The Great Commission and God’s Law
by Gerald R. Thompson
GOD’S LAW FOR ALL NATIONS
When you consider all the subject matters the law of God touches, it comprehends most of life. Much of that will be of primary interest to lawyers and law students. In a general church setting, I don’t expect pastors and preachers to become lawyers, and I don’t expect that most church attendees will want to drill down into a detailed analysis of the biblical view of torts, contracts, or criminal law – although Christians should generally be aware that such things exist. But there are a lot of things – generally very helpful things – that can be easily taught to congregants with a modest effort to clue them into the fundamental principles of God’s laws.
So what are the laws of God applicable to everyone that Jesus must have referred to? 1) The eternal moral law, or the laws of nature, which sprang from creation and have applied to the whole human race ever since. 2) The Adamic and Noahic covenants which have never expired or terminated, and which apply to all the descendants of Adam and Noah (which includes everyone alive today). 3) Some aspects of the Mosaic law – not because they were given to Moses or to Israel – but to the extent those laws reflect the laws of nature and would apply to us whether stated in the Mosaic code or not.
These same laws apply to Jews as well as Gentiles. So even if your ancestors were at one point “under” the Mosaic system of laws, the laws described in the prior paragraph are still relevant to you, because they apply to everyone without exception.
Now let’s flesh these concepts out a little more.
The Four Great Commands
First, churches should be teaching the four great commands given by God to all of humanity in its principal institutional capacities, that is, the Dominion Mandate (Gen. 1:28) given to families, the Greatest Commandments (Mat. 22:36-40) given to individuals, the purpose of civil power (1 Pet. 2:13-14) given to nations, and the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) given to the Church.
Each of these institutions created by God has twin purposes worthy of careful study. For individuals, there is the love of God (morality and piety) and the love of our neighbors (which covers a whole range of topics on human interactions and the ways in which we wrong each other). Families have the twin purposes of child-bearing (which includes family interrelationships, sexuality and even education), and dominion (including economic rights and liberties, property, contracts, industry, labor & occupation and stewardship).
Nations have the dual purpose of punishing those who do evil (which gives great opportunities to discuss how government should not punish doing good, nor should government be in the business of doing good things), and praising those who do right (which historically has been understood to mean that government should secure individual rights). And of course, the twin purposes of the Church, i.e., teaching and discipling the nations (after the manner described in this essay) should be taught.
From there, one can consider that each of God’s social institutions are co-equal, and none of them have authority over any of the others. Also, when we follow God’s design and plan, none of these basic institutions actually conflict with each other. When conflicts arise, it is inevitably because someone has assumed (i.e., usurped) authority they do not actually have. I can think of a thousand sermon topics simply dedicated to sorting out what things civil government should not be involved in because those things have been delegated to individuals, families or the Church. And I can think of a hundred different ways churches have intruded on the rightful sphere of individuals and families.
One can even venture into the distinctions between these God created institutions and all man-made social structures, i.e., voluntary institutions, and how man’s social structures are never authorized to supersede or superintend God’s institutional structures. Plenty of fodder for sermons in all sorts of areas, from considering schools (man-made) vs. families (God-made), to the United Nations (man-made) vs. national sovereignty (God-made).
When teaching or preaching the laws of God, pastors should resist the urge to Christianize the discussion, e.g., What does a Christian family look like? It’s not about Christian families. It’s about what God’s plan is for all families as a dominion-taking institution that He has created. Focus on the fact that since God created the family, it was never man’s place to redefine it or to reshape the principles by which it is governed.
I once spent two years (100 Sundays) teaching a Sunday School class on a biblical view of the family dealing with marriage and divorce issues, child-bearing and parenting issues, sexuality, dominion issues, etc. without ever once delving into religious issues or what it means to be a Christian family. Yet, the discussions were all thoroughly Bible-based. Plus, my audience was a general adult audience – not a bunch of lawyers. The same kind of treatment can be extended to each of the other great commands of God, as well.
Fundamentally, people should realize that God does not have two sets of rules – one for Christians, and another for everyone else. All of the laws of God considered in the context of the present discussion apply to everyone regardless of their salvation status. When you start distinguishing Christians from non-Christians in the examination of God’s laws, you are going down the wrong path.
Another tendency pastors should resist is to personalize the discussion, e.g., What do the four great commands mean to you? This is not a subjective inquiry. Seek objective truth instead. And for the love of God, please don’t frame the discussion of the four great commands in terms of what these teach us about Jesus. I have already pointed out where Jesus fits into the discussion: He has directed that we demonstrate our love for Him by following His commands. Once that is established, we are now simply engaged in the task of fleshing out what those commands are.
