The Greater Commission: Priority is Everything

I’m grateful for the following guest post from my friend Rolley Haggard of Breakpoint:

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The Greater Commission

By Rolley Haggard 

There is no higher calling of God upon the church and the individual believer than to proclaim the gospel and fulfill the Great Commission. Right?

Wrong.

There is a Greater Commission.

It is generally referred to as the Great Commandment, and it has two parts: To love God supremely, and our neighbor as ourself. When Jesus laid down these two “love commandments” He emphatically declared “there is none other commandment greater than these”.

None.

Not even the Great Commission.

So why is it so many Christians, including first-rate scholars, bristle at the mere suggestion that there is something more important for the church than the Great Commission?

Why is it that, despite vivid, in-your-face, impossible-to-misunderstand, unforgettably-plain statements like the one of Christ just quoted, church leaders and pew-sitters alike take exception to the idea that there might be a “commission” greater than evangelizing the lost?

Volumes could be, and have been, written in answer to that question. Those new to the debate will find the defenses elaborate and perhaps even impressive.

Some, however (present writer included), find them unconvincing instances of religious overthink wholly unable at the end of the day to explain why, for example, America is headed into its 41st (!) year of legalized abortion-on-demand. For if, as these defenders of the status quo maintain, “it is only when the church is doing something other than engaging in social justice missions that it actually shapes members ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God’ (Mic. 6:8)”, then where, pray tell, are all these members that are supposed to have been shaped to do justice and to love kindness? In light of the bold affirmations that keeping the so-called “main thing the main thing” will produce these culture warriors in droves, their actual paucity is nothing less than astonishing.

Clearly, something is seriously wrong with the extant missional formula.

It’s no mystery what that something is. Jesus told us what it is. Paul told us what it is. James told us what it is. John told us what it is. It isn’t complicated: We’ve simply got our priorities reversed. We’ve put ministry ahead of love. We’ve failed to differentiate between the church’s primary mission and its exclusive mission. We’ve put the Great Commission ahead of the Greater.

This isn’t a word game. It isn’t just semantics or some academic exercise that ultimately adds nothing to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, or worse, does positive mischief to it by raising a needless distraction. 

It matters and it matters hugely. I would argue that lack of clarity on, and priority to, the church’s Greater Commission is the single most significant factor to account for why we are living in a culture of death today. I would argue that it is the chief reason there has not been more effort by the church to try and end abortion and many other social evils plaguing our world.

Dr. Paul Farmer nailed it when he said, “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

The corollary to Farmer’s brilliant insight is that nothing is more important than people –any people, all people. Nothing, not even evangelism. That’s why Jesus made love for our neighbor our first priority after loving God. Indeed, John the apostle said we prove our love for God whom we have not seen precisely by loving our neighbor whom we have seen.

Ideas have consequences. Just as evil inevitably ensues whenever we get the idea that some people are more important than others, so does it when we regard a thing –anything– as more important than people. There is nothing more important than people. If we don’t get that, we really don’t get the whole point of the cross of Jesus.

Yet we, the church, stumble over this daily, globally, when we prioritize the Great Commission ahead of the Greater Commission. We inevitably wind up acting as though human lives matter less than the proclamation of the gospel; that words, doctrines, ideas, campaigns, causes, programs, and ministries are more important than people. It’s a subtle difference, but one that has stunningly profound implications, as 55 million murdered infants could testify – if they could testify. 

The church, regardless of intent, in reckoning the Great Commission its first priority, makes the activity of evangelism more important than the people it is evangelizing. An inexpensive tape-recorder could dispense the word if dispensing the word was all that God wanted done. But He wants us to love people. Tape-recorders can’t do that.

There is no question God wants us to dispense His beautiful words of life. But He wants us to do it the way He did. He did not merely speak the word to us, He became the Word in His body. And in that living, breathing, sweating, aching, bleeding body He loved us more than His own comfort, more than His own convenience, more than His own life. That is how God in Christ “proclaimed” the gospel of His saving love. He incarnated it. His word was an incarnate love sonnet written in crimson hemoglobic ink on human vellum. He valued people above all things and gave us salvation’s narrative “not in word only, but in deed and in truth.”

