One of the greatest shames felt by all right–minded Christians is the divided state of that which professes the name of the Lord. In direct contravention of the Lord’s own prayer that His people “may be all one” (John 17: 21), the Church is riven by the twin evils of sectarianism and independency. Search the Scriptures, and you will find that there is but one fellowship, the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9), and one faith, the faith once delivered to the saints (see Eph. 4: 5; Jude 1: 3). Furthermore, we are to “use diligence to keep the unity”, not of what we or others have fashioned, but “of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3). How then, are these things to be worked out in the difficult situation that presents itself today? Or, to put the question another way, what is to be our attitude to other Christians who follow the Lord, but “not with us” (Luke 9: 49)—whatever may be the reason for the separation? Do not misunderstand me, I am not now talking about fellowship. Fellowship (at least in its full sense) may be not be easy to work out to any great degree in the ecclesiastical confusion of the present day. What I am talking about is attitude. How do we regard these other believers, and is how we relate to them pleasing to the Lord? The issue is, of course, complex and difficult, but to address it by retreating into isolationism is not only spiritual cowardice, but is effectively embracing a sectarian position. A narrow walk is Scriptural; a narrow heart is not.
Love to all the Saints
We are often most tested by the simplest things. Thus when we read that the Ephesians saints were commended for “the love which [ye have] towards all the saints” (Eph. 1: 15) many of us would readily admit that we, by contrast, fall somewhat short. The commendation was not that the Ephesians loved some of the saints, or even most of the saints, but all of the saints. This feature was all–encompassing, extending to both Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, saints nearby and saints far away. The Spirit of God has thus set the bar very high, and the question is how we measure up to it. Loving those we like is easy, and we warm naturally to those of the same social class and race (see Acts 6: 1). It is also often straightforward to get along with those who share a similar doctrinal perspective. Here, however, it is a matter of loving all—and nothing less will do for God. That is why Gaius loved even Christians previously unknown to him: “thou doest faithfully [in] whatever thou mayest have wrought towards the brethren and that strangers, (who have witnessed of thy love before [the] assembly,)” (3 John 5, 6). Of course that was when there was still a semblance of outward unity in the Church. What about now, when the nascent “sects” and “schools of opinion” (1 Cor. 11: 19; Gal. 5: 20) have solidified into the myriad ‘churches’ we see today? Is the Scriptural injunction to love all to be watered down such that we love those with whom we are in practical fellowship more than other Christians (to whom we can be largely indifferent)? Now of course those with whom we ‘break bread’ are bound to mean more to us than saints we scarcely know, for such a thing is only natural—but why should we be satisfied with what is merely natural? In the one body (inclusive of all Christians) the members “have the same concern one for another” (1 Cor. 12: 25, my emphasis). Has that changed?
If I say that love does not have to be to all the saints, then I am joining with Cain in questioning “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4: 9). Indifference is not love. If, in the parable, the Lord answered the question “who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10: 29), what of the question ‘Who is my brother?’! All attempts to evade the issue by narrowing our definition of the word brother are refuted by the Lord Himself who directly relates it to what is characteristic of the believer (see Mark 3: 35). Thus in order to suffer with the members that suffer, and rejoice with the members who are glorified (see 1 Cor. 12: 26), there has to be a knowledge and interest that goes far beyond the circumscribed conditions of fellowship in which we may find ourselves today. Certainly the context of 1 Corinthians 12 is the working out of the truth of the one body in a local assembly, but no group of believers today can justly claim to be the assembly of God in a place in the way that Corinth was. At most, we are only so many individuals walking together and seeking to do what is right (see 2 Tim. 2: 22). Hence even in our own locality, our love must extend to every Christian. Scripture, however, sets no such geographical limits on the outflow of our affections. Thus the heart of the apostle Paul went way beyond what was merely local, and carried “the burden of all the assemblies” (2 Cor. 11: 28, my emphasis). We do, of course, live in a very different day to his, but the broken conditions do not excuse us from being concerned for the welfare of all of God’s people. The one body is still the one body (see Eph. 4: 4), and should not be regarded as merely an abstract concept.
The Proof of Love
So how do we know that we love the saints? The apostle John answers this very question: “Hereby know we that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments” (1 John 5: 2). This statement needs looking at closely.