I’m really sorry if a discussion of God’s will for the nations doesn’t lend itself to an altar call, but if your pastor feels the need to turn every sermon topic into an evangelistic moment, that’s the problem. That’s why your church congregation is so ignorant. And ultimately, disobedient.
The Divine Covenants
The second obvious starting point is to consider the divine covenants between God and men, i.e., Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the new covenant in Christ (i.e., Church covenant). The tendency of many pastors will be to either: 1) tie all the divine covenants together with the thread of redemption; or 2) posture all of the divine covenants as the progressive unfolding of the Church covenant, depending on whether your leaning is dispensational or reformed. Here’s a quick tip: avoid both of these.
I have addressed this topic in detail in other essays, so I will not repeat the full analysis here. In short, each of the divine covenants (except the Church covenant) has as much or more to do with non-religious pursuits as it does with religious matters. Thus, the Adamic covenant is mostly about family structure and dominion, so don’t just talk about the Fall and original sin. The Noahic covenant is about eating meat, taking dominion, capital punishment, and destruction of the earth – so don’t just talk about how the story of the flood illustrates redemption. And so on.
And good grief, if you’re going to study the Mosaic covenant, why just talk about the portion of the laws that were abolished and superseded as a foreshadowing of the work of the cross? Why not talk about all the laws that were not abolished and reflect the laws of nature because those are the laws which apply to everyone today? Oh, that’s right – first you have to figure out which laws those are, how they relate to the laws of nature, and how they apply to everyone today. I didn’t say it would be easy – I’m saying it will be worth the effort. So get crackin’.
Beyond these two aspects of God’s most fundamental laws, I’d next go to the most ignored aspect of God’s laws in all of human history – the laws of jurisdiction. Start with the basic question: What things has God delegated to men to handle, and what things has He reserved for Himself? This will get into a discussion of jurisdiction over the heart and the mind, the law of love, freedom of thought and related matters, including the extent to which civil government ought to be involved (if at all) in educational and psychological matters.
Then consider the jurisdictional limits on each of the basic social institutions and voluntary associations. Special attention should be paid to how neither the State nor the Church have any authority over family matters, as that is the manner in which most abuses of authority are to be found today.
But the most important jurisdictional issue of all is this: In any given situation when addressing something that someone has done wrong, we must always ask two questions. First, what law has been violated that makes this something wrong? Second, what authority has God given me to do anything about it, and how did I get that authority? Nobody ever asks the second question – people just assume that because something wrong was done, anybody and everybody can jump in at will to address it. Bzzzzz! Wrong!
Use the example of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4 to show that just because Cain murdered Abel (i.e., he did wrong) does not mean that anyone had any authority (i.e., jurisdiction) to do anything about it. In fact, God didn’t give anyone that authority for another 1600 years or so (in the Noahic covenant). Further, while Cain was still alive, if anyone had tried to exercise jurisdiction over Cain, God said “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” Gen. 4:15. In others words, it can be argued, who had jurisdiction was seven times more important a question to God than whether Cain was a murderer.
So the fact hardly anyone ever asks the jurisdictional question before acting is a big deal to God – and it should be to us, too. Why aren’t we teaching this principle to the nations? Why aren’t we teaching it in our churches? Why is it the people who claim to be the “people of the Book” know the least about what’s inside it? Don’t you dare ask for God’s mercy to cover a multitude of sins of omission. You now know the principle – go out and teach it! The Church will be held accountable.
And if, by any chance, you are saying to yourself, “I’ve never heard any of these laws taught in my church (or any church),” THAT’S THE PROBLEM.
Historical Understanding of the Great Commission
Things were not always the way they are at present. Back in the late 1700’s we had Christians in America who knew things about God’s laws and His governance of the world that have long been forgotten. It wasn’t just a precious few, either, but was the course of the day in denomination after denomination.
But today you couldn’t find ten Christians in all of America who, having nothing available to them but the Bible and the other resources available in 1776, could come up with anything remotely similar to the form of government our founders gave us. If it hadn’t already been done for us, there aren’t enough people in America schooled in the laws of God who could come up with a decent plan for government if their life depended on it.
