What is the Great Commission and why is it so controversial?

A majority of church-going American Christians are unfamiliar with the term, the “Great Commission,” a recent survey found.

Even among those familiar with it, 25 percent recognized the phrase but could not explain what it was. Only 17 percent were familiar with the phrase and its meaning.

So what exactly is the Great Commission? And why is it a controversial idea for some?

A Christian obligation

Briefly, the Great Commission is a concept that has been used to support the missionary activities of many Christian denominations.

The Great Commission refers to several passages in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus Christ urges his apostles to make “disciples of all the nations” and “baptize” them.

The word “disciple,” which is “mathetes” in Greek, literally means “pupil” but also “follower,” as in “follower of Jesus.”

“Baptize” refers to the Christian practice of using water to remove the “original sin,” an inherent fault that Christians believe marks all human beings at birth. Baptism is an important sign of entrance into the Christian faith.

The Great Commission, therefore, is usually interpreted to mean spreading the Christian message and converting others to Christianity.

The Gospel of Matthew does not specifically use such a term. In fact, the phrase “Great Commission” does not appear until late in Christian history. Some scholars argue that it was coined by Baron Justinian von Welz, a 17th-century Lutheran nobleman, who argued that the words in Matthew 28 meant that all Christians were required to spread the faith, not just Jesus’ closest disciples.