Over the past several years, President Akin has led Southeastern Seminary to become even more of a Great Commission Seminary than it was already. In so doing, he challenged the college to be a “Great Commission college” and the faculty to make every classroom a “Great Commission classroom.” For me personally, this challenge speaks several of my responsibilities at Southeastern, including my role as Dean of the College and as a professor who teaches courses in theology, history of ideas, and missiology. And while this challenge may seem to be easily met in a missions course, how is it met in a theology or history of ideas course? What could it possibly mean for a theology course to be a “Great Commission course”? Should the professor wear a Mao shirt or perhaps some knickers and lederhosen to class, in order to demonstrate his cross-cultural awareness? Or lecture with a chopka on his head? Should he subliminally whisper the names of unreached people groups each time he teaches on the Trinity, the Incarnation, or on building a revelational epistemology? (If you are left wondering, the answer to these last few questions is “no, not so much.”) In order to answer these questions, this article aims to give a brief exposition of the Great Commission, followed by a concise outline of how I apply it to my roles as Dean of the College and as teacher of theology, philosophy, and missiology courses. [Disclaimer: This blog is nowhere near being an exhaustive treatment on what it means to be a Great Commission Seminary. Instead, it is a brief reflection on a few of the ways that I try to shape my teaching and leading according to Christ’s command.]
A Concise Exposition of the Great Commission
In Matthew’s gospel, we are given Jesus’ command: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).
These verses provide a concise and powerful crystallization of God’s intentions for us on this earth. In the very first sentence, Christ informs us that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” making clear that we are to be about the business of calling men and women to repent and follow Jesus, and doing so on the basis of the supreme authority of the Lord of the universe. He created the universe; he sustains it; indeed, in Him all things hold together. He has authority over Satan, evil spirits, the forces of nature, the human race, and all of the created order. We go in confidence.
Next, Our Lord gives the imperative, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this command, we are instructed to make disciples, and not merely professions of faith. Moreover, we are given directives for disciple-making. We are to do so through baptism (and therefore in the context of His church) and in the name of the Triune God (who alone can save).
Moreover, making disciples includes “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Of the deep and significant implications of this phrase, here are two:
First, the “commands of Christ” are contained in the Christian Scriptures. There is no true evangelism or discipleship apart from the proclamation of the Word of God. Any other tool that we may use, such as apologetic dialogue, is preliminary and is for the purpose of engaging that person with the Word of God. Second, the “commands of Christ” are not limited to those statements in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks in the imperative. Indeed, the entirety of Scripture, including Old and New Testaments, teaches us what God has done through Christ. Anything that Scripture teaches, Christ teaches. There are some who would say that this is “bibliolatry,” that we are making a paper pope of the Bible. They would set Christ in opposition to the Scriptures, and then claim that their allegiance is to Christ but not to the Scriptures. They “just want to follow Jesus.” And it is our conviction that the only way to follow Jesus is to follow him back to the Bible. We follow him, for example, to Mt 5:18, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” All Scripture is inspired by God, and hence also bears the insignia of Christ. Our evangelism and discipleship, therefore, will include the clear teaching of the entire canon of Scripture.
In the final phrase of Mt 28:20, our Lord promises, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” This is our confidence: we go under the authority of Christ and in the very presence of Christ. Missiology is at its heart Christological. There is perhaps no better picture of the Christological nature of missiology than Rev 5, where in verses 9-10 we see the Lamb-Like Lion receiving the worship of the nations, as they sing, “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.”
We now live in anticipation of His Second Coming, when He will be seen in all of His splendor as the King of the Nations. Until that time, and upon His authority, it is our charge to proclaim the gospel to all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations, whether they are found far or near.
Building a Great Commission College
Building a Great Commission College, therefore, means at least several things: First, our faculty members will model a Great Commission lifestyle, teaching with an eye toward building God’s church and advancing his kingdom worldwide. Second, they will foster a classroom environment in which students are taught to know and love God and his Word, and are encouraged to obey Christ’s most challenging commands. Third, we as a college will provide ample opportunity for our students to gain experience taking the gospel to the great cities and regions of the United States, and to the unreached and unengaged peoples of the world. In other words, we want to allow them to begin the lifelong journey toward investing in the advance of God’s gospel to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation.
