Loving the Local Church

As mentioned in the previous blog, the local church is the ordinary and primary means in which God sanctifies and grows believers, which means that church membership is non-negotiable for Christians. However, the trends in church membership and church attendance have created a new category of Christians in social science research who “love Jesus but not the Church”. We know that there is significant pressure from the unbelieving world to reject the institutional church. However, the sad reality is that the most popular polemics against the institutional church comes from other Christians. There have been numerous blogs in which professing Christians air their disgust for institutional Christianity. This mentality appears to be pervasive within our culture, but it’s an attitude that is contrary to the core teachings of the New Testament.

I don’t speak about this topic from an air of aloofness or indifference. About 10 years ago, I was once part of the crowd of Christians who loved Jesus but was burned by multiple local churches. As a Christian, I’ve been a member of churches in which individuals have been found guilty of sexual molestation of minors; individuals have been involved in adulterous relationships; individuals have split churches due to gossip, slander, and tertiary doctrinal matters (such as head coverings); elders have been found guilty of financial exploitation of its members; and members have harbored resentment towards other members for years. Observing the faults of various local churches drove me away from the institutional church. However, it was the testimony of older saints (who have walked through worse issues within the local church) who reproved me of this attitude. The central passage worthy of consideration is the following

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:20-21

Let those words sink in. Nothing can be plainer: it is impossible to love God without loving your brother. Applying this to the church, to say that “I love Jesus but not the Church” means that you do not love Jesus. This may be a harsh statement to some, but it’s the direct teaching of the New Testament. How can you claim to love Christ yet you are unwilling to love those for whom Christ has died? How can you claim unending love for Christ, yet you are unwilling to stick through the difficulties of your local church? The Apostle John makes even more penetrating statements regarding the necessity of loving your brothers:

By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in Him. 1 John 3:10-11, 14-15

Let this passage sink in. The Apostle John connects our love for fellow brothers with our individual salvation. In other words, one is deceiving himself if he believes that he can truly know God apart from loving his brothers. The objection that usually follows is that it is possible to love fellow Christians without joining or committing to a local church. However, John continues his exhortation

By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18

This was the passage that cut me to the core as a young Christian. Practically, how is it possible to lay down your life for your brothers apart from local church? It’s easy to love your select group of Christian friends, but you don’t have the authority to pick and choose who are the members of your local church. If you aren’t committed to the fellow members of the body in the local church, can you honestly say that your love is “in deed and in truth”? There are many who are willing to point out the sins and flaws of members within their local church, but they are unwilling to aid in their sanctification. Is this truly the heart of someone who genuinely loves their brother?

There are many who will use the hypocrisy of the institutional church as a reason to reject her, but they rarely ever see their own hypocrisy. It is hypocritical to decry radical individualism within American Christianity while, at the same time, rejecting the community that God has formed in your local church. It’s hypocritical to say that the Church has become nothing more than a social club while, at the same time, rejecting the diversity of gifts, viewpoints, and personalities that God has formed in your local church. This is the mentality of one who is “dating the church” and then criticizes her to strangers after the breakup. As our Savior has said, you must take the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly how to the speck out of your brother’s eye (cf. Matthew 7:5). In other words, you are not in position to judge the sins and blemishes of the institutional church until you are committed and willing to lay your life down for the members of your local church.

This is a call for perseverance and patience towards the local church. If you have walked away from the local church, I implore you not to forsake the local assembly. If you are a member of local church, I implore you not to keep your brothers and sisters at a distance. For those who are committed to your local church, I pray that you will excel still the more. I’ll end this blog with a quote from Thabiti Anyabwile:

…The proper response to the church, the church of worship, the people of God when they look upon the church isn’t critique and evaluation. It isn’t to spot all the limitations… The proper response of a heart oriented toward God that loves God and loves all that God does is, ‘Oh my God! Oh how staggering! Oh how beautiful … He’s my God and we are His people. Oh my God, look at the church!’

Band of Brothers: Bound by the Word of God

The following article is my sermon transcript from this past Lord’s Day. I don’t take my transcripts into the pulpit with me; I take an outline based on the transcript. However, this is the jist of the exposition. It seemed appropriate given some recent events on the interwebs that I post it here. For the record, I am not a fan of how things translate from Microsoft Word to WordPress, but I’ll get over it.

Introduction

I am convinced that many of the “one another” passages of Scripture originally had in view only the local church. Still today, even in this age of social media and the blogosphere, I still believe its primary application is for the local church. However, more and more, I am seeing Christians putting their disdain for one another on public display on the internet. We are often haughty, self-promoting, impatient, cynical, and irreverent in the way that we speak to and about our fellow believers on the internet.

I don’t view this as a practical deficiency within the church. I see it primarily as a theological deficiency. It’s a sign that many of us who name the name of Christ and call God our Father do not truly understand the implications for such a claim when we address one another in public forums. We too easily forget the apostle John’s warnings:

“The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now” (1Jn. 2:9; NASB).[1]

“But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1Jn. 2:11; NASB).

“Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1Jn. 3:15; NASB).

“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn. 4:20; NASB).

We must recognize that, when we lack genuine brotherly affection for one another, we are living like pagans. This commends neither us nor our God to a lost and dying world. However, Peter has a different understanding of how and why we ought to treat one another with brotherly love. As Christians, we are expected to have purified ourselves in obedience to truth. As such, we should bear the fruit of that obedience: brotherly love. We bear that fruit because of the seed that has taken root in our hearts: the word of God.

 

The Fruit of Obedience to the Truth: Brotherly Love

“Having purified your souls in obedience to the truth into a genuine brotherly love, [you] fervently love one another from the heart” (1Peter 1:22; personal translation).[2]

In Obedience to the Truth

Here Peter uses another participle: having purified. He assumes that his readers have already purified themselves. Indeed, this is one of the marks of a true Christian. A true Christian will set himself apart, sanctify himself, and purify himself from all worldliness (Rom. 12:2; 1Cor. 3:18-19). How primarily does he purify himself? By availing himself of the word of God (2Tim. 3:16-17).

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2Tim. 3:16-17).

Notice that Peter says we purify our souls “in obedience to the truth.” The truth being spoken of here is found only in Scripture, the very word of God. We are called to be obedient to Scripture. However, if we are to rightly subject ourselves to the word of God, we must rightly understand what the word of God is teaching us. This requires study. This requires work. This requires commitment and discernment.

The world tells us this dogged commitment to truth cannot coincide with a lifestyle marked by love. I have heard seasoned Christians go so far as to say that John 1:14 gives us a paradox because it describes Christ as “full of grace and truth” (NASB; emphasis added). This idea that love and truth are diametrically opposed to one another has bled even into the church. I would argue, however, that the apostles had no concept of truth existing apart from love or love apart from truth. If I tell my friend I love him, and I know he’s blindly walking toward a cliff, I don’t demonstrate my love for him by withholding truth from him.

Christians can get nitpicky. We can correct people for things that don’t need correcting, especially on social media. When we become overcritical of our friends and family, this could be a sign of an unloving spirit. We can certainly fall into the trap of speaking the truth in an unloving way, but that does not mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Often, to speak the unadulterated truth is the most loving thing we can do.

However, when confronted with the truths of Scripture to the degree that most Reformed Christians are in Western society today, we ought to be the most loving, most caring, most merciful Christians people meet. We spend so much time studying and relishing in the gospel and the great mercies that we’ve been shown by God. Ought we to show mercy to our fellow man as well?

We take a great fire into our bosom when we study the truths of God’s word. Can a man take a fire into his bosom and not be burned? And can we regularly take the refining words of God into our hearts and not be permanently changed? Yet, many of us claim to read the word regularly and affirm the historic doctrines of the faith, but we don’t seem to know the first thing about loving our brothers. We would rather treat the truth of God as an academic endeavor or a reason to debate. We often treat God’s truth as a tool for changing others when we should first be changed by it. We first need to internalize God’s truth and let it purify us.

Brotherly Love

This gets us to the heart of this obedience to truth. We are called to be obedient to the truth not merely for the sake of knowing and loving God more. Rather, as we are purified in obedience to the truth of God, it should cause us to love both Him and one another more.

The truth of God teaches us of our original state holiness and joy in the garden (Eph. 4:24). It further teaches us the value of each human being, in that we’ve each been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). God’s truth goes on to teach us how we have all fallen short of God’s glory and marred His image in ourselves (Rom. 3:23; 8:29). Finally, we discover from God’s truth how each of us are utterly helpless to save ourselves apart from God’s amazing grace through the gospel (Mk. 10:26-27). This knowledge ought to compel us to have a deeper appreciation for our brothers and sisters in the faith, and to extend a greater amount of mercy toward them, even in their sin (Mt. 5:7).

Furthermore, when we recognize the fact that we are each born into a new family through Christ, our love for one another takes on yet another aspect. We have gone from merely having common life experiences to having a common Father in heaven. We are brothers and sisters in Christ in a very real, very eternal sense. As such, we are bound to one another not merely by some human contract, but by a divinely established familial bond (Mk. 10:28-30).

As brothers and sisters, then, we have obligations to one another. Think of it this way. The only way that earthly brothers or sisters can remove themselves permanently from their siblings is to remove themselves from their parents’ house. As long as we call ourselves children of our Father in heaven, we are likewise bound to our Christian brothers and sisters. This means that we have certain obligations to one another. We’re a family.

This means that, when I see a brother sinning, I not only have an obligation to stop him from sinning. I also have an obligation to do so in a manner that helps him retain as much dignity as possible. A common knee-jerk reaction to sin among Christians is to see a brother headed over a cliff and think it’s our job to give him the final shove. That is not brotherly love. Brotherly love means to reach out to that brother, show him the error of his ways, seek reconciliation, and ultimately to seek restoration (Gal. 6:1-2):

“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-2).

