We are very familiar with the famous words of Jesus known as the great commission (Matthew 28:18–20). For nearly 2,000 years, the command to “make disciples” has motivated Christians to share their faith with others. This command has resulted in transformed lives and communities around the world. Yet, as Christian history shows, along with present evolutions in Christian faith and practice, the great commission isn’t always carried out well, if at all. For Michael Horton, in his book The Gospel Commission, such a problem cannot be understated.
Writing to evangelicals, Horton’s primary concern is that the church has become “distracted” from its original mandate to make disciples. And he wonders, “Are evangelicals in danger of selling theirs [birthright] to popular culture?” For the most part, Horton answers “yes.” The bulk of the book, then, outlines how evangelicals have lost their vision for the great commission and how a corrective may be found.
Horton offers an inspiring and thought-provoking solution, even if vague and abstract: “there is no mission without the church and no church without the mission.” The great commission, Horton argues ardently, is not a practice that solely leads to the formation of the church (e.g. evangelism). But neither is it a specialized ministry of the church, exercised through special events or missions. The great commission, rather, is deeply embedded into everything the church does, visible in the concrete faith communities of the world. At a surface level, Horton’s stress on the visible church is not unlike the Anabaptist teaching that discipleship must occur in the context of community.
The book follows a basic outline, laying out the biblical text itself (parts one and two), followed by an exploration of strategies for the great commission (part three). With an impressive theological depth – at times at the expense of readability – Horton outlines important biblical themes connected to the great commission, such as the gospel and God’s kingdom, contextualization, and the oft-debated relationship between evangelism and social justice. Emerging/missional church ideas and authors form a dialogue partner throughout the book, mainly as negative illustrations within evangelicalism.
Horton does well to remind that the great commission rests on the foundation of God’s work of salvation. The gospel “continues to sustain the whole church in its earthly pilgrimage” of discipleship, asserts Horton. In a time when evangelicals put so much energy and resources into cultural relevance and achieving success, Horton’s reminder is timely.
At the same time, however, Horton is right to suggest we aren’t passive recipients of salvation either. The church is active in this “intermission” between Jesus’s first and second coming. “This intermission isn’t a time for loitering in the lobby as consumers; it is a time for joyful activity on behalf of our neighbours: loving and serving through our witness to Christ and also through our daily callings in the world.”
While much of Horton’s overall project resonated – especially his analysis of contemporary evangelical culture – I found his solutions problematic on several levels. First, I’m not convinced that the correct response to a shallow theology is the extreme opposite, as Horton models. Countless Scripture references and intentionally narrow theological jargon, while impressive in depth, end up turning the great commission into a complex theological theory. Missed is the complexity and creativity required for the great commission to come alive in real life. A connection between theology and real life is given minimal attention. I found myself wondering, is it possible to be too theological?
Second, Horton wrongly equates the kingdom of God with the proclamation of the gospel – “The kingdom is identified with the delivery of Christ in the gospel.” Good works are only a by-product of proclamation. Unlike Mennonite Brethren theologians, Horton separates the great commandment (Matthew 22:36–40) from the great commission. He distinguishes sharply between our everyday lives (the realm of “common grace”) and the work of the church (the realm of “saving grace”). Such a separation creates an unhealthy dualism between our faith and everyday lives – our experience of salvation is separate from everyday life in the world. Such a distinction between the proclamation and actions of God’s kingdom fail to address how Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom (Mark 1:15) was accompanied by countless stories of the kingdom – Jesus and his disciples acting out the kingdom in the world around them.
Not surprisingly, Horton is strongly resistant to the emerging/missional church emphasis on incarnational ministry, the belief that the church carries on the work of Jesus and the kingdom in the world (a belief strongly influenced by Anabaptist theology). And in his critique, Horton creates several false dichotomies (e.g. living the gospel vs. proclaiming the gospel) which leave little room for dialogue on points of difference.
Finally, Horton presents such a specific view of salvation and the church that it’s hard to imagine any tradition other than his (Reformed) finding a place in his proposal. As one who identifies with the diverse Mennonite Brethren denomination, I found this exclusiveness especially frustrating. Horton leaves little room for variety. His simplistic generalizations in writing off the influences of Anabaptism and Pietism only heightened an underlying tone of animosity toward theological diversity.
Overall, I found The Gospel Commission to be an engaging, yet frustrating, book. Readers in the area of theology and culture, especially those conversant in emerging/missional church movements, will find many points of interest. Unfortunately, Horton’s abstract theology and intellectual depth limit the accessibility of the book. In the end, Horton’s views are too narrow for a topic as wide as the great commission.