Class VI: Fellowship
For the first few weeks of this class, we looked at some of the key building blocks of a healthy New Testament church. We explored the essential attributes of the church and considered how each of those fosters unity. We also thought about how we, as individual members, can promote unity.
Over the next two weeks, we turn to a different set of questions: How should church members relate to one another? What should their relationships look like? What does it mean to have healthy relationships in the church? Why should we care?
I. Love, and why it's important
So how should Christians relate to one another? What should characterize their relationships? The Bible actually has a lot to say about this, and the answer is pretty simple: Christians are to love.
Love One Another
Jesus gave his disciples a very clear commandment in John 13, one that sets the entire agenda for Christian relationships. He said:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
The most important thing we can say about how we are to relate to other Christians is this: We are to love each other. Love is the key to healthy relationships, and it is also the foundation of our unity as a body.
Love—A Display of God's Glory and Wisdom
Why is it so important for Christians to love each other? Think back to Paul's argument in Ephesians 3. God is glorified when very different people love each other simply because of their shared faith in Christ. In that way, we say to the world that the gospel of Christ trumps everything else—whether race, class, nationality, or personal interests.
Through our love for one another, non-believers see the amazing work God has done in us, and most importantly, they begin to see who God is and what he intends for humanity.
Love—A Reflection of the Trinity
There's another reason that love is so important, one that is much more mysterious: Our love for one another reflects the love that exists between the persons of the triune God. Jesus says so in an amazing passage in John 17:22-23:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.
Incredible! In some mysterious way, our oneness with each other reflects God's oneness in himself—as we seek to share the same glory and love of Christ with each other that the Father and Son share.
Of course there's no way we'll ever understand that fully, but perhaps it's enough simply to stand in awe of it. Our imperfect love for one another reflects, somehow, the perfect and inexhaustible love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share together in the Godhead.
II. AN OVERVIEW OF CHRISTIAN LOVE
Before we think practically about how to love each other, let's consider some biblical truths about Christian love.
Love is Hard Because We Are Sinners
First, love is not natural to us. We are sinners who naturally focus first on ourselves—our own needs, our own desires—so love is hard for us. That may be why the New Testament exhorts Christians to love each other so often: We need the reminder over and over again!
In his book, Love in Hard Places, (pp. 52-53, 60-61) D. A. Carson notes that, even as Christians, we still have a sin nature; and therefore we will naturally gravitate toward our own little circle of "in people"—those whom we consider most compatible with ourselves. Even though we are called to love one another, our flesh still yearns to divide over fleshly characteristics like race, culture, economic status, or age. Because we are sinners, we will always be self-focused first, and then "same-focused."
That's exactly what Christian love calls us to struggle against. When we do God is glorified. If Christian love meant nothing more than loving those who are in some way like you, our love would be indistinguishable from the world's love. As Jesus said,
If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt. 5:46-47)
As a Christian, therefore, you ought to be struggling to love more broadly than is comfortable for you. Ask God to give you grace to love people even when it is not easy.
Our Love Flows from God's Love
1 John 4:9 says that we love one another only because God first loved us. Now what does that mean? Is it a quid pro quo—"I invited him to dinner because he invited me?" "God loves me, so I guess I have to love someone else?"
No, of course not. What it means is that our love has its source in God's love for us. The fact is, we could not love at all apart from his love. Our love is not based on our own abilities. Rather, it is a response to God's unfathomable love for us, and especially to the greatest display of that love: God gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life.
Loving others requires some understanding of the depth of God's love. It's only when we grasp something of the depth of God's love that we are able to respond in love toward others. As John put it in 1 John 3:16, "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us." So Paul prays for the Ephesians:
I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:17-19)
Paul wanted the Ephesians to know Christ's love so that they would respond in ever-increasing love for others. We love because he first loved us.
Love Is Empowered by the Holy Spirit
Love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit's work (Gal. 5:22). We cannot suddenly decide one morning, "You know what? I'm think I'm going to love others more today. Here are ten ways I plan to do that."
