Anthony Bradley recently lamented the influence of what he calls Great Commission Christianity (GCC) because it only represents a partial understanding of the Gospel (he calls it “accidentally deficient”). What GCC misses, argues Bradley, is a right focus on the Gospel’s effect of restoring the creation. Pointedly, for Bradley, this means that GCC Christians do not prioritize social issues and so social justice.
His alternative, Cosmic Redemption Christianity (CRC), affirms what GCC does but also includes cosmic restoration. Put simply, it includes evangelism and the drive “to liberate creation from the power of the devil until Christ returns.”
Is he right? Is GCC an accidentally deficient version of Christianity? As is often the case, things are not so simple. Here’s a short review of the two sides which will hopefully clarify the current debate.
GCC advocates do act justly in the world
Many GCC Christians have done social good in the world. And this has been important to their Christianity. Michael Haykin recently wrote:
“Yes, all the way from the deacons in Calvin’s Geneva taking care of the city poor, to Spurgeon urging the British Parliament to prosecute not only prostitutes but also the men who used their services, to Spurgeon’s stated refusal to sit down at the Lord’s Table with slave owners, which led to his books being burned in the antebellum South. In between, we have men like William Wilberforce, who sat on the boards of more than 60 charities and believed social change had to happen on the fronts of both personal conversion and also socio-political legislation.”
So many GCC heroes have pursued justice among society. It is not true that GCC Christians do not care about justice nor are unconcerned about it.
But that’s not exactly Bradley’s contention.
Where Bradley sees the main problem
“Great Commission Christianity doesn’t typically preach a redemption of all creation. They never have. Great Commission Christianity preached a revivalistic, individualistic, truncated gospel to slaves on plantations and did not seek to free slaves from slavery. GCC did nothing to thwart and fight against lynching during Reconstruction. GCC did nothing to liberate blacks from Jim Crow. In fact, it was the opposite. It was typically GCC church members in the South that fought against the black church led Civil-Rights Movement.”
He further claims that the same is true today. GCC Christians are unable to understand racial tensions and why African American Christians are leaving GCC.
And racial tension, justice, and so on are part of the Gospel for Bradley because both liberation and evangelism comprise the message of salvation. As he explains, “CRC knows that all injustices around the world, and in the church, are “gospel issues” because the gospel, at its core, is about God calling his people to himself and the liberation of creation.”
So the real theological rub is this: does the Gospel include the liberation of creation or not? And if it does, how should we understand the idea of liberation?
How have GCC advocates responded?
Tom Ascol responded to Bradley’s article by maintaining: “The problem isn’t with the great commission. The problem is with those whose cultural agendas have so shaped their perspectives that they fail to appreciate the significance of what it means to make disciples of all nations.”
Now Bradley never criticized the great comission exactly (he questioned the legitimacy of the standard interpretation of Matthew 28). Instead, Bradley criticized a form of Christianity that he calls Great Commission Christianity. But while Ascol seems to overlook this distinction, he still makes a valid point.
Cultural agendas can coopt whole movements of Christianity and can shape the perspectives of believers. One effect of embracing cultural agendas could be that Bradley and CRC Christians mistakingly understand “what it means to make disciples of all nations.” Now, I suppose Bradley could make the same charge of Ascol.
Although the basic thrust of Ascol’s article is to criticize Bradley’s argument, Ascol briefly defends GCC. To defend GCC, he illustrates how GCC advocates have done social good. He cites, for example, William Cary’s influence in banning “widow-burning” among the Sati in India.
So again: the conflict seems not to be the need for Christians to do good works, which include socially beneficial actions. The conflict seems to revolve around what constitutes the Gospel and what is a Gospel issue.
Ascol does not see social justice or liberation of creation as gospel issues or as part of the Gospel. Bradley thinks this leads to a truncated gospel. That seems to lie at the centre of this debate.
Pulling some thoughts together
With that review done, I think we can safely define some of the key differences between GCC and CRC Christianity.
- GCC focuses on personal salvation that leads to good works, including socially beneficial works.
- CRC emphasizes both the forgiveness of sins and the liberation of creation. For CRC advocates, the Gospel includes both.
- Practically, both GCC and CRC affirm that we should pursue socially good actions. They differ on how we should do so.
I don’t want to say much more than this as I am still learning exactly where the conflict is. I am not yet sure if the terms GCC and CRC are accurate. But I suppose they are a good way (at present) to make distinctions.
Read the two articles by Bradley and Ascol to get a sense of what is going on. But remember this: the vast majority of believers in North America lie somewhere between these two men. Most of us are simply trying to live faithful lives in our local contexts. And yes: the larger issues of racism and evangelical identity are still important.
I hope that this short article helps to situate the current debate and clarify what’s at stake. It’s only an initial take. And I don’t want to say much more than this because I am still learning. But let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to learn more.