Anthony Bradley on How “Great Commission Christianity” Keeps African-Americans Away From Evangelicalism

Since 1994, I’ve been researching evangelicalism’s inability to successfully integrate its churches and institutions following the Civil Rights Movement. The United States Military, professional sports, the arts, film, business, the health care professions, and so on, have all made advances in terms of racial diversity since 1965. Evangelicalism, however, remains just as white today as it was when Tom Skinner addressed race and evangelicalism at Urbana in 1971. Not much has changed. After twenty years of observations, my conclusion is that evangelicalism’s reduction of the mission of Christianity to the extra-biblical phrase “The Great Commission” serves as an obstacle preventing white evangelicals from connecting the gospel to the lived experiences of African Americans. 

I call this “Great Commission Christianity” (GCC). GCC is not heretical. It’s not necessarily wrong. It is accidentally deficient.

Although the phrase “The Great Commission” is found nowhere in the Bible, it has been defended by evangelicals as the core imperative of Christian mission. The problem exegetically, however, is that the word “go” in Matthew 28:16–20 is not an imperative. It’s a participle. According to Robert Culver, the Greek grammar simply does not support “go” as an imperative command unless you are reading a revivalist agenda into the exegesis of the text. Properly translated, the verse should read, “having gone,” or, “as you go.” The aorist participle is not functioning as an imperative in this text and, therefore, the call to “go” is not a particular action by individuals to physically go anywhere in particular. That doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t “go” intentionally—the church’s work in disciple-making is a distinct call and an exegetical imperative throughout the biblical text. But Great Commission Christianity is a truncated view of the gospel, the kingdom, and redemption that may permanently keep evangelicalism one of America’s only predominantly white spaces.

Great Commission Christianity

The dominance of “The Great Commission” as a clarion call for the work of the church in the world is often attributed to the Baptist missionary William Carey. However, as Robbie Castleman observes,

“It turns out that this passage may have got its summary label from a Dutch missionary Justinian von Welz (1621–88), but it was Hudson Taylor, nearly 200 years later, who popularized the use of ‘The Great Commission.’ So, it seems like Welz or some other Post-Reformation missionary probably coined the term ‘The Great Commission’ and since that time, the passage has been the theme for countless mission talks and conferences.”

Today’s evangelicalism inherited a slogan that’s more a handicap than they may realize. Here’s a well-accepted summary of one of the best examples of how Great Commission Christianity views the Christian story. For GCC, the gospel is “the announcement of the good news of Jesus’ work to restore sinful image-bearers to the rightful worship of God.” The kingdom of God is “the rule of God demonstrated on earth among a worshipping people.” And redemption is “God’s work to free His people from slavery.” Again, this view is not wrong. It’s just limited in application. Its hyper-focus on saving individuals and the work of the church says nothing about the redemption of creation, which God is also reconciling to himself through Christ.

Cosmic Redemptive Christianity

The alternative view is what I call Cosmic Redemptive Christianity (CRC). At its core, CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.

The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” GCC sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.

I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos. The kingdom of God is the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ over the entire cosmos. Redemption, then, is God’s work to restore the whole of creation to himself.

Cosmic Redemptive Christianity, as a redemptive-historical approach, seeks to call God’s people to himself through evangelism and to liberate creation from the power of the devil until Christ returns.

The Reformed tradition has recognized that God cares about everything in creation that was affected in Genesis 3 and that God intends to redeem everything, as far “as the curse is found.” Redemption is a covenant story about everything in creation.

Gerard Van Groningen, in his book From Creation to Consummation, explains that the creation—the “cosmos”—includes industry, technology, recreation, the arts, education, commerce, politics, and so on. This is God’s “cosmic kingdom.” As a result, black lives matter to God. Poverty matters to God. Gun violence matters to God. Racism matters to God. Divorce, child abuse, genocide, sex-trafficking all matter to God. GCC remains truncated and largely unhelpful to the black experience because God’s people have been commissioned to have dominion over the world for its current liberation, not just it’s spiritual salvation. Issues of justice in society, for Christians, are issues of liberating the creation from the work of the devil. The hyper-focus of GCC on evangelism obscures this reality.

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SOURCE: Fathom Magazine, Anthony Bradley