In all of world history, only two Gentile nations ever attempted to form a civil government based on the principles of God’s law – England and the U.S.A. The American experiment, while far from being perfect, improved upon and was superior to the prior English experience in several ways:
1) America was founded on principles of universal equality, renouncing the concept of nobility;
2) America was founded as a representative republic, not as a monarchy;
3) America more fully separated the three branches of government, which were far more entangled in England;
4) America opted for a written constitution rather than an unwritten one (or a constitution that was cobbled together from various sources at various times); and
5) America opted for a separation of church and state, rather than an establishment of religion.
All these major improvements, and many smaller ones, were possible because the American founders were able to take the English experience, learn from it, and refine it. Plus, I am convinced the Americans made a more conscious effort to conform the establishment not only of the government, but the entire nation, on God’s laws.
I do not mean to disparage or discredit the English experience in any way. But the people migrating to America from Europe had a more robust understanding of the Great Commission from the time the very first boatload sailed to these shores. It was an understanding most people calling themselves evangelicals today would find strangely uncomfortable. Because the settlers coming to America had no intention of proclaiming the Gospel to the native peoples, setting up indigenous congregations and church leaders, and then remaining here only in an advisory capacity.
No sir. The colonists had the twin objectives of propagating the Christian religion and to establish a settled and quiet civil government. The assumption being, they were coming to America to stay and structure a well-ordered society on the basis of God’s laws. This intention is well documented, being expressed in the various colonial charters and even the Mayflower Compact of 1620.
This was no passing fancy. The intertwining of the Great Commission and the colonization of America was still going strong when William Penn wrote the Frame of Government of Pennsylvania (April 25, 1682):
This settles the divine right of government beyond exception, and that for two ends: first, to terrify evil doers: secondly, to cherish those that do well . . .. So that government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end. For, if it does not directly remove the cause, it crushes the effects of evil, and is as such, (though a lower, yet) an emanation of the same Divine Power, that is both author and object of pure religion . . .. [D]aily experience tells us, that the care and regulation of many other affairs . . . make up much of the greatest part of government . . . and will continue among men, on earth, under the highest attainments they may arrive at, by the coming of the blessed Second Adam, the Lord from heaven. (Preface ¶ 3.)
Wow. Can you imagine any Christian missionary enterprise undertaken today to use that approach in pursuing its objectives? Of course not. It would be relentlessly ridiculed by the secularists, on the one hand, as imperialist; and relentlessly decried by religious folk, on the other hand, as departing from the core of the Gospel. The very thought that civil government is a part of religion itself is a concept so foreign to the modern evangelical mind that people today no longer have the ability to process that idea, except to say that it must be wrong. Right now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “separation of church and state.” It is no wonder such things are no longer taught – even in Christian schools.
Yet, that is what makes the founding of America 300 or more years ago the zenith in the practical application of the full master plan of the Great Commission for the body of Christ. Everything since about 1800 has been a downhill slide – can you see how far we have fallen?
Thus, my reading and interpretation of the Great Commission is not far-fetched, not unheard of, and not untried. It was the prevailing view among Christians in America for nearly 200 years. Without it, our nation would not exist and we would never have progressed as far as we have. So I am not pretending to have discovered something that no one else has ever known about the true meaning of the Great Commission. I am just saying lots of people used to know this stuff, but it has been forgotten. We need to reclaim this knowledge, not hide it under the rug. Does this remind you of any scriptures?
No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Lk. 8:16.
Wait – did you think this verse refers to evangelism? Ha, ha – that’s a good one. What do you say – are you ready to let the light of the whole counsel of God shine? Or are you going to cover most of it up?
(N.B. If you are interested in checking out the full context of the historic American understanding of the Great Commission, see Legal Foundations: The Framework of Law, ch. 9.)
The Evangelistic Perspective
The modern evangelistic understanding of “making disciples” is that Christians are to gain converts through the process of evangelism (i.e., preaching the good news of the Gospel) to win souls or proselytize. Then, once people have been converted to Christianity, we are to train them to go out into the world evangelizing others, and this is what the process of discipleship consists of.
Thus, the entire thrust of the Great Commission (according to this view) is evangelism, either by evangelizing directly or indirectly by preparing others to do it. The command to baptize is rolled up into the process of evangelism such that by keeping track (i.e., counting) baptisms, we know how many people are being saved and brought into the Church. It is commonly asserted that all Christians are called to spread the Gospel, i.e., evangelize directly or indirectly.
The directive to teach all that Christ commanded is reduced to the evangelistic process, as though the only thing Jesus expects His followers to do is evangelize the lost. The only thing usually added to this expectation is that Christians will also lead holy lives that are pleasing to Jesus and by our example will serve to witness to the lost by our behavior. So even the call to sanctification (leading a godly life) is co-opted to serve, ultimately, an evangelistic purpose.
