This is part of a series of posts on the sin of Assimilation. Click here to see the entire series.
Blessing Seen in Biblical Unity
I Corinthians 12 talks about the unity of the Body of Christ. In verses 22-24 Paul says, “On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, whereas our seemly members have no need of it.” He goes on in verse 26 to say, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; and if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” Is it possible to read and understand those verses without either laughing or crying at the sorry state in which we find ourselves?
The practice of most churches in the exact opposite of what Paul describes. Our “weaker members” are seen as a hindrance to church growth. I was a guest preacher at a church and after the service I was approached by a man who wanted to engage me in a spirited discussion about my sermon topic. I was overjoyed that someone had actually taken the time and energy to listen to what I had to say and now wanted to engage me on the topic. We had been talking only a brief time when the pastor came over and asked the man to go do something else. The pastor then quickly apologized to me for allowing that man to speak to me. It turns out that the man, a true believer who was really excited about the Word of God, was an embarrassment to the more sophisticated members of the church. The last thing the pastor wanted me to do was to form my opinion of his church based upon a conversation with a man he deemed to be a “weaker” member! Rather than bestowing abundant honor upon the man, he was shuttled into the shadows where nobody had to deal with him.
On the other hand, the “seemly members” seem to be in perpetual need of self-esteem enhancing comments. The leaders of the church with public gifts (seemly members) constantly complain that they are unappreciated. But God says that the seemly members have no need of honor! How can this be? Do church leaders accept their positions because they expect to receive praise? Are they depressed when the praise does not come in the degree that they desire? How can a man accept a position of a leader of sheep and then be depressed when the sheep behave like sheep and do not praise him? It does indeed seem as if things are exactly backwards.
When a member of the church receives an honor, how many of the other members are envious? When a member of the church is publicly praised, especially if he is a “unseemly member”, how many think, “Why is that not happening to me since I do so much more for the church?” When a member of the church suffers a public embarrassment (such as the disclosure of a notorious sin), how many members think that it was good for him to be taken down a notch? How many professing believers do not feel at least some measure of pleasure at the bad fortune of another, especially if the other is someone that is not popular? Again, we seem to have it exactly backwards.
What church that has been around for more than a few years has not experience multiple “splits”? The church split is the bane of Protestantism (I have much more to say about this in my essay on “Unity”). What believer, that has been a believer for more than a few years, does not have a closet full of “painful experiences” about how some other believer did him wrong? No matter how we look at the doctrine of biblical unity there is no conclusion that we can come to but that we are under the dreadful judgment of God.
Blessing Seen in Agape
‘Agape’ is the Greek word for ‘love’. I Corinthians 13: 1-13 describes the characteristics of love. A church that is filled with people who are practicing agape towards each other would be filled with patience and kindness. In a loving church there would be no jealousy, bragging, arrogance, or unbecoming behavior. Is this what we see in our churches today?
Perhaps the best description of agape is that it “considers others as being more important than oneself”. It is not possible to consider others as more important than oneself without even thinking about others. Listen to the conversations in your church this next Sunday. What is the structure of those conversations? Unless you are a member of a loving church you will discover that the conversations are dominated with “I” statements. People wait, and pretend to listen to others, while they are figuring out the next thing to say about themselves. It all reminds me of the statement that has been attributed to the baseball player Barry Bonds (I do not know if Barry actually said this but it makes the point) when he said, “I am tired of talking about myself, now you talk about me for a while.”
I do not deny that there is the occasional church member who exhibits agape, there are true believers found everywhere, even in our churches. What I do deny is that the attitude of trying to outdo one another in love and good deeds is a general characteristic of our churches. In a time of blessing agape would be the characteristic of all believers. Instead we find impatience and unkindness. We find jealousy and selfish ambition. We find bragging and spiritual arrogance. We find people consumed by their own little lives with no desire to invest themselves in others. Indeed, it has progressed to the point that members believe that they are justified in leaving their church for the one down the street because they did not feel that they were “being ministered to.” Since when does agape engage in factionalism because it is not on the receiving end of pleasure? Is it not the case that we are put together in one body so we can exercise more agape towards our unseemly members?
Paul describes a church in which agape is not present. He is writing to Timothy (II Timothy 3) with some advice on how to pastor the church to which he has been entrusted. He warns Timothy that the members of this church hold to “a form of godliness” but that they have “denied its power”. Among other things, he describes these church members as “lovers of self, lovers of money, lovers of pleasure, disobedient to parents (a very unpopular message in churches trying to “reach out” to today’s teenager), unloving, and malicious gossips.” An honest appraisal of our churches today can lead to no other conclusion but that they are characterized by the absence of agape. The absence of agape can lead to no other conclusion but that we are under the judgment, rather than the blessing, of God.