Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others?

A forgotten, but surprisingly prescient, approach to questions regarding the necessity and future of Baptist denominational identity can be gleaned from the words of John A. Broadus (1827-1895) when he addressed the American Baptist Publication Society’s 1881 meeting in Indianapolis.

Broadus, one of the founding professors and later president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first seminary, titled his sermon “The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views.” This is the second article examining Broadus’s sermon. The first was “Healthy Denominationalism or Denominational Ultraism?”

Broadus, one of the founding professors and later president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first seminary, titled his sermon “The Duty of Baptists to Teach their Distinctive Views.

This is the second article examining Broadus’s sermon. Read the previous article:

In the main portion of his sermon, Broadus listed four specific reasons why Baptists should teach their distinct views:

  • It is a duty we owe to ourselves.
  • It is a duty we owe to our fellow Christians.
  • It is a duty we owe to the unbelieving world.
  • It is a duty we owe to Christ.

In a day of denominational introspection, the Great Commission from Matthew 28:16-20 has served as a starting block for discussion and ministry cooperation. But, are all elements of the commands within the Commission created equal?

John Broadus begins his 1881 sermon on Baptist distinctives with a text taken from Matthew 28:20, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Referencing Jesus’ Great Commission, Broadus identifies that the commands of Christ,given to the disciples,consisted of both “the internal and the external elements of Christian piety.”

The internal elements, Broadus explains, are more crucial to the Christian faith as they relate to individuals and their relationship to their Creator. However, Broadus clarifies that any primacy given to the internal elements does not mean that the external elements have little value or lack importance. Broadus reasons that if Christ and his Apostles gave commands relating to external elements such as the “constitution and government” of churches, then it “cannot be healthy if they are disregarded.”

In this article, I want to explore further Broadus’ observation of the existence of internal and external elements within the Great Commission and then show how they should be ordered in the local church for the purpose of ensuring that the Great Commission is carried forth from generation to generation.

First, both internal and external elements are intrinsic in the prerequisite command of Matthew 28:19. Jesus exhorts the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” This mandate speaks of the ultimately internal act of regeneration BY a, they, the, the, a, well, protect, an, Paul, unimportant., the, a describes the local church as the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The idea of the local church functioning as a pillar and a buttress creates a picture of an intentionally designed (i.e. ordered) structure that, through its strength, has been prepared both to uphold (i.e. present or proclaim) an object as well as protect (i.e. preserve) an object. Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the church, reinforces the idea that the local church has been given as an indestructible fortress of strength held together by Jesus Christ himself (Col.1:17).

Thus, Jesus and his Apostles have given commands of an external nature that must be taught and implemented. The polity of church governance, baptism, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline all are external New Testament mandates for the sustenance of healthy churches. But for what end? As Paul notes, the object given to the local church to uphold and protect is the “truth.” The “truth” is the message of eternal life—the substance of the commands of Christ with internal focus (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Tim 2:25). The New Testament teaches that this “truth” was, and is, to be handed over or delivered from one generation to the next through the local church. Three concluding examples:

(1) Luke speaks of this at the beginning of his Gospel when writing to assure Theophilus of the certainty of the things he had been taught. Luke states that he has written an “orderly account” of the things that “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” had “delivered” to Luke and the other apostles (Lk. 1:1-4).

(2) Likewise, Paul instructs Timothy and the Ephesian Church to “guard the good deposit,” a reference to the entire message of the Gospel he had taught and given to them. In a broad sense, the purpose of all of Paul’s letters is to deliver the “truth” not only to his immediate recipients but also to all who will read his letters and implement the commands in local churches (Col. 4:16).

(3) Jude reinforces the notion that the “truth” is the object the local church exists to proclaim and protect. In Jude 3, he explains that “the faith,” or the Gospel message of eternal life, has been delivered to the saints. That is to say, the message of salvation through Jesus Christ has been handed down to Christians who live out the Christian life in local churches. Jude states that this delivering was done “once for all,” referencing the complete and final nature of the message rather than communicating that the message had no further need of transmission.

Therefore, the local church, the “pillar and buttress of truth” exists to “guard the good deposit” and “deliver” it to future generations. The New Testament commands that speak of preserving and proclaiming the “truth” are primary. However, the commands that speak clearly to the order, practice, and health of the local church, while secondary, should not receive treatment as unimportant. Instead, the local church has a duty to carry forth and teach “all” these in obedience to Matthew 28:20.

As the Great Commission rightfully continues to serve as a starting place for ministry and consensus point for cooperation, John Broadus’ conclusion that there are multiple commands within the Great Commission is helpful to recall. Even though all commands in Scripture are authoritative, I have attempted to explore here whether some of these commands are more important than others, and, if so, for what purpose?

Are some commands in the Great Commission more important than others? Yes. In agreement with Broadus, observing the commands with internal elements that speak of the reconciliation of the lost to their Creator Father is of primary importance. However, the ongoing restoration of that relationship through the observance of the remaining commands in the Great Commission is vital for church health both now and for the future of future churches. While second in importance, obedience to the commands with external elements is often the highest affirmation that the first command to “Follow Me” was indeed first observed.

Jason G. Duesing is vice president for strategic initiatives and assistant professor of historical theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This article is adapted from his contribution to “Upon this Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church” (B&H Academic, 2010).