Are We Out to Convert the World to Christianity?

I don't care for Matthew 28: 19-20.  It's Christian triumphalism. It's imposing Christian religion on the world. It's more of that on way dogma stuff that's part of a theology of hostility. What are we to make of these verses that seem to be saying everybody in the world is to become Christian? Perhaps these words are a later addition to the original Matthew? Please talk to me about the whole missionary enterprise. Are we out to convert the world to Christianity?

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We Share Our Truth

The question makes several assumptions: (1) that there is no meta-narrative, that is, no one story or reality that is in fact "true" and that all of our individual stories relate to;  (2) that the truth claim of Christianity that Jesus is the one true way to God is, in fact, a false claim; (3) that there are many ways to God and that it is wrong and perhaps even immoral to claim otherwise.

All of these assumptions are, in fact, themselves truth claims, just as much as Matt. 28:19-20 makes a truth claim.  All of them also exclude and reject the belief of others, and so might be called "intolerant" of Christian beliefs.

In reality, we all have a worldview and an understanding of the nature of truth, and there is nothing wrong or immoral about sharing that belief with others and encouraging them to believe as we do. Indeed, if someone really believed that Christianity were true and that eternal salvation were at stake (as Matthew clearly does), it would be immoral not to share that with others and encourage them to believe it as well.

As far as this passage being an interpolation, that is unlikely, since the rest of Matthew is just as "exclusivistic" and affirming of the truth of Christianity as the commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20.

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Kingdoms of God and Caesar

You have asked a very important series of questions. I teach at Howard University, a predominantly African American institution, and the ancestors of my students were enslaved because they were to be “saved from the pagan land of Africa and brought to this Christian shore.” These kinds of atrocities have been repeated throughout Christian history all over the world in the name of following Matthew 28:19-20, which is often called “The Great Commission.” (Incidentally, it is almost certainly not a later addition to Matthew. We have no manuscripts that have omitted it. Its Markan parallel, however, Mark 16:15, was probably a later addition to the Gospel of Mark, which probably ended at 16:8.) Exactly what is Matthew saying? And how is it to be understood in the 21st century pluralistic world?
Matt 28:19 can better be translated, “Go then and disciple all the Gentiles . . . “ Jesus has already told the disciples when he sent them out during his ministry NOT to go to the Gentiles but only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel “ (Matt 10:5-6). But now Jesus is risen and has been given by God all heavenly and earthly authority (Matt 28:18, echoing Daniel 7:14, where the Son of Man, the true human being, is “given dominion and glory and kingship”), and the (Jesus-believing Jewish) disciples are to go to the Gentiles.  Isaiah said that Israel would be a light to the nations (i.e. Gentiles, Isa 42:6), so Matthew is here following in that same tradition, though he wants the Gentiles to become full disciples. (The role of the Gentiles in this Jewish Jesus-believing movement was a controversial issue, as we see from Paul’s letters, esp. Galatians.)

How are the Gentiles to become disciples? By being baptized, just as Jesus himself was baptized, “fulfilling all righteousness” (Matt 3:13-17) and by being taught what Jesus taught, such as injunctions to love your enemy (5:44) and to care for those who are hungry, sick, and imprisoned (25:31-46). In other words, what the risen Jesus is attempting to do here is create an alternative community, constituted by the kingdom of God, which stands over against the kingdom of Caesar. What we have here is an anti-imperial message, which enables these Jesus-believing Jews to continue to observe their ancestral religious traditions in the context of the oppressive Roman Empire. (I am here indebted to Warren Carter’s work on Matthew. See his Matthew and the Margins, esp. pp. 45-46.)
How ironic, then, that this anti-imperial passage has been used to further empire, including Roman, Spanish, British and American empires, including political, religious and economic empires!  That certainly was not what Matthew had in mind when he ended his Gospel this way! Indeed, it seems that he imagined that “the end of the age” (Matt 28:20) was on the horizon, when the kingdom of God would come on earth as it was in heaven (Matt 6:10). What does that say about the Christian missionary enterprise? Another way to ask that question is: What is the Christian mission in the early 21st century? Our mission is live out fully Christian community, embodying love, joy, and peace (about which the Gospel of Matthew clearly teaches), and to join with adherents of other religious traditions (and all people of good will) to help create a more just and sustainable world.
Peace to you, James and all who read this, as we join together in that mission.

Author: Michael Willett Newheart
All Should Receive the Invitation

This passage follows Jesus' death and resurrection.  Jesus died for all, and all should be invited to receive Jesus' gift of life. That does not exclude God's mercy on those who have not heard.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott
The Problem Lies With Us

In brief, the commission of Mt. 28:19-20, is by one who was a virtual pacifist, praised the Samaritan as example of love of neighbor, washed the feet of his disciples as a common slave, exhorted to love enemies and pray for persecutors, and devoted his life to proclaiming and enacting God's rule or kingdom of love, mercy and righteousness, embracing all beyond race, gender, class, etc.  If Christians hijack Christianity and turn it into a source of triumphalism and violence, that of course is their problem and a betrayal of Christ. 