How sad. How myopic. And speaking as someone who was raised in that tradition from infancy, what a bunch of nonsense. I knew when I was a young teenager the evangelistic view was shallow and couldn’t possibly comprehend all that Christ wanted His followers to do, but I will admit it took a number of years for me to find out what the alternative was – the alternative I now present in this essay.
Ask yourself what kind of Church you would get from many decades of the evangelistic view of the Great Commission. Why, exactly the one we have now among churches identifying themselves as evangelical. Where people are welcomed in with easy belief-ism, and by all means we don’t want to exclude or judge anyone, so nearly all forms of disobedience are accepted. A Church a mile wide and one inch shallow. A Church where everyone is on board but no one knows what they truly believe beyond what the pastor says. A church which, by its behavior and principles, is indistinguishable from the world around it.
Don’t blame those pesky parishioners who don’t get involved in church programs. Blame the clergy who aren’t teaching the laws of God and rail against all things legal, and the seminaries who teach that the ministry of the Church is just to love people and not judge them.
Once upon a time, I was in-house legal counsel for a large international Christian ministry organization, one that you’ve probably heard of. In the president’s office was a large world map, taking up most of one entire wall. In his view, the map symbolized how far reaching the Gospel was (geographically) and what parts of the world were still unreached. To my mind, the map symbolized the shallowness of the ministry’s mission, which was to reach every corner of the world with only the tiniest sliver of the whole counsel of God.
The organization was founded as a campus ministry, yet it never occurred to any ministry leaders to make any effort whatsoever to engage either students or colleges at the academic or educational level. In other words, no one gave any thought to how the Bible might apply to education in general, much less how the Bible might apply to any specific area of study. You know, to take every thought captive to obey Christ. While the students were being introduced to the four spiritual laws by the ministry, they were being indoctrinated for four years by their professors in how to think like pagans – and the ministry considered this a success.
It was especially galling when the ministry attempted to launch a Christian graduate university which miserably failed for all kinds of reasons – not the least of which was no one in the entire ministry had the foggiest clue what a Christian graduate university would look like (except that it had to have a school of theology – duh!). In fact, during my time there I became convinced the leader of the organization was actually anti-academic in his mind set, which trickled down through the organization. The graduate university was doomed from the start because of this. Needless to say, the ministry and I parted ways rather abruptly.
In a way, the modern fascination with evangelism is an impossible dream. Let’s revisit Mat. 24, picking up the discussion of “the sign of your coming and of the close of the age” at verse 9, where Jesus is speaking:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Mat. 24:9-14.
It is clear from the context that the statement concerning preaching the gospel all over the world in verse 14 is a prediction. But many in the evangelical movement today consider it to be a call to action, which it clearly is not. By Jesus’ own words, when the prediction is fulfilled, the Tribulation will already have begun, and Christians will be persecuted, hated and killed worldwide. In other words, when the prediction is fulfilled, it won’t be because there is a healthy and thriving Church that will purposefully be preaching the gospel. Rather, it is the persecution itself that will propel the gospel around the world.
So while modern ministries spin their wheels trying to bring about the fulfillment of Mat. 24:14, none of that will really have anything to do with its fulfillment. Fulfillment will come about through persecution, not evangelism, and it will come when God decides it is time, not when church leaders decide it is time. Which is why I say, modern evangelistic efforts are chasing an impossible dream. For those of you waiting to take the gospel to the whole world before the Rapture occurs, snap out of it.
God has already told us how the world will be evangelized – since when does attempting to do the same thing through our own efforts ever become a winning strategy? How did things go for Abraham, when He tried to fulfill God’s promise through his own efforts?
If you have ever attended an evangelistic church, you’ve probably heard this logic: The Bible tells us God wants us to bear fruit. Bearing fruit means bringing people to Christ. (Here an analogy is often made to marriage, where bearing fruit means having children, so for Christians bearing fruit must mean something similar, in other words, fruit = people.) That being the case, now get out there and win souls! Yet, this too is nonsense.
The general call to bear fruit can be seen in scriptures such as Jn. 15:1-16 and Lk. 6:43-45. But the word fruit is not defined in those texts, so we must look elsewhere in scripture for the definition. According to Gal 5:22-23, fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Col. 1:10 indicates fruit is good works and increasing in the knowledge of God. Rom 6:21-22 says fruit is sanctification and eternal life. Perhaps the best summary statements are found in Phlp 1:11 and Heb. 12:11, where fruit is defined as righteousness – not soul-winning – which is entirely compatible with all of the preceding scriptures.
