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  • Writer's pictureDwight Smith

When One Great Commandment Overwhelms Another

Updated: Feb 4, 2022



What happens when the great commandment (love your neighbor as yourself) overwhelms the great commission (make disciples of all nations).

In the book Roots and Remedies by Robert Reese, he notes that the development that missionaries brought to Africa for nearly 200 years had both up and downsides.

Of course, the up is that many people were helped by food or water or education or medicine or better agricultural methods. The down is that missionaries set up institutions over which both African and missionary leadership contested for ownership. Moreover, what was started was more often than not unable to be sustained by the African leadership.


The most alarming finding for me was that ultimately the Great commandment, as it is known, displaced the Great commission. This is nothing new. I am reading the history of missions from the late 19th century into the middle of the 20th century. Over this span, there were multiples of conferences about “finishing” the task.

Each conference became more entrenched in defining the kingdom of God in such a way that the great commandment overwhelmed the Great commission. The debate was so enflamed that those who were intent upon the Gospel declared and churches left behind, were called unthinking, uneducated, fundamentalist!

But, fundamentalist or not, those committed to the primacy of the Great commission over the great commandment persisted. The result has been the reconciliation of multiple millions of people to God, and the formation of millions of new local churches.

In spite of all odds: anti conversion laws, violent persecution of Christians, burning down churches, etc. The growth of the Church of Jesus Christ has been nothing short of amazing.

I am dismayed that this same debate has caught up with the evangelical Church in America. We have lost our focus. We have confused what goes on in our time and place to champion the kingdom of God, forgetting to keep our eyes focused upon eternity and the strong call of and to the Gospel as of primary concern.

In a moment when Christ is a cuss word, the Bible is a book to be mocked, Christians are a people to be loathed, and the eternal values replaced by self destructive ones, we are left without intensity about eternity. We have a few steep challenges.

Challenges.

  1. We are less involved with the call of eternity manifest in the great commandment. We have lost our first love.

  2. We are confused about our transformation in Jesus and the call on our lives

  3. We are confused about the difference between salt and light activities and systemic change

  4. We have lost sight of the nature of the kingdom of God. What it is now and what it will become

As a result

  1. We spend too much time on potentially irrelevant human resourcing issues while failing to bring the eternal decision into clarity

  2. We have confused wanting to be relevant with wanting to be liked.

  3. Once we lose these distinctions, we have nothing meaningful to say to our generation

  4. We have failed to learn from history. The history of people who were both active and recipient in the task of world evangelization

  5. We have failed to understand the nature of evil, it’s sway over people and especially infrastructures.

  6. We have failed to understand just how corrupt people of power can be in administering assets that influence people’s lives.

“To give food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, we see how much Christ values such acts; but the salvation of the soul is esteemed by him much more precious than the life of the body. We must therefore take heed lest souls perish through our sloth, whose salvation God puts in a manner in our hands. Not that we can bestow salvation on them; but that God by our ministry delivers and saves those who seem otherwise to be neigh destruction.” (John Calvin on James 5:20)

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