Beyond the War: The Questions of My Readers - By John Shelby Spong

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 26 March 2003 0 Comments
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"If you do not favor conversion activity, how do you interpret the Great Commission?"


     The Great Commission, found in Matthew 28 quotes Jesus as saying, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (RSV)." It is popularly translated "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel."

     We need to be aware first that this text was written before the Christian Church had actually split from the Jewish Synagogue. Christians were at that time, in Matthew's context, revisionist Jews who had found God present in Jesus and who believed that Jesus needed to be incorporated into the ongoing Jewish tradition. Matthew, as a Jew, also wanted the Jews to fulfill their vocation given to Abraham "to be a blessing to all the nations of the world." So Matthew opens his story by placing a star into the sky to announce Jesus' birth. A star did not just shine on the land of the Jews, but was seen by all the nations of the world, that is by the Gentiles. That star drew those Gentiles, said Matthew, in the persons of the magi, to Bethlehem, the place where the tradition said the Messiah had to be born. Then Matthew tells the story of the life of this Jesus, climaxing with the accounts of his crucifixion and resurrection. The risen Christ is then made by Matthew to say but one thing to his disciples. That is the setting in which the words we now call the great commission were said to be spoken. It was as if Jesus, through Matthew, was saying, " Now that you know who I am, you have a responsibility to move beyond the boundaries of Judaism and to tell of God's love for all the people of the world." The Great Commission had nothing to do with later rites of initiation or the necessity of believing doctrines, dogmas and creeds. Missionary efforts that are designed to go beyond the boundaries of your tribe, race or nation and to proclaim the infinite love of God take many forms. Violating the culture and values of another people to impose your version of a religious system that Jesus never knew is not one of them.


Bob from Fresno, California asks:
"The Bible speaks of God addressing particular people, e.g. Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Nathan directly. Other people claim that God has spoken directly to them. How do you account for or explain that?

Dear Bob,

     In a word very carefully!!

     I think we need to heed the wisdom of the man who said, "When I speak to God it is called prayer. When God speaks to me it is called paranoia."

     People who have a deep sense of vocation do feel that God is directing their lives and so they might well refer to that by saying, "God spoke to me and called me to this vocation." That, however, must be understood metaphorically not literally.

     Does God have vocal cords that enable the Divine One to speak? Does God have a larynx through which words can be formed? Does God speak in Hebrew, Greek or English? Does God have a heavenly accent? Literalism gets silly when we ask such questions. When Moses at the burning bush felt the call from God to go to Egypt to seek freedom of the Jewish people from slavery, was that a literal happening? Was it external? Could it have been photographed or recorded? Or was it internal, subjective, and seen only with the eyes of the mind? People, who claim that they have visions, hear voices or who believe that they bring messages from God are either mentally unbalanced or deceptive, since they appear to need external validation for their internal yearnings. Either way they need to submit their insights to a larger community for both judgment and validation. Great harm has been done to too many people as the direct result of such claims. I distrust them almost 100%!!
John Shelby Spong


Scottie from Seattle, Washington asks:
"What do you believe glossolalia or speaking in tongues is?

Dear Scottie,

     I am very skeptical of this psychic phenomenon and in most cases regard it as a deliberate attempt to deceive or a manifestation of mental illness. I see no redeeming value in this practice. If it is of God, as some people claim, I find it hard to believe that non-sensical utterances are confused with divine instructions. So the claims that people make for their ability to speak in tongues become crucial to me.

     Let me, however, file one caveat that makes some sense to me. A Pentecostal African-American preacher once said to me, "Glossolalia as an act of personal devotion is easy to understand."

     "Tell me what you mean," I enquired.

     "Well," he said, "When I make love to my wife I utter sounds that if played on a tape recorder, would be non-sensical to anyone else. But, inside our relationship of ecstasy, they are perfectly understandable. If my relationship with my wife can be marked with such intensity that it enables us to create an exclusive, but nonetheless to us a perfectly understandable language, as part of that relationship, is it not possible to do the same in our relationship with God?"

     I could not rebut his argument.

     I rest my case.

John Shelby Spong




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