Love in the Fellowship of Believers
In a conference on missions sometime after the Second World War, discussions had come to a stalemate. Many doors were being shut to the gospel: "Where do we go from here?"
The key to reaching out into a Christ-less world is the great commandment. The love of which it speaks is spelled s a-c-r-i-f-i-c-e! The same key is to be used to reach out into the fellowship of believers.
The Lord Jesus said, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax-collectors doing that?" (Matthew 5:46). Obviously, the Lord is not referring to a natural love, but to a love that is extraordinary. Love in the fellowship of believers is an extension of God's love to sinners. It is a loving through Christ, a loving that gives (e.g. "God so loved ... that He gave..." John 3:16).
Let us see how the Bible puts this love in the practical context in the life of the Church. We want to highlight this from the perspective of the NT writers who address the people of God in a variety of circumstances.
Love from the Perspective of James' Letter
His letter is eminently practical. He begins by reminding God's people that their love should not be partial (James 2:1-13). There is a great deal of favouritism in our love in the fellowship of believers. We incline in that love toward the like-minded or like-cultured, or like-situated. God condemns that form of discrimination. James goes on to stress that brotherly love operates in a practical way. There are situations in which saying "I'll pray for you" — is not enough. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). In fact James wants us to talk less and do more! Unsanctified talk can do a lot of harm in the fellowship of believers, it can be outright demonic (James 3:6). In conclusion James states "love covers a multitude of sins", and of course, he means that one who genuinely repents does not need to have his past raked up! Talking about love, James presents a helpful mirror to us. Perhaps some things need our attention.
Love from the Perspective of Paul's Writings
The most outstanding practical dealing in terms of brotherly love is found in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. There is not only an element of partiality in that church, but one based on spiritual superiority. It manifests itself in the area of charismatic gifts, as well as expressing itself in "knowledge". Paul reminds us all that "knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds up" (8:1). Reformed people are not free from a sense of superiority when it comes to knowledge of biblical teaching. It is easy to look down on others who are "less Reformed" (even within our own denomination).
In Corinth that kind of superiority and consequent division (viz. "I follow Paul; I follow Apollos; I follow Cephas...", 1 Corinthians 11:12) was aggravated further by social status. It began to affect the celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17ff). It is as much part of "eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner" as practising or tolerating immorality (1 or 5). Discerning "the body of Christ" surely refers also to the church participating in the communion.
There is no doubt that in Paul's writings love is the crowning grace of the sanctified life. Take, for instance, that wonderful 13th chapter of the first Corinthian letter, or his statement in Colossians 3:14: "over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity". Besides, there is that sign of Christian maturity the apostle speaks about in Ephesians 4:15: It is not so much "true knowledge" as expressing that "truth in love". Indeed the apostle pleads for such "love to be genuine" (Romans 12:9), not loving merely because we ought to love, but loving because of the inwrought love of Christ.
Love from the Perspective of Peter's Writings
In his first letter the perspective of brotherly love is found against the background of severe suffering through persecution (1:22; 2:17; 3:8). How vital it is for the body of Christ in the face of a hostile world, to know of a bonding together in love! Let us steer clear of hostility over against fellow-Christians, whether they are in the narrower or wider circle of believers.
In Peter's second letter the emphasis is on growing in virtue (1:3-10), and notably brotherly kindness and love, as an antidote against false teaching (chapters 2 & 3). Although defending the truth is vital, it is not a mere battle of words, but of truth expressed in Christlike character (1:3, 4; 3:11-14) over against "empty words" of false teachers (2:18,19). We are never beyond this necessary growth in Christian love, in fact, it reinforces biblical truth.
Love from the Perspective of John's Writings
The apostle John is writing against the growing influence of gnosticism which denies that the Son of God came "in the flesh" (1 John 4:1-3; 2:22, 23). John produces three tests of true Christianity: the tests of righteousness/obedience; of truth; and of love.
Loving God and loving God's people cannot be separated. If anyone does not love his brothers and sisters in the Lord, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 4) On the other hand, if anyone loves the world (i.e. other than with a saving love), the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15-17).
Love in the fellowship of believers is an observable love. Jesus speaks of it as the mark of the church: "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). If anywhere our sinful nature still shows up, it is precisely there! And if anywhere our new nature shows up, it is precisely there!
In his book on congregational relationships, Brian Hathaway refers to the saying, "Living above with the saints we love, that will be glory. Living below with the saints we know, that's another story." That is sadly the case in many situations, BUT it need not be so, for the fruit of the Spirit is love!
The late Francis Schaeffer wrote many years ago that the Church at the end of the twentieth century would have to examine itself in the light of Scripture as to the reality of love in the fellowship of believers. As we are approaching the twenty-first century may the Lord grant us to be so full of the Spirit that the fruit of love may be found in our midst in abundant measure!
How good and pleasant is the sight
When brethren make it their delight
To dwell in blest accord;
Such love is like anointing oil
That consecrates for holy toil
The servants of the Lord.Psalm 133