Are We Really Loving Our Neighbors as We Should?
“You cannot do the Great Commission without doing the Great Commandment.”
We say that a lot nowadays, and I do believe it is true. The premise is as follows. The Great Commission, or the call to make disciples of all nations stands at the very center of the church’s continued mission until the return of Christ. Our Lord’s last statement to his church prior to his ascension was this command for global evangelization and discipleship. Any missionary (or biblical scholar) worth their salt will tell you this means church planting and every member evangelism. It means church planting here and church planting there. It means local churches having local members who are sharing the gospel with their neighbors and calling them to repentance and faith.
This reminder that the Great Commission is hollow without the Great Commandment maintains that all of this talk of conversion and evangelism falls on deaf ears when we are not loving God with all of our heart and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Most often, it is the last part of that statement that is in view when people talk about these two together. It is love of neighbor that most claim is absent. It is the church’s responsibility to love their neighbors, all of them, without distinction. That includes your gay neighbor… and the Muslim one. Evangelism that is devoid of care, concern, and actually meeting people’s needs in a sin-sick world is shallow evangelism at best. And so, it is rather common today to hear the warnings of people that the Great Commission requires the Great Commandment and rightly so. Any understanding of the church’s mission that leaves out the Christian ethic of love and care for people and society misses the mark.
A Bad Taste in Our Mouths
Perhaps it was growing up watching the Christian mission being equated to leaving a “gospel tract” on a table for your server instead of a tip. Maybe it was harsh calls of judgement to that teen in the youth group that wound up pregnant. The examples of Christians overlooking their responsibility to their neighbors are abundant, and as I was growing up, my church’s posture was one that condemned the outside world and felt no responsibility to love it. As long as we were knocking on doors and telling people about hell and that Jesus was their only way out, we were fulfilling our mission. I know I am not alone here. A lot of us grew up that way. Maybe that is why our generation is so very concerned with the Great Commandment. Maybe it is why we preference relationship evangelism over door-to-door presentations.
Furthermore, in Christian academic circles there is a big push to help people understand their vocation in light of the Christian mission. In many ways there has been a “clergification” of the mission, or this subtle idea that only professional ministers, like pastors and missionaries, are the ones that do evangelism. Pastors do the ministry of the church while regular church folk are the ones who receive ministry. At best, that leaves the nurses and insurance agents in the congregation wondering where they fit in the mission. At worst, it provides ample excuse for disengaging from the mission altogether. So, a renewed focus on the mission of the regular member is in swing today. There is a fresh call for people to see their everyday life as part of the mission. Much of this is good, but we are prone to mission drift. Yes, every member of a local church is a minister, but we must be careful not to redefine the mission in order to make them so.
The Reverse is Also True
While it is true that the Great Commission is not truly fulfilled without the Great Commandment, we must not forget that the statement is true in the reverse. You cannot do the Great Commandment without doing the Great Commission. We stop short of truly loving God and loving neighbor if we stop short of gospel proclamation. The debate about evangelism and mercy ministry is old, and in many ways tired, but the fact remains that we are prone to unbalanced ministry in one direction or the other. In the previous generation, at least of conservative evangelicals, that unbalance was toward words without deeds. For our generation, I fear we may become very concerned with deeds to the detriment of our words.
There is renewed pressure in local churches today to be focused on the needs of their city. Church plants put much effort into demonstrating to their new neighborhood that they are there to help. Individual believers attempt to make friends with unbelievers through work or the gym or becoming a regular at a coffee shop. In all of this, there is much focus on being about the common good, and the welfare of our city, and loving our neighbors. That is great, but we cannot forget what love means, in a biblical sense. We are not loving our neighbor as ourselves if we are not sharing with them the same news we realized we needed most in life. We are also not loving God with all our heart if we are not doing the primary thing Jesus called the church to do until he returns. No, loving your neighbor is pleading with them to become a disciple. Of course it is listening to their concerns, and of course it is demonstrating care and mercy for those in need; however, its highest expression is sharing, often verbally, the greatest news humanity has ever received. After all, that is your neighbor’s greatest need.
Your love for your neighbor stops short if it stops before the Great Commission.