Deconstructing Destruction in the Church: Loving One Another

The Psalmist certainly professes a great truth when he remarks “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” But if we’re honest, this passage can often sound like an unattainable rhetorical ideal; not a commonly celebrated experience. Perfect unity within the body of Christ has got to be a reality relegated to future glory because why else would Paul constantly urge and command his Christian readers to “walk... with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). The commands are there because the intended reality is absent.

So when it comes to life together within a local church, what does it actually look like to bear with one another in love? In my own church I’ve had to think through this command a lot. We’re a church where, by God’s grace, a wide spectrum of our surrounding community is well represented. One of the ways this plays out is that we have as members brothers and sisters from all over the political spectrum. We’re a diverse group in many ways, but I’ve found that it’s the political diversity which strains our unity muscles more than anything else. On any given Sunday you can witness a Trump supporter sitting next to and singing psalms and hymns alongside a young African-American girl wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt.

In one sense, this broad spectrum of societally different people coming together to love one another and commit their lives to each other in Christ is a testimony to the power of the Gospel. Here is a witness to Someone who in his claim upon our lives, powerfully binds together what in the world should be torn asunder. And of course, the indicative of the Gospel always evidences itself in the imperatives of its demands. In the local church these imperatives become supernatural bonds of unity in what would otherwise be a natural divorce.

How then does a church maintain unity in these kinds of situations? At the expense of oversimplifying, the answer is to love. Seriously. Think about the Corinthian church, arguably the most disunified, tribalized church known to the Apostles. How does Paul address them? What imperatives does he apply out of the Gospel message? “Pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Why? Because out of all the things a church needs to be a healthy, unified church - faith, hope, and love - the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Practically speaking, I think this looks like a pastor teaching and leading his sheep to take this call seriously; reminding them of how important it is to love one another. As a gathered body of redeemed sinners, we’re in constant need of being reminded that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). No doubt, a good shepherd is a loving shepherd, the kind of pastor who can set an example for his sheep. Indeed, Paul urges Timothy to be this kind of shepherd when he says to “let no one despise you for your youth, but rather set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love” (1 Timothy 4:12).

A pastor must not only lead in love, but should teach about what it looks like to love. And he should always be reminding his sheep that the way in which they love one another serves to reflect the glorious love of Christ to watching unbelievers. It’s a witness. “Love one another: 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).

Love is not mere sentimental feelings, but the fire that moves a man to act for the good of others. And within the church this means that love will often propel us to speak up and engage our fellow brothers or sisters. How much do you have to hate your brother to not go to him and confront him when he’s unrepentant in his sin? Love compels us to act, even in the face of uncomfortability. Is this not the end for which church discipline aims, the “reaffirmation of your love” (2 Corinthians 2:8)?

A love for Christ which inevitably communicates into a love for others must be the glue that holds brothers and sisters together in things indifferent. Mature Christian love works hard to care for a sister who voted differently than you did, or a brother who’s economic philosophy challenges yours. As one friend has wisely put it, “whether you’re a member of this party or that party, the local church is where we learn to love our enemies, forsake our tribalism, and beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”[1]

The local church is the embassy of a future Kingdom, a Kingdom where Divine Love reigns, now present in a dark and hate-fueled world. Kings and nations rage, but within the boundaries of a church (where two or three are gathered in His name) true love guides. As the Apostle of love reminds us:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7-12).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Jonathan Leeman, How The Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age, (Thomas Nelson, 2018). pp. 131.


Stephen Unthank