A few months ago, I found myself in a debate with a self-styled theological expert who made a stunning claim: sharing one’s faith wasn’t the duty of every Christian. That’s certainly what our squishy on truth society believes, but increasingly, it seems, so do the culture warrior Christians.
My debate opponent argued that the core of the Christian life is determined by the two greatest commandments that Jesus gave: to love neighbor and to love God. My acquaintance stated it doesn’t say “evangelize your neighbor” in that summary of God’s calling to all humans that Jesus taught, therefore sharing about Jesus is more limited job for specific people, unlike loving neighbors. The average person should tend to those summarized things, but not bother to share the faith. That’s for other people.
More skeptical elements of our culture would find this approach to the Gospel rather appealing. Yes, a Christianity in which all believers do is act lovingly and mind their own business sounds just about right to those folks. (Well, at least until it becomes clear anything those Christians believe while minding their own business doesn’t fit the present pop culture zeitgeist — but that’s another column’s kettle of fish.)
I get the distinct impression that my debate partner (and many Evangelical compatriots of ours) like the idea of leaving evangelism to “the professionals” because it means that if they devote their energy to proselytizing other things — most often political candidates and or preferred theological statements — and do so without guilt for having misdirected their energy. Like many more conservative believers today, he spends a lot of time skewering fellow followers of Jesus whom he sees as too lax on the truth or too soft on the hurt-by-the-church-and-now-outside-the-church folks. (Or those who might question MAGA-ism.)
Jesus’s command offers no such loophole, though.
Let’s say that when I was a kid, my parents went away for the evening and told me I could have a party while they were gone, but during it, no one was to open the liquor cabinet (this is far fetched since I never was into parties and we never had a liquor cabinet and I’m a teetotaler, but I digress). So, in my fictional self’s “cleverness,” I realize there is some liquor in the house that isn’t in the liquor cabinet and I host a drunken party, also encouraging my friends to bring more liquor since I’m not going into the liquor cabinet. No one would say to my parents, “You can’t complain! You only told him he had a duty not to go into the liquor cabinet, you didn’t say anything about the extra Crown Royal that was in the gift pack from last Christmas.”
A lawyer might try to get a loophole that way, but in normal life, it’d be understood my cleverness was not good, because in normal life everyone understands that my parents weren’t concerned with “protecting the good stuff” or afraid I’d wear out the door hinge on the cabinet, but were rather telling me not to serve alcohol.
In arguing that “Jesus only said I need to love my neighbor, not tell my neighbor anything about Him,” we fall into just as big of lawyerly mess. If loving my neighbor somehow can be twisted into meaning, “Make sure my neighbor votes the way I think everyone should,” then how much more “Make sure my neighbor knows the love of the God who love him or her”? It’s turning loving the neighbor into evangelizing either way, it’s just a question of what sort of evangelism demonstrates love.
Attempting to convert others to our point of view is unavoidably a human endeavor. The person who leaves aside evangelism for the professional hasn’t quit evangelizing, he or she has just adopted a different good news to broadcast. Like their leftist, secular foes, my debate partner and those of his mindset continue to show a penchant for proselytizing. Neither the liberal atheist nor the politically inflamed Christian Nationalist gives that up.
The problem is whether out of pluralistic desire to say “everyone is right” or cable news infused desire to say “we need everyone on the political right to protect the church,” those who eschew the Christian’s duty to see more followers of Jesus are missing the point of truly loving our neighbors.
If God calls us to love our neighbor and He also tells us we should be more concerned about the care of the soul than physical health, more concerned about heavenly treasure than earthly ones, then the duty of loving our neighbor is neither making them feel “affirmed” nor getting them to like our political candidates, but to help them know the only one who can give them eternal life.
I’m not a particularly bold person. There are plenty of times I’d like off the hook and plenty of times I wrongly let myself off the hook. But let’s be clear: the heart of loving our neighbors is loving them enough to care that they know the God who loves them. As human beings, we’re going to evangelize something, so let’s evangelize the right thing: Jesus and His love.