Definition: the act of defining, or of making something definite, distinct, or clear.

“Accuracy of language is one of the bulwarks of truth.”
Anna Jameson  (2 Timothy 2:15)

So, who cares about definitions?  Well, we do…and we believe you do too.

Words have meaning.  Everyday single day we bank on the fact that the words we speak or write are intended to convey something definite, distinct and clear.  When we take our family to a Chinese restaurant and order Kung Pao Chicken we expect to receive what we ordered.  If instead the waiter brings us a Kung Pao Fish entrée, but not recognizing that it is fish… we eat it anyway, which causes our daughter who has a fish allergy to go into anaphylactic shock…we would of course, be livid.  We would be even more outraged if after we give her a shot from her EpiPen, we confront the waiter and he smugly responds by telling us that he thinks that chicken means fish and fish means chicken, explaining that since both are animal proteins they are basically the same.

We know this may seem like an absurd illustration, no one thinks chicken means fish, do they?  Probably not, but in our postmodern world of verbal gymnastics it has become all too common for the meaning of words to be subject to one’s own interpretation.  Strangely, the postmodern relativism that says we cannot assign objective meaning to words would never be tolerated, even by those who espouse such nonsense, when filing an insurance claim or reviewing a bank account balance.  Any gibberish about creative interpretation would be vigorously opposed at the bank or at the insurance adjuster’s office.

2 Timothy 2:15 – Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Sadly, when dividing the word of truth, many Christians don’t seem to care about doing it rightly.  This is especially true today when it comes to unpacking the meaning and goal of the Great Commission mandate given to us by Jesus Christ.  When it comes to God’s global mission, it is somehow acceptable for interpretations to vary with individual churches and their environments.  This lack of concern for the accuracy of language has incredible and often terrible consequences.

Just how much confusion is there about the definition of the Great Commission?  Well, based on our combined experiences in working with hundreds of churches, we believe that the confusion is massive and not just among church goers and members, but it is widespread among church and missions leaders.  We are quite certain that if you were to do a quick survey of church leaders and mission-minded, missions-active people in your church asking them just a couple of basic questions about the Great Commission, that you would get many different and often conflicting answers.  Sometimes the differences would just be semantical but more often than not, we believe they would be fundamental.

This is not just a self-concocted theory either, in our work of coaching and consulting churches we repeatedly encounter serious confusion and stifling disagreement among church and missions leaders, let alone church goers, about the purpose and goal of the Great Commission.   Following are some questions that we have asked and are continuing to ask:

  • What is the Great Commission purpose Christ gave to His Church?  

What exactly are we supposed to be doing?

What task has He called us to accomplish?

  • What is the goal of the Great Commission? 

What is it that we work toward?

What does the fulfillment of Great Commission require?

We have been asking questions like these for combined decades and with rare exception, the responses reflect an unbelievably hazy understanding of the Great Commission.  And if churches are unable to state clearly and concisely their Great Commission purpose, it will be nearly impossible for them to serve that purpose well.  Won’t it?

One of the approaches that we often use to help clear the fog is to simply ask some more fundamental questions, like:

  • A church defines missions simply  as “reaching lots of lost people” – does that align with God’s heartbeat for the Great Commission?
    Does it fully represent His heart for the whole world?
  • Has Jesus left the interpretation of the Great Commission open to individual churches?
  • When Jesus gave the Great Commission, did He give definite, clear and distinct instructions?  If so, what are those instructions?  If so, why all the confusion?

Ed Stetzer in an article entitled, “Involving All of God’s People In All of God’s Mission,” explains the importance of God’s people defining His mission:

“It will help all of God’s people to be involved in all of God’s mission if we will do the work of both defining the mission and choosing an appropriate cultural articulation of the mission. As Stephen Neil has said, “When everything is mission, nothing is mission.” The mission of God cannot be the catch-all that includes everything from folding bulletins, to picking up trash on the highway, to coaching a ball team, to the gospel infiltrating a previously unreached people.”

Perhaps one of the most important questions that we should be asking when reading about the Great Commission in Scripture is, are we allowed to simply express the ideas that come to mind, or does an accurate interpretation require we consider that Jesus was conveying objective meaning and purpose when He gave His final marching orders?  In essence, the question we should be asking is whether or not Jesus cares about definitions.   If He doesn’t care, then it does seem that the meaning and goal of the Great Commission are up for grabs, but if He does care about words and their meaning, then we would do well to think seriously about what He really meant when He commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations.

Matthew Ellison
President and Missions Coach

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Sixteen:Fifteen exists to help local churches discover and use their unique gifts in partnership with others to make Christ known among all nations. Find out more at  or call to talk to a Church Coach at 505-248-1615, or email us.