Since 1994, I’ve been researching evangelicalism’s inability to successfully integrate its churches and institutions following the Civil Rights Movement. The United States Military, professional sports, the arts, film, business, the health care professions, and so on, have all made advances in terms of racial diversity since 1965. Evangelicalism, however, remains just as white today as it was when Tom Skinner addressed race and evangelicalism at Urbana in 1971. Not much has changed. After twenty years of observations, my conclusion is that evangelicalism’s reduction of the mission of Christianity to the extra-biblical phrase “The Great Commission” serves as an obstacle preventing white evangelicals from connecting the gospel to the lived experiences of African Americans.
I call this “Great Commission Christianity” (GCC). GCC is not heretical. It’s not necessarily wrong. It is accidentally deficient.
Although the phrase “The Great Commission” is found nowhere in the Bible, it has been defended by evangelicals as the core imperative of Christian mission. The problem exegetically, however, is that the word “go” in Matthew 28:16–20 is not an imperative. It’s a participle. According to Robert Culver, the Greek grammar simply does not support “go” as an imperative command unless you are reading a revivalist agenda into the exegesis of the text. Properly translated, the verse should read, “having gone,” or, “as you go.” The aorist participle is not functioning as an imperative in this text and, therefore, the call to “go” is not a particular action by individuals to physically go anywhere in particular. That doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t “go” intentionally—the church’s work in disciple-making is a distinct call and an exegetical imperative throughout the biblical text. But Great Commision Christianity is a truncated view of the gospel, the kingdom, and redemption that may permanently keep evangelicalism one of America’s only predominantly white spaces.
Great Commission Christianity
The dominance of “The Great Commission” as a clarion call for the work of the church in the world is often attributed to the Baptist missionary William Carey. However, as Robbie Castleman observes,
“It turns out that this passage may have got its summary label from a Dutch missionary Justinian von Welz (1621–88), but it was Hudson Taylor, nearly 200 years later, who popularized the use of ‘The Great Commission.’ So, it seems like Welz or some other Post-Reformation missionary probably coined the term ‘The Great Commission’ and since that time, the passage has been the theme for countless mission talks and conferences.”
Today’s evangelicalism inherited a slogan that’s more a handicap than they may realize. Here’s a well-accepted summary of one of the best examples of how Great Commission Christianity views the Christian story. For GCC, the gospel is “the announcement of the good news of Jesus’ work to restore sinful image-bearers to the rightful worship of God.” The kingdom of God is “the rule of God demonstrated on earth among a worshipping people.” And redemption is “God’s work to free His people from slavery.” Again, this view is not wrong. It’s just limited in application. Its hyper-focus on saving individuals and the work of the church says nothing about the redemption of creation, which God is also reconciling to himself through Christ.
Cosmic Redemptive Christianity
The alternative view is what I call Cosmic Redemptive Christianity (CRC). At its core, CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.
The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” GCC sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.
I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos. The kingdom of God is the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ over the entire cosmos. Redemption, then, is God’s work to restore the whole of creation to himself.
Cosmic Redemptive Christianity, as a redemptive-historical approach, seeks to call God’s people to himself through evangelism and to liberate creation from the power of the devil until Christ returns.
The Reformed tradition has recognized that God cares about everything in creation that was affected in Genesis 3 and that God intends to redeem everything, as far “as the curse is found.” Redemption is a covenant story about everything in creation.
Gerard Van Groningen, in his book From Creation to Consummation, explains that the creation—the “cosmos”—includes industry, technology, recreation, the arts, education, commerce, politics, and so on. This is God’s “cosmic kingdom.” As a result, black lives matter to God. Poverty matters to God. Gun violence matters to God. Racism matters to God. Divorce, child abuse, genocide, sex-trafficking all matter to God. GCC remains truncated and largely unhelpful to the black experience because God’s people have been commissioned to have dominion over the world for its current liberation, not just it’s spiritual salvation. Issues of justice in society, for Christians, are issues of liberating the creation from the work of the devil. The hyper-focus of GCC on evangelism obscures this reality.
The Destruction of the Parasite Kingdom
Van Groningen explains that Genesis 1 and 2 teach that humanity “was to be involved in the discovery of, unfolding of, and developing of the potentialities . . . forces, and laws God had imbedded in his cosmic Kingdom.” That is, God created human persons “to be culturally active and productive” until the “cosmic kingdom will be renewed by a sudden and cataclysmic event” when Christ returns. The fall introduced the “kingdom of Satan” into the creation. As Tim Keller explains, “When humanity fell into sin, the created order shared somehow in that fall. It’s now ‘subjected to frustration.’ Nature isn’t what it ought to be or what it was created to be.”
