By the time this article is published, I will have left the church I first joined in 1996 and where I have served as an elder for a good part of the last decade. I’m excited to leave. I hate to leave. And love is why.
Sixty of us are departing to plant a church in our own neighborhood. We mean to love our non-Christian neighbors with a congregation within walking distance. Yet leaving means transitioning away from one-on-one discipling relationships, breaking up small groups, and reprioritizing who gets invited to lunch or dinner. It means no longer sharing weekly fellowship and ministry opportunities. It’s heart-rending.
The love shared inside a church is the love of a family (see 1 Tim. 5:1–2). And like a son or daughter who comes of age, sometimes you’re sent, with all the bittersweet joy that accompanies this sending.
What do you think love inside a church is? Do you love your church? How?
A Model of the Love of God
Trace out a biblical theology of God’s people through the Bible’s covenantal story line. You’ll discover that one of God’s purposes for His special people is to model what He expects of all people. God commands everyone made in His image to love Him and their neighbor. But He especially employs His church to exemplify such love.
But that’s not all. The church is where humanity—or a new humanity—begins to love its enemies, just as Christ loved us. Think about it. We were all wannabe kings in the flesh. Which means, yes, our fellow church members are our natural-born enemies, so it’s inside the church that we practice loving our former enemies.
The church is where humanity—or a new humanity—begins to love its enemies, just as Christ loved us.
A Witness of the Love of God
It’s not some generic brand of love that the church models. It’s God’s love in Christ that we should display: “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Jesus emphasizes the fact that the world will know we’re His disciples not by our love for the world, though that’s certainly true, but by our love for each other. Through our gospel cultures of forgiving words and righteous deeds, we demonstrate what Christ’s love is like.
The world thinks it understands love. It doesn’t. It only knows zero-sum-game love: “I want you to love others less so you can love me more.” Yet God’s love is a generative love. It creates more of itself. Watch this in John 17: the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father. The Father and Son then send the Spirit to form a people who will receive the Father’s love for the Son. And through the Spirit, they learn to love God and each other as the Father, Son, and Spirit love one another.
Sacrifice and Obedience
Our culture defines love as giving people whatever they want. Love means prioritizing self-expression and self-realization.
Yet Jesus teaches that love leads to obedience, and obedience is a sign of love (John 14:21,23; 15:10–11; 1 John 5:3). It does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It heeds the will of the Father. It desires good for others, but that good always involves God and obedience to His revealed will.
Love even involves discipline. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. A church that never disciplines, or corrects sin, is an unloving church.
Mercy and Compassion
Love in a church also involves mercy and forbearance, even as we have received mercy and forbearance. Love covers a multitude of sins. Some of your fellow members are easy to love. Some are difficult. And that’s just the point. The easy-to-love teach us how to love the difficult-to-love. The annoying ones. The immature ones. The ones who don’t show up to nursery duty on time or whose kids snub our kids.
If love is patient and kind, as Paul says, you can assume it will be the people who tempt us to impatience and unkindness that best train us in the ways of love.
Love for the church starts in a local church—a place with real people with real gifts and real problems. Get to work here, and then let your love for other local churches, other denominations, and Christians around the world grow out of this seedbed.
The Reaction of the World
The world will both love and hate what your church calls love. If they only love it, you can be sure you’re offering them a false and worldly love. The love of the Father is not in the world, and so they will sometimes call love hate and hate love.
Our new church, like your church, can only offer a vision of heaven’s love as in a mirror dimly. The good news is, we can point our neighborhood to the One who loves them and us perfectly, the perfect who will one day come to welcome us fully into His love. That’s the heart of our faith and hope.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director of 9Marks, editor of the 9Marks Journal, and author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus.