The Gospel, Unity, and the “Strategy”
Perhaps the greatest revelation of the New Testament, apart from that of salvation through the death of Jesus Christ, was the revelation to the apostle Paul of “the mystery of Christ” (Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 4:3). In fact, Paul's twin letters to the Ephesians and Colossians center on this theme as the core of their message, which the apostle encapsulates in Ephesians 3:6 - “that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
To the Jewish believers of the 1st century (including, I am sure, Paul himself) this was astounding news. Throughout their long history the Children of Israel were taught that the nations beyond and around them, the Gentiles, were “unclean”, and they were repeatedly commanded to have nothing to do with them. So serious was this command for separation that even though the prophet Malachi could record Jehovah's proclamation, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), when Ezra learned of the intermarriage of the post-exilic Hebrew men with foreign (Gentile) women he ordered them to put these wives away, with all their children. The only exception to this very strict rule was in the case of Gentiles who willingly subjected themselves to the sovereignty of Jehovah, adhering to the Mosaic Law and (in the case of males) signifying their subjection by the rite of circumcision.
One can well understand why the apostle Peter should have been so “greatly perplexed in mind” (Acts 10:17) by his thrice-repeated vision of the “great sheet”. Although he recognized the voice that spoke to him as belonging to the Lord (v. 14), he was still unwilling to obey by killing and eating any of the unclean creatures the sheet contained. Now, this was not the “old” Peter of Matthew 16 who rebuked his Lord; this was the “new” Peter whose bold Pentecostal sermon produced the conversion of 3,000 souls. The Lord's command was so revolutionary, so contrary to all Peter had been taught - and to that which previously had been the law of God - that he could not bring himself to violate his conscience even at the cost of disobeying a direct command from the risen and exalted Christ.
Evidencing the fact that this was the “new” Peter was his ready response to the Holy Spirit's bidding to accompany the three emissaries of Cornelius to the city of Caesarea. And upon his arrival at the centurion's home Peter bore testimony to his so recent “conversion” by saying, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Thus was the gospel of Christ first communicated to the Gentiles, and the first non-Jews incorporated into the Christian church, the body of Christ on earth.
Again, in his letter to the Ephesians Paul dwells on the theme of the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers “in one body to God through the cross” (2:16). He explains that Christ “made both groups into one by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (2:14, 15). Thus he is able to conclude, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God's household” (2:19). Paul emphasizes this union of formerly hostile peoples by his repeated use of the Greek prefix syn-, meaning “with” or “together” and translated in the NASB as “fellow-”. The Gentile believers are now “fellow-citizens” (2:19), “fellow-heirs,” “fellow-members,” and “fellow-partakers [with Jewish believers] of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6).
The apostle John (probably writing to the same church of Ephesus about thirty years after Paul) expresses the same mystery in these words: “what we [Jewish apostles and disciples] have seen and heard [of the person and work of Christ, the 'Word of life'] we proclaim to you also [who are primarily Gentiles], that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
Clearly, that which united Jewish believers with Gentile believers was the gospel of Jesus Christ and its transforming effects in their individual lives. Since this was so in the 1st century the unifying factor in the 20th century must also be this same gospel of Jesus Christ. The practical question that must be asked, however, is, “What exactly is this gospel message, and how much (or little) do we need to agree on in order to have fellowship with one another?” Obviously, in the present context this question cannot be answered with any completeness or finality, but perhaps some initial guidelines can be given.
