Saturday, December 15, 2018

Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The great commission is the mantra of Christian evangelism.  It comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and has the risen Christ give his disciples their mission: 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. (Matthew 28:19-20)

The great commission complements the greatest commandment to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and is considered by Muslims to be a common word of faith.  It should be at the heart of legitimacy and evangelism for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Jesus taught his disciples to promote the universal love of God among all people, not to convert them to an exclusivist Christianity.  Jesus was a Jew who called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him as the alter ego of God.  Exclusivist Christian doctrines are a fabrication of church doctrines never taught by Jesus that have fostered religious and political tribalism.  

Christianity is bracketed between Judaism and Islam as one of the three religions of the book.  While Jews and Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, they consider it blasphemous to assert that Jesus is the Trinitarian Son of God.  Exclusivist Christian belief in the Trinity equates Jesus with God and condemns all unbelievers, and that is anathema to Jews and Muslims.

All of the Gospel accounts make discipleship, or following the teachings of Jesus, the primary mission of Christians.  In the early church there was no Trinitarian doctrine that equated Jesus with God. Baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was an initiation into discipleship, not to proselytize exclusivist belief in what later became the Trinity.

Exclusivist Christian doctrines that limit salvation to belief in Jesus as the Trinitarian alter ego of God are in conflict with the greatest commandment and foster religious tribalism, division  and hostility rather than reconciliation. But to gain converts the church has promoted exclusivist doctrines that have enabled it to become the most popular and powerful religion on earth.
It’s time that Christians understand the difference between following Jesus as the word of God and worshiping him as God per se.  While it’s possible to do both, most Christians take the easy way to salvation with Trinitarian beliefs, and ignore discipleship.  That’s hypocrisy. It’s a form of cheap grace that ignores the teachings of Jesus and fosters interfaith conflict.

There is a cosmic holy war between God’s will to reconcile and redeem us through His universal love and Satan’s will to divide and conquer us, and Satan uses exclusivist religion and political tribalism to achieve his nefarious purposes.  If it’s a popularity contest, Satan seems to be winning, since he does a convincing imitation of God in the church, the mosque and in politics.

Robin Meyers has advocated Saving Jesus from the church.  He argues that we should stop worshiping Christ and start following Jesus.  While the popularity and power of the church would not likely survive such a shift in Christian priorities, a commitment to universal altruistic love is needed to cure the moral sickness in America’s Christianity and its politics.
The great commission is an evangelical extension of the greatest commandment to go out and make disciples who will show their love for God by loving their neighbors as they love themselves--including their neighbors of other religions,.  It was not a call to convert others to an exclusivist Christian religion, but a call to follow the teachings of Jesus as the living word of God.


Matthew’s great commission is not corroborated in any of the other gospels (see post resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ in Luke 24:13-43; 47-48; Acts 1:8; John 20:19-29; and  a later addition to Mark at 16:15-18 that is considered inauthentic by most scholars).

The great commision does not support later Trinitarian church doctrines as teachings of Jesus.  Instead, “Baptism is the act marking a transition from outside the Christian community to discipleship within it.  ...Like the rest of the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew has no developed doctrine of the Trinity.” See page 504, The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume VIII (1995, Abingdon Press).     

Andrew Sullivan acknowledges the evil done by religion, but emphasizes the importance of religion to give meaning to life--its raison d’etre.  Sullivan criticizes both evangelical distortions of Christianity used to promote radical right Republican partisan objectives as well as leftist social justice movements as inadequate political replacements for religious beliefs.  Sullivan sees them both as competing political tribal cults, with “both cults minimizing the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.” Sullivan relates religion to morality when he recalls “ the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure [Winston Churchill] seized the moment.” See
Ezra Klein rebuts the political tribalism of Andrew Sullivan.  Klein argues that religion has done little to minimize political conflict, and that politics, not religion, give meaning to American political tribes or cults.  Religion has been as much the cause of the problem of racism and prejudice in America as its solution, and Klein observes “Married white Christians made up 80% of voters in in the 1950s, and were evenly split between the two parties; today they make up less than 40% of voters, and they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican Party.”  Klein concludes that ‘the two parties are now divided over race and religion,” and that “adding religious identity into the political conflict often makes it worse, not better.” Maybe so, but the moral imperative of the greatest commandment would certainly make it better.  See
See Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.   

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