Surely, if we have learned anything from the sorry history of mankind, and, yes, of the church as well, it is this: That when it comes to human sin, what can be will be. If it is possible for us to evangelize without loving people we will do it.

The apostle Paul said it is indeed possible, and what else can we make of our actions since Roe v. Wade? On pretext of delivering “what Christ most wants from His church” we’ve turned a blind eye to the ruthless slaughter of almost 20% of our population while, with infinite irony, spieling on about the love of God like so many soulless tape-recorders.

Jesus deliberately put love above evangelism, purposely gave us a Greater Commission, not only to keep us from valuing things above people, but also, paradoxically, to insure the effectiveness of our evangelism. Remarking on human nature, English Puritan Richard Baxter observed that, “If they can see you love them, you can say anything to them.” 

Putting the Greater Commission ahead of the Great Commission as Christ intended is a win/win proposition. Priority really is everything.

 

* * *

The Poem

 

Here underneath the parabolic air

The angel chiseled out the oracle

In prolix verse on stone, describing there

The Poet’s anapestic canticle.

No sooner had the wondrous words appeared

Than we mistook for narrative His art,

And thinking He sought only to be feared

We overlooked the passion in His heart.

For not until He came Himself and wrote

In crimson ink the serenade sublime

Did we perceive His true intent or note

How He in love made death and life to rhyme;

And fervent that it no more be obscured

He summed His poem in a single Word.

 

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Linda Whitlock

    This is a provocative post, and I so appreciate Breakpoint. But as is so often the case when I read a post reproaching Christians for failing to live up to the high calling that is theirs in Christ, I don’t see any concrete examples of what that might look like and how it might have a more positive outcome. For example, Mr. Haggard seems to claim that if Christians loved people with as much zeal as they tried to evangelize them, we wouldn’t have lost 50 million or so people to abortion. My question is, how — in concrete terms — might that have played itself out? What would it have looked like? In exactly what way could that have worked? There are thousands of volunteers across the country today who are doing their best to show women with unwanted pregnancies that they are loved, and these people are vilified by the elites in our culture. Others have worked hard to love people in the gay community, to treat them with dignity and worth, and still they’re accused of being hate-filled bigots because they oppose same-sex marriage. Christians throughout this country are trying to adopt in adoptable children and being looked at askance because of their religious beliefs. Many more Christians sacrifice time and treasure to help people in disaster areas or who live in poverty.
    We Christians Ae far from perfect. We make terrible mistakes and commit grievous sins, but we are ministering to a culture that doesn’t even understand what love is. It mistakes approval for love and disapproval for hatred. If you are going to castigate us for our failure — and that castigation is sometimes earned — please also give us some concrete examples of what we ought to be doing and exactly how you see that winning people to The Lord in such a time as this.

    • Susan_G1

      better, more incisive comment by far than mine. Thank you! May I add in response to your comment that sometimes Christians are made to suffer for Christ at the hands of other (sometimes elite?) groups of Christians, as well as non-Christians. It does not diminish the good work.

      • Linda Whitlock

        Thank you, Susan. You make a good point, too.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      I agree Linda. However, I don’t believe Rolley is castigating you personally or the many volunteers who have sacrificed to help. Although it might have helped if he were more specific about his intended audience, I understood him to be criticizing churches and Christians who try to excuse abortion, who vote pro-choice, or who pretend that nebulous causes like “ending poverty” (whatever that even means or would look like!) are just as morally cut-and-dried as abortion—in short, people who don’t prioritize the plight of the unborn as it should be prioritized.

  • Susan_G1

    Rolley, I could not agree with you more about the different relative value given by Jesus to the greatest commandment (in two parts, as one flows from the other) and the great commission. Evangelicals sometimes seem to see the latter as more practicable than the former. But the former is a godly way to evangelize!

