Paul’s Blueprint For A Loving Church

It is rather embarrassing to be extolling the glories of a loving, caring church as the ninth point of this study, because such an objective surely deserves a much higher place on our policy agenda. But nearly all the ideals for church life may be said to deserve a higher place. For a fellowship to possess mutual, affectionate and caring love is to honour the ‘new’ commandment of the Lord.

The apostle John declares that it is an ‘old’ commandment, and yet (for the fledgling Christian church) new in its practical achievability and bonding power (1 John 2.7-8). Paul, in Ephesians 4, calls for lowliness and meekness, with long­suffering and mutual forbearance in love. This, he says, is the only way to ‘walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called’. How much we should desire for our church an atmosphere of mutual kindness and concern! How glorious it is to know that this can be accomplished! How important it is to preserve and nourish it, once produced!

It is far more likely that a serving church (by contrast with an uninvolved membership) will become a loving church, because fellowship in service produces deep ties, and because the possession of a common, higher objective subdues the possibility of petty hostilities. The quest for brotherly love does not require a programme of fellowship events, church rambles, suppers, and so on. Churches that fight and squabble often have all these activities in abundance. Fellowship in service is the best bonding agent for believers.

Love for our fellow-believers is one of the proofs of conversion, and it is certainly essential for pleasing the Lord. Six times in the Greek New Testament love is described by the word philadelphia, meaning – brotherly love. Internal clashes and divisions must go, and philadelphia love must be cultivated. Respect for one another is not enough. Nor are consideration and kindness, important though they are. The Lord commands the depth and tenacity of love equal to that seen in a blood tie. We must have ‘brotherly love’, a key ‘policy’ in all the epistles (Romans 12.10; 1 Thessalonians 4.9; Hebrews 13.1; 1 Peter 1.22 and 2 Peter 1.7).

A vital reason for the cultivation of mutual love in a congregation is seen in the Saviour’s great prayer of John 17.21 – ‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ As a local church we are intended to reflect the character of God, including the sublime love which exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our ‘family’ likeness must be derived from above, and this will bring down witnessing power. Surely this must be an overriding concern of pastors.

Another reason for cultivating congregational love as a priority is that the local church is the dwelling-place of God, through the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3.16), and cannot be blessed if it is not a fit place for God to dwell. The presence of affectionate, caring love is the essential ‘environment’ for the habitation of the Spirit.

We remember, also, that the Lord is training every local church to be a family, not merely a group of individuals, and the greatest quality of a family is love. Dare we frustrate the purpose of Christ by indifference to this grace?

We remember further that love is a ‘parent grace’ in the sanctification process. Without love for other members of our spiritual family, sanctification will falter, and we shall become increasingly self-interested, self-concerned, self-serving and often self-pitying. We may also become jealous of others, critical and hostile. But true sanctification builds love early, taking our minds off ourselves, and bringing us to mind the things of others.

Yet another reason for making love a priority is that without real affection between its members a church can never produce the working efficiency of Ephesians 4.16 – ‘From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.’ Indeed, the level of effective service carried out by a congregation depends upon the depth of this mutual affection (and at times forbearance) arising from philadelphia love. Such love cannot easily be disrupted or shattered by jealousy, gossip and the other hostilities so often fanned into flames by Satan.

Successful cultivation of a beautiful plant usually depends on the soil, and this is true of the development of brotherly love. In this case the essential soil is a regenerate church. It is so sad when a fervent ministry and a group of true believers tries to flourish in the midst of spiritually cold, self-righteous, nominal or indifferent people, because these have been admitted as members of the church without giving evidence of true conversion, and without having received the new nature. In such a case, real spiritual love can only exist among the truly converted portion of the members, thus producing an ungainly thing – a church within a church. The full expression of congregational love is inhibited.

We need, as teachers, to explain this love, and to apply the pastoral exhortations of the New Testament to hearts in encouraging and practical ways. We need, as leaders, to set an example of hospitality to all – not just to those like ourselves. We may need to quietly propose and prompt acts of hospitality among members, and to find kindly ways of dissolving cliques. We may also need to initiate visitation of the sick and needy by other members, teaching God’s people to watch out for each other.

A practical summary for promoting brotherly love

Congregational brotherly love will be advanced by the ­following acts, aims and attitudes, pursued in prayerful ­dependence upon the help of the Lord:

1. We must be utterly convinced that the promotion of brotherly love is an essential act of obedience to the command of the Lord.

2. We must view ourselves as children of God who have been placed by the Lord in a ­family, the local church, and charged to contribute to its peace, and promote its ­interests.

3. We must strive to make the local church a holy, beautiful and ­harmonious ­fellowship, fit to be the dwelling-place of Christ, by his Spirit.

4. We must believe that Christ requires us to worship, learn and serve him in a cor­porate way, as one body in Christ, and not to function in an independent manner, which is the sin of pride.

5. We must submit to the obligation to have the same forgiving attitude to our spiritual brothers and sisters that Christ has so graciously shown to us.

6. It must be our sincere aim to suppress self-love in all its evil aspects in order to cultivate unselfish, out­going interest, ­affection and support for our fellow-­believers.

7. We must make every effort to express affection and regard to others, both in warm greetings and friendliness, and in deeds of helpfulness and kindness.

8. We must also engage in regular intercession for our ­fellow-­believers – for their spiritual and physical blessing – and do so in an intelligent way, taking account of their ever-changing situations.

9. We must ensure that we remain approachable by others, always at their disposal as members of the same family.

10. We must suppress gossip and ­evil-speaking, and keep unviolated that priceless bond which God has set between us, always keeping up respect, and protecting one ­another’s reputation.

11. We must be sensitive to the great ­responsibility which is upon us to keep ourselves pure in the matter of example, so that we shall not be judged for infecting the church with unbrotherly, unfaithful and corrupt relational attitudes.

12. We must drive away from our minds jealousy, envy, bitterness, evil suspicions, and all other attitudes which cause us to ­disparage fellow-believers without proper cause.

13. We must be impartial in all our ­relationships, and always try to ‘cast the net’ of hospitality and friendship to an ever-­widening ­circle of people, and to different kinds of people, and not restrict our friendship to a few.

14. We must never abuse the local church fellowship by taking mean advantage of its affection, kindness and resources, and offering no sacrifice of service or care in our turn.

15. We must support as a matter of duty Christian service activities organised by our church, which both bring glory to God, and also promote fellowship, for these people are our people, and their God is our God, and to serve and fellowship with them is a leading duty and delight.

[The above summary is contained in the author’s booklet The Goal of Brotherly Love.]

A hymn from a young Baptist pastor1 in eighteenth-century London summarises philadelphia love perfectly:

How sweet, how heavenly is the sight
When those who love their Lord,
In one another’s peace delight,
And so fulfil his Word!

When each can feel the other’s sigh,
And also bear a part;
When sorrow flows from eye to eye,
And joy from heart to heart;

When, free from envy, scorn, and pride,
Our wishes all above,
Each can the other’s failings hide,
And show a kindred love;

When love in one delightful stream
Through every member flows,
And fellowship and kind esteem
In every action shows.

Love is the bond divine that binds
The happy souls above:
May we, as heirs of Heaven, find
Our hearts so filled with love.

  1. Joseph Swain (1761-1796), Pastor of East Street Baptist Church, Walworth.