No, Christian love is an outpouring of our hearts enabled by God's work in our lives. "God's love," Paul says, "has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5). In fact, he says in Galatians 5:22 that "The fruit of the Spirit is love."
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonheffer puts it rightly, saying, "When God was merciful, when He revealed Jesus Christ to us as our brother, when He won our hearts by His love, this was the beginning of our instruction in divine love."
Practically, this means that you should be filling your mind with thoughts of God's incredible love for you. That's how your heart will be softened and you'll begin to desire to love others.
- Meditate on Scripture verses that speak about what Christ did for you on the cross.
- Think of how faithful God has been in your life, both in saving you and in sanctifying you.
- Pray that God would give you an understanding of how deep his love is, and that your response would be to love others.
When Jesus told the parable of the ungrateful servant who wouldn't forgive a small debt even though he had been forgiven much more, his aim was not to make anyone feel guilty. He was explaining something very basic about the nature of grace. When we understand how much we've been forgiven, it empowers us to love. If we do not love, we do not understand forgiveness.
Love Brings Great Joy
Finally, fellowship with other Christians brings great joy and strength to a believer. Psalm 133:1 says, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity."
Paul writes to Philemon, too: "I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you" (Phil.1:7). What a wonderful picture of how love affects the Christian heart! Philemon's love comforts Paul and refreshes the hearts of the saints.
The bond that develops between Christians who love one another is deep and profound. Remember Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, when the elders wept and grieved as Paul departed from them. Or think of John's second letter, where he tells his readers that he longs to see them face-to-face "so that our joy may be complete." Loving others in the church—and being loved by them—is one of the greatest sources of joy God has given us in this life.
III. What Does it Look Like to Love One Another?
How can we fulfill this command to love one another inside the church? What does Scripture say to us about what love should look like?
First, Love People Who Are Not Like You
God expects you to love people who are different from you. Christ's love was indiscriminate: Though he was perfect and sinless, he chose to befriend sinful people just like us. Think of that contrast: the One who is flawless and perfect in every way associated with sinners and ministered to those who were the most despised in all society.
This kind of non-discriminating love is a theme throughout the New Testament. James 2 tells us not to show personal favoritism. And Paul exhorts us in Romans 12:16, "Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited." Therefore, form relationships with people who don't look like you, who are not the same age as you, who are in a different stage of life from you, or who have a different personality.
- If you're young, visit the elderly.
- If you're elderly, talk to the young.
- If you're not a child, care for the children.
- If you are a child, play with an adult.
- If you're not a teenager, help with the youth group.
- If you are a teenager, get to know someone who's not.
- If you're an extrovert, slow down and befriend an introvert.
- If you're an introvert, force yourself to talk to someone—anyone.
- If you're well-paid in your job, make a friend of someone who isn't as well off.
- If you're not so well-paid, learn to love those who are.
- If you're White, consider whether you're inviting your Black friends into your life in the same way you do your White friends. Do you have any Black friends?
- If you're Hispanic, consider whether you're doing this with your Asian friends. Do you have any Asian friends?
Second, Love Sacrificially
When Jesus died on the cross, he demonstrated a sacrificial, selfless love—a love that was costly. As Christians, we are called to do the same.
The Bible calls us to love sacrificially in different ways and in different relationships. In Ephesians 5:25, for example, we read this remarkable passage:
Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Also, in our relationships with other members of the church, we are to love sacrificially. Paul tells the Galatians to "carry each other's burdens" (Gal. 6:2), and in our own church covenant we promise to "bear each other's burdens and sorrows."
Practically this could mean a number of things. It may involve patiently bearing with a brother or sister's spiritual struggles for a very long time. It may mean providing material help to someone who is in need. Or it may mean giving up a really good Friday night to visit someone who is ill.
This kind of love is not usually convenient; that's what the word "sacrificial" means. Just as Christ has borne our sorrows, so we are called to love one another—not because Christ is merely an example, but because his love compels us and empowers us to love in a way that the world will not always understand.
