Sunday, September 02, 2007

Rogers-Yarnell Dialogue on the Great Commission, Letter #13

Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers

Dear Malcolm,

In Matthew’s narration of the Great Commission, Jesus tells us, as his disciples, that, as a part of the process of making new disciples, we are to "teach them to obey everything [He] has commanded us." This raises the question: "What, then, are the things He has commanded us?"

The answer to this question is not quite so simple, however, as identifying a list of "dos" and "don’ts" in the Bible. Paul, writing with the apostolic authority delegated to him by Jesus, tells us we are no longer "under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:14), and that He, at Calvary, abolished "the law with its commandments and regulations" (Ephesians 2:15), and "canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us" (Colossians 2:14).

That is not to say that the law has become entirely irrelevant for us as Christians, but rather that, in the last day, when we stand before the throne of God, if we are in Christ, we will not be judged according to our observance of all the different rules and regulations given to us by God in his Word. Instead, we will be judged in conformance with the righteousness gained for us by Christ when He paid the just penalty for our sins on the cross of Calvary.

However, there are, no doubt, certain guidelines, both in the New Testament, and the Old, that help us better understand God’s will for us, and line up our lives in accordance with that will. While we, as participants in the new covenant, are no longer judged by our degree of adherence to a set of rules, we do, out of love for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, desire to conform our behavior, as closely as possible, to that pattern laid out for us in Scripture. In addition, we strive to be sensitive toward the voice of the Holy Spirit within us, and submit to and obey that voice.

In a sense, there is a certain degree of subjectivity in our discernment of this pattern of behavior. God’s Word, in and of itself, is, in the words of Psalm 12:6, "flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times." It is, as the Baptist Faith & Message describes it, "totally true and trustworthy" and has "truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter." At the same time, however, our ability, as fallen and fallible human beings, to perfectly understand God’s Word, and interpret correctly everything that He has revealed to us therein, is many times fraught with weakness and imperfection.

This is not to infer that the Bible is so complex and convoluted that there is no use in trying to understand and obey it. In the great part of what it relays to us, the message comes through loud and clear. As heirs of the foundational truths of the Protestant Reformation, we do well to insist on the general principle of the perspicuity of Scripture.

In spite of this, however, honesty and objectivity force us to recognize that, down through the course of history, equally sincere and dedicated disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ have come to Holy Scripture with a heartfelt desire to understand and obey its injunctions, and yet reached slightly different conclusions regarding the proper interpretation of certain details contained therein. Humility should lead us, while never giving up on our attempt to understand and obey better the Word of God in our own lives, to be somewhat tenuous in our claims to interpret correctly those points of doctrine on which other sincere students of the Bible have come to different conclusions.

This does not mean we, in the spirit of postmodernity, should adopt an approach of "anything goes." Malcolm, in your last letter, you make reference to a supposed division between matters of "faith" and matters of "order". Although, for the sake of analysis, this may be a useful way to distinguish between specific areas of our lives in which we are to obey, I do not personally see these as categories delineated in the Bible itself. As I understand the will of God, as revealed in the Bible, the question is not so much whether a particular command is a matter of "faith" or of "order", but whether or not it is a command we are expected to obey. And, indeed, we are expected to obey all of his commands.

At the same time, though we should indeed strive, to the best of our ability, to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us, and we are not free to pick and choose, at whim, which commands we prefer to obey and which ones not, it is also true that certain commands are more central to the gospel than others. Consider the following examples:

  • Jesus, when asked what is the greatest commandment of the law, 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’" (Matthew 22:37-39).
  • Paul also tells us: "The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’" (Romans 13:9).
  • Jesus spoke to the Pharisees of the "more important matters of the law" (Matthew 23:23).
  • Paul, when referring, in his instructions to the believers in Corinth, to that which he considered to be "of first importance," encapsulated the core truths of the gospel: "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).
  • Paul, understood in the context of the entire epistle to the Galatians, also seems to make justification by grace through faith a comparatively crucial matter, when he says: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1:8).
The direct implication of these verses is that there are other matters of belief and practice that, although not entirely without importance, are of not quite so high a priority as those things referred to here.

One particular point of practice that seems to have led to some contention among Southern Baptists, both in recent days, as well as in the past, is to what degree should we cooperate in our efforts to obey the Great Commission with other believers who differ with us on some of these finer points. It is my opinion that, in order to come to a correct conclusion regarding this question, we must first seek guidance from the very same Word of God.

