Churches as formal, local institutions have been given a very specific, singular mission in this age, best articulated in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
You’ll notice that there are several phrases in this text that sound like commands, but grammatically there is actually only one command: “Make disciples” is the mandate Christ gave to his church—nothing more and nothing less. All of the rest of the phrases in this passage that sound in English like commands, which we’ll consider in a moment, actually further explain the central command. In fact, we could even say that all of the commands and discussion throughout the rest of the New Testament that directly relate to the church are simply giving further explanation or correcting errors related to the central command of making disciples. All of that explanation and correction still carries with it the force of a command, but it all comes back to this central command: make disciples.
So what is a disciple? Well, a disciple of Christ is simply a follower of Christ. He is one who obeys Christ’s commands, not simply out of duty, but because he knows, if you love Christ, you will do what he commands (Jn 14:15). And the Great Commission bears this out in verse 20 where it says that part of what it means to make disciples is “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” A disciple is someone who observes Christ’s commands, who submits to his rule. To put it another way, a disciple is a citizen of Christ’s redemptive kingdom.
Now we might say, “Isn’t worship our first priority? Why isn’t our primary mission as churches to worship?” Well keep in mind, to be a disciple is to worship God. Submission to the rule of Christ and obedience to his commands is worship. Don’t think of obedience to Christ as distinct from loving Christ. Jesus said, “If you love me”—if you worship me—“you will keep my commandments.” To be a disciple of Christ is to worship Christ. So we could think of it this way: our mission is to make disciple-worshipers. The ultimate aim of all things is the worship and glory of God, but our specific mission as churches is to disciple worshipers for God’s glory.
But sinners can’t worship God—sinners cannot submit to Christ’s rule; so in order to make disciples who observe Christ’s commands, there are a couple more preliminary steps. First, in the parallel passage in Mark, Christ presents the first step toward making disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Being a disciple of Jesus Christ requires first that someone hear the good news, repent of their sins, and trust in Christ for salvation. So, the first necessary step in making disciples is proclamation of the gospel.
Second, Christ commands that new believers must be baptized. Physical water baptism is an outward visible sign of inward Spirit baptism. Spirit baptism happens at the moment of conversion and unites us to Christ (1 Cor 12:13)—it makes us citizens of the redemptive kingdom. Water baptism is a public profession of faith and unites us to a visible church—the visible representation of the redemptive kingdom.
And the third necessary component of making disciples is teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded. This is the clear teaching and preaching of Scripture, again all of Scripture, but especially the apostolic teaching recorded in the New Testament.
Notice that with regard to churches, our mission is exclusively redemptive in nature: make disciples. Our mission involves gathering more citizens of the redemptive kingdom through evangelism, baptism, and teaching. The church’s mission is entirely spiritual in nature—it does not involve temporal earthly matters that belong to the common kingdom. The only mandate given to churches that involves physical matters is “contributing to the needs of the saints” (Rom 12:13), but even then, only when the common institution of the family breaks down (1 Tim 5:3–8). Never is the church given the responsibility of meeting the physical needs of society at large. That is the responsibility of institutions in the common kingdoms of this world.
Neither is the church given any commands regarding political involvement. We are to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions,” but churches should not in any official capacity hold political rallies, endorse candidates, or advocate for specific policy positions. Note that even in a very oppressive governmental situation, the New Testament never advocates for churches attempting to overthrow tyrannical governments and establish more righteous governments. That is not the mission of the church. The church’s mission is purely spiritual.
This is important exactly because of Christ’s authority over his church. When the church is operating as a church, it must do what its authority commanded it to do, no more and no less. If our authority as churches is what Christ commanded through his apostles, then we may only do what can follow “Thus says the Lord.”
Now notice that I have been very careful to say “churches” here. I am not saying that individual Christians may not be involved in politics or meet physical needs in society or other cultural matters. This is why we must carefully distinguish between individual Christians in the common kingdom and gathered churches as part of Christ’s redemptive kingdom. These are two distinct kingdoms of God with different citizenships, different responsibilities, and different forms of God’s revelation as their authority. The New Testament does give very clear direction for how individual Christians are to behave as members of society, but gathered churches have a distinctly spiritual mission of making disciples.
