Is the Church Really Called to Disciple Nations?
Is the Church really called to disciple nations? The answer to this complicated question is both “yes and no.”
As one of the pioneers in the charismatic apostolic movement, I released a groundbreaking book called Ruling In The Gates in 2003.
The manuscript first made the rounds with high profile leaders in late 1998. People like C. Peter Wagner and Ed Silvoso, upon reading it, were impacted by it. (In 1999, Ed tried to aid in getting it published, but no one wanted to touch it because back then it was considered to be too radical. Subsequent to it being published, Peter marketed it globally.)
I still agree with the book’s basic premise: The gospel was not merely the good news for individual salvation, but for societal and cultural transformation. (Jesus did not merely preach the Gospel, but he also preached the gospel of the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). The Kingdom of God rules over all people, not just over Christians (Psalm 22:28, Psalm 72:8-11, Psalm 103:19). The Kingdom of God is His rule which emanates from His throne in heaven.)
Consequently, as Lord, He is not just the head of the Church, but He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Ephesians 1:22-23, Revelations 19:16). This means that Jesus is the President of all presidents, the Governor above all governors, and the CEO of corporate executives. His Kingdom is not of this world, but it is certainly now in this world (John 18:36, Luke 11:2-4). That being said, the question being asked now is, “How will this come about, and what is the Church’s responsibility to make it happen?”
Of course, the answer will vary according to a person’s eschatological views. The focus of this article is not eschatology, but methodology, since most leaders I know in the charismatic/evangelical movement agree that the gospel should have cultural implications. This is irrespective of their eschatological leanings. (Even those who held to some form of the hyper premillennial position, like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Tim Lahaye, were involved in social reform through their organizations and writings.)
Should the Church disciple nations?
As previously implied, I have modified my position regarding this question since the writing of my first book, Ruling in the Gates. As I have grown more in the Lord, my understanding of ecclesiology and the Kingdom has continued developing to reflect more of a Christ-honoring position.
The primary verse we need to consider in the context of this subject is Matthew 28:19, in which Jesus commanded the apostles to “disciple the nations.”
Consequently, many people who are proponents of the “7 Mountain Mandate,” as well as the reconstructionists movement, believe this particular New Testament command is the equivalent to Genesis 1:28, which is referred to by many as the “Dominion Mandate.” This is why those who ascribe to such teachings often say, “The Church is called to take back the nation” or “The Church is called to take the city.” The use of such terminologies have received Godly pushback and necessary critique.
My response to this terminology:
First of all, it is exegetically inaccurate to teach the Church that we are still under the “Dominion Mandate” of Genesis 1:28. When God made this covenant with Adam, the world was not populated with people. It was filled with the animal, plant, and air kingdom, as well as the ecosystem. After the world was populated with human beings, God changed the language of dominion to the language of blessing (“all the families of the earth will be blessed” Genesis 12:1-3).
Although Christ-followers are still called to positively affect all of life, the New Testament method for leveraging influence was illustrated by Jesus, the “Last Adam.” He demonstrated a servant approach when He wrapped a towel around His waist and washed his disciples’ feet (1 Corinthians 15:45, John 13:1-34).
Hence, Jesus did not use a “top-down” leadership approach (dominion), but showed that real influence comes from the “bottom-up” through serving. He also taught us that the process of becoming the “salt of the earth and light of the world” involves humility, meekness, empathy, hunger, and persecution (Matthew 5:1-16).
Furthermore, based on the original historical context of Genesis 1:28, the Dominion mandate has been generally fulfilled by all humanity, not just Christians. All humanity has been exercising “dominion” upon the created order since the beginning of our history (Psalm 8, Psalm 115:16). This is why human beings have learned to cultivate the earth, till the ground, raise crops, shepherd, manage, and control the animal kingdom. This also includes advances in understanding natural law, science, and harnessing natural energy for technology. Thus, Christians cannot claim absolute rights to the implementation of this passage. However, it is presently countercultural to believe in ideologically following the created order as God designed it as per Genesis 1-3 (especially as it relates to the origin of the cosmos, binary gender, marriage, the fall, etc.).
Secondly, what does the word nation ((ἔθνη,ethnē) in Matthew 28:19 mean (“make disciples of all nations”)? I still agree that this word refers to a collection of people, not merely an individual’s ethnicity. It refers to ethnic tribes, people groups, and people with a shared cultural collective.
The text’s direct reading, in its historical context, does not obligate the Church to primarily focus on geo/political influence (which many in the present-day conservative church is guilty of doing).
However, when Jesus said these words in Matthew 28:19, there was no geo/political construct of nations as we see today. Rather, there primarily existed a hegemony of power ruled by kingdoms and empires over ethnic tribes and people groups (with totalitarian dictators like the Cesears and with 2/3rds of the Roman world in slavery).
The modern construct for nations did not appear until after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which is still the model today for nation/state sovereignty.
Thus, saying that Matthew 28:19 commands the Church to primarily focus on modern-day politics is missing the point.
To understand this further, in the days of Jesus, there were gentile, ethnic people groups, who derived their primary identity from their gods, pagan rituals, common culture, and religion. I believe the discipling of these ethnic people groups initially entailed their receiving of the gospel and renouncing their collective pagan identity. This was necessary in order to be identified as sons of God. Hence, Jesus was calling the Church to reach all pagan nations in order to become one Body and to be His Holy nation on earth (1 Peter 2:8-9).
When those involved in the 7 Mountain Movement veer away from a strong ecclesiology framework and solely focus on the marketplace, they miss the primary method Jesus used with pagans to bring them into a transformative experience. Ethnic peoples had to be baptized and officially join the Jesus community to be discipled. In many nations, people are not viewed as Christ-followers until they get baptized and join a church. Hence, the very fact that Jesus connected water baptism with discipling nations proves that said nations cannot be discipled without joining the church via baptism (Matthew 28:19-20).
Hence, the way to disciple nations was the forsaking of pagan identity and instead joining the one holy nation (Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Peter 2:8-9). At times, throughout early church history, pagan kings like Clovis, who converted to Catholicism in 498 AD, brought whole tribes into the faith through water baptism. This eventually led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples. However, the king could not be baptized as a representative of his tribe. Each individual had to demonstrate his conversion by water baptism as well.
Furthermore, there was no artificial bifurcation between “workplace and churchplace” among believers in the original church (before the separation of the so-called “clergy and laity” in the 4th-century church). Hence, when a person committed their life to Jesus, they automatically affected their family, friends, and marketplace spheres with a gospel witness.
This is why Jesus connected the baptizing of nations in the same context of discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).