Not long ago I was invited to address the student body of a Bible college well known for its strong commitment to the authority of scripture. It was "urban emphasis" week and I was asked to be the key note speaker to kick off the event. The most enjoyable part of my time on campus was interacting in the classroom with eager students who voiced many insightful questions about ministry in the city. During a lively discussions with a group of upper-classmen, I posed a question. "What is the number one mandate of the followers of Christ?", I asked them.
"Evangelize!" came the immediate and emphatic response.
I pushed them a little harder: "But what did Christ say was top priority?"
"Make disciples?", they offered with a little hesitation.
"I know that evangelizing and making disciples is important", I agreed, "but what did Christ actually say was that most important mandate for His followers?"
After a moment or two of puzzled silence, a student in the back of the room ventured a hesitant response: "You mean 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, mind, soul and strength and thy neighbor as thyself'"?
"Sure," I concurred. "That's what our Lord said was the greatest command, didn't He?" There seemed to be general consensus. "Given that scripture declares this to be our number one mandate, then what courses do you have here on neighboring? I know you have an entire department of evangelism. Who teaches Neighboring 101?"
There was an uncomfortable silence as the implications of my question began to sink in. "We don't have any courses on neighboring", they admitted.
"Then this Bible college is just not biblical enough", I declared. So fundamental to the life of faith are these twin teachings that they are given top priority in God's original hand-written instructions for daily living. Christ later underscored their central importance by declaring that the entire law is contained in these two inseparable commands: love God and love neighbor. A Christian training institute that steps over these basics on the way to "deeper" theological pursuits can hardly be considered Biblically faithful.
"Do you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell!?" one sharp young theology student retorted. I knew the rationale behind his question. If you believe that either eternal bliss or eternal damnation awaits every person after death, then the most loving act is to present the truth of the Gospel to as many as possible and thus save them from everlasting destruction. It's a compelling argument. The problem, of course, is that it leads toward the viewing others as souls instead of people. And when we opt for rescuing souls over loving neighbors, compassionate acts can soon degenerate into evangelism techniques. Pressing human needs depreciate in importance - the spirit becomes the only thing worth caring about. Thus, the powerful leaven of unconditional, sacrificial love is diminished in society and the wounded are left laying beside the road.
"I can see you have your theology buttoned down well", I admitted. "But I think the more important question is: 'What did Christ say we should be about?'"
I don't expect to be invited back as a guest speaker in the near future.