The Great Commission

Playing the Mission Card

by Todd Wilken, Host of

Some years ago I wrote an essay about a tactic I called “the Pharisee Card”:

The “race card” is a political term of art made famous during the 1988 presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. In today’s presidential politics, we also have the “gender card.” ...In American politics, the Race and Gender Cards are played to discredit someone by implying that he is racist or sexist. Just as politicians and pundits play the Race Card or the Gender Card, many in the Church are playing the “Pharisee Card.” Just like the Race or Gender Cards, the Pharisee Card is not designed to raise a legitimate issue of doctrine or practice. Rather, the Pharisee Card is used to discredit someone by implying that he is narrow, rigid, and unloving—a Pharisee.

The Pharisee Card is still a popular tactic for some Christians. But there is another, equally popular tactic; I call it the Mission Card. The Mission Card is designed to distract from, demote and dismiss biblical teachings, under the guise of reaching the lost.

No one plays the Mission Card like Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of The Purpose Driven Life. In fact, Warren played the Mission Card masterfully at the 2022 official gathering of his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention in Anaheim, California. Warren had recently ordained several women as pastors, contrary to Scripture and the SBC’s teaching and practice. He had also appointed a husband and wife pastoral team as his successors upon his retirement. Needless to say, this disturbed some of his fellow Southern Baptists. Late in the gathering, Warren addressed the assembly from the floor. After reciting a long and exaggerated litany of his personal accomplishments benefitting the SBC, Warren said,

You're never going to find another Baptist, who agrees with you completely on everything. There are Baptist brothers here today who don't believe Jesus died for the whole world. But we imagine, [sic]somehow get along with them. ...2033, just eleven years from today, is the 2000th anniversary of the Great Commission. I hope one of you, because I won't be be here next year, will make a resolution that Baptists take the next ten years to finish the task of the Great Commission, in our generation, before the 2,000th anniversary of the church. Are we going to keep bickering over secondary issues? Are we gonna keep the main thing, the main thing? We need to finish the task. And that will make God smile.

The Mission Card was on the table. Why, Warren asked, were his fellow Southern Baptists fretting about him ordaining women pastors when the clock was ticking on the Great Commission? Didn’t they have more important things to do, like finishing the mission that Jesus commanded them to do? “Are we going to keep bickering over secondary issues? Are we gonna keep the main thing, the main thing? We need to finish the task.”

That is the Mission Card. Distract, demote and dismiss.

It is important to understand that the Mission Card is not really about the mission of the Church at all. The Mission Card is played to change the subject, nothing more. It is a tactic designed to distract, demote and finally dismiss doctrinal concerns. In this case Warren wanted to distract his fellow Baptists from the fact that he had ordained women pastors, demote their concerns to category of “secondary issues,” and dismiss those concerns as irrelevant to the “main thing,” the mission of the Church.

And it worked. After playing the Mission Card among his fellow Baptists, Warren won the hand. The SBC gathering applauded, the SBC Credentials Committee tabled a recommendation to disfellowship his Saddleback congregation, and Warren’s critics quietly folded. Warren got exactly what he wanted. The Biblical teaching regarding the pastoral office was dismissed as secondary (perhaps even contrary) to the mission of the Church. Warren successfully changed the subject away from his unbiblical ordination of women. Warren got both his female pastors and the ovation of his fellow Baptists.

What was Warren really asking his fellow Baptists to do? He claimed he wanted them to focus on the mission of the Church, but what he was really asking them to do was compromise a Biblical teaching in the name of the mission.

Why does the Mission Card work? It is because the Mission Card is a not- so-subtle accusation. The player is saying “If you disagree with me, you are standing in the way of the mission of the Church.” No one wants to be portrayed as impeding the mission of the Church.

The Mission Card is a call for doctrinal compromise, plain and simple. In Warren’s case, he was asking his fellow Baptists to compromise the Bible’s teaching on the pastoral office. But the Mission Card works just as well on any doctrine of Scripture. By the way, this has been Warren’s strategy for his entire ministry. In 2004 Warren reminisced about the founding of Saddleback:

I knew that by simplifying doctrine in a devotional format for the average person, I ran the risk of either understating or overstating some truths. I'm sure I have done that. ...But I decided when I planted Saddleback in 1980 that I'd rather reach large numbers of people for Christ than seek the approval of religious traditionalists. In the past eight years, we've baptized over 11,000 new adult believers at our church. ("A Purpose Driven Phenomena, An Interview with Rick Warren," Modern Reformation, January/February 2004.)

