Earlier this month I wrote about a Winnipeg woman who was distressed after receiving a letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses personally addressed to her husband.
“I found it intrusive,” she said.
The woman said her family has gone to some lengths to make sure their personal information is not publicly available, including signing up for “do not call” lists and not being on the online Canada411 website.
If the letter, which contained promotional material about the church, had been addressed to “occupant” or “homeowner,” she wouldn’t have been as concerned.
“But this shows that someone has his name and knows where we live,” she said. “We are private people. We want our privacy respected.”
After the story was published, I received emails from others who had received similar letters, and felt the tactic was intrusive.
Two of the writers asked the same thing: Why does the group send letters, or knock on doors, at all? If people want to learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses, they can always go online, call, or even visit a Kingdom Hall.
As I thought about their responses, I realized the same question could be posed to any Christian denomination that engages in evangelism. Why do they think they need to do it at all? Their messages are just a click away, after all.
If I did ask them that question, I’m sure they’d respond by pointing me to what is called “The Great Commission.”
It’s found in Matthew 28:19-20 in the Christian New Testament. In that passage, Jesus is quoted as saying to his disciples: “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.” (New International Version)
Those verses have been the animating force behind hundreds of years of missionary activity, countless evangelistic crusades and innumerable local outreach efforts.
The only problem is Jesus never said what Christians have long believed he said — as a bit of research showed me.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. As it turns out, Greek is a language that can be hard to translate into English.
This is true for this verse, where the word “go” isn’t actually as commanding as we have been told it is.
In the original Greek, the word is in what’s called an inactive tense — a tense we don’t have in English. A better translation would be: “As you go” into the world, make disciples.
In other words, Jesus is not commanding his disciples to embark on missionary trips or undertake special evangelistic missions. Rather, he is simply telling them to live out their faith as they live their daily lives.
But you might not want to take my word for it. That’s why I contacted some theologians.
“This is exactly what I’ve been teaching!” said Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Illinois.
“The term behind ‘go’ is a participle and expresses a situation that is assumed: a kind of ‘in your going’ or ‘as you are going’ or ‘since you will be going,’ that kind of thing,” he said.
Paul Doerksen, who teaches theology at Canadian Mennonite University, agrees.
“The word ‘go’ could be translated as ‘having gone,’” he said. “It’s not an imperative.”
When Jesus talks about “making disciples,” that’s an imperative, he said, adding “God’s ultimate concern is that his chosen people are making disciples wherever they find themselves.”
Referencing Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Doerksen suggests the early Christians never did “outreach” at all, but “attracted people” to the faith by how they lived and cared for each other.
Added Gordon Matties, who formerly taught theology at CMU: “There is one main verb, an aorist active imperative, which is ‘make disciples.’ All the others are participles.”
The context also helps us understand the verse better, he said, since it’s clear from earlier texts in Matthew that the disciples will be harassed and will be forced to move.
“It’s possible the ‘going’ isn’t something they’ve chosen to do,” he said. “It’s something that is simply their way of life. So the translation ‘as you go’ makes sense, but it doesn’t convey the passive very well. Perhaps it should be, ‘as you’re being made to go, make disciples,’” he said.
In his book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, sociologist Rodney Stark suggested the Christian church grew because of how its members cared for each other — especially during epidemics that ravaged the Roman world.
Said Stark: “To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
Perhaps those people who wrote to me about letters in their mailboxes are right; maybe all Christians need to do today is live in such a way others want to join them. After all, it seemed to work for the early church.