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Churches in the United States—for better or worse—act as a model for the local church in much of the rest of the world. Perhaps this is because the United States at this time is the richest country in the world and sends out the most missionaries. There are aspects of the American or western model which are biblical and are good. But there are also aspects of this model which are not scriptural. We want to examine one such aspect which has hampered the fulfilling of the last commandment Christ gave to His Church: the Great Commission.
The following is traditionally what happens when someone repents of their sin and follows Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They go to a class for new believers. At some point they are baptized in water. They may become members of the congregation. Then they and their children go to church every Sunday to worship God. Pastors are generally very happy with members who faithfully come Sunday after Sunday to hear their preaching and teaching. This “discipleship” process is meant to go on for the life of the believer in the home church. In missiological terms, such believers form the “modality” of the church.
A small minority of the church members, however, are “called” to do more. For example, they may want to serve God full-time. They might go to Seminary or Bible School to receive special training. Some of these after their studies become pastors of churches. Others become evangelists and so forth. Still others are very special and are sent out as missionaries to foreign countries. According to the western model, therefore, not every believer is sent out as a missionary. Together all of these full-time servants of God above are known to missiologists as the “sodality” of the church. In more common parlance, the sodality is equivalent to those who serve in the military, while the modality is equivalent to the civilian population of a country which stays behind to support the military with their taxes.
This model sounds well and good, but is it scriptural? The following study is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide some food for thought. What did Jesus do with his disciples after they decided to follow him? He taught them. How long did the teaching last, and what did it consist of?
To answer the first question, we know that he taught and trained them for a relatively brief three years. After that he left them and returned to the Father. Before he left, he told them that it was for their good that he was leaving them (John 16:7).
What did the teaching consist of during those three short years besides the disciples sitting at his feet and listening to his words about seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness?
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
This teaching is not the typical kind that we get sitting in church Sunday after Sunday. The teaching included, among other important things, training and equipping and impartation. He called the twelve apostles and give them power and authority over demons and diseases. The teaching included sending them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Luke 9:6 So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.
Their short-term mission trip was very successful. Many miraculous healings took place as these disciples preached the gospel in the villages. But this powerful training was not simply for the twelve vaunted apostles, it was also for other lesser known disciples as well.
Luke 10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. …9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’ …17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
As he had sent out the twelve, he also sent out the seventy-two. He gave them power and authority over disease and demons and then sent them out commanding them to heal the sick and to proclaim the kingdom of God. The training was successful; the disciples returned to their Teacher with joy and praise reports. Such reports are reminiscent of those we receive from recently-trained believers who return from their very first mission trip where they experienced many miracles. (See the report by a teenage evangelist who returned from a short-term mission trip to India.) Were these seventy-two disciples what we would call “full-time” servants of God? We do not know. What is clear is that they were sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God just as were the twelve apostles.
By Acts 1 the disciples numbered not just twelve, not seventy-two, but by then one hundred and twenty. Jesus said to them in verse 8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The particular significance of this is that all 120 believers would receive power and be sent out as witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some were to be sent out locally to Jerusalem; others regionally to Judea and Samaria; still others, like Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13, internationally. But all would be sent out somewhere as his witnesses. The distinction between full-time and not full-time did not appear to be a deciding consideration. Clearly some would relocate to a new area; those “sent” to their own backyard of Jerusalem might not.
Finally, Jesus said to the remaining eleven disciples shortly before he ascended to heaven:
Mark 16:15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; 18 …they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” …20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
Certainly Jesus was not only commanding the eleven disciples to go into all the world. Taking into account all of the Scriptural references above, we can justifiably conclude that all believers and disciples are witnesses and are sent out to proclaim the kingdom of God somewhere on earth. The field of one’s calling ranges from one’s immediate neighborhood all the way to the overseas mission field. This is irrespective of whether or not one has a “full-time” calling.
Thus the American or western model of the local church involving modality and sodality may not be scriptural. In some circles and churches today, this distinction between lay people and professional clergy is no longer accepted in theory. There are leaders now who know that every believer is a witness; every believer is part of the army of God. Unfortunately this principle is not yet reflected in practice but mostly rather in lip service.
Most believers in the body of Christ still end up sitting in a church listening to preaching and teaching Sunday after Sunday for the rest of their lives. They are constantly being taught but not bearing the fruit that they should. Jesus taught his disciples for only three years and then left them. His immediate disciples attempted to carry on his work as we see recorded in Acts. There was initial success, but eventually the Church faltered. After two thousand years, the Church has still not completed the Great Commission. What happened?
Could it be that the Church has adopted a model somehow borrowed from pagan religions? In pagan religions there is a sharp distinction between those who are professional priests and those who are lay people. Such was the case with the pre-Constantine idolatrous religion of Rome. The lay people were taught to depend on the priests in the temple for all of their spiritual needs. For example, only priests could offer sacrifices to Roman gods in behalf of the people. Then came the Roman Catholic Church with its practice of christianizing pagan practices. They leaned heavily on the pagan model of the priesthood.