If we were to ask the apostle Paul for a definition of the gospel in a nutshell, he would likely respond as he did to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:1-5a):
1. Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand,
2. by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
3. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4. and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5. and that He appeared
Thus the correct understanding of this gospel assumes, first of all, a correct understanding of the person of Christ as the unique God-man, truly God yet truly man, the Christ (Messiah) whose coming was long-prophesied and long-awaited through the history of the Jewish people. Secondly, the correct understanding of the gospel requires an acceptance of the historical facts of Christ's sinless life, substitutionary death, literal burial, supernatural resurrection, present exaltation, and future return in glory. And finally, the correct understanding of the gospel requires a full consideration of the effects in our lives of these various aspects of the person and work of Christ. Without taking the space to go into these in detail, they may be illustrated as follows:
|Christ qualified to be a sinless substitute||We have forgiveness of sins, justification, redemption, reconciliation||Our sins are buried from the sight of God||The proof of our justification||We have the Gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit||Christ intercedes on our behalf||Christ will take us to be with him|
|The life of Christ is being formed in us||We died to sin, self, the world, and the Law||We were buried with Christ||We were raised with Christ to a new life as new creatures||We were raised up with Christ to the heavenlies||We are now seated with him in the heavenlies||When he returns we will be glorified with him|
It is this sans-serif">It is this gospel and no other that must be the central proclamation of the Christian church - anything less than this or other than this is a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). Any view of Jesus other than this Jesus is “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:14). It is this gospel and this Jesus that also unite all believers to one another (Ephesians 3:6; 4:1-6) - any other basis of unity is false and insufficient. “Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). The addition of any other conditions is unscriptural.1
In New Testament times one group which sought to add other conditions to this unity was the “Judaizers”; they held that Jewish believers could be fully united with Gentile believers only if the latter kept the Jewish Law and evidenced their Law-keeping by circumcision. The resulting tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians eventually came to a head in the city of Antioch in Syria. As described in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, this is what happened:
While on a visit to Antioch Peter initially enjoyed fellowship with the Jewish and Gentile believers equally. But then some Judaizers arrived from Jerusalem and “began teaching the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved' ” (Acts 15:1). Out of fear of this “party of the circumcision” Peter “began to withdraw and hold himself aloof” from the Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:12). The rest of the Jewish believers in Antioch, including even Barnabas, followed Peter's example, joining in his hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13). In effect, Peter declared by his actions (Paul doesn't tell us whether Peter said anything or not) that the basis of Christian unity in at least some situations is different from the basis of unity in others. In fact, the strong implication of Peter's behavior was that there are at least two classes of Christians: 1st class Christians who have not only believed in Jesus for salvation, but who also submit to a system of external laws that govern lifestyle; and 2nd class Christians who have “only” believed in Seeing Peter's inconsistency of behavior, and recognizing the serious implications concerning the core of the gospel and Christian unity and fellowship, Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Galatians 2:11), saying to him “in the presence of all, 'If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?' ” (Galatians 2:14). Furthermore, Paul said that by adding other conditions (namely circumcision) to Christian fellowship, Peter and the others “were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14).
Peter and Barnabas were quick to see their error and to repent of their sin of hypocrisy, and the latter, at least, joined Paul in a “great dissension and debate” with the Judaizers over this issue (Acts 15:2), until the Antioch brethren decided to send Barnabas, Paul, and some others to Jerusalem to take up the matter with the apostles and elders there. When all these men “came together to look into this matter” there was “much debate” (Acts 15:6, 7). The resolution that was finally reached was that the Gentile believers did was that the Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised, or in any other respects keep the Jewish Law, in order to be saved; but for the sake of peace between the two groups they were urged to “abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20). It was Peter, in fact, who declared during this council that “[God] made no distinction between us [Jewish believers] and them [Gentile believers], cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).
The Judaizers who went up to Antioch to push the Law onto the Gentile Christians (and Peter, who at that time gave tacit approval to their teaching by his behavior) were, from the standpoint of the whole church, guilty of creating a faction in the body by actively seeking to draw individuals after themselves on the basis of their own view of righteousness. However, from the standpoint of the Judaizers, they would have considered that it was Paul who was guilty of faction, in that he was seeking to break up their comfortable little clique by refuting their false teaching!
A similar thing has happened within Great Commission International. In many of the churches associated with GCI the primary focus has been shifted off the full gospel of Jesus Christ and onto the “strategy” propagated first by founder Jim McCotter, and then by his disciples, the current board of directors of the movement, and the pastors of local GCI churches. They definitely have not denied any essential truths concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ; but like the Judaizers they allowed something other than the pure, simple gospel to become their primary focus. That is, in GCI the effects of the gospel are often seen impacting on an individual's life especially as he pursues this “strategy.” “Strategy” was not by any means made essential to salvation, as the Judaizers made circumcision such a requirement, but it had been made a key consideration for Christian unity. It was also made a measure of spiritual maturity, dividing believers into 1st class Christians (those who see the “strategy” and are seeking to follow it in reaching the world for Christ) and 2nd class Christians (those who don't see the “strategy” and feel no need to follow such an evangelistic blueprint).
Such aspects of the Christian life as the church, evangelism, fellowship, teaching, discipleship, etc., are viewed largely (though not exclusively) as they relate to the “strategy” (see diagram below). And yet this “strategy” itself is based on a misconception.