    I am, however, sad to see that you tie the Greatest Commandment to anti-abortion crusading (and please forgive me if I am reading too much into your post.) That is not how I see it. While I am greatly saddened by the number of aborted infants, Jesus did not qualify this one way to obey the Greatest Commandment. We are to love first, not agitate. We can love in many ways that do not alienate groups of people and create culture wars. If The Greatest Commandment is appropriated for an agenda, it is no worse than substituting for it something else, such as evangelism.

    • Rolley Haggard

      Susan and Linda, thanks for the great comments. I’ve outlined some
      “concrete examples” of a modest and workable strategy for ending
      abortion ‘overnight’ here:
      http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/19080

      My point is not to hijack church / Christian mission, but to round out
      the good we do by calling us to end pulpit and pew silence on the
      American abortion holocaust. We could do so much more with so little
      effort (see my “One Minute Strategy” in the above link).

      I also commend the link below by way of evoking more of your thoughtful,
      excellent comments (no shameless self-promotion here, nosirree):
      http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/22204

      Blessings

      • Susan_G1

        Rolley, I read your linked post. I admire your passion. Anything that advances God’s kingdom is good. But I don’t believe you can’t get all the pastors to agree to do preach against the abortion holocaust for even only one minute, and I’m not sure you’re right that it would have the effect you wish for. As one commenter put it, you can’t take away a person’s choice to sin. But I certainly liked the commenter who said they offer women $3000 dollars to bring the baby to term, and that they’ve saved 8 babies this way. That was a wonderful surprise to me. To her, I say, great way to put your money where your heart is! If I and every other Christian in our country gave the church $3000 for that sole purpose, we would not only save thousands of babies, but might have enough left over to help the mother in any way she needs: housing, daycare, an education, to get off of drugs, whatever, so that she could give that baby a loving, stable home. And we need people willing to adopt these saved babies.

        I think this is a great idea, and one to put every Christian to the test: do you value a baby’s life enough to give up $3000? If $3000 saved a baby? You can sell that second car. You can skip one semester of college to work and make enough money to give into the fund and have some left over to go towards college. You have kids at home, but we’re talking about a human life! Get a part-time job and a babysitter if you have to. Just ’till you make $3000. Making the monthly mortgage payment is hard, but just extend that loan by 3000 dollars, and you will save a real baby’s life! It’s a sacrifice for the worthiest of causes. Don’t eat meat for a year! Sell some of your stuff. Give up cable for a few years. We’re talking about a real life saved. You can save a baby from being aborted. From being *murdered*! What? Wait, you can’t or you won’t? Oh… I see. So, are you saying that Mammon is your real master? Well, ok. Yes, yes, I see how well your shaming is working out, and you’re right, it doesn’t cost a cent to call women “murderers”.

        Then every Christian who will not (not *can’t*) do it can know in their heart of hearts that they are sinners, every bit as serious as the women who choose abortion. Likewise, every Christian who hands over their money can rest assured that their priorities are straight. As you said above, priority is everything. The plan isn’t perfect. Some women might get pregnant to exploit the system. But we would be saving thousands upon thousands of real lives.

        I would gladly give 30,000 dollars today, for myself and nine other Christians who really can’t afford it, let my yea be yea, if you will get pastors to preach *that way to end abortion* to their congregations.

      • Linda Whitlock

        Rolley, thank you for your response to my comment and for the links. I read both. I admire your passion and share it. I’ve written a good bit on abortion myself both in a newspaper column I wrote for a few years and in guest commentaries in our local paper. Here’s a link to the most recent: http://ww2.roanoke.com/editorials/commentary/wb/319377/

        I also wish more preachers spoke out about abortion and more people in the pews recognized its importance. But I don’t think your suggestion is a feasible one, nor do I think it would end abortion as quickly as you believe. Much progress has been made over the past 40 years, but it has been painfully slow and difficult to bring about. But then, look how many years it took Wilberforce and his allies to get both the slave trade and slavery abolished in Great Britain. And in the U.S., it took a horrible war and the near destruction of the country. Ending the abortion trade will be no less difficult.

