannot vote away the Kingdom of Christ. It is one of the perils of democracy that Christ might lose an election! But He isn’t asking permission to rule, He rules by crown rights.

Discipling the nations resulted what is now known as Christendom. It is not odd that this term is hated by unbelievers, but it is very strange that it is also despised by Christians. A nation that has been discipled has learned how to be a godly nation. It is in these nations that human rights, liberties, freedoms have been developed. This great good has occurred in the nations most under the discipleship of the Gospel and is markedly absent in nations where the Gospel is absent.

Human rights, liberties, and freedoms came through the Gospel-shaping of the nations, and to remove the Gospel is to remove the very foundations of these blessings. Democracies or monarchies can only guarantee rights when the nation is under the discipleship of the Gospel. A nation that has forgotten how to be a godly nation has forgotten how be a free nation, just as a man who has forgotten how to be a godly man has forgotten what it means to be saved.

For this reason, no nation that rejects the authority of Christ can guarantee the rights of its citizens, because those rights were taught to the government by the Gospel. If Christ is not understood to be King, then man is king, and anything is possible. The State forgets its role in the Kingdom of God and attempts to be god. Left to itself, the State establishes itself as a god, an idol.

Forgetting its God-ordained role, the State necessarily creates its own role, which is to expand beyond the authority given by God’s Law. The State takes over the role of family, educator, church, business. The State, not God, determines what is right and wrong, true and false, good and evil. This is seen in countless excursions by the modern State outside its realm of authority:

  1. As the State determines who is and who is not a human, abortion and euthanasia are now determined good, rather than evil. The State, not God, determines this.
  2. As the State determines what it means to be male or female, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, marriage, divorce, and all things of a sexual nature are determined not by God, but by the State. God’s Word is clear regarding which behaviours are sinful and evil, and which are good. God’s curses and eventual judgement will come upon sin.
  3. As the State determines its own authority, it claims ownership over each individual and family. The State, not God, determines the content of education, proper healthcare, welfare, who may and who may not conduct a legitimate business (and what constitutes an essential business!), who may and who may not earn an income—all areas that are not the State’s role or business. It is clear in God’s Word-Law that these are areas of the individual, not the government.

    The state’s claim to ownership of the individual has been made clear in its demand for vaccines in order to fully participate in society. Bodily autonomy, taught in Scripture, is denied.

The nations of Christendom, largely Europe and North America, have been rejecting the discipleship that has made them great. The church in these nations has ceded ground and has moved away from calling the nations to the obedience of God’s Law.

I do not expect unbelievers to agree with me. What I do expect is for Christians to be obedient to Christ. His claim on the world has not been relinquished. Now that the Western church has abandoned its role as teacher (disciple-maker) of the nations, it may seem an impossible task to start again. But start we must.

When Christians deny the authority of Christ over the nations, they are seeking to reverse the Great Commission. The Great Commission is expected by Christ to be successful (Matthew 16:18). This expectation was shared by the early Christians. The result of Christians taking their role as assigned by Christ meant that paganism failed, and Christ’s rule was advanced. Perfectly? No. But the abandonment of the Commission is today a return to paganism.

Today’s Christians, for the most part, have absolutely nothing to say to a judge or parliamentarian, what being a Christian means in those roles. Indeed, many when speaking of their position, claim that they cannot let their Christian commitments and beliefs influence them! Why not? Would the atheist act this way? The Muslim?

It would be a great thing for many Christians to be elected to office, but only if they thought like Christians and refused to set their faith aside! Otherwise, they are wasting their time and are actually working against the commands of Christ.

It is not impossible, by the grace of God, for the church to see this and repent, and begin the long task of discipling the nations once again. At the practical level it means this:

  1. An understanding of the totality of God’s Law over man’s law. A nation’s leaders may only create law that is not contrary to the Law of God. This understanding will place the Christian against the modern nations, and can lead to severe persecution.
  2. A knowledge of God’s Law and Gospel. Christians must know how God’s Law limits the role of the State, and the responsibilities of the individual, family, and church. Each has their own authority.
  3. A refusal to accept State authority over what is not its proper authority: conscience, family, church; education, health, care, etc.
  4. An absolute rejection of the State’s role in determining right and wrong, morals, or truth.
  5. Limiting the role of the State as outlined in Scripture: (Romans 13:1-8).
    1. To be a terror to bad conduct. Bad conduct and good conduct are not determined by the State but are recognised by the State. There is a great difference.
    2. The State is to be the avenger on God’s behalf against evil (vs. 4).
    3. The State is a minister of God.