Does the Bible address this particular issue? Inasmuch as I am able to discern, yes, indeed, it does.

In Luke 9:49-50, the disciples of Jesus, upon seeing someone casting out demons who did not belong to their group, asked their Master whether or not they should rebuke him. Jesus' reply to them, in that context, seems to be instructive in regard to the issue we are discussing here: "for whoever is not against you is for you."

The classic passage on differences of opinion between true believers, however, is Romans 14. Due to the length limitations of the format in which we are working, I must leave a more detailed discussion of this passage for a future letter. For the time being, however, the following summary must suffice:

It is one thing to be as scrupulous as possible in our own personal obedience to what we understand to be the commands of Christ. It is something different, however, to take the same standard we apply to ourselves and to impose that as a litmus test or shibboleth of cooperation upon other believers who may come to different conclusions regarding how they should best obey the commands of Christ.

We must not forget, at the same time, that Christ does indeed enjoin us, by way of the teaching of Paul, to not be "unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Neither should we forget that there are false teachers and prophets who masquerade as believers (1 John 4:1). Therefore, the fact that someone claims to be a Christian is not, in and of itself, sufficient, when deciding to partner together with them in our efforts to be obedient to the Great Commission.

However, if some people, by their professed doctrine and observed practice, give us good evidence to believe they are indeed authentic blood-bought disciples of Jesus Christ, I find nothing in Scripture that adjoins us to refrain from fellowshipping with them and cooperating with them in the furtherance of the Gospel. We are to call into account those who fall into sin, and practice appropriate church discipline should they refuse to repent. But nowhere are we taught that we are to shun those who, in their sincere attempts to follow the commands of Christ, may find themselves in disagreement with us over points of doctrine and practice that do not compromise the essence of the gospel message itself.

Blessings,

David

Introduction

Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #2, A Steward must be Found Faithful, by David Rogers

Letter #3, Centripetal and Centrifugal, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #4, To Whom is the Great Commission Given?, by David Rogers

Letter #5, The Great Commission is Given to the Gathered Church, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #6, The End-Vision of the Great Commission, by David Rogers

Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers

Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers

Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers

Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers

Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers

Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers

Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell

Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers

19 comments:

Steve Sensenig said...

Thank you, David, for an excellent response. I find your perspective quite in harmony with mine, but beyond that, I find your approach to be quite Christlike.

I must admit to some frustration (I'm not sure that the word "hurt" would even be inappropriate) following the last post and the talk about "closed communion". Malcolm and I don't know each other, but I have no doubt that, should he and I ever meet in person, he would find some reason to withhold communion and full fellowship from me.

That feeling is quite unsettling for someone like myself who desires to see the unity Jesus prayed for come to pass. (And Malcolm, you might want to think about how that is coming across to those of us outside the SBC. Season that well-intentioned conviction with a bit of grace and humility, my brother. Else "SBC" might end up standing for "Splintering the Body of Christ". ;) )

Your present post, on the other hand, David, gives me great hope that all is not lost in my efforts to find unity with my brothers in Christ who happen to be in the SBC.

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Steve,

Thanks for the encouragement. However, humility and conviction are not incompatible. In other words, closed communion and self-sacrifice on behalf of the other go hand-in-hand. Similarly, cleansing the temple and carrying the cross were performed by the same person without any loss of integrity.

In Christ,
Malcolm

Todd Nelson said...

David,

Just today I read Malcolm's letter #12 and then your response. The contrast in tone, content, and emphasis is striking to me.

Given that you both honor the ultimate authority of the Word, I wonder how much of your "open" stance, David, is due to your years of cross-cultural ministry and being a minority evangelical in a majority Catholic and multi-religious context -- and how much of Malcolm's conviction grows out of a more, I'm assuming, American and academic/Baptist history context? (I realize that more factors are involved, of course, but I think the experience factor cannot be minimized in the development of our theology and our attitudes.)

I first had my very Baptist beliefs challenged when I began to lead a multi-denominational international church nine years ago in SE Asia. I have come to the same conclusions you have expressed in this letter. In my own words: Hardened disunity over "disputable" (or secondary) matters does not honor the Lord, obey His Word, assist our cooperation, nor enhance the credibility of our message.