 

The Root of Obedience to the Truth: The Gospel

having been born again not with perishable seed but imperishable through the living and eternal word of God. Because,

All flesh is as grass,

And all their glory is as a flower in the grass.

The grass withers,

And the flower falls,

But the word of the Lord abides forever.

And this is the word that was proclaimed to you (1Pt. 1:23-25; personal translation).

We have been born again into an eternal, spiritual family. That which brought about our new birth is likewise eternal and spiritual: the living and eternal word of God. Were we born into this new family through flesh and blood, we would have nothing in which to be confident, for flesh and blood both perish. Rather, “as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13; NKJV).

We are born of an imperishable seed. We are born of God (John 1:13) “through the living and eternal word of God” (vs. 23). In other words, it was through the word of God that God brought about our salvation. The word was the seed that was planted in our hearts’ soil (Mt. 13:1-23 – “Parable of the Sower”). This word, once it takes root and extends deep into the soil of our hearts, reaps in us eternal life!

It’s this word of God that Peter says is living and eternal. He takes this description from Isaiah 40. In Isaiah 40, Isaiah is prophesying about the coming of the Messiah and His forerunner: John the Baptist (vs. 3; cf. Mt. 3:3). Isaiah goes on to prophesy regarding the Messiah:

“The glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

And all flesh shall see it together;

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

The voice said, ‘Cry out!’

And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’

‘All flesh is grass,

And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

But the word of our God stands forever’” (Isa. 40:5-8).

Isaiah prophesied these words as words of deliverance for the people of God. They had been in exile, and now they were going to see their deliverance. God’s people had seen tremendous warfare and received from the Lord’s hands “double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:2). Now, God speaks comfort to His people, “that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” Now, we know that this peace to come was Christ Himself, given that this is the passage used to refer to His forerunner in Matthew 3:3. Christ is the glory of the Lord that shall be revealed (Isa. 40:5).

The people of God, then, have just experienced a great trial in their exile to Babylon. They had seen much death and much war. They had experienced a tremendous defeat and been carried away by a foreign people. Looking forward to the Messiah to come, they are now told to set aside any faith they had previously put in flesh that fades, and to trust in the abiding, imperishable word of God.

In like manner, we are told to lay aside any trust that we may have placed in the flesh. Our confidence is not in the flesh, but in Christ. The Jews will not be saved on account of the fact that they share in flesh and blood with Abraham. They will only be saved if they believe like Abraham in the Seed of Abraham, which is Christ (Gal. 3:16, 29):

“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).

“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

John the Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were trusting in the flesh, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Mt. 3:7-9).

Many today even think they will get to heaven on account of fleshly association. They reason that they were raised in church by godly parents and, thus, they must be good to go. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we can ride into heaven on our parents’ faith. We must have faith ourselves, but not in ourselves. We must each put our faith in Christ for our own salvation. We will not get into heaven on the merits of the flesh, whether ours or another’s.

The Lord, through Isaiah, said:

All flesh is as grass,

And all their glory is as a flower in the grass.

The grass withers,

And the flower falls,

But the word of the Lord abides forever” (1Pt. 1:24; personal translation).

We are then to trust in the preached word, not in some genetic heredity. Our inheritance is heavenly, eternal, secure, and abiding. It is as secure and abiding as the very word of God, but it is for those who believe and for those who believe alone. Will there be a great remnant of Jews who will be saved before the return of the Lord and the consummation of all things? Many believe this to be the case. It certainly seems so from my study of Romans 11. However, those Jews who come to salvation in the end will be saved, not on account of their flesh, but on account of their belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the word that was proclaimed to us: our salvation in Jesus Christ! It’s on account of this word and on account of our belief in this word that we come to be included in this great family of God. It’s because of this word of truth that we have heard and now obey that we are purified and compelled to a fervent brotherly love toward one another.

The word here rendered proclaimed is the verb form for the word εὐαγγέλιον, from which we get our English word evangelism. In essence, it means good proclamation, and it’s where we also get the word gospel (or good news). So then, we know that we have come to be brothers and sisters in Christ through the preaching of the gospel, the truth of God from the word of God.

It’s only through this word that any of us are ever saved. According to Romans 10:

“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:

‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,

Who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Rom. 10:14-15).

We must then hear the word of God to be saved. We must hear the gospel. It goes without saying then that, if we want to see others in our lives come to salvation, they too must hear the gospel. How shall they believe on Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? Let us then go forth with boldness and proclaim to our friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors the only word that has any power to save them from their sins.

Conclusion

Those who receive this word and obey it will be purified and set apart into the family of God. Each new convert to the gospel of Jesus Christ is a new brother or sister in our great family. We need to treat them as such. We need to treat one another as such, because that is what we are. We are a family, and as sons and daughters of the God of love, we ought to be the greatest example of love the world has ever seen. So be holy as your Father in heaven is holy (1Pt. 1:16). But also let us love one another, because our Father in heaven is love.

[1]All citations from Holy Scripture from the New King James Version of the Bible, except where otherwise noted.

[2]Personal translations translated from UBS4.