And what is righteousness? According to www.merriam-webster.com, it is “acting in accord with divine or moral law: free from guilt or sin.” So we might say, bearing fruit as a Christian means keeping God’s law. Wow. What a concept.
God’s Express Plan for Evangelism
The idea that every Christian is called to evangelize the world is not only an impossible dream, it is a lie. The whole manner in which God structured the universal Church (i.e., the body of Christ) mitigates against it.
According to Eph. 4:11, God gave the Church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. The KJV expressly states what other Bible versions imply, that “he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” Whether the word some appears in the text or not, it is clear from the context that not everyone in the Church is an apostle, or a prophet, or a pastor, or a teacher.
Or an evangelist. No matter how you slice it, the number of people in the Church whom God has appointed to one of these five offices will always be a small minority – the vast majority of Christians will have other tasks. And the mere fact God appoints these people – they do not volunteer for the position, they are not elected to these offices, nor do they receive an office because of education, training or experience – means that these are specialized tasks to be carried out by those whom God alone has selected. It is not for men to saddle anyone with the burden of these offices, rather each person must be called by God and convinced of it in their own mind.
Friends, the very fact God gives only some in the Church to be evangelists completely negates the argument that all believers have a duty to evangelize others.
It is also clear from scripture that God is perfectly capable of bringing people to salvation entirely on His own, apart from any human intervention. Rom. 1:19-20 tells us, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Col. 1:23 informs us, “the hope of the gospel that you heard … has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven.” And John 1:9 tells us that the true light of Christ “enlightens everyone.”
So it isn’t just a bare knowledge of the existence of God which is displayed in the creation, nor even a knowledge of God’s power and His laws, but the very gospel of Christ itself which God makes known to all people.
Yes, I am fully aware of Rom. 10:14. “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” But are you aware of Rom. 10:18-20, in which Paul continues the discussion? “But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.'” Further, “Isaiah is so bold as to say, I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.'”
All of which makes moot the argument that all believers have a duty to evangelize others. For God has undertaken this duty for Himself. Thus, to feel guilty or to make others feel guilty for not evangelizing enough is a despicable evil.
I am not arguing that Christ does not want some people to be evangelists. I am simply saying: a) He reserves the right to evangelize’ people directly without human intervention (as in the case of Paul himself); and b) to the extent Christ wants His Church to evangelize, He specially appoints people He deems most suitable for that task and gives them the responsibility of carrying it out. Evangelism is not a task for which every believer is responsible. Or well suited.
What else are we to say? If everyone is called upon to evangelize, then we might as well say all Christians are responsible to teach, to become pastors, to prophesy and to be apostles. You cannot just say, “Well, yes some people have a special calling for evangelism, but the rest of us still have a duty to be witnesses of the gospel,” unless you treat being a teacher, pastor, prophet and apostle the same way. Textual consistency requires us to understand and treat each of the offices God appoints the same as the others.
Would you ever say, “Well, sure some people are specially called to be apostles, but the rest of us all have a duty to plant churches”? Would you ever say, “Some people are called as pastors, but we all have a duty to shepherd the flock”? Same analysis for teachers and prophets. So in the end, no, you would probably never say those things.
Because if you do, the inevitable conclusion is that all Christians have individual responsibility to perform all of the tasks of the Church, regardless of whether God has appointed anyone to a particular office or not. Which effectively assigns to all believers the same responsibilities as each other, nullifying the special appointment of God. What possible difference can it make for God to select some people for special offices, if in fact al believers will carry out the same tasks anyway? It makes God’s special appointments of no effect.
Plus, it does great violence to the concept of the body of Christ, which specifically provides that each member of the body is different, and while they all work together for the benefit of the whole, the function of each member is in fact different from others. See here:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Rom. 12:6-8.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. 1 Cor. 12:8-11.
This is God’s plan for the Church, and for evangelism. And it’s a good plan. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Gen. 1:31. The last thing anyone needs is a counterfeit plan invented by men. “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.” 1 Tim 6:20-21.
Actually, it’s not that difficult to understand why churches today no longer teach what churches used to teach. It’s because we no longer practice God’s laws. If we don’t practice it, how can we teach it? But it is more than just a wilful ignorance of God’s laws – it is a wilful disobedience of God’s laws. Churches today don’t want to know about God’s laws because they don’t want to follow those rules anymore. Modern churches have joined the sons of disobedience. Eph. 2:2; 5:6.