Now, of course, this statement begs the often-asked question of late: what are the truly primary matters over which we must divide vs. the secondary doctrines and practices with which we can tolerate disagreements and still cooperate?

David, I hope your views, as exemplified in the debate over "open communion", prevail in the SBC. At the same time, I applaud respectful conversation that's taking place here.

Malcolm,

Just so you have some feedback from a SWBTS graduate "on the mission field"... if/when I return to the US and lead an SBC church, while I respect your right to lead a Baptist Renaissance movement, it's not one I could or would support. We would practice believer's baptism, open communion, and church discipline. (I do not believe this is an inconsistent combination, as you apparently do.) But we would also emphasize the unity of the Body of Christ and cooperation in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Blessings on you both,
Todd

Steve Sensenig said...

...humility and conviction are not incompatible.

Malcolm, of course they are not incompatible. That is exactly why I was urging you to demonstrate both.

I don't know if you're still watching the thread on your last letter (since you declared it "closed"), but as I pointed out over there, your position would, as far as I can tell, logically require you to refuse communion even with the Apostle Paul!

Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:17), "For Christ did not send me to baptize." This would have to be concluded, using your logic, to be a refusal to follow the Great Commission (both in its completeness and in its order), therefore placing Paul outside of the "closed communion" that you keep pressing for.

I would imagine that if Strider or some other missionary said that Christ did not send them to baptize, but to preach, you would tell them they were violating the terms of their employment with the IMB.

David Rogers said...

Steve,

I should probably let Malcolm answer for himself, and, perhaps he will.

Also, I want to preface this comment by making clear that I, in general, am in sympathy with what I understand to be your perspective (which you yourself have already said to be "in harmony" with mine).

However, in the name of objectivity and fairness towards Malcolm, I want to speak up and say that I personally don't see how 1 Cor. 1:17 plays into this discussion. Unless you can help me see this differently, I understand that when Paul said "Christ did not send him to baptize," he by no means intends to infer that he left the water baptism of new disciples as an optional matter. Although Paul himself may not have physically baptized the majority of the believers in Corinth, I see no reason to not assume that he saw to it that others, acting with his blessing, did do so.

In much the same way, with the IMB, while there is no prohibition whatsoever of us as missionaries baptizing new converts on the various "mission fields" in which we work, we are encouraged, as an even more preferable option, to teach and facilitate the local believers themselves to do the actual baptizing.

Once again, Malcolm will have to speak for himself. But I do not understand him to be saying anything that would specifically oppose this particular aspect of IMB strategy.

David Rogers said...

Todd,

As always, thanks for your encouragement. Your positive spirit in the midst of debate on controversial issues is always refreshing to me.

No doubt, exposure to other cultures and other contexts has had a significant influence on my life and the way I think.

At the same time, however, I think it would be a bit disingenuous to downplay the rich background of experience and investigation that Malcolm brings to the table in this discussion (Not meaning to infer that you are doing so!).

What I would ideally like to see is more of an openness on the part of all to learn from one another, and each one's unique perspective on the eternal unchanging truth of God. In general, I especially would like to see the "church" in the USA be more open to learning from the "church" in other places of the world.

Strider said...

David, I think this post really puts things in the right perspective. Thank you so much for your good words here. In the last comment string I felt that Malcolm and I were so close but in the end missing each other. Your post makes clear to me why this is. We are in two entirely different context. When Malcolm talks about closed communion I hear him saying that the local churches are under siege and that wolves are trying to get to the sheep among those who he loves and therefore closed communion is a tool to stop the enemy advance. It protects the flock and makes our community safe. I am in an entirely different context. I live in a place where followers of Jesus are few and far between. There is no hotel near the airport for visitors to stay in. If you ever come to Gondor, you will stay at my house- guaranteed. All followers of Jesus are welcome. On Sunday mornings we worship together- many evenings too- and we often take the Lord's Supper together as a celebration of our Lord's death. The LS is about Him and in Him we are brothers even though we have never met before.
Your post reminds us that obedience is about love. The LS is not a stick to beat the disobedient with, and it is not a pagan ritual that must be done 'just right' to please God. No, as our hearts are one with His they are one with each other. When I talk about open communion I am talking about loving brothers and sisters far from home. Closed communion people are not against this I think, they are thinking more about Church hopping and invasions of Presbyterians! I hope we can learn from your post and meet each situation with the Love and Grace of our Lord.

Steve Sensenig said...