Satan intends to destroy everything good in God’s cosmic kingdom. It’s a parasite kingdom and beginning in Genesis 4, we see that all forms of injustice in all of human history start there. American slavery and Jim Crow were works of the parasite kingdom.
Van Groningen reminds us that “the first message of redemption” announced in Genesis 3:15 was not only about “Messianic redemptive activity” but was also the announcement of the ultimate judgement and destruction of the parasite kingdom. This is where the gospel of redemption begins. Theologians call this the “protoevangelium.” It is the earliest indication that God intends to reclaim and redeem what the fall cursed.
Until Christ returns, observes Van Groningen, the antithesis between God and Satan “must be recognized and dealt with spiritually but also in all aspects of social and cosmic activities . . . as believers seek to execute their spiritual, social, and cosmic mandates.” This is why Christians do not have to ask whether or not certain justice issues in society are “gospel issues.” For Cosmic Redemptive Christianity, God bringing justice here and now is one aspect of announcing the redemption of God’s cosmic kingdom under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Great Commission Christianity doesn’t need social justice.
Great Commission Christianity doesn’t typically preach a redemption of all creation. They never have. Great Commission Christianity preached a revivalistic, individualistic, truncated gospel to slaves on plantations and did not seek to free slaves from slavery. GCC did nothing to thwart and fight against lynching during Reconstruction. GCC did nothing to liberate blacks from Jim Crow. In fact, it was the opposite. It was typically GCC church members in the South that fought against the black church led Civil-Rights Movement. Fast forward to recent American racial tensions, and you will find a parallel. GCC advocates were unable to respond well to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s no wonder that African Americans—like Lecrae—who once aligned with Great Commission Christianity “divorced” themselves from white evangelicalism.
To garner participation in social issues from Christians, Great Commission Christianity has to justify their encouragement of justice work by casting it through the lens of evangelism. This effectively dismisses the real suffering that comes at the hands of injustice. As a result, GCC in America will likely always be a religion for predominantly white people who have never suffered American systemic and cultural evils of the parasite kingdom, and its lingering flare-ups. That is, one of the privileges of being white in America is never needing God to intervene on your behalf in the work of parasite kingdom that’s operating through American social structures. It’s one of the privileges of being white in America to never need God to intervene on your behalf in the work of the parasite kingdom as it moves through the norming oppressive forms of white supremacy.
This has some precedence in American history. During the Fundamentalist Era, it was GCC that prevented white evangelicals from being united with black evangelicals because fundamentalists did not view structural racism as a “gospel issue.” The black church, historically speaking, has been the best American representation of Cosmic Redemptive Christianity between slavery and the Civil Rights Movement and it changed America forever.
The black church embodies CRC.
It should come as no surprise that in 2018 that blacks were named “the most Bible-engaged in the US.” Black Christians have needed the entire canon of the Bible to make sense of all aspects of life, person and societal, in ways that white people have not. For black Christians, the Bible has not only brought many into union with Christ but it also helps us navigate the parasite kingdom’s activities in America. CRC knows that all injustices around the world, and in the church, are “gospel issues” because the gospel, at its core, is about God calling his people to himself and the liberation of creation. Claiming dominion over injustice is not, therefore, an “implication of the gospel.” It is a fundamental part of the gospel.
As long as Great Commission Christianity keeps its truncated, revivalistic, and individualistic gospel at the center of evangelicalism, the quiet exodus of African Americans leaving evangelical contexts will continue. The majority of conservative evangelicalism’s refusal to value the liberation of creation as also central to gospel is the theological reason it has not advanced substantially on race issues since 1970. The gospel of redemption cosmically includes God calling his people to himself and redeeming the entire cosmos. It includes evangelism and working to destroy the devil’s work in the creation here and now. This is the redemptive, historical gospel that began in the Garden of Eden and will reach all tribes, nations, and tongues in a world at war with the parasite kingdom until the consummation of God’s kingdom at the return of Jesus Christ.
Correction: March 13, 2019
A previous version of this article misquoted Castleman’s article “The Last Word: The Great Commission: Ecclesiology.” The quote has been updated to reflect Castleman’s original wording.