Can you imagine a church today teaching that divorce is wrong except in the cases of adultery or abandonment? That a church elder must be a husband of one wife, who demonstrates he is able to manage his household well? That gross immorality (such as adultery, homosexuality or harlotry) is not to be tolerated in the church? Or that a woman should not teach or exercise authority over a man, but is to remain quiet in the church? Don’t be absurd. It’s laughable. Yet, just as Jesus Himself has not changed over the years (Heb. 13:8), God’s laws have not changed with the times either. Nor should they.
I once mentioned to the pastor of a church we were attending that I was concerned a number of men, including those on the worship team up on stage, were wearing hats during the entire church service. I referenced 1 Cor. 11:4 (“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.”) I briefly pointed out that the reasoning given by Paul for this admonition was based entirely on the creation account of Gen. 1. As a result, the admonition was not culturally based, limited as to time, place or persons, but was rooted in the creation of mankind, and therefore was part of the eternal moral laws of God that never change.
The whole conversation on that subject took only as long as it took you to read the previous paragraph, just a couple of minutes. I did not elaborate, wax eloquent, or attempt to preach to the preacher. I just said, “Don’t you think that’s something we might want to consider?” Do I need to say it? My words fell on deaf ears. No questions came back about whether my analysis was good or bad. No effort was made to say, “That’s interesting. I’ll look it up.” Not so much as a, “I’ll mention it to the worship leader and see what he says.” He just said, “Nice talking to you.”
I know some of the rules I have mentioned are controversial (although, they are only controversial because people don’t want to follow them). But men wearing hats in church? That’s not controversial. If you grew up in the 1970’s or earlier (especially in the 60’s or earlier, when most men wore hats), the rule was universally understood and accepted in every church of every denominational stripe. But the pastor I spoke to was 20 years younger than me, and he came to Christ in his twenties (not as a kid like I did), so this common practice was completely foreign to him. That’s OK – he can’t help that – but his reaction (not even a marginal interest or curiosity) was entirely on him.
You might wonder why there is such an adversity to God’s laws among God’s people. Part of it is due to a false understanding of the whole law vs. grace thing already discussed. Part of it is due to the shift towards an evangelistic paradigm, where everything a church is and does is viewed through the lens of evangelism. A lot of it is due to a profound ignorance of God’s laws among His people. But the main reason, I believe, is that people simply don’t want to be bound by those rules anymore. Christians as a group have become disobedient children flaunting their rebellion.
Pleaser allow me to paraphrase from Jer. 5:1-5:
Run to and fro through the assemblies of the Church, look and take note! Search to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her. Though people say, “Praise Jesus,” they swear falsely. O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent. Then I said, “These are only the flock; they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the Lord, the justice of their God. I will go to the church leaders and will speak to them, for they know the way of the Lord, the justice of their God.” But they all alike had broken the yoke; they had declared themselves free from the laws of God.
Have you noticed? Christians have become very adept at justifying their non-compliance. We want to be inclusive, and not drive people away. We want to minister to the hurting, and not drive them away. We want to make the Gospel appealing, and not drive people away. Allow me to describe what is really going on here: Christians have decided to sacrifice obedience for the sake of evangelism – that somehow those two things pull against each other, so do the one that leads to growth (numerically and financially) and leave behind the one that tends to winnow the flock (and church budgets). Then we clothe our decisions in a false interpretation of the Great Commission to make it look like it was really God’s will when it wasn’t.
It’s pretty pathetic, when you think about it. As if God would saddle His church with a self-defeating task. As if the Church would not prosper if it fulfilled the entirety of the Great Commission. Yet, that’s the way people treat it.
The modern church should take a lesson from Judges 7 and the story of Gideon. When God prepared the people for battle, He whittled down the forces from 32,000 to just 300. There was no intention on God’s part to be as inclusive as possible. God did not need or want as many people as possible to feel good about serving Him. There was no motivation for God to make military service appealing to the masses. From God’s perspective, He could do more with a very few hard core followers, than He could with a great many marginal followers. If only the Church would do the same.
But then, that would require thinking in military terms. Military thinking sees the Christian life as combat, where we fight evil, enemies are destroyed, and victory is marked by conquest. But churches today don’t want to do that. The modern church sees the Christian life as an opportunity for ministry, where we help the hurting, tear down walls between people, and success is marked by souls saved. This probably explains why you never hear songs like I’m In The Lord’s Army, and Onward Christian Soldiers in churches anymore – songs that used to be staples in children’s Sunday School. Lord knows, we don’t want to raise confrontational children! Or even worse, kids who grow up to be confrontational adults.