Teaching Missiology from a Great Commission Perspective
If, therefore, we are to make the gospel readily accessible to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, we must be willing and able to cross vast cultural divides, overcome daunting linguistic barriers, and bear witness in the face of opposition. In other words, we must be intentional-we must be missional. In the missiology classroom, I have the responsibility of equipping our students in the multiple disciplines that are helpful for becoming a well-equipped missional Christian. Whereas a missional Christian is first and foremost a theologian, he also is a student of other disciplines such as global studies, current affairs, world religions, anthropology, and sociology. In studying global studies and current affairs, he gains an understanding of the international and regional context within which he ministers. In studying world religions, he learns to understand the core religious beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. In sociology and anthropology, he learns to pay careful attention to the immediate social and cultural context. Although he may never be an expert in these disciplines, he uses them insomuch as they are helpful for understanding the global, cultural, social, and personal contexts of those to whom he ministers. Indeed, because of this type of education, Southeastern is able to send forth missionaries who are grounded in the scriptures, culturally sensitive, prepared to make disciples, and equipped to plant churches.
Teaching History of Ideas from a Great Commission Perspective
Each student at The College at Southeastern is required to take four seminary-style courses in the History of Ideas. In these courses we read books written by the titans of theology, philosophy, history, and literature (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Pascal, Descartes, Locke, Milton, Nietzsche, etc.). We read the books and then reflect, from a confessionally Christian point of view, on the ideas contained in those books. The seminar is not only a course in intellectual history but hopefully also an act of worship as we submit these books to theological and philosophical analysis in the light of God’s revelation. Our students learn how to view the influential books of Western Civilization through the lens of Christian Scripture, and in so doing, how to bring every thought under the Lordship of Christ. If we cannot speak Christian truth into our own cultural context, how will we ever speak it into Asian, African, or Middle Eastern contexts?
Teaching Theology from a Great Commission Perspective
At present, I am teaching Theology I, II, and III at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and therefore have the opportunity to reflect on teaching theology missionally. The thread of mission is woven deeply into the plot of the biblical narrative. It begins with the nature of God, continues with his call for Israel to be a blessing to the nations, and culminates in his sending of the Messiah, whose incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection provide for the salvation of the nations who will dwell with him forever in the context of a new heavens and earth. Since Christian Scripture has the concept of mission at its heart, Christian theology will also have the concept of mission centrally located.
But in addition to the central location of this concept within the biblical narrative and therefore within Christian theology, the theology classroom can also be a Great Commission classroom in its pedagogical strategy. For each of the loci of doctrine (God, Christ, Spirit, revelation, man, salvation, church, and end times), we begin by treating the doctrine exegetically, historically, and systematically. After having shown the coherence of the doctrine as well as its relation to other doctrines, we also discuss the doctrine in relation to other worldviews, religions, and philosophies, and expose how each doctrine subverts its counterpart in the New Atheism, postmodern Perspectivalism, Eastern religions, Islam, and even Southern Fried Religion.
Further, we will discuss how each doctrine affects ministry and mission. Christian Scripture and its attendant evangelical doctrine provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for our ministry models, strategies, and methods. Indeed, for the past three decades the churches of the SBC have declared that the Scriptures are ipsissima verba Dei, the very words of God. What we have declared, however, is not always consistent with what we have done. Therefore, we want to be careful not to (unintentionally or unconsciously) ignore the centrality of Scripture even in “practical” matters of ministry and mission.
Finally, we emphasize that the Great Commission is not concerned exclusively with international evangelism. From the Great Commission, we learn that our Lord commands us to make disciples (discipleship is far-ranging, including teaching, modeling, rebuking, exhorting etc.) of all the nations (including this nation, the USA), baptizing them in the name of the Triune God (and immersing them in the life of the redeemed community), teaching them all things that he has commanded us (the entirety of Christian Scripture), and trusting that he will be with us always (it is he who is the organizer, energizer, and director of our commission).
In a nutshell, every classroom at SEBTS should be a Great Commission classroom because every page of Scripture and every locus of doctrine relates in some way to the charge given to us above. Christian Theology is the most exciting subject a person could possibly study, and one of the exciting things about it is that it not only drives us to ministry and mission, but shapes the same ministry and mission. At its heart, theology is missional.