First, it tells us that if we love God, then we love the children of God. Of course, “We love because he has first loved us” (1 John 4: 19), but His love is a lever over our hearts: “Beloved, if God has so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v11). Who are the children of God? John tells us that in his gospel: “As many as received him, to them gave he [the] right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name” (John 1: 12). The extent of our love ought therefore to be very wide. Nor can we help loving because “God is love, and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (v16).
Second, it tells that if we keep God’s commandments, then we love the children of God. Scripture specifies one particular commandment in this connection: “And this is his commandment, that we believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and that we love one another, even as he has given us commandment” (1 John 3: 23; see John 13: 34). Therefore not only do we love the children of God because we have been made “partakers of [the] divine nature” (2 Pet. 1: 4), but we love them because we are obedient to the divine commandment.
Third, it tells us that loving the children of God cannot be separated from keeping all of God’s commandments. These commandments (plural) go beyond the one command to love each other, and encompass everything that God has set out for us to obey in His word. It is therefore not love to others if I seek ‘fellowship’ with them when this involves me turning a blind eye to things that may not be right. Such brethren may be helped out of their path of disobedience if I make a stand; they can only be confirmed in that path if I appear to sanction it by walking with them. Hence in some instances, love may be severely restricted in the avenues by which it can be expressed. However, our responsibility to “withdraw from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2: 19) does not absolve us of our responsibility to love. Where love is real, it must still be expressed—even if that is only on the knees before God.
With many others there is, happily, much more that can be done in terms of practical ministry. Of course righteousness may have something to say as to how our love is to be expressed—but there remains much scope for acts of kindness (see 1 Cor. 13: 4). The narrow–minded notion of some that love is to be kept within the bounds of those calling upon “the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Tim. 2: 22) is no more correct than thinking that such need only be righteous among themselves. The idea of this Scripture is simply that of like–minded persons pursuing both righteousness and love—being characterised by these features—and the love will inevitably go out to all who the Lord loves (see Eph. 5: 25). Indeed, there is no way that righteousness according to God can be pursued if it is decoupled from love.
If love is real, it must find a means to express itself, and there are any number of these means. For brevity’s sake, however, I shall confine myself to three of the most important: prayer, practical giving and personal contact. The apostle Paul connects all three together in his epistle to the Romans: “as regards prayer, persevering: distributing to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality” (Rom. 12: 12, 13).
Praying for Other Christians
Of the three, prayer is the most important as it is the link between the servant and the Master. Through prayer we can understand how to proceed, both in relation to practical giving and personal contact with other Christians. There is a particular value, however, in praying for those for whom we can do little or nothing else. The writer of the epistle to Hebrews had this in mind when he exhorts his readers to “Remember prisoners, as bound with [them]; those that are evil–treated, as being yourselves also in [the] body” (Heb. 13: 3). While no doubt the application can be made general, it would appear that it is Christian prisoners and Christians suffering for their faith that are in view. The language used is remarkable, as it implies a very deep level of empathy: “as bound with [them] … as being yourselves also in [the] body”. This is much more than merely praying for the persecuted Church in the prayer meeting, commendable as that is. It implies that the suffering of the afflicted is felt, almost as if it were in our own bodies. This would give impetus to our prayers and make them more fervent. It is also impossible to carry out this instruction without having some real knowledge of what other believers in other lands may be facing. Indeed, real love will want to know. Prayer ought to be intelligent, and it is inexcusable to imagine that vague platitudes come anywhere near obedience to this Scripture.
I have no doubt that our relative indifference to those who suffer for His name is greatly displeasing to the Lord. He is not indifferent, for He says “I know thy tribulation and thy poverty” (Rev. 2: 9, my emphasis). However, the Lord also ensured that Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea were aware of what was happening at Smyrna, and this was surely not done just for interest’s sake. We also ought to know what is going on elsewhere. If a generation ago we could plead ignorance then that is certainly not the case now—advances in communication technology have seen to that. Furthermore, if the Scriptures tells us that “we ought for the brethren to lay down [our] lives” (1 John 3: 16), then surely the least we can do is pray? When Peter was thrown into prison, “unceasing prayer was made by the assembly to God concerning him” (Acts 12: 5), for “if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]” (1 Cor. 12: 26). We need to ask ourselves whether the doctrine of the one body is a reality with us, or only a worthless creed.