Now it should be clear that no State or nation that denies the existence of God will do these things, any more than a non-Christian will behave as a Christian. Such nations have become their own gods, deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. They will incur God’s wrath and judgement, and part of the Christian’s message to them is to flee from that to turn to Christ.

We must return to the full understand of Christ’s Great Commission.

Closing Your Church is Neither Loving Your Neighbhour Nor is it a Good Witness to the Community

First, to dispense with the second point in the title. Yes, Christian leaders are to be well thought of by outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7). By extension, this command applies to all Christians at all times (1 Timothy 2:2, Titus 3:2, Romans 12:8).

This command does not, however, cover the message of the Gospel, which will be despised by outsiders, along with the man delivering it. If the Gospel is preached, God’s Law must be preached first. The penalty for sin must be stated, and the righteous wrath of God, poured out on sinners, must be fully explained. The love of God in sending Christ as a propitiation for our sins must be stated fully. Romans 3:19-26. Men will hate this, and count it foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). If leaders wish to always be well thought of by outsiders, they would need to be in full accordance with the powers, principalities, and authorities who are against Christ.

What needs to be said is that being thought well of by outsiders is to not be a hypocrite. Romans 2:24, quoting Isaiah 53:5, says, “For, as it is written, “‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (English Standard Version). When Christians condemn sin, yet sin in the same manner, they act hypocritically and will spoil their witness to the watching world. But the world is not who we must please—it is Christ, and we must honour His word. When we obey Christ, we will bring scorn and dishonour upon ourselves. This is the history of the church in Acts and the experience of Christians at all times and in all places.

When we follow government edicts, made over the church where the government has no rightful rule, we declare to the community that the civil government is lord of the Church, not Christ. The civil government has declared Christ’s church gathered to be nonessential, and thousands of churches agreed! That was our witness! Churches that have done so must repent, and so witness to the community that they have failed and resolve not to fail again.

It is also said that closing churches in a time of pandemic is “loving your neighbour.” This is curious for a people who believe that the Lord’s Supper, remembered weekly, is of utmost importance. This is odd for a people who believe that without the Gospel, men and women must enter Hell. This is strange thinking for a Christians who have decried the cheapening of faith by televangelists, only to become televangelists en masse in one week!

By misreading Romans 13:1-7 and submitting to the lockdowns we have taken up the cause, (in the name of neighbourly love), of those who turned long-term care centres into death camps; sacrificed the spiritual well-being of children under the misguided attempt to keep vulnerable people safe; ruined careers and hopes; left many elderly to die alone and heartbroken. There is much more. But we did that, Christians, when we out of fear of overwrought obedience, denied Christ’s lordship over His church. If we had affirmed Christ’s Lordship, Canada would be a different place today.

This is pressing upon me because we are about to go around again, this time over the issue of vaccines. I have no interest in discussing the efficacy of vaccines at this time. But the medical ethics of a civil government demanding a medical procedure on an unwilling populace is at the same depth of depravity as Nazi Germany or modern China.

If a pastor, elder, or congregation will demand proof of a medical procedure, such as a vaccine, to worship Christ in His peoples’ gathering, in person, they  must be condemned as anti-Christian. In such cases, safety and compliance have become gods. Christians must refuse such idolatry.

Contrary to Paul Carter of the Gospel Coalition Canada , there is a command in Hebrews 10:24-25: 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (ESV). Carter does not deal with verse 24. The subjunctive (let us consider) can serve as an imperative (a command). “Let us consider” is the main verb, not “to meet together” in verse 25. Verse 24 is the command, and what no one seems to ask is, “How can verse 24 be obeyed if the church is not meeting?” It cannot. Failing to meet together is a failure to “stir up one another to love and good works.”

But we have Zoom! Facebook! YouTube. Yes we do. But one of the foundations of Biblical interpretation is that the interpreter must understand a Biblical text as it was understood by the first hearers! How could the readers of Hebrews understand these verses in any way except as meeting together face-to-face? They had no way to encourage, teach, exhort, or discipline one another unless they could see and hear each other.

The first readers did not have Zoom, or any other technology. God meant for the Christian life to be lived in-person, in a real time and a real place.