The “religious traditionalists” Warren dismissed in 1980 were, of course, anyone who questioned what Warren was actually teaching those 11,000 believers.

Warren is but one example. The Mission Card has been used in Mainline Protestantism for decades to justify every doctrinal compromise and every departure from the teachings of the Bible. In the name of the mission, these progressive denominations have ordained women pastors, then openly gay and

lesbian pastors, and most recently, transgender pastors. And it’s not only the pastoral office. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America played the Mission Card to justify full communion fellowship with the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ:

It is God who opened the eyes of these Reformed and Lutheran theologians to see that the disagreements that divided were in fact differences that need not divide... It was God who opened their eyes to see that we could live more closely together in mutual affirmation and admonition, drinking from the same cup of salvation in witness to the one who shed his blood for us all... Part of the meaning of this day has to do with committing ourselves, as the Formula of Agreement declares, to engage together in God's mission. (“U.S. Lutheran and Reformed Churches Make History,”

Warren might be surprised to learn that he is using a tactic dreamed up and employed by theological liberals for decades. A survey of Mainline Protestantism today might show Warren the possible future of Saddleback. I recently asked Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to respond to Warren’s use of the Mission Card at the SBC Anaheim gathering. He said,

It is a pragmatism that just opens the door, and that liberalizing is just going to happen... Rick Warren is not a theological liberal, but I believe he opens the door to it. As you look to the rise of theological liberalism in Protestant churches in the nineteenth century, the leading edge of that liberal, even heretical teaching was on the mission field... You had people on the mission field who said, “Look, we’ve got to adjust Christianity because we can’t bring all this stuff, including the exclusivity of the Gospel, the virgin conception of Jesus. We’ve got to cut Christianity down to a message that we can actually communicate over here...” The Great Commission doesn’t say minimize everything the Scripture teaches in order to supposedly win as many people as you can for what you’ll call Christianity.


So, how should you respond when someone plays the Mission Card? First, recognize the Mission Card for what it is, a false dichotomy. It assumes, at best, that we must strike a balance between the mission of the Church and the

teachings of the Bible. At worst, it assumes that we must choose between the two.

Jesus, the one who gave us the Great Commission, never asks us to balance or choose between the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the Church. Jesus never pits the two against one anther. On the contrary, he holds them together, inseparable from one another, saying,

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Notice, the mission of the Church (making disciples) is done by baptizing AND teaching. And, that teaching includes “all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.” “All things” means all things. There are no “secondary issues” that can or must be compromised for the sake of the “main thing.” The totality of the Bible’s teaching is an essential part of the “main thing.” Compromising the Bible’s teaching doesn’t further the mission of the Church, it hinders it.

Second, when someone plays the Mission Card, call their bluff. Ask, “Are you saying that we should minimize or disregard something the Bible says?” Ask, “If we are free to minimize or disregard something the Bible says, why should I take the Great Commission itself seriously?” Ask, “Why do I have to choose between the mission and the teachings of the Bible?” Ask, “Where does the Bible teach us to compromise its teaching for the sake of the mission?” Ask, “Are you sure you’re not just trying to change the subject?”

Third, play a card of your own: the actual grammar of the Great Commission. In that command, Jesus includes a little relative pronoun, ὅσα. It is translated “whatsoever.” It is sometimes left untranslated because it is considered redundant with the word “all,” but it isn’t redundant. It is emphatic.

Jesus doesn’t just instruct us to teach “all” He has commanded, He instructs us to teach “all whatsoever” He has commanded us. Jesus forestalls any compromise of anything He teaches. That’s the grammar of Jesus’ Great Commission.

Jesus never asks us to balance or choose between the teachings of the Bible against the mission of the Church. Jesus never pits the two against one another. Jesus holds them together, inseparable from one another.

And Jesus trumps the Mission Card every time.

What is the danger of letting the Mission Card just sit there and go unanswered? The danger is that in the name of carrying out the mission, we harm the mission. In the name of bearing witness, we compromise our witness. In the name of making disciples, we teach those disciples to compromise God’s Word. After all, how many compromises will it take until the mission itself is changed?

The next time someone plays the Mission Card on you, recognize it, call it out, and take the player back to the words of Jesus Himself.