- As James W. Thompson argues in his The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, there are surprisingly few admonitions in the NT urging church members to share the gospel with their friends and neighbors. It’s not that the idea is absent, but it’s not central. Rather, both Jesus and Paul spend far, far more of their teaching on how to live together in community as fellow Christians, and they make hardly any effort to urge personal evangelism.
- In fact, if you look at the passages that clearly stand out as central teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Cor 13, they are plainly about living in community with other believers, not how we deal with the surrounding lost world.
- Paul’s most theological epistles, Rom, Gal, and Eph, all deal with the relationships of Jews and Gentiles within the community of the saved.
- The NT’s most prominent work of prophecy, the Revelation, is about how the church endures against opposing forces. Evangelism and benevolence aimed at the lost world are minor themes at best. Faithfulness in community is the emphasis.
- In Acts, Luke frequently describes the internal life of the newly formed church. Evangelism is a major theme of Acts, as we see the apostles and other missionaries spreading the gospel through gospel proclamation and miracles. But we don’t see the apostles urging the members to invite friends and neighbors. However, it’s clear that they did.
- In Acts, we do see the early church developing works of internal benevolence: the care of widows, the support for the Jerusalem congregation by other congregations. But we don’t see acts of benevolence targeted to unbelievers, other than miracles performed by apostles and other church leaders to encourage belief in the gospel.
- In fact, it’s hard to find any NT example of charitable work done by the church for the benefit of unbelievers — other than miracles performed in the service of gospel preaching. The works of charity that are most prominent are internal — especially the care of Christian widows and support for the poor in the Jerusalem church.
- When the NT writers make lists of Christian virtues, they heavily emphasize the virtues that relate to getting along with each other in Christian community. These lists do not include the virtues of proclaiming the gospel to the lost or doing service for the lost. In fact, when Paul describes the requirements for widows to be supported by the church in 1 Tim 5, he expects widows who will be supported by the church to have washed the feet of the saints — to have done acts of charity for fellow Christians.
- Jesus’ seminal command for us to “love one another” speaks, of course, of internal care. In fact, Paul explicitly interprets “love your neighbor” to mean “love one another” in Rom 13:8-10. He certainly doesn’t deny that we should love the lost as well, but he plainly puts the emphasis on love for fellow Christians.
(Rom. 13:8 NET) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
Now, we in the Churches of Christ have a tendency to see the world in black and white, and so we often struggle with nuance. These are matters of emphasis and trends but far from absolutes. After all, the Great Commission is still in the Bible. Jer 29 still urges God’s people to seek the good of the city where they find themselves. This is NOT an argument for isolationism or radical separation from the world. It’s an argument for finding the right emphasis.
In fact, Paul states the rule rather plainly —
(Gal. 6:10 ESV) 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Many decades ago, there were a few in the Churches of Christ who wanted to read this as an absolute prohibition on charity for those outside the church until every single internal need had been met — meaning “never.” This is clearly not Paul’s point.
But we misread Paul just as badly when we interpret this to mean: “Because evangelism is our highest value, we should do our charitable acts for the lost in preference to the saved.” No, because we are a household (family), we take care of our own first. But not to the exclusion of all others. But the emphasis is clearly on caring for fellow Christians first.
The Old Testament
Many have argued that the OT places a strong emphasis on acts of charity and proclamation of God to those outside the Kingdom. Let’s see —
- The Temple was built primarily for the use of the Jews. The Herodian temple of Jesus’ day had an outer court for Gentiles, but the inner courts were solely for Jews.
- The prophets often spoke out against the surrounding nations and their inhumane practices. Jonah famously traveled to Nineveh to urge repentance — but the prophets did not urge faith in God or act as missionaries. God is concerned about the behavior of these Gentile nations but he does not send prophets as missionaries to make proselyte converts.
- We see no evidence of Israel sending food supplies or otherwise acting as a nation to relieve poverty or hunger among surrounding nations. Egypt often served to provide food to the surrounding nations at times of drought. We see no comparable behavior from Israel.
- There is some slight indication that by the time of Jesus there were some missionary activities by the Pharisees (Mat 23:15; Rom 2:19), but the evidence of history is that any missionary activity was very minimal.
- The Torah does require humane treatment of “sojourners,” that is, resident aliens living among the Jews, but the Torah does not encourage the conversion of sojourners to Judaism although it does provide a means for the sojourners to celebrate Passover and other Jewish rituals. In fact, the Torah is silent on how a Gentile might become a proselyte convert to Judaism.
On the other hand, the covenants clearly point to a time when the nations would enter God’s Kingdom, which presupposes gospel proclamation. God promised to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed. The prophets speak of a time when the nations would be added to the Kingdom. Paul’s great missionary passage in Rom 10 is based on OT scriptures — but it’s a new application.
Judaism was not a missionary or evangelistic religion — not in practice nor do the prophets condemn the Jews for failing to share Torah with their neighbors. They are condemned for not living Torah and so being like their neighbors.
Torah and the prophets anticipate that the Jews will be a light to the nations, that their obedience to Torah will bring glory to God. There are countless passages in the OT where the motivation for obedience is to bring God honor or glory. But Israel is seen as a light to the world by its obedience, not its preaching.
(Deut. 4:5-8 ESV) 5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
(2 Sam. 7:23 ESV) 23 And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name and doing for them great and awesome things by driving out before your people, whom you redeemed for yourself from Egypt, a nation and its gods?
In the Torah, God strictly instructs Israel on charitable care for each other. The poor and vulnerable are protected in the strictest terms. But there is very little about caring for people outside of Israel.
What about the OT passages that address government oppression of the vulnerable? Consider —
(Isa. 10:1-4 ESV) Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, 2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! 3 What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth? 4 Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain. For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still.
The passage is addressed to the kings and other authorities in Israel, north and south, with the power of government. Obviously, God is opposed to oppressive governmental decrees. But the NT analog to Israel is not the United States but the church. Indeed, you can’t help but hear echoes of the Torah in Isaiah’s condemnation, and the Torah was not binding on other nations.
Are there implications for today? Yes. Probably. But we can’t just up and declare that God’s will for Israel as a theocracy and predecessor to the Kingdom is ipso facto binding on modern secular government today. And so we can’t leap to the conclusion that the church now stands in the shoes of Isaiah to condemn secular governments for not living up to the standards God set for a theocratic government unique among all governments.
Now I’m not saying that governments may therefore oppress the poor etc. The point is that we don’t yet have a solid theology that tells us how the church should relate to secular governments — not yet. We have to find that theology and then draw our conclusions — rather than leaping to conclusions. And Nugent suggests an interesting theory for how we should do that.