Meeting together is a necessary condition to obey verse 24 and failing to meet together is to disobey the command. This is why neglecting to meet together is such a serious problem, and can lead to the consequences in verse 26!

This current wave of oppression and outright persecution is going to continue as long as the Lord permits. He is looking for His people to call upon His name and repent from their fear and their idolatry of safety and compliance to the state.

Limits to Authority

Image may contain: 1 person, suitImagine, if you will . . . echoing Rod Sterling and the Twilight Zone
Imagine, if you will, a government that knows the limits of its authority.
As I have written before, there are differing approaches among Christians to the lockdowns in Ontario. Some will argue that we must obey the government in this, and others say we must disobey. Paul Carter of the Gospel Coalition did an excellent job of exegeting Hebrews 10:24-25 on this, and although I am not convinced, he made a cogent argument.
I think much of the discussion has, however, missed the point, and Carter is answering a question that I, for one, am not asking. For many of us, it is not a matter of civil disobedience (although that will be the perception) as it is the limits of governmental authority in the first place. We may see several spheres of authority in Scripture: family, church, and civil government. Family was ordained in the garden. Church, broadly worship, was immediately after as seen in how God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. As Bruce Waltke said, “Cain failed in the field because he failed at the altar.”
Civil government immediately follows as the population increases.
There is overlap and cooperation between these spheres, but all three are under the Lordship of Christ. In general, the family is responsible for education, health and well-being, and economics. The church is responsible for the ministry of the Word and the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The state, or civil government is responsible for the protection of the nation from outside forces, and to administer law and justice (and that justice is to be defined by the law of God, not created by fiat).
It isn’t hard to see how the modern state has taken over most roles of the family and church, so that each of these functions are now under the state’s authority. The state has grown to a point that family and church can be deemed, “nonessential” in Covid-19 pandemic terms.
The reason this has happened is that as a people we have rejected the idea that the spheres are placed as they are by God and are inviolable by the others spheres of authority. The family is a sovereign unto itself within the Kingdom of God as is the church.
The church does not have authority over the family nor does the family over the church.
Neither the family nor the church have authority over the state, and the state does not have authority over the church and family. The Christian is to submit to the state (Romans 13:1-2) and at the same time “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The behaviour of Christians in the New Testament and in the early church indicate that they did not believe the submission to the state was absolute. It was the state’s task to administer justice, not to set the theology of the church. When Caesar demanded that all people, not just Christians, burn incense as worship to him and declare, “Caesar is Lord,” the Christians chose death instead.
All of this, of course, can only work where there is an acknowledgement of Christ’s Lordship over all of life, and that there is no neutral ground that operates freely apart from this Lordship.
To continue, I’d like to make this perfectly clear:
1. Jesus is not a future king, but king now. He is king of Canada, king of the United States, and king of the entire planet, solar system, galaxy and universe. There is no person, place or thing that is outside of His authority right now, and His law prevails. His will shall be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
2. For many years, Christians have claimed that the King is coming, but the Gospel says He is here and reigns now. This places our civil governments as rebels against the King, insofar as the decrees, laws, mandates, and bylaws violate His law.
3. If Christ is not acknowledged, the state has no natural cause or reason to limit itself—it can only grow in authority. The Western state has, in its claim to secularity, become a law unto itself—autonomous and answerable only to itself.
4. As the state has grown and self-asserting illegitimate authority, it will destroy both family and church, as it seizes the God-given authority of both.
5. But because the state is thoroughly human, it can only become a tyranny, whether that tyranny is shown in a man, a committee, or a mob of democracy. Assuming itself autonomous, there is no higher authority to which it must answer.
When it comes to the decisions of the Ontario government to demand the closures of churches, we must learn to ask, “by what authority?” It cannot be the authority of the state if our worldview is a Christian one. If we concede the state has the authority because it asserts that it does, then it is only a matter of time that churches are closed forever as “nonessential” and all functions of the family are replaced by the state.
It is a stark choice: either the state has the authority it is claiming today or it does not. I believe it does not, but the belief that it does runs deep and is firmly entrenched in our society, even in churches.
The encroachment of the state into church and family was slow at first, until the tipping point was reached. It was reached quite awhile ago, but it is unmistakable now.,
The question is not whether we should obey the state and stay home. It is whether the state has the authority to demand it.
Imagine, if you will . . .