Discipling Common Kingdom Citizens
Nevertheless, because members of churches may certainly be involved in various cultural endeavors as citizens of the common kingdom, the church does have a secondary role in cultural engagement: churches should instruct believers in what it means to live Christianly in society. Part of what it means to fulfill the Great Commission is to teach Christians how to live out the implications of their relationship with God and how to obey the Great Commandments through being holy, active citizens in society for the good of their fellow man. Churches should speak to relevant moral issues under attack in society as part of discipling Christians to know how they should live in that society. However, churches must not speak beyond Scripture, may not require of their people what Scripture does not require, and should not in any official capacity meddle in civil affairs.
You might say, “But if these political or social issues are important, then why shouldn’t we as a church make them a primary emphasis?” This is a good question, because we don’t want to fall into the other ditch of saying that none of these issues in culture matter, and we should just stay silent. They do matter. But if we as gathered churches make them our primary emphasis, inevitably the mission that Christ has given us gets sidelined. You begin to hear things like, “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary.” The implication is that we preach the gospel through doing good in society, not through clear, bold proclamation. This is the social gospel, and when you buy into the social gospel, you lose the true gospel.
Churches should certainly stand up for truth and condemn antibiblical ideologies or immorality within the broader society, but there is even a danger here. We must always remember that the primary way churches fight against antibiblical aspects of the society is by making disciples. If we think that the primary way to battle unbiblical conduct is through political schemes, or if fighting against immorality itself becomes our mission, then we lose the gospel, and we actually lose the mission Christ has given us.
This runs contrary to how many evangelicals think. Very prominent leaders within evangelicalism teach that churches should be actively engaged in social, cultural, and political affairs, seeking to do “kingdom work” through “cultural transformation.” Hopefully you recognize the problems with this. This thinking blurs the distinction between the common kingdom and the redemptive kingdom, and it goes beyond what the New Testament clearly commands as the church’s mission. Nowhere does the New Testament command churches to transform or “redeem” culture, engage in political activism, or solve physical problems. The church’s responsibility is to make disciples.
And the reverse is true as well: institutions of the common kingdom ought not meddle in the affairs of the church. Governments, for example, have been instituted by God specifically for the purpose of protecting innocent life, but governments have no authority over churches. Evangelicals who blur the distinction tend to err in this point too, allowing the government to dictate what their churches can and cannot do. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Christ said, “and to God the things that are God’s.” The church’s authority is Christ alone, explained through apostolic teaching recorded in God’s special revelation.
On the other hand, churches may indeed have an influence upon culture due to the fact that the Holy Spirit of God is active in the world through the church in a manner unique to this present age. Paul teaches in 2 Thessalonians 2:6–7 that the Holy Spirit is currently restraining “the lawless one” through his indwelling ministry in the church. This also relates to Christ’s description of his followers as “the salt of the earth,” those who, through living in “peace with one another” can serve to preserve righteousness in the world (Matt 5:13; Mark 9:50).
With this perspective, the church may have a restraining or preserving influence on broader culture to one degree or another, but this is through what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence” within the world. Rather than this being a particular political strategy or set of cultural programs, this kind of restraint or preservation is accomplished by churches discipling believers to live Spirit-controlled lives, and through Christians submitting to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in every aspect of life, simply living in unity together as separated Christians in society. In this way, Christians are salt and light, helping through example and act to restrain human depravity in the surrounding culture. We are participating as citizens in the human institutions created by God for the purpose of ordering the natural world and providing restraints upon human sinfulness, not accomplishing “redemptive kingdom work.”
The fact of the matter is that Scripture never promises societal transformation in this age. Things might get better for a time, but usually because more people have come to faith in Christ, not because of some sort of social or political program. And things will get worse; as Paul predicts in 2 Timothy 3:12–13, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” When things get bad, it should sadden us, but it should not surprise us.
But neither should we get discouraged. It is not our responsibility to succeed where Adam failed; Christ has already done that, and his perfect rule will come to pass only when he comes again. In the meantime, we seek to make disciples and live holy lives.
To the End of the Age
Finally, notice how Christ ends the commission: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Christ is the church’s authority—it is his church, but that also means he won’t leave us. It’s his mission, and so he will see that it comes to pass. We are responsible to make disciples, but Christ will build his church. And he will do so until the end of the age, when he comes again in glory to unite the two kingdoms into one perfect eternal kingdom. Then there will be no distinction: the common and redemptive will be united in subjection under the perfect king. And we will live in obedience to him and worship him perfectly for all eternity.
This is an excerpt from Scott Aniol’s book, Citizens and Exiles: Christian Faithfulness in God’s Two Kingdoms.