Giving to Other Christians
Now the idea of laying down our lives down for other believers is a severe test, but many of us struggle to part with even our material possessions let alone our life–blood. And yet, as the apostle John says, “whoso may have the world’s substance, and see his brother having need, and shut up his bowels from him, how abides the love of God in him?” (1 John 3: 17). Searching question indeed! The wallet is not opened because the bowels (symbolic of our pity) are shut. The need is seen, but the heart is indifferent. Why should this be? Is it because we lack the means to give? We know that that is not true. Indeed, the more honest would confess to having not been content with “sustenance and covering” (1 Tim. 6: 8) and seeking their own comfort all the while “a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food” (Jas. 2: 15). If there does not seem to be much material need in the little circle in which I move, then I only have to lift up my eyes (getting the divine view) and I will find that there are many other Christians who I can assist. It was this spirit that enabled the Christians in Antioch to determine “according as any one of the disciples was well–off, each of them to send to the brethren who dwelt in Judaea, to minister [to them]” (Acts 11: 29). As John says, “Children, let us not love with word, nor with tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3: 18). The “collection for the saints” (1 Cor. 16: 1) was never intended to be merely a means of circulating money among the comfortably well–off, but a way of meeting real need. It may be that our present spiritual poverty may be traced back to this for “he that sows sparingly” (and the context is sowing in material things to those in material need), “shall reap also sparingly” (2 Cor. 9: 6). Indeed the language the apostle uses, speaking of persons giving “beyond [their] power” (2 Cor. 8: 3) and with “free–hearted liberality” (2 Cor. 9: 13) makes plain our inadequacy in this area.
Personal Contact with Other Christians
Scripture tells us that “in [the] last days difficult times shall be there” (2 Tim. 3: 1)—and there can be little doubt that those days are upon us. Evil in the world grows unchecked, and ignorance abounds in the Church. Against such a background, Timothy was instructed to “abide in those things which thou hast learned, and [of which] thou hast been fully persuaded” (v14). That apostolic doctrine is now recorded for us in the Scriptures, and forms the bed–rock by which we can negotiate our path soberly as “simple, irreproachable children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation” (Phil. 2: 15). How thankful we should be if, like Timothy, we are well–acquainted with “the sacred letters” (2 Tim. 3: 15), and we can both hear and read teaching that is truly “ministry of the word” (Acts 6: 4, my emphasis)!
Sadly, this is not the situation for large numbers of God’s people. Some have little or no access to Scriptural teaching, and what is available can be simplistic and ill–informed. As with Apollos, there is a pressing need for many to have truth unfolded to them “more exactly” (Acts 18: 26). False teachers abound (see 2 Pet. 2: 1), “speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20: 30), but there is a corresponding lack of leaders “able both to encourage with sound teaching and refute gainsayers” (Tit. 1: 9). In some circles, the faith has morphed into a kind of mysticism. What passes for doctrine is ‘supported’ by means of random Bible texts but is not, in itself, derived from the Scriptures.
The picture painted is a depressing one, and it is very easy to react by withdrawing in upon ourselves. However, it is no good bemoaning the situation if there is not a corresponding willingness to do something about it. If we have anything of the spirit of the “good shepherd” (John 10: 11) then we will be interested in the welfare of all the members of His flock, and will do all we can to set them in the right path and find them pasture. I am not talking about fellowship. All I am considering here is the simple ministry of being an encouragement and help to the other Christians we come across in our daily lives. Timothy cared “with genuine feeling” (Phil. 2: 20) how the saints were getting on. Do we take the time to find out? It is easy to sorrow over ‘the state of things’ while living as if other believers did not exist. If we are willing to be used, then the Lord will use us, and our personal contacts with those of the Lord’s people we come across will be made to count.
We shall one day be called to account for our stewardship, whether of our time, our material possessions or of divine light. These relate directly to our prayer–life, our giving, and our sharing of spiritual things. It is a solemn word that “to every one to whom much has been given, much shall be required from him” (Luke 12: 48). Paul was willing to “spend and be utterly spent for your souls, if even in abundantly loving you I should be less loved” (2 Cor. 12: 15). That should be our attitude to all the members of the Lord’s flock.