First of all, from Matthew 28:19-20 and Mark 16:15, the Great Commission passages, GCI teachers have deduced that it is the Lord's universal will that every believer must ultimately leave his home town and even his native land in order to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation”. For example, it was specifically taught in the Albuquerque GCI church in the 1970s that it would be sin for anyone to be found still in that city when the Lord returned - they should all have moved on to other places in fulfilment of the Great Commission. Such emphasis on geographical locations really misses our Lord's point, i.e., simply that those who know him should actively seek to introduce others to him. Jesus surely didn't expect every believer to go personally to every country with the gospel (as required by the logic of the argument presented by Henry Hintermeister in his booklet “Go,” the Cry from Eternity (the “GO BOOK)2 - rather, he expected this command to be carried out by the Church as a whole - i.e., some believers would go here, others would go there, and thus the job would be done. Some may travel 10,000 miles to fulfill their particular obligation, others only 25 feet as they take the gospel to their neighbors. The Great Commission contains no mileage obligation for each Christian, only a witness obligation. Very significantly, in his “GO BOOK” Hintermeister discusses every other aspect of the Great Commission but the meaning of the word “go.” Throughout the booklet he merely assumes that it means “leave your homeland and go to another land”. No consideration is given to the thought that “going” could includ with) witnessing to international students in one's own home town. In addition, Hintermeister never tells the reader that the word “go” in Matthew 28:19 is not even in the imperative mood in the original Greek - that is, it is not in the form of a command. The command in this verse is “make disciples,” or simply “disciple.” Therefore, one of the most central words in the Great Commission was treated only superficially in this little booklet which, at least for several years, was virtually an official handbook of Great Commission International.
A second aspect of the whole “strategy” misconception is that GCI leaders understand and teach that we are to “make disciples” as that we are to “make disciples” as each individual Christian engages in intensive one-on-one discipleship, taking new believers from spiritual infancy to reproductive maturity. This, however, fails to make adequate provision for the ministry of all spiritual gifts in an individual's life - if any one Christian can single-handedly nurture a spiritual babe until he becomes a spiritual father (and be fully developed and robust), what is the purpose of the multifarious gifts of the Spirit, or for that matter, the church itself? Each believer has his own role to play in disciple-making; discipleship was never meant to be a one man show.
A third aspect of the “strategy” misconception involves the common teaching in GCI that Acts 1:8 is a command - that is, the “you shall [be my witnesses]” is understood as the imperative mood of the verb “shall” in English. Actually, though, as pointed out during a Bible study in Columbus in the mid-1970s by Mike Keator (who at that time was taking a course in New Testament Greek), the form of the original Greek verb is the future tense, and in fact a “gnomic future,” referring to a law of nature. Therefore, the sense of the passage would really be “this is bound to happen” [that the disciples would be Christ's witnesses], and not a command at all.
Fourthly, the perceived command of Acts 1:8 is viewed in GCI as referring to a specific evangelistic “strategy” which Jim McCotter and other GCI leaders believe is revealed in this verse. (To be fair, GCI teachers are not alone in this thinking; many Christian teachers believe this. However, this does not nullify the fact that this interpretation is incorrect.) They understand “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” to imply a progressive evangelistic advance, i.e., “Begin in Jerusalem, then go to Judea, then proceed to Samaria, and then finally to the remotest part of the earth.” Thus, in GCI it is commonly taught that each believer has been commanded by God to proclaim the gospel first in his own “Jerusalem” (his home town or wherever the Lord first “grips his life”), then farther afield in his home state or province, then in neighboring states or provinces, and finally in foreign countries.
There is much to be said for this “strategy” from a human point of view - e.g., in this way an individual is able to gain experience in familiar surroundings at home before plunging into a completely foreign environment where he will have to contend with a new language as well as with a new culture and new customs and new laws. Besides this, it also can be shown that this is, in general, how the early church expanded: first Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), then Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9), and then the non-Jewish world (Acts 10-28). GCI leaders also find this “strategy” in Acts 26:19-20; Romans 15:19; and 1 Thessalonians 1:8. Careful exegesis of these passages, however, reveals that the idea of a conscious “strategy” is far more apparent than real. What the early saints were conscious of was the direction of the Holy Spirit, not a heaven-sent blueprint or missionary itinerary.
When we examine Acts 1:8 in context we are reminded that it forms part of Jesus' answer to his disciples' question, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). This is really a two-part question: (1) “…is it at this time…?” and (2) “…You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answered the first part of the question in verse 7: “It is not for you to know the times or the epochs…” Part 2 is answered in verse 8: “…you shall receive power… and you shall be My witnesses…” His kingdom would be established not with physical or military power, but with spiritual power. Further, it would not be confined to the geographical territory of Israel (Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria), but would extend throughout the world, “even to the remotest part.” By this interpretation, then, the geographical references in verse 8 are not to be viewed as four separate stages of missionary expansion, but as two areas, namely Israel and everywhere else. Jesus' intention was to broaden the scope of thinking of his disciples to understand that God's plan of the ages is not merely a parochial, nationalistic kingdom encompassing Israel only, but a universal kingdom of blessing to the whole world (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; Galatians 3:8, 13-14). His purpose was not to leave his disciples with final and immutable instructions as to how they should carry out the evangelization of the world.
The GCI “strategy” is thus seen to be based on a misconception of the Great Commission, and this misconception involves a deficient understanding of the nature and purpose of the church and the gifts of the Spirit, as well as a simplistic and superficial interpretation of Scripture.