David,

Thank you for your feedback on my question. It's entirely possible that I'm misreading the issue here (and also entirely possible that as a non-SBCer, I should just stay out of it), but it seemed to me that Malcolm was taking the "order" thing too far.

As I mentioned in a comment above, I find this type of interpretation to be quite frustrating because it places a strong emphasis on division rather than on unity. One cannot have a differing perspective on this issue without words like "perverted", "despicable", "wink at wickedness", and "compromise" being used in Malcolm's response.

With regard to my point about 1 Corinthians 1:17, I thought that it would apply to the discussion on the basis that Paul makes a clear statement that "Christ did not send him to baptize".

While your explanation about the training of locals does add an interesting perspective to it, I still don't quite understand the difference between saying that we must obey the GC "in order", and Paul saying that he wasn't sent to baptize.

It seemed to me that Malcolm is saying that the entire GC is incumbent upon all regenerate believers.

Furthermore, I did not get into this, but the issue of baptism with relation to the Lord's Supper seems to be beyond the scope of scriptural revelation to me. The issue in Corinth wasn't that they were being too inclusive in their communion and therefore needed to be more discerning. It was that they were being too exclusive, allowing for divisions and strife, and also proceeding while not allowing time for others to even arrive.

Bottom line, I don't see "closed communion" in the sense that Malcolm keeps using it. I don't see it in scripture at all. What am I missing?

As a postscript, let me say, David, that I respect you and your blog, and if you wish for me to withdraw from this discussion, I will gladly respect that request from you, brother.

David Rogers said...

Steve,

At this stage, I think it best to let Malcolm himself respond to your questions, if he so desires.

In the meantime, please do not withdraw from the discussion. I think you bring a very interesting perspective, and greatly appreciate your contribution.

Tim Patterson said...

Thank you David for this exchange on the Great Commission. I am convinced here we find one of the most important commands in Scripture (to make disciples of all nations) since these were some of the very last words of Christ to His disciples before His ascension.

The one aspect of this passage that has impacted my missionary ministry is the phrase: "teaching them to obey all that I (Jesus) have commanded you." In recent years I have discovered how crucial this is to fulfilling our commission. Jesus did not say that we should teach them all His commands, He said that we are to teach them to OBEY all His commands.

I am convinced that this little nuance in the passage is very significant. If we can train disciples to obey the Lord every time He speaks to them through His word... we will make reproducing disciples, leading to the kind of mission the Lord originally intended for us. Training for loving obedience (not legalistic obligation) is the key to fulfilling the Great Commission. Teaching for head knowledge serves to provide a knowledge base... however, training for obedience leads to transformation and multiplication. Every time we obey the Lord (out of love for Him) we are changed and we can be used to effect change in others.

David Rogers said...

Strider and Tim,

As Todd alluded to in his comment, I believe your missionary and cross-cultural experience has really added an enriching element to this discussion.

Thanks for your contributions, and for your partnership in the gospel!

Spencer said...

This is a great eye opening dialogue. The perspectives are very reformation vs tranformation in viewpoints. As a Baptist I thank you both for doing this. It truely is firming my perspective as a young SBC minister.

Thanks, Spencer

David Rogers said...

Spencer,

Welcome to Love Each Stone! Glad you are enjoying the dialogue.

Just curious. I'm not totally sure what you mean by "reformation vs. transformation". Could you explain that to me a little more?

Thanks.

David

Spencer said...

I do not pretend to belong in this conversation, I have no MDiv.

In my mind - Reformations are the actions we take to change things. We point back at Reformations and those involved have been discussed here. They were based in a church filled with great sin that required great action for their voice to be heard. But it required their own action, with God's leading.

Other things are transformational and are only changed by God. When God opened my eyes two years ago I realized how sinful I was before a Holy God. But I had accepted Christ at the age of 12, and for 20+ years would have argued that I was a better than average Christian. But in the prescence of God - things changed very dramatically. Things, that no one else, was going to change by telling me my errors.

Spencer

David Rogers said...

Spencer,

Thanks. That helps me. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something I was supposed to get.

Blessings,

David

Todd Nelson said...

David,

Thank you for the affirmation. Like you, I am also appreciating the perspectives of Strider and Steve and others.

I also wholeheartedly affirm Malcolm's gifts, rich experience, and passionate contributions to the Kingdom and to the present conversation among Baptists. As you acknowledged, I didn't mean to downplay them.