Although, maybe it helps explain why I’m so darn confrontational – because I grew up with those songs as a child. It’s staggering to realize how far everyday Christianity has fallen, just in my lifetime. Oh look, I see we’ve gotten to the root of the problem at last! It can’t be you, it must be me. Surely God must be pleased with modern churches that are kinder and gentler, shallow and weak, over those nasty and judgmental churches of the past that kept our nation strong and prevented us from going the way of the rest of the world. There’s no apostasy to see here, folks. Move along, move along.
Learn to Love the Law of God
While there are scriptures that state Jesus came to save the lost and believers are encouraged to share the Gospel with others, there are no verses in my Bible that I can find anywhere to the effect that when Jesus returns He will measure the Church, praise or reward the Church, or attribute holiness to the Church based upon the number of people saved, converts gained, or the effectiveness of evangelistic outreach. Not one. So I will issue a challenge. If you have such a verse in your Bible, please show it to me. I don’t think such a verse exists.
Many Christians believe that when Jesus returns He will ask His Church, “Why didn’t you reach more of the lost?” I don’t think for one second that is what He will ask. I am absolutely convinced that instead Jesus will ask, “Why didn’t you teach and obey my commandments?” But the people can’t obey commands they have never heard discussed, and pastors can’t teach commands they have never thought about as commands (and not merely as a gateway to moralizing, personalizing, allegorizing, Christolizing, and/or evangelizing).
Teach the commands of God as commandments and stop viewing them through the lens of something else. We don’t need to, and God does not expect us to, baptize God’s laws in some religious holy water in order to make them a suitable discussion topic in the Church. God’s laws are perfectly good just the way they are and we should teach them without varnish or religious gloss.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. Ps 19:7-11.
Consider what else the Psalmist knew that the Church has abandoned:
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.
I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me! Ps 119:1-8.
Yes, I know we’re under grace, not law. But we’ve already covered that. Remember what I said earlier? A far as non-Jews are concerned, we are under the laws of nature and nature’s God no more or less now than we were before Jesus’ First Advent. Gentiles are under the exact same laws of God now (including the divine covenants) as we were in 1000 B.C. And 1000 B.C. was when David the Psalmist lived.
Look at all the legal terminology in Psalm 119: law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, and rules. Each of these words is used repeatedly throughout Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible. What could possibly be the reason, I wonder? Is it to give emphasis? Nah, it couldn’t be.
I once heard a sermon on Psalm 119 in which the head pastor concluded the psalm was written as an admonition for us to read the word of God. I went up to him after the service and asked him whether the presence of all the legal terminology in the psalm might suggest the possibility that God actually wants us to study his laws. He paused for a second, turned to the woman standing next to me, and said, “And you ma’am – What is your question?” He never spoke to me again, though we had attended that church for several years.
Ten years later, when my son was married by another minister in the same church, we visited the church to help prepare for the wedding. My wife and the head pastor’s wife quickly fell into conversation to catch up because at one time we had all been quite close. The head pastor sat in a pew on the other side of the aisle from us and glared at me the whole time.
That pretty much sums up the general receptivity of evangelical pastors to the laws of God. And it’s a damn shame. It’s not the Church’s ignorance alone that brings it shame – it’s the stubborn unwillingness of Church leaders to study and teach the principles of God’s laws, and their reckless disregard of things God has placed squarely in front of them for correction, reproof and instruction. And focusing on traditional evangelism isn’t going to solve the problem.
Please don’t take anything I’ve said as being anti-evangelism. I know that some of you, having gotten this far in the essay, will conclude I am anti-evangelism and nothing I can say is likely to alter your opinion of me. But at least know it is not my intention to be anti-evangelism.
What is my intention? To demonstrate that teaching the commands of Jesus, i.e., God’s laws, is just as important as evangelism is; that teaching God’s laws and evangelism are both important to the body of Christ; and that as much effort, resources and divine imperative we attach to evangelism should be matched or duplicated as the effort, resources and divine imperative we attach to God’s laws.
And if we have to choose between inclusiveness and obedience in describing the overall mission of the Church, it is better to err on the side of obedience. Inclusiveness is a false god.
I don’t want to remove evangelism from the mission of the Church, I want to balance it out with the full counsel of God in other areas as God intended. This isn’t my agenda – it is God’s agenda. I merely point out we haven’t been following His agenda as closely as we thought. Don’t change the way you look at the Great Commission for my sake – do it for Christ’s sake.