Yet it is this “strategy” which has become the chief focus of teaching and practice, and also of unity and fellowship, in most of the churches associated with Great Commission International.3 This focus is unbiblical not only because everything else is made to serve it rather than the simple and full gospel of Jesus Christ, but also because the focus (i.e., the “strategy”) is itself distorted.
The strong emphasis and reliance on the “strategy” - making it the actual, though indeed not the stated, focus of teaching, fellowship, and activity - in essence severely restricts the work of the Holy Spirit, both in the church and in the lives of individuals. Although GCI teaching fully acknowledges the present activity of the Holy Spirit (and the risen Lord Jesus) in the believer's life on earth, dogmatic insistence on the “strategy” does much to counteract this teaching. If the Lord has given us a blueprint, or even only an outline, for world evangelization, then immediately we can determine certain limits to his will in this regard. For example, if I'm still serving in my “Jerusalem,” then I can forget about going to my “Samaria” next - I need to reach my “Judea” first. If the Lord “gripped my life” in Columbus, Ohio then I don't need to be wondering whether he wants me to go to Equatorial Guinea until I've moved out farther into the state of Ohio, then to a neighboring state, and so on. If I do not expect the Lord to lead me in certain ways - and especially if I deny he will - then I run the serious risk of really missing his will for my life, and I come dangerously close to dictating to him how he should direct me.
As already stated, the “strategy” does make sense in many ways. However, it is far more a matter of common sense than a divinely stipulated plan of action impinging on all believers. Throughout the book of Acts we read of the apostles and others extending the kingdom of God in much the same way as prescribed in GCI's “strategy” - with some notable exceptions in Acts 8:26-40 and 16:6-10 - but their actions are much more spontaneous and natural than they are pre-arranged or programmed. And always the early missionaries demonstrate a keen sensitivity to the direct leading of the Holy Spirit.
By contrast, one almost gets the impression among GCI churches that during this present period between the Lord's ascension and his return believers are on their own with only their heaven-sent battle plan to guide them in the witness to the world. The role of the exalted Lord Jesus as Commander-in-Chief of the “Church Militant” is often disregarded in this connection. But Jesus is not an out-of-touch Commander; the book of Acts clearly demonstrates this by recording approximately 30 separate instances of direct action and involvement in the lives and circumstances of Christians, either by the ascended Lord himself, by the Holy Spirit, or by angelic messengers from God. The early saints relied on the Lord's direct leading, with due consideration to the Scriptures, in their evangelistic activity.
Witnessing to others about what Christ has done for them was the most natural thing in the world to these believers. They did not need to be prodded or cajoled into talking about the Lord - as they grew to know and love him more and more, and allowed him to express his life in and through them, they couldn't stop talking about him. They were motivated by their profound love of Christ, not by fear of displeasing him. It often happens in GCI, however, that evangelism is carried on out of fear - fear of displeasing God, and fear of the judgment of others in the group, especially the elders or pastors. This is the way of law, not grace - of death, not life.
In Living Together in a World Falling Apart Neta Jackson mentions an article in Faith At Work magazine of April 1972 which included some very insightful statements concerning the naturalness of the biblical order. She writes:
The author told about a church in Kansas City which meets, not to evangelize or do a task or get involved in social action, but to “be the church.” “If we can really learn to love Jesus and love each other,” the pastor was quoted as saying, “everything else that is supposed to happen will happen.” What about evangelism? the writer asked. The pastor replied, “Ninety-nine percent of the admonitions [in the New Testament] are about how to love each other. And I think if we learn to do that right, the world will be knocking on our door. People want in on love.” It was obvious in the description of the church that people were flocking to the doors, “so much so that the fellowship is having to wrestle with what to do with the demand.” Another member responded to this by saying, “I've finally had to face the fact that people don't save the world; God does. But if we really love each other, we give the Holy Spirit a handle with which to [work] .Any time evangelism succeeds, it is because fellowship has taken place. Nothing much will happen without it.”
To this I can only add my hearty “Amen!”
 At the same time, however, we must affirm that that which unites believers to one another is the shared life of Christ. It is not a thorough and fully accurate comprehension of all these aspects of the person and work of Christ that imparts his life to the sinner, but rather the simple and sincere acknowledgment of personal need, confession of sin, and acceptance of his death as the full and only payment for that sin. Thus it should be our common salvation that unites all Christians, not total agreement on all particulars of the faith. We would expect agreement on such “fundamentals” as the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and redemption by God’s grace through faith alone. Beyond these there must be liberty of conscience.
 Since writing this booklet and others used (formerly) in GCI, Hintermeister has left Great Commission International and repudiated much of the argumentation contained in these booklets, including this assertion that every Christian is to go to every country.
 See pages 115-117.