        Preachers speaking out would be good, but actually what seems to be having the greatest effect on reducing abortion is technology, especially 3-D ultra sounds. The $3,000 that Susan suggests be used to pay women not to have abortions might be better spent making sure every crisis pregnancy center has several. What if, for example, every church provided a crisis pregnancy center with one or more machines? Churches could also provide money to help the new mothers with jobs, transportation, living arrangements, food, etc. since we need to love the mothers and value their lives as well as those of their babies.

        Just one more thing before I close. The Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment shouldn’t be seen as being in opposition to each other. The Great Commission is a working out of the greatest commandment. The most significant way we can love our neighbors as ourselves is by introducing them to the Savior, the one who laid down His life for them. As Jesus said, there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for his friends. Surely, nothing could be more loving than telling people, including the woman about to abort her child, about such a love. And perhaps a woman who learns of such a love might be persuaded to love her child enough to give it life.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Hi Rolley. Thank you so much for this wakeup call to the church. I stand with you in your passion. I too am sick and tired of lukewarm churches who aren’t prioritizing this issue.

    At the same time, I’m a cynic at heart. I don’t think we’re living in a culture of death because the church hasn’t tried hard enough to stop it (though I agree that in many cases, it hasn’t). I’m skeptical that the church really could end abortion overnight if it wanted to. I think the dominance of the death culture can be summed up in two words: power and popularity. They’re in the driver’s seat politically and educationally. They’re indoctrinating young people from the earliest age on up. Bible-believing churches are a ridiculed minority. And legally, the process to getting Roe overturned is long, chancy, and tenuous. It isn’t just a matter of getting enough Christians to vote, though Christians should, with all their might. In short, it’s entirely possible, in fact likely, that we could muster all our best efforts and still not see substantive legal change in the area of abortion. At this point, our best hope for effecting change is on a grassroots, individual level, saving babies one clinic at a time.

    However, I say we should STILL do all of those things, because it’s the right thing to do. I say that it doesn’t matter whether we’re assured of overturning Roe at the end of it all, because pastors should be taking your advice anyway, for the good of their congregations and for the collective soul of the church, along with any change that can be effected on an individual level as a result. After all, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. “Mind must be the firmer, heart the braver, courage the fiercer.”

    • Esther O’Reilly

      Also, to mitigate my pessimistic comment somewhat, we CAN agitate hopefully for small steps forward on the state level, and there are definitely some encouraging things happening there. Which state was it that recently closed its last abortion clinic? That’s something to celebrate.

      • Esther O’Reilly

        Or I guess it’s NOT something to celebrate for whoever disliked that comment…

  • http://stowellbrown.blogspot.com/ stowellbrown

    In my former church up to 1/2 the congregation thought that staying out of war and helping the poor by redistributing the tax payers money was more important than saving babies.

  • Rolley Haggard

    Linda, Esther, Susan, Stowell – thanks for the good feedback. Sincerely,
    I wish I had more time to respond as each deserves. Let me see what
    I can do in the snatches of time available.

    Linda, I enjoyed your linked article. I wrote a similar one to mark the
    40th anniv of Roe.
    http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/21305
    It’s titled “Brilliant Darkness: The Rationale by Which Biblical
    Christianity has Justified 40 Years of Abortion Apathy.”

    An excerpt:

    “In light of our universal reaction to Sandy Hook, our composure with
    respect to abortion is almost impossible to comprehend. Yet it is
    just as impossible to deny that our visceral response to 3,500
    abortion murders per day pales next to the shock and grief we
    individually and collectively exhibited over the 26 murders in
    Newtown, Connecticut.

    “Let me be clear: the problem is not our horror, sadness, and outrage over
    Sandy Hook. That was appropriate and even morally obligatory. The
    problem is our pathological indifference to abortion. And this
    indifference exists even among those whom charity bids us regard as
    true born-again Christians.”

