Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer

Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer
They sent me here just to watch...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Command and Commission

COMMAND AND COMMISSION: A Marine's perspective on the Great Commission

            To understand the great commission, we first must recognize that God has commanded his people throughout history.  Perhaps the most ubiquitous of these commandments are the ten found in Exodus 20.  A command is direction with authority and just part of being a Marine.  Absent authority, the Ten Commandments resemble Stephen Covey's 7 Habits--purely secular wisdom with presumed natural consequences for deviation.   While there are hundreds of commandments in the Bible; the most recognized from the New Testament are found in Matthew 22:36-40. 

36            "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
37        Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'
38        This is the first and greatest commandment.
39        And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'
40        All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

            These commandments do not contradict what God promulgated centuries earlier.  On the contrary, they embody the earlier commandments.  Having served almost half of my active Marine Corps service as a commanding officer, I appreciate the freedom and empowerment of these commandments.  The most difficult leadership challenge is the Marine who does exactly what he is told.  This individual lives in fear and does not understand freedom and responsibility.  Some would paint a picture of life in the service, especially the Marine Corps, as a life of endless orders.  Orders are a part of military life, but not nearly so much as the freedom to execute a mission.  Those with initiative need only the occasional application of rudder to keep them on course.  Those that look for orders at every juncture seldom find satisfaction in life as a Marine.  Such is the case with the commandments found in Matthew.  Those that can make their decisions based upon loving God and loving one's fellow man can find contentment not available through simple obedience to the letter of the law.

            My entire active service as a Marine was as a commissioned officer.  For some, the recognizable difference between officers and their men was simply rank and pay.  Closer examination reveals that the instrument of obligated service distinguishes the officer from the Marine from the beginning.  The Marine's oath requires him to support and defend the Constitution and to follow the orders of his seniors.  The officer enters into his service by commission.  The commission is more than an instrument of obligation, it is an act of committing.  Such is the case with the great commission.

Matthew 28:  Verses 16-20 (NIV)

18        Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19            Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20        and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

            There is a significant leap from following a commandment to executing a commission.  Both require obedience and execution, but to understand the nature of the commission, we must examine it in detail.

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  This is more than introductory prose.  It is an acknowledgement by Jesus of the source of his authority and his right to bestow the commission that follows.   Having been commission both as a reservist and as a regular commissioned officer, I have been empowered to execute my commission by both the President of the United States and the Congress of the United States.  The originating authority is important because what follows is not just a command, but the transfer of a portion of God's authority to those commissioned. 

The second part of this presumably simple statement conveys the duration of the commission.  The words "has been given" are the present perfect tense.  In another context this would appear to be a semantically sidetracked discussion.  Here it conveys that the commission is and will continue in effect.  Commissioned officers of the United States serve their commission at the convenience of the President or the Congress.  The great commission remains in effect until the end of the age.

            Therefore go could be relegated to a simple transition, but again it conveys much more.  Therefore establishes the relationship between the vested authority and the commission to follow.  Go is far from a simple word.  While publishers and editions vary, the Random House Dictionary listed 81 distinct definitions for the word go.  The 1st was to move or proceed and the 81st  was to function properly.  Perhaps the word is best defined by its single antonym:  to stay or remain.  While the word in Greek or Latin may not have conveyed as many meanings as have evolved in our present day language; this was and is meant to be a powerful word of execution and one that directs those commission to leave the comfort of their current environment.

            One of the simplest and most powerful pieces of counsel delivered to Marine officers is to be careful what you tell a Marine to do, because he will do it.  There are of course exceptions that prove the rule, but the premise is repeatedly validated.  On one particularly cold morning in Korea, I went through the field mess line and noticed our battalion commander was trying to motivate the Marines by serving the morning meal with the mess cooks.  All Marines that serve food to other Marines are required to have a mess physical.  This is a one or two minute process where a corpsman looks for open cuts or sores and good hygiene habits while concurrently interviewing the Marine on any of his sanitary habits.  I took my tray of food and sat down with a group of Marines, including the gunnery sergeant in charge of the Marines on the serving line.  I sarcastically told the sergeant that there was a Marine on the line that did not have a mess physical.  Before I could qualify my remark made in jest, he was at the serving line double checking every Marine.  In any other locale, this would have been insignificant.  In the freezing cold of this Korean morning, it meant that the gunnery sergeant's morning meal would be ice cold upon his return to his seat.  Despite the counsel I had received and generally lived by for fifteen years,  the lesson had finally hit home.  The current application of this anecdote is not to live by the maxim taught to Marine officers.  The lesson is the urgency with which the unstated task was executed by the gunnery sergeant.  If a senior Marine noncommissioned officer can drop whatever he is doing to execute only a hint of a task, how can believing Christians not do the same when commissioned by their savior to do what is surely of great importance.  