Furthermore, all religions worthy of their name, which promulgate ultimate truth about life and destiny, have an intrinsic sense of mission and service to God and humanity. However, if any turn their religion into a source of prejudice and conflict, an evil use of religion, instead of freedm and peace, that again is their problem and perhaps a betrayal of the essence of their religion. Meanwhile it is up to the maturity and discernment of the beholder to assess the difference, and make personal decisions, as she or he encounters the inevitable and rightful public marketplace of religions in the contemporary world.

It's All In the Interpretation

It is well known that there are textual variants in the ending of Matthew's gospel.  But this avoids the simple truth that this ending is what Christians after the 4th century had in front of them, which they presumed to be authentic words of Jesus and his last mandate.

True enough:  as this disgruntled reader notes, this text has been used for all sorts of purposes, some of which make many among us cringe with regret.  In its original context, however, it was the way early followers of "the way" understood what it meant to be messengers of good news, news that offered freedom, welcome, and hope for others.  Who would not want to carry such news to a world full of people hurt, lonely, and confused?

It all hinges on what one means by "making disciples."  If it means offering the gracious welcome of God to those who yearn for some glimmer of light, then we ought to all be in favor of such conviction.  And, often enough in the history of Christian life, this has been close to the heart of those who carried this message to others.

This is a case where we should not blame the text (or Jesus, for that matter) for how later readers interpreted the mandate.

Evangelism is the Heart

As to the textual question, Matthew 28:19-20 is an authentic part of the text of Matthew, not a later addition.  There's no question about it:  From its outset the Christian movement has been an evangelistic movement.  The theological logica is inescapable:  In Christian faith there is one true God over all, creator and redeemer of all.  And this one God has now provided universal redemption through Jesus Christ.  So, there is little choice but to bear witness universally to these things.

The problem is not really a religious message of universal application.  The problems with Christian missions have been other things, such as European or American insensitivity to other cultures, a failure to distinguish between the gospel and European/American culture, racism (occasionally), and sometimes theological shallowness (so, leading to the unnecessary demonization of all things foreign).
But Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are all three missionary religions. Remove their evangelistic impulse and you cut out their heart.
For Christians, it's important to distinguish between giving humble witness to God-in-Christ, and the sad history of coercion and other errors.  Religions should live or die solely by their ability to commend themselve to the human conscience.

Author: Larry W. Hurtado
A Middle Course

Matthew 28:19-20 probably reflects the way Matthew’s community reached out to a non-Jewish audience.  In several places in his gospel Matthew—who appears to be a Jew speaking to fellow Jews—nevertheless shows impatience with his fellow Jews.  Jesus’ command here can be read as his way of saying that God’s favor is no longer unique to the Jewish community, that it can apply to the whole world.

It is important to read Matthew’s gospel mindful of his impatience with his own people, because his sometimes strong language can seem to us anti-Semitic.  In particular is Matthew 28:11-15, in which Matthew basically accuses the Jews of lying about the resurrection.  I see texts like that as betraying a certain raw emotion on the part of an early community that saw itself as trying to distance itself from those otherwise close to them.  So I see the emphasis in Matthew 28:19-20 being on Matthew’s insistence that Jesus has opened to others besides Jews (who certainly were part of Matthew’s own community of faith) the path to salvation through baptism.

What are we to make of this today?  Well, first, we might observe that the baptismal formula (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) obviously had a big impact on the development of Christian theology.  Second, we can see that Matthew thought of the Jesus movement as having eschatological implications—that’s a fancy way of saying that he believed that Christ ushered in a new era of divine favor upon all who believed in him, not only those who followed the earlier law of Moses.  Third, the passage reflects a missionary fervor: “we must preach this good news!”

That last point is at issue in your question.  My question is this: is it possible to believe whole heartedly in the truth of Jesus’ words while at the same time recognizing the wisdom of other religious traditions?  In my Catholic tradition, there was a modern attempt to steer precisely this kind of middle course, as a corrective perhaps to the over-zealous early missions which condemned the (non-Western) religions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  They followed the example of missionaries like Matteo Ricci (see my Washington Post article on him), who could fully embrace Chinese culture and yet offer Christian faith in friendship to his adopted country.  Here is what the bishops of the Second Vatican Council wrote in 1965:

“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (from paragraph 2 of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, online at

For me, the missionary challenge is to take seriously the idea that faith in Jesus is about ultimate things, like how to live, how to love, what to worship.  I believe that Jesus revealed things about God that we could otherwise not know, and so I want to share that with others.  But anything smacking of force is abhorrent to me.  I’m not out to “convert the world,” because I know that only God can speak to a person’s heart.  I do want to share the gospel with the world, and remove the barriers which prevent people from encountering the gospel: prejudice, hatred, bias of all sorts.  And in that way I do see myself as “making disciples of all nations.”  But I understand “disciple” in its etymological sense: “learner.”  I want to make a world of learners, honest in their seeking to understand mystery.  I don’t think that’s triumphalistic, but I do think it is still faithful.





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