I recently finished reading a book on the history of Christianity. One theme that kept smacking me in the face while reading this book was how arrogant we as Christians have been over the past couple thousand years when it comes to reaching those we have been commissioned to reach. Many of our watershed movements and milestone events revolved around reaching unbelievers. But it amazes me that no matter how well-intentioned or even doctrinally correct each may have been, eventually almost every movement has on some level became wrapped up in self-worth and conceit. Sure, individuals within each movement stand out as contrary examples to this assessment. But over time, whole movements in general seem to lose their way when it comes to fulfilling what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission.
In most cases, this conceit springs from a notion of superiority that is born from three successive lines of thought. In my own words, they are, in order, the “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality. Next the “You must agree with me if you want to be a Christian” thought. Then the final step in the superiority complex, the “…or face the consequences” rationale.
The worst part of this mentality is not the display of naked arrogance. Rather it’s the abuse of the Great Commission that we have committed in order to develop, maintain, and support this arrogance. Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations” has time and again been taken to a militant extreme that Jesus never intended it to go. This loss of focus on what the Great Commission really means has resulted in much of what has gone wrong with Christianity since its start. Crusades, inquisitions, forced conversions, religious wars, state religions, religious courts and sentences, etc. are all a part of our past and were many times justified by a warped and twisted version of the Great Commission.
But let’s not be too harsh on those who are our spiritual forefathers. Judging our past only serves to frame our present. This holds especially true with how we today reach the world and fulfill the Great Commission. We too have reached the superiority plateau on many occasions. Perhaps for us as modern-day Christians the final step of “facing the consequences” doesn’t include inquisitions or crusades. But don’t we still possess the same arrogance that led our predecessors to do all those things we now see as barbaric? Don’t we still find ways to make others face the consequences? Aren’t there social repercussions from us for those who don’t believe as we do? Unfortunately, often times we conduct our Christianity in a manner that serves only to exclude others rather than reach out to them. How often do we watch the news and when the stereotypical drug bust or homicide segment is aired, we look at those involved and think “That figures”? The empathy we should feel towards these people is often replaced by our disgust for their unbelieving and un-churched kind. How many times do we avoid personally interacting with those who may fit a stereotype that we consider to be unfavorable for whatever reason? So maybe the “consequences” aren’t as physical as a tortuous inquisition or dramatic as a crusade against Muslims, but we still dole consequence just as damaging to those found lacking by our standards none-the-less.
The sad thing is that most of the time we do not realize we possess this notion of superiority even though it is on clear display to those around us. We often justify our superiority complex in the context of being a good Christian. A great example of this was recently illustrated by one of my pastors during a sermon a few weeks ago. Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “You’re the only Bible many people will ever read.” This thought is nice and well intentioned, but it is also completely flawed. My pastor did a good job of exposing the sheer arrogance behind that thought in a way that I had never thought of before. You see, equating ourselves to being the Bible not only puts us on a pedestal that we weren’t meant to live on, it also presupposes the infallibility of our Christian lives. If we truly think of our witness to the world in this way, then in essence, we are taking the first steps to superiority mentioned above by saying “I’m right and you’re wrong — you should be like me.” You’ve already read what the next steps are. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, but I am not prepared to say that I don’t make mistakes and everybody should follow my perfect example. Now, I realize there is a fine line here. Living as Jesus taught is certainly the correct way to live. I am not suggesting otherwise. But crossing that fine line occurs when we assume our way of life to be perfect rather than reflect the one who can help us live perfectly.
My pastor’s example in combination with the readings of Christian history revealed to me a view that Christians have had of themselves since the beginnings of Christianity. It is a view that supposes being correct because we are Christians instead of being Christians because we are correct in whom we believe. This view of ourselves inevitably leads to the oft-quoted “holier-than-thou” mentality that the world sees long before we do. When we reach out to non-believers with this view of the world in our minds and we encounter resistance, our outreach quickly transforms into aggression no matter how well-intentioned the original mission. Even though the aggression may be very subtle, it is there. And herein lays the root of failure experienced by those who have gone before us. Christian movements of all types lose their way when they become more interested in being correct than in being Christian (read “Christ-like” here). It is this assumption of correctness that lead to the superiority complex and its subsequent aggression (in other words, the first step). In the end it birthed the inquisitions and religious wars of the past. It is what fuels our religious bigotry towards unbelievers in the present (the last step).