Make disciples of all nations is the first element of this important task.  A disciple in basic terms is a pupil or adherent of another.  Any professed follower of Jesus Christ during His life on earth was considered a disciple.  The commission did not task followers just to set a good example.  It task followers to recruit from all nations.  Recruiting is a tough business.    The typical individual that walks into a Marine recruiter's office eventually gets around to the question, "What can you give me?"   My typical reply was, "a pack, a rifle, and a hard time!  Do you want to join?"   Those that still had some interest and could qualify might also make it through boot camp.  The individual that was looking only for college money usually decided that there was probably an easier way to get it.  Contrary to the mystique associated with Marine Corps boot camp, the Corps does not make men.  Joining the Marine Corps is a lifestyle choice and not a remanufacturing program for young adults.   Likewise, recruiting disciples for Christ means asking people to give up their idols of this world for a God of forgiveness and often includes alienation from the world they are forsaking.

            Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the physical manifestation of what the new disciple has accepted internally.  There is significant discourse on the subject of baptizing, some of which only serves to widen the gulf among denominations.  Regardless of the method, timing, or relationship to salvation; this is an essential element of the commission.  The subtle wisdom of the great commission is that it requires only this one act that approaches ceremony.  All other growth is demonstrated through acts of faith and obedience. 

            Teaching them to obey all that I have commanded rounds out the three basic pillars of this commission.  What is not said here is perhaps as important as what is.  Missing from this task is the qualifier that such teaching must follow four, six, or eight years of study.  The apostles learned from a primary source reference.  Today we learn from those accounts but are task to teach those whom decide to follow the teachings of Christ.  The qualifier is not there because it is not needed.  Each follower exercising this commission does so in accordance with his talents.  The newest second lieutenant is expected to teach his followers--even though many of them have served in the Corps for years.  Lieutenants do not start off by teaching their Marines the strategy of the National Command Authority.  They start by teaching squad and platoon tactics, physical fitness, and other subjects within their expertise.  As they grow in their Marine Corps experience so does their ability and desire to teach more complex subjects.  Such is the case with the great commission.  Disciples teach, learn, and teach again.

            The subject of this teaching is to obey what Christ has commanded.  The commandments have not been abandoned in the execution of this commission.  Instead, the commission is an instrument of their fulfillment.  There may appear to be a contradiction in this part of the commission.  Obedience at first glance appears to be a throwback to compliance with the law from which Christ's sacrifice freed believers.  It is not.  From the day a Marine recruit sets foot in boot camp, he is taught instant, willing obedience to orders.  The instant obedience requirement roots itself in the demands of combat.  An order to shoot, move, or cease fire that is accompanied with hesitation frequently reaps friendly casualties.   The link between the insistence upon this standard and combat necessity is implicit and obvious.  The willing obedience part of this equation is the seed of leadership and professionalism.  A recruit learns obedience to his drill instructor within minutes of his arrival at boot camp.  Somewhere between the midpoint of his basic training and graduation, he learns willing obedience.  His will has been fully subordinated to that of his seniors.  This does not mean that he ceases to think for himself.  The contrary prevails:  the greater the submission, the greater the freedom.  This is the case with Christian obedience.  The sooner the believer submits to Christ's will, the sooner he realizes freedom.

            No commander sends his Marines on a difficult mission without some concept of support.  This may be in the form of intelligence, fire support, logistics, or other demands of the mission.  In some cases, the commander deems it necessary to accompany one of his subordinate units.  Marine commanders are frequently criticized by other services for placing themselves too close to the front line and the hazards of the men in the fight.   Marines seldom  justify this approach to their business outside of the Corps.  Likewise, the Apostles could have been provided a variety of support from their savior.  Jesus chose to accompany them through his intercession with God and by sending the Holy Spirit:  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.  

            The Christian understands that he exists in contrast to his society.  He is tasked by the great commission to make disciples from that society, but just as Paul did not convince everyone he encountered; neither will today's commissioned.    The commissioned must not become discouraged.  An old Marine Corps documentary titled To the Shores of Guadalcanal best conveys the culture of the Marine and the evangelist executing his commission.  The documentary was of actual footage of the fighting ashore once the Navy was ordered out of the theater.  The footage was narrated by survivors of these first Pacific battles by U.S. Marines in World War II.  The narrator said, "Seven times we attacked the hill.  Seven times the Japanese kicked us off.  We came back eight."
We should fulfill our commission with the same faithfulness and tenacity.
Semper Fidelis.

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