A GLORIOUS MISUNDERSTANDING
“The Church misread Matthew 28:19 for a thousand and six hundred years.”
One of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century, Emil Brunner, Professor of Theology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, called the Church’s application of Matthew 28: 19 “a glorious misunderstanding.” For nearly two millennia, the Western Christian Churches had followed the dictum, “Go out into the world, make all people my disciples, and baptise them…….” Some still do. However, the Biblical ground for such aggressive way to expand the Church is a very thin ice. There is only one mention of such commandment in the Bible. There is no other passage in the whole Bible commanding proselytization.
Why then did aggressive evangelism become a powerful doctrine? I am convinced that it was the influence of the Roman Empire on the fourth Century church leadership. By then the Roman Catholic Church was an integral part of the Imperial political structure. It was convenient for the proponents of the empire expansion to embrace an aggressive religious doctrine. Matthew 28:19 was a useful passage to justify the imperial expansion in stead of encouragement to being the witness to God’s love. It was a misreading of the passage. We must recognize the fact that it was originally written for a different reason.
This verse has been misunderstood and abused first by the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, and gave birth to the missionary movement of the Protestant Churches as an agent of colonialism. Consequently, colonialism, destruction of non-Western cultural traditions, and even military actions like Crusades and European colonial wars used Matthew 28:19 as the Divine Commandment to expand.
From Africa , Cecile Rhodes famously wrote to the Colonial Office, “Send us more missionaries. They are cheaper than policemen.” The Residential School system for the original population of Canada was another infamous example of corroboration between colonialism and proselytism. Empire expansion is as old as human race, from Mongolian Empire to British Empire. However, Matthew 28 gave an added sense of God given rights to the basically theft of other people’s land. Granted, missionaries brought benefits as education and western medicine. But even those good deeds were used as the tools of propaganda. On the other hand, Japan and Thailand, both had prohibited Christian missionaries during the time of European expansion. Consequently those countries were never colonized. They adopted Western science and technology on their own volition to suit their needs and kept the religious heritage intact.
In short, the missionary venture legitimised the incorrect interpretation of the word ‘evangelism.’ “Evangelism” comes from the Greek word, “evangelion.” Actually, it means “to convey good news.” It never meant “converting pagans into Christian faith.” The missionary movement of the western churches was an invention of the Roman Empire, not of the Bible. Therefore, other non-Western Churches did not have a missionary movement. Orthodox Churches of the Eastern Europe, Greece, Middle East, North Africa, and Russia have never sent out missionaries to win converts; likewise neither did non-conformist groups like Mennonites and Quakers.
As for the Gospel according to Matthew, you have to take into count its particularity to understand the reasons behind 28:19. Matthew was written in Antioch, present day South Eastern Turkey, during the Second Century by a Greek speaking Jewish Christian. Greek language of the Gospel of Matthew is in such a refined quality that only a Greek mother tongue person could write it; not the disciple Matthew from Galilee who had no Greek. In comparison, the writer of the Mark’s Gospel uses only elementary Greek indicating he was not a person of Greek mother tongue.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke, called Synoptic Gospels, represented three distinct groups in the early church. Two of them retained Judaism: one group spoke Hebrew and remained mainly around Jerusalem; while the other was made up of diaspora Jews who spoke Greek as mother tongue and lived outside of Palestine. Both were a reform movement of Judaism. The group based in Jerusalem disappeared when the Roman army totally destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The second group lived mainly in Asia Minor (Turkey) and continued to exist. Those two groups believed that Jesus never abandoned Judaism. So they continued to practise Hebrew religious customs. Meanwhile, Luke was speaking to the third group who were made up of some Greek speaking Jews with an increasingly large number of Gentiles. They accepted Christ as a founder of a new inclusive religion. They did not observed Hebrew practices such as circumcision and Kosher foods.
The most important issue that separated them was the question of “how much should Christians retain Jewishness?” The group Matthew was addressing itself to believed that the message was Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law and Prophets. For Matthew, Jews were Christ’s target group. So he recorded Christ’s words like “I was sent to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24) And “Go nowhere among the Gentiles.” (10:5) In contrast, Luke believed that Jesus Christ founded a new religion for all nationalities: the Law of Moses had completed their assignments hence not to be imposed on non-Jewish converts.
The challenge was, even among the group Matthew was addressing himself to, there were increasingly large number of non-Jews joining up. The Church grew very fast in number without conscious effort to expand. This happened despite the difficulty to engage in open observance of Christian faith: because it was often illegal. But people willingly joined often secretly. Sociologist Rodney Starke attributes such attractions as the women’s enhanced positions in the Church, caring nature of the community to the orphans, the poor, the widows and the sick. The church was a very attractive alternative to the old religions and the oppressive political system.
What do you do with those gentiles who were attracted to the group of Jewish Christians? That was the challenge Matthew had to address. Kick them out? Making them Jewish by circumcision and Kosher food? Matthew 28: 19 was written in order that Christian Jews would welcome the Gentiles as brothers and sisters. The only condition was baptism, which interestingly was an initiation ritual of one Jewish sect, “Essene.” Nevertheless, it was an appeal for inclusion. Unfortunately it was used by the Roman authorities to justify imperialistic aggression. We do believe in evangelism as a good news but not as a tool for aggrandisement of the Christian Church. .