I cannot believe that this path we as Christians have travelled time and again is the path Jesus wanted us to take. It seems to me there must be something very essential missing from the typical Christian approach toward unbelievers and the Great Commission. That essential element is Agape love. But this seems contradictory, doesn’t it? I mean, since reaching unbelievers in itself could be considered an act of love, isn’t that enough? Doesn’t that demonstrate our love? The answer of course is no, it doesn’t. There is a huge difference between fulfilling the Great Commission from a viewpoint of being correct, and fulfilling the Great Commission out of the compassion that springs from the well of Agape. In fact the term “Great Commission” was never uttered by Jesus as far as we know. If he did use this term it was never recorded in the Bible. So this term is largely a human invention. Yes, he did issue the command, but the overriding theological emphasis it has been afforded has been placed there by us. Not to say that the Great Commission isn’t important or valid — it certainly is. But we are obviously missing the mark that Jesus expected of us by focusing solely on this one commandment.
Searching the scriptures, we find another commandment to which Jesus actually did assign a name. It’s called the Greatest Commandment and we can find it in Matthew 22:36-40 which reads:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV)
Could it be that since Jesus described the two acts of loving the Father and loving others as the Greatest Commandments that they are actually more important than the Great Commission? If we take Jesus at his word—his holy word as recorded in the Bible—then the answer must be “Yes.” And this is precisely what has been missing from our fulfillment of the Great Commission. This leads us to one unmistakable yet overwhelmingly critical truth — in order to fulfill the Great Commission, we must first fulfill the Greatest Commandment. It only makes sense. Why would anyone want to listen to what I have to say or follow any example that I lay down if they do not think that I legitimately care for them? I wouldn’t blame them for resisting any message that I would have to say no matter how “correct” it may be. I certainly wouldn’t accept it either.
The apostle Paul grasped this concept when in I Corinthians 13:1-3 he wrote:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. (NIV)
So if I attempt to win converts to Christ through any other means but Agape love, I am nothing but an irritating noise in the ears of those I am trying to reach. The reason is clear. When I try to win someone to Christ without truly having Agape love for them, they readily pick up on that and shut me out. Without having Agape love as the motivation to reach others, the true motivation can only be selfish. Whether it is to prove how “correct” we are, or how religious we are, or for treasures in heaven, or to justify our religion based on membership numbers, the motivation will always be selfish without Agape. Why would anyone listen to or accept such a shallow experience with God? In order to reach anyone with the good news of Jesus Christ we must first be full of the Agape love that God gave to us so that we can share that Agape with others. No other way will work. No other way is God’s way.
So what does the Great Commission devoid of Agape look like? Take my word for it when I say UGLY. As I have read in the book I just finished, examples of this ugliness are legion from our Christian history. But I am going to rely on my own example to illustrate UGLY. During my college days, I personally witnessed embarrassing outreach attempts conducted without the evidence of Agape love. Most occurred during times when a visiting street preacher would set up shop on campus. Even though I did not personally do any of the speaking, I was part of the group that supported his ministry and sponsored his visit. I was once in the crowd of “believers” trying to “reach the lost”. Anyone walking by this man who exhibited some worldly characteristic became an instant target for belligerent rants on a very personal and destructive level which generally ended with a vivid description of how they would burn in hell. The tirades unleashed by this street preacher in the name of God and “tough love” must surely still ring in the ears of those who were unfortunate enough to have strayed into his sights. I have no doubt that those words are still used by many to stay away from the love of God that we as a group did not show them. I can only pray that someone has since shown them the true Agape nature of the Father.
Please do not misunderstand my story. I have nothing against street preachers in general. I admire their courage and determination to do what God has called them to do. Many do operate in complete and total Agape love. The one described above did not and as an accomplice to his ministry at the time, neither did I. He was very well-intentioned and the method he was using was an honest attempt to at least get people talking about Jesus one way or the other. Ultimately though, his tactics were misguided with the result being anger and resentment toward Christians and God as well. Who knows what these kids were going through when they were walking by? And here was a man who claimed to represent God, now making them feel like trash on top of that. Was he correct? Probably. Sin will send you to hell; the Bible is clear on that. Did he — did we — extend the Agape love of the father in the same way it was extended to us when God sacrificed his own son to save us from hell? No. There was no Agape present those days, I can assure you. In our zeal to accomplish the Great Commission, our actions were no different than placing those college kids on the rack in a medieval inquisitor’s torture chamber, ostensibly for their own good.
The truth of the matter is that such “tough love” is not Agape love, and as such not God’s way to reach those whom he loves. Instead of tearing down the people that God’s son died for, wouldn’t it have been more effective to have taken that opportunity to show them God’s love? Wouldn’t Agape wrapped up in cold bottle of water on a hot day, a sandwich at lunch time, or even a dry shoulder to cry on been so much more effective instead of lobbing a brick of judgment at anyone needing a good hit of the gospel? How about extending God’s love without any hooks? Isn’t that Agape? Isn’t that love without condition? Isn’t that the true self-sacrificing nature of God? After all, Jesus taught us to feed his sheep, not beat them with the staff.