    Before ditching my “One Minute Strategy to End Abortion” I’d sure like
    to see it attempted. I have no illusions that it is an audacious
    proposal. (You will note I put the word ‘overnight’ in quotes when I
    said it could possibly end abortion ‘overnight’). But pulpit silence
    on this essentially amounts to complicity and contributes to the
    pathological (a carefully chosen word) indifference of our worshiping
    multitudes. One minute per Sunday is not going to derail anyone’s
    program. I’m ready to attempt the requisite cat-herding.

    We’ve all seen the ‘miracle’ of the viral phenomenon (Google “souper bowl
    of caring” for a churchy example). Instant, ubiquitous
    communication – that’s something Wilberforce and William Lloyd
    Garrison did not have benefit of. We do. Why not use it? Just as
    ultrasounds (as you note) often help women see the truth and change
    their minds, so do pulpit talking points help people “see” the
    truth of the Sandy-Hook-like massacres that happen daily –right down
    the street from most of us– in the name of “women’s health”.

    Linda, you rightly note that “the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment shouldn’t be seen as being in opposition to each other.” I agree. In Christ’s mind the former ought to flow out of the latter. But in our minds and (more
    to the point) in our practice, sadly, all too often that has NOT been
    the way we have carried things out. I contend that it is not
    possible to love without evangelizing. But for 40 years we have
    demonstrated that the converse of that maxim is not a given: i.e., we
    have demonstrated it is entirely possible to evangelize without
    loving. For whatever may be said of the tracts we have handed out and
    the relative few we have saved, both literally and spiritually, the
    fact remains that 55M babies have died, largely owing to our refusal
    to advocate for them. That number, I think, is statistically
    significant. If “love does no wrong to a neighbor”, we have some
    explaining to do to account for allowing 55M to be wronged under the
    shadow of our steeples.

    BTW,
    my wife and I serve (and have for years) at a local CPC. I’m in
    favor of every lawful effort conceivable to make abortion
    unthinkable, and in the meantime to minister to its passive and
    active victims until it is.

    Blessings, my friends.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      “If ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ we have some
      explaining to do to account for allowing 55M to be wronged under the
      shadow of our steeples.”

      Again, I wonder if you could be more specific about who your audience is here… who’s “we?” If you mean the entire church, it seems to be unfair to the many Christians who have indeed fought abortion their entire lives.

      • Rolley Haggard

        Esther, it’s one of those “if the shoe fits” things. Someone just sent
        me this vid – I think it pretty eloquently sums it up
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34wAgCfAJAg&feature=player_embedded

        • Esther O’Reilly

          Okay, I think I see. Appreciate the clarification. Sadly, the folks for whom that shoe really does fit probably won’t even realize it!

  • kzarley

    Quite right. 1 Cor 13. And, similarly, what was Jesus’ last prayer for his disciples? “That they may (all) be one”–3x in John 17. However, evangelizing the unsaved is loving them also. I need to do more of it.

  • Casey Scott

    What’s the most loving thing you can do for someone? “Doing everything you can to keep them from going to Hell by sharing the Gospel with them effectively” is a pretty good answer. Putting it bluntly, how many more of these false dichotomy posts must we endure? It’s not either/or, it’s both/and! True love for neighbor means equal parts grace and truth. Now, by no means am I trying to demean the Great Commandment; I’m just not sure that hermeneutically, the author’s assertion holds up. What do you do with passages like John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another…”? How does the new command (chronologically speaking, given after the Great Commandment) have bearing on the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:39 / Mark 12:31 / Luke 10:27? Not only that, but in the Matthew passage, Jesus CLEARLY shows that loving God “outranks” loving neighbor (using the numeric language of “first” and “second.”). So couldn’t it rightly be said that the GREATEST commandment is worship (i.e., to love God). So the GREATEST commandment (by Jesus’ own admission) is to worship (which includes all the traditional things we associate with worship, but also evangelistic efforts, discipleship efforts, and social justice efforts – it’s all worship)! These false dichotomy posts are ultimately not helpful… though I suppose they do get people’s attention and get them to think, which is a good thing.