Third, Love By Speaking the Truth
Christian love involves constantly speaking the truths of Scripture to each other. We love one another by reminding, encouraging, exhorting, and admonishing one another with God's word. That's what Paul tells the Colossians: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom" (Col. 3:16).
All our relationships in the church should be marked by truth-telling. Parents should be teaching their children through family devotions and other activities, and husbands should be washing their wives with the water of the Word. As God's people teach, encourage, and admonish one another in all their relationships, the whole body matures and deepens in its faith. Thus we are drawn closer together as a congregation, and closer to God as well.
Paul presents a beautiful picture of this in Ephesians 4:15-16:
Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Sometimes this will include gently rebuking each other. Now this is something most of us naturally shy away from because we want to avoid confrontation. But it is the loving thing to do.
- Leviticus 19:17 instructs, "Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt."
- Similarly in 2 Samuel 12:1-7, the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to confront David for his sin and to lead him to repentance.
- James says that "If one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins." (James 5:19)
Unbelief is a constant and dangerous temptation, and our love for each other is shown in part by helping to fight it off.
How can we show this kind of love? A few suggestions:
- Pay attention to what is happening in others' lives. Do you know friends who once seemed to be very active in the church and have now drawn back? Give them a call to see what's going on. Pray for them specifically.
- Be willing to talk about general patterns in a brother or sister's life that might reduce his usefulness in the Kingdom—patterns such as taking a job that would cause particular stress and tension in the family, or going on a trip that would put him under great temptation to sin, or failing to take advantage of an opportunity to grow spiritually. A genuine love and concern for others will probe into these areas as well as instances of blatant sin.
In short, view every conversation as an opportunity to encourage and edify another member of the church. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, "do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."
Fourth, Love by Showing Humility
God expects his people to be humble with each other, just as Christ was humble before the Father. Paul writes about this in Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!
So how do we love with humility? Paul tells us in Colossians 3:13-14:
Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
We love by humbly submitting to each other, considering others better than ourselves, looking out for their interests over our own, bearing patiently with our brothers' and sisters' faults, and forgiving them when they wrong us.
All this, of course, is altogether contrary to our fleshly nature, which naturally gravitates toward pride and self-absorption. Yet still, God calls us to have the same humble mind that was in Jesus Christ.
Fifth, Love the Whole Congregation
Scripture calls us to love the entire congregation, not just certain individuals within it. How can we do that? What can we do that will express love to the entire congregation? Here are four ways:
- First, pray through our church directory faithfully—a page each day, for example. If you don't know a specific need of someone, you can always pray for them the prayers we find in the New Testament. By doing that faithfully, you'll develop a concern for every member of the church, not just the ones you know well.
- Second, volunteer for tasks that benefit the whole church. Run the sound system on Sunday morning, work in the nursery, or stand at the doors and greet people when they arrive.
- Third, build others up through discipling and teaching, so they in turn can minister to others.
- Fourth, tithe generously. There's no getting around it. The work of the ministry requires money, and by giving generously to the church, you are showing a very practical kind of love to the entire congregation.
IV. CONCLUSION—Love with Kindness and Compassion.
You know, someone could do all the things we've talked about, yet still be cold and distant from other people. You can go through the motions of love without really loving.
Paul makes this point clearly in 1 Corinthians 13:3 when he says, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." Love is more than doing good deeds. It's more than fulfilling a duty. Christian love is characterized by genuine affection and desire to see others prosper.
Think for a moment about the story of Jesus and the leper in Mark 1:40-41:
A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Why does Jesus touch the leper? Did he have to touch him in order to heal him? No, Jesus healed people many times without touching them. Jesus touched the leper to express compassion to him—to show him love in a way that the leper had probably not experienced in many years.
Pray that God would give you this same attitude, and cause you to be marked by a Christ-like, hands-on compassion, kindness, humility and gentleness.