But unbelievers today do not have to pass by an outrageous street preacher to be put on the Christian “rack”. Most do not feel welcome, let alone comfortable, around Christians and churches in particular. They have good reason. We usually instantly judge them based on their beliefs, appearance, actions, or some other insignificant aspect of their lives. People pick up on when they are not wanted and will gladly oblige. How many of us would want to constantly be around people who don’t dress like we do, don’t speak like we do, and don’t act like we do? The best analogy I can come up with is to imagine that you’re in a boardroom with the top executives of a Fortune 500 company. They are dressed in Armani business suits and you are dressed in the best clothes you own—jeans and a polo shirt. When they speak, you have no idea of how to interpret the business jargon they easily toss back and forth between themselves. When you go to the “power lunch” with them, you have no idea how to act, which fork to use and when, and can’t pick up on the social queues that are part of their business culture. Uncomfortable would only be the beginning of how you would feel. Add to this, feelings of embarrassment, unworthiness, and belittlement. Which would you pick if you had a choice between returning to that boardroom or being with friends who understand you and want to be around you? Yet this “boardroom” is often the environment we expect unbelievers to enter into when we invite them to our church. And when they don’t want to visit, it becomes their fault for not going. Or if they do visit once, then it becomes their fault for not coming back.
This analogy speaks to much of the problems we have in reaching others, both at church and on a personal level. We constantly attempt to portray ourselves as an example of Biblical perfection to a world that can’t relate at all. What would happen if instead of “being someone else’s Bible” we, for example, only wore jeans to church, or loosened up some the traditions of our services, or created new relevant traditions, or just served our community in a way that showed we loved them—with no hooks? What if instead of being the perfect example of the Bible, we were just real with people with all our flaws intact? Would they be able to relate to us then? Would they listen to our message? Would they wonder where our love for them comes from and want to know how they could have what we have? What would happen if we just showed them Agape rather than showing them a perfect example of what a Christian “ought” to be? What if we showed them that we aren’t perfect either, that we make mistakes just like they do, and that God still loves and cares for us in spite of our shortcomings? I believe that they would see the hope that God offers them. They might say “You know, if God loves that person, maybe he loves me too.” How powerfully attractive is that to a people who desperately need some hope in their lives and need to feel the warm embrace of God’s Agape love?
This is the attraction Agape offers to those who need it most. Jesus attracted all those who needed him without making them feel that they were worthless. In fact, he took the opposite approach of the religious people of his day. He took those deemed worthless by religion and made them the object of his love. That is why he associated with those the religious people of the day considered the most vile in society and would have nothing to do with. Jesus’ attraction was that through his Agape love, he met people where they were. He never required anyone to become worthy enough before they could approach him. No less is required of us if we are truly his followers, if we are truly Christians. We must meet people on their level rather than require anyone to meet us on ours.
The last part of Paul’s message of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7 teaches us that:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (NIV)
This is the description of the characteristics of Agape love. This is what was missing from the street preacher’s message. This is what is missing from many of our churches. This is what is missing from much of our day-to-day Christian lives. Without this work of Agape, we can never hope to reach a world whose only true need is to realize this love. The reason for this is because of one enigmatic truth borne out in I John 4:8:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (NIV)
With the truth of this verse in mind, re-reading Paul’s description of Agape gives us a new appreciation for what he was talking about. You see, when he described the character of love, he was really describing the character of God. Go back to Paul’s verse above and where he mentions “Love” substitute “God”. Powerful, huh? So if we do anything without love, we do it without God. If we try to reach the world through our conscious or unconscious notions of superiority which make no room for Agape love, we are attempting to reach the world without God.
To shed light on how the Great Commission is solely and completely dependant on Agape love, let’s review the scripture above from Matthew when Jesus described the Greatest Commandment. When reading the words that Jesus spoke “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”, think of his statement in terms of what he must have known lay ahead of him. In my mind, there can be no more complete picture of the Greatest Commandment than the only truly superior person who ever was or is hanging on two pieces of wood so that everyone else may live. One vertical piece representing the Agape coming down from the Father, and one horizontal piece representing its reach to the world. The cross is the ultimate example of the Greatest Commandment (love God, love others) fulfilling the Great Commission (touch everyone with that love).
How about you? Are you a superior example of a Christian or are you an example of how God’s Agape love covers a multitude of flaws? Are you correct in fulfilling the Great Commission or are you complete in first fulfilling the Greatest Commandment?
As for me? Let’s just say I have work to do.
© Gregory M. Watson, 2009 (see Copyright Page for details)