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).
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.
- First off, it is important to recognize that there are certain passages that instruct us regarding separation from false teachers (Galatians 1:6-10, 2:4-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). There are, without a doubt, those who "twist" Scripture, and whose views, instead of being tolerated must be opposed and rebuked (1 Timothy 5:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:24-26, 3:1-9; Titus 1:9-11, 2:15; 2 Peter 3:16).
- Next, there are other passages that teach us about the importance of unity within the Body of Christ (John 17:20-23; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3, & 12; Ephesians 2:11-22, 4:1-16).
- Finally, and more directly relevant for the issue at hand, there are certain passages that teach us specifically about how to deal with differences of opinion on matters of interpretation with other members of the Body of Christ:
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.
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell 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