After over a millennium of Roman Catholic domination came Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. Among other things he protested the Roman Catholic model of the professional priesthood. Based on Scripture, Luther rightly proposed the priesthood of all believers. But the Reformation in this regard remains incomplete. Today one can still see in the American or western model of the local church a familiar pattern. Sunday after Sunday and year after year without end believers faithfully sit in a pew or classroom to be ministered to by their pastor or taught by a leader. Some eventually get promoted to a position of ministry, but even these are mostly encouraged to remain and serve in the mother church. They are not released and sent out as Jesus released his disciples after three years.
(It may be that ancient pagans were influenced by early worshipers of Jehovah. The Old Testament practice of offering priestly sacrifices dated back to the time of Abel, only the second generation of man on earth according to Genesis 4:4. And as we know, such practices changed dramatically under the New Covenant through the blood of Jesus Christ.)
Moreover, in Revelation 2 Jesus makes a cryptic reference to the Nicolaitans, a little understood group.
Revelation 2:12 “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15 Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
We know that in return for money Balaam hoped to destroy the Israelites by prophesying against them and misleading them. Today as well there are those who serve God for the sake of financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5). Eventually Balaam succeeded in causing them to commit idolatry and sexual immorality. The practices of the Nicolaitans, however, are not so clearly understood. According to one interpretation, the meaning of the original Greek for this term is “rulers of the people.” The Nicolaitans taught an unscriptural division between the priests and the laity. If this interpretation is correct, Jesus was rebuking the church for establishing a separate and professional priesthood who ruled over the people in an unbiblical way. He commanded the church to repent.
The Roman Catholic Church fell into this error. Perhaps the mention of the Nicolaitans in Revelation was a veiled prophetic reference to the Roman Catholic Church to appear a few centuries later. Has the modern Protestant Church, the offspring and beneficiary of the great Reformation half a millennium ago, finally free from the error of the Nicolaitans? No, it’s clear that we are not. We must repent as Jesus commanded the Church in Pergamum.
Jesus taught his disciples for three years and then released them when he ascended to heaven. We are certainly not saying that discipleship and sanctification are not a lifelong process and that there is no authority in the Church. However, how many years of teaching are enough before disciples of Jesus Christ can be released and sent out to heal the sick, proclaim the kingdom of God and to make disciples in their Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or to the ends of the earth?
Many sincere disciples of Jesus Christ are getting tired of being preached at and taught week after week by the clergy without being sent out and commissioned to do the works that Jesus commanded his disciples to do. People who are fed much nourishing food but given little opportunity for physical movement or exercise are not happy and healthy. (They almost remind us of animals penned up in a slaughterhouse.) And so we understand one reason why some sincere believers get restless and move from church to church.
This unscriptural model has resulted in a Church that is weak and no longer taken seriously by mainstream society in the west. And this is the same model that has been imported by western missionaries to the Church in foreign lands. The Church must now revisit this model.
Let us complete the Reformation. Let’s train the disciples of Christ in three years or less and then send them out to serve the Kingdom of God according to their gifts and calling as witnesses of Jesus Christ. But first let’s look at the possible consequences of not doing this.
In Acts 8 a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem following the martyrdom of Stephen:
1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. …4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there.
Some scholars have taught that God purposely allowed this persecution to scatter the believers and drive them out of Jerusalem. Why? The Lord Jesus had clearly commanded them to preach the gospel not only in Jerusalem, but also in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. But instead they remained in the familiar confines of Jerusalem, perhaps in the comfort and security of the big mother church. The leaders did not train and send them out. Therefore God used the persecution to scatter them forcibly so that the gospel would be taken to Samaria, Judea, and beyond. We note in passing that not everything done by the disciples as recorded in Acts was in obedience to the Lord. Therefore some care should be taken whenever using Acts as a manual for the practices of the Church today. One should ask, “did the disciples in a particular matter actually obey what Jesus commanded them?”
What the Lord did in Acts 8, He may be doing to the Church today. He scatters us. Many pastors today would like every new believer if possible to stay in the church so that it can grow big and prosperous. (See “The Headlong Rush for Size and Crowds” and “Is Having a Large Church Always the Evidence of God’s Blessing?”) But if we train them as Jesus trained his disciples, they will not all stay forever. Instead many will want to be sent out to do the works that Jesus did. We will “lose” them. Because of that, a pastor might rather keep the sheep dependent on him so they will remain in his flock. But a pastor who thinks like that is not a servant of God; he is a hireling. Remember the prophet Balaam. What the Lord did to the Jerusalem church in Acts 8 He does today. As an example, how many church splits—resulting in more opportunities for growth and for evangelism on both sides—have been allowed by the Lord because we are not willing to equip and send out workers to His harvest field? There are occasions on which a church breaks up due to some issue or “moral failure” of the leadership and the flock scatters. Is it possible that the Lord is behind some of these crises as He was in Acts 8?
So let us decide to obey Scripture. Let’s train the disciples as Jesus did and then selflessly release them to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Not all will end up with a huge church of thousands with the accompanying earthly satisfaction and benefits. But we will be obeying the Great Commission. We will be teaching Christ’s disciples to do everything he commanded us (Matthew 28:20). And, let me say that it can be done. After believing in Christ for two years, I left the United States with my wife and lived in untouched jungles of Indonesia as a missionary to proclaim the kingdom of God fruitfully among idol-worshipers and Musl__ms. I know personally that with the Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit it can be done. (See our missionary autobiography “Dancing on the Edge of the Earth.”)