    • Rolley Haggard

      Hi, Casey, thanks for your comments.

      Here’s why I don’t think mine is a false dichotomy.

      There’s another analogous dichotomy that is widely accepted: inward vs. outward obedience. Most folks would agree it is possible to obey
      God, outwardly, without really loving Him; after all, that is what
      characterized the Pharisees: they tithed mint, dill, and cumin but
      neglected the weightier things of the law, the internal virtues of
      justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). So the formula,
      proposed by many, that “obedience equals love” has clear
      exceptions. We can have every external appearance of being
      God-pleasing, and yet in the sight of God be like white-washed
      sepulchers full of rotting carcases.

      I think my dichotomy is strongly analogous. Preaching the gospel may
      sound like “the most loving thing we can do”, but it flies in the
      face of what both John and Paul said (1 John 4:20 and 1 Cor 13:1-3,
      respectively), and begs the question, how come, if we really love God
      whom we have NOT seen, we are doing such a horribly poor job loving
      our neighbor whom we HAVE seen? If Bonhoeffer and MLK and others are right, “silence is complicity.” So by our (the church’s)
      tepidity to abortion we not only aren’t loving our pre-born
      neighbors, we are complicit in their murders. That’s not only not
      loving, that’s hating. The apostle John said we’re deceiving
      ourselves to assume, under such circumstances, that we love God. In
      fact, he says we’re lying.

      That said, I nevertheless do agree with you that it should not be an
      either/or, but a both/and proposition. My point, however, is that
      though it SHOULD be both/and, in practice it has proved NOT to be.
      Otherwise we would not be treating “the least of these” (the 55
      million aborted) in a way other than how, ostensibly we would treat
      our Lord Jesus Himself. Christ’s point in Matthew 25 (“In that you
      have not done it unto the least of these you have not done it unto
      Me”, etc) was that if we really love Him we will demonstrate it,
      not merely in words, but in deeds that meet the bodily needs of “the
      least of these”. The church’s unconscionable tepidity over the
      relentless slaughter of innumerable of our little neighbors argues
      with incontestable force that what we really love when we preach the
      gospel is not our neighbor (and therefore –by Christ’s own words–
      not Christ), but something else.

      What that “something else” is will have to be the subject of another
      post. :)

  • kenhowes

    The issue is a mistaken comparison, apples to oranges. Loving God and our neighbor are not themselves things we do, in the sense that we preach, teach, catechize, and administer the Sacraments. Rather, we do all things as a result of love of God and our neighbor.

    My only bone to pick with those who emphasize outreach above all other things is that they often neglect the rest of the Great Commission: they often don’t baptize, they often do not observe all things that Jesus taught them. They neglect the Cross and our redemption in favor of “God’s plan for your life.” They neglect the Sacraments in favor of fuzzy feel-good atmospherics that have nothing to do with the Gospel but are there only to make church more appealing. Their sermons, instead of preaching the need for forgiveness (the Law) and the forgiveness which is there because of Christ’s perfect atonement (the Gospel), preach “how to…..” I listened once to a sermon on a single verse in Deuteronomy, “Be strong in the Lord.” Was this a call to faith? No; the pastor–in a large church of a denomination long known for sound doctrine–was telling the people, “God wants you to tough it out.” Some of the greatest Church Growth enthusiasts have had to admit that they brought many people in through their doors, but they did not bring Christians to maturity in the faith.

  • Kram Isterpf

    I think Casy Scott is correct. Pitting evangelism against loving God and they neighbor is an either/or fallacy. The greatest act of love was for the greatest possible thing, everlasting life. If you’re “loving” someone doesn’t bring them to know the Father through Christ, then you’re not loving them, you’re just being “nice”.


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