Neighboring 101

by Bob Lupton on

A young man interlaces his fingers over an open Bible.

A young man interlaces his fingers over an open Bible.

Some time back, I was invited to speak at a conservative Bible college known for its high view of scripture. The occasion was "urban emphasis" week and I was a keynote speaker. The most enjoyable part of my time on campus was interacting in the classroom with bright young students who had many insightful questions about ministry in the city.

During one of those lively discussions with a group of upper-classmen, I posed a question. "What is the number one mandate for Christians?" I asked them.

"Evangelize!" came the immediate and emphatic response.

I pushed them a little harder: "But what did Christ say was top priority for His followers?"

"Make disciples," they responded with some confidence.

"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 reflective silence, a student in the back of the room ventured a hesitant response: "You mean 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’?” The student’s King James quote was precise. Another student added, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

"Absolutely," I agreed, "that's exactly what our Lord said was the greatest command, didn't He?" There seemed to be general consensus. "Given that the Bible clearly declares this to be our number one mandate,” I continued, “I’m wondering what courses you have here at this college on loving neighbor? 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. One of the students finally admitted, "We don't have any courses on neighboring."

"You’re kidding!” I expressed my disbelief. “The biblical mandate so crucial that all the rest of scripture hangs on it and you don’t have a single course on it? Then this Bible college is just not biblical enough!"

The stunned expressions their faces led me to suspect that I had crossed a line. By then it was too late. So I waded ahead. “If you’re going to be biblical, you cannot skip over the greatest command on your way to fulfilling the great commission. The Great Command is a theological bedrock. A Christian training institute that ignores what Christ declares to be ‘the essential’ command can hardly be considered Biblically faithful.”

Word would soon reach the faculty and administration about my heretical remarks. Oh well, I might as well enjoy the banter while it lasted. A sharp young theology student took up the challenge. "Do you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell?"

I knew the reasoning behind his question. If I believed that either eternal paradise or eternal damnation awaits every person after death, then the most loving act is to share the Gospel with as many people as possible, saving them from everlasting destruction. Evangelism, then, fulfills the Great Command’s mandate to love one’s neighbor. It's a persuasive argument. The problem, of course, is that such thinking inevitably leads to viewing neighbors as souls rather than people. And when we opt for rescuing disembodied souls over investing in loving human relationships, compassion can soon degenerate into evangelism techniques. The joys and sorrows of daily human life fade in importance - souls become the only thing worth caring about. Thus, the Good Samaritan story that Christ told to illustrate the Great-Command-in-action becomes irrelevant unless the victim in the story experiences a spiritual conversion.

"I can see you have your theology buttoned down well," I admitted to the young theologian-in-training. "But I think the more important question is: 'What did Christ actually say we should be about?'"

I have not been invited back.