I would like to try and put a finer point on my previous comment...

I've observed over the years that missionaries often increase in hermeneutical humility as they serve cross-culturally.

I'm not saying that all missionaries do, nor that mono-cultural Christians cannot be humble about their convictions, just that there is great value in the struggle to interpret and apply Scripture and to understand people in a cross-cultural, Christian-minority context. And sometimes, in that situation, we learn to value unity and humility more than when we did when we first arrived on "the field" -- and more than others who "hold the ropes" at home.

I suppose we've always had and always will have this challenge in a large missions-sending denomination like the SBC -- some significant differences in perspective between missionaries and non-missionaries based on experiences and convictions. We do need each other, but, oh, how the devil loves to divide us!

Sorry if this is a bit off-topic and if I have beaten this point to death. I do believe that you and many SBs get it. Maybe it's a helpful insight for some other readers?

Kevin Peacock said...

It is an error of hermeneutics and and error of biblical theology to place all Bible teaching on the same level. As David so ably pointed out, some teachings in scripture are more important than others. The vital and most essential teachings are stated numerous times in different passages and in various sorts of ways. Even the average lay reader could not help but discern these teachings -- even from a cursory reading of scripture. Jack MacGorman stated, "It is a trait of immaturity to magnify the minimal and to minimize the 'magnimal'" (The Gifts of the Spirit, 55). Sound theology keeps things in their proper biblical perspective.

Because the important matters of scripture are so copiously stated, the Bible reader has many passages and much material by which to arrive at a sound theology. That is why the vast majority of evangelicals and GCCs have such a huge common faith. The scripture is quite clear in these areas. As for other areas of belief the scripture may not be as explicit and as copious in its teaching. In these cases devout evangelical Christians have arrived at different interpretations. There is room for scholarly discussion and debate, but within the realm of fellowship.

It is unwise, however, in these debated areas for someone to be dogmatic and believe that one has a corner on the complete truth. Humility is an essential element in studying Bible doctrine. Humility must clear the way for love to operate – "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor 8:1). Why? (I'm indebted to Robertson McQuilkin here) because revelation is only partial – God conceals some matters (Prov 25:2; Deut 29:29). Sometimes God does not reveal things because we are unprepared to receive them (John 16:12).

We are also finite, and even if revelation were full we could not fully comprehend it. God's thoughts are as far above ours as far as heaven is above earth (Isa 55:9). As such, every judgment we make is out of perspective because we are nearsighted, limited drastically in time, space, knowledge, experience, and mental ability (Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, 188-89). "Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?" (C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 61). A. W. Tozer stated, "As long as we know that our view of truth is partial we can preserve that humbleness of mind appropriate to the circumstances; but let us once get the notion that our view is total and we become intellectually intolerant. Let us become convinced that ours is the only sensible view and our ability to learn dies instantly. . . A greater degree of unity [among Christians] might be realized if we all approached the truth with deeper humility. No one knows everything, not saint nor scholar nor reformer nor theologian" (As cited in McQuilkin, 189).

We are also fallen – sin has dimmed and warped our understanding of the revelation God has given to us, therefore, we are subject to error. Our sinful desires and our arrogance distort our understanding of God's Word (McQuilkin, 190).

Because of all these factors, we should not aspire to the total understanding of all truth. On the other hand, we believe that the essential things are clear.

David Rogers said...

Kevin,

Excellent contribution to the discussion! In my opinion, what you have written here merits a whole other complementary post on this subject.

I had the privilege to sit under Dr. MacGorman while at Southwestern, and have been impacted by Dr. McQuilkin's ministry at various levels, including a wonderful personal conversation with him last year at our Western Europe Regional gathering. What amazing servants of God!

Malcolm Yarnell said...

Dear Steve, Todd, Strider, Tim, Spencer, and Kevin,

You are raising some very insightful and important issues. If you were expecting me to engage on this comment string, please forgive me for delaying.

I have consulted with David, and he agrees that some of these questions are so important that I will raise them in future letters to David. The problem that David and I have is that we have decided to discipline ourselves in such a way that it may take some time to get to some critical aspects of the Great Commission. For this, we apologize and hope that you will find the wait worth it.

Thank you for putting your mind and your heart in this important conversation. The Great Commission demands our full attention (and entire obedience).

In Christ,
Malcolm