A Kingdom Parable
Once there was a kingdom which consisted of a continent surrounded by water. The king, who was in fact the king of the universe, told his people to watch over his kingdom while he was away. He said, “It has not been given to you to rule over the entire world yet. Manage this continent well, and when I return I will extend my kingdom over the entire earth and you will rule it together with me. If you are faithful over a little; I will set you over much.”
And he told his people, “These are my instructions for you to follow while I am gone. Make disciples of all people who come to the kingdom from elsewhere, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you previously. Be my witnesses starting here at the coastlines, and then take the gospel inland until you reach the city of the king. Destroy every opinion raised against the knowledge I have given you, and take every thought captive to obey my commands. Be ready to punish every disobedience, when your own obedience is complete.”
With these words, the king went away. The people tried to do as the king instructed, but all of their initial efforts became abandoned and the people gradually moved westward leaving their task largely undone. At one point the people decided to “get organized,” putting into place a bureaucracy the king never told them to have. For a long time, the people argued over who was really in charge. Eventually, a splinter group moved further west than all the others and started to make real progress.
Not only did this group of people welcome newcomers from the lands of unbelief who arrived on their shores, but they made real, substantial progress in conquering and occupying the inland areas of the kingdom. They knew that to accomplish their task they needed a plan, not a bureaucracy. So they trained people in personal piety and godly living so they would be mature enough to leave the familiarity of the beach.
The plan called for scouts – brave individuals who would mark out the territory by taking every thought captive to the king’s commands – to lead the way. They would have to be followed by pioneers, i.e., those who would establish outposts of godly thought and practical living in every area of life and every area equally, making it easier for permanent settlers to follow. Gradually, the people would fill the whole land of the kingdom as each person made progress towards maturity.
Fundamental to the plan was a recognition that the people were composed of many members who work together, but are not all the same. Each member is free to fulfill his own purpose for the good of the whole. Some would need to stay near the beach welcoming new people, but most of the people had other gifts and callings that would need to be exercised inland. They knew that in order to fulfill the king’s commands, most people would need to leave the beach.
But as the people made their way inland to the point where they could just glimpse the city of the king in the distance, a group of beachcombers, wise in their own estimation, rose to power and started taking over. The beachcombers, wanting to feel important, starting teaching others that everyone needed to stay on the beach and rescue people coming to the land from across the water. They even said that the mission of the people was not what they thought it was – that their real mission was to welcome as many people as possible from the lands of unbelief.
The beachcombers stopped sending scouts, pioneers and settlers to the inland areas, insisting that when he returned, the king would take everyone to the city of the king. Gradually, the central part of the kingdom became a wilderness again, as the people who had settled there passed on and no one replaced them.
Back on the beach, people started setting up permanent settlements and ministry shops. The barkers would call out to passersby, “Step right up, folks. This is your one-stop shop. We’ve got creeds, confessions and statements of faith. Everything you ever need to know, and all that everyone can agree on. Don’t get caught up in worldly pursuits; all that is true to the Gospel is right here.”
Pretty soon, the beachcombers convinced people to build fences and barriers to keep anyone from leaving the beach. At a gate in the fence, there is a stop sign declaring, “Rules (for your own protection): Stop. Get permit to leave the beach. No permits today. Same thing tomorrow.” Next to the gate is a salvation workers recruiting station, where people are most enthusiastic. “Saving souls is the most important thing anyone can do. Therefore, it is the only thing anyone is allowed to do.”
Anyone who wonders aloud what it might be like to leave the beach for the inland areas is told: “There’s nothing out there to see, and if you go, you’ll be leaving the Gospel. Also, if you leave, don’t expect anyone to support you. In fact, you are supposed to support us here at the beach.”
Those who venture into the wilderness and attempt to go back to let others know what they found will encounter the gatekeepers. The gatekeepers tell everyone, “What you think you found is just your opinion. Don’t tell anyone your opinions – this will just confuse others. Why can’t you be a team player? But in truth we get along just fine without you.”
Finally, after many years, the king returned. His people anxiously waited for him to say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” But instead, the king said, “You wicked and lazy servants! You should have made the land occupied and prosperous, but you only stayed on the beaches and left the inland areas unconquered.” The people protested, “But Lord, look how many people we have brought into your kingdom! See them all on the beaches here.”
To which the king replied, “You should have followed my instructions more closely and paid attention to the weightier matters of the law instead of neglecting them. Your works are but wood, hay and straw, and I will burn them up even though you will survive the fire. Instead of being rewarded, you will be called the least in my kingdom.”
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