The one who says he is in the light but still hates his brother is still in the darkness. The one who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. — 1 John 2:9–11 (from the Greek)
I was five years old the first time I rode the bus to school. As a freshly minted kindergartener, this was my first real adventure by myself. Each morning, my mom walked with me to the bus stop, leaned down to give me a hug and kiss, and then waved as I took my assigned seat on the bus. For weeks, this was my habit—until one day my seatmate lunged forward and bit my arm. I saw anger in her eyes, and I felt tears in mine. Though I had experienced pain from a scraped knee, this was my first encounter with pain from a person and place I believed to be safe.
Music artists Over the Rhine sing, “All my favorite people are broken. Believe me. My heart should know.” What rich and honest words wrapped in the melodic cadence of keys and brass. And when it comes to the church it is indeed filled with broken people who are “late bloomers when it comes to love.” A cursory glance at the headlines of any faith platform will prove this point emphatically. Christian personalities walk away from their faith in the name of “deconstruction.” Pastors contemplate leaving the ministry. Christian leaders snicker, “Go home.”
How can we make sure the Church is the safe space and gospel community many expect and hope for it to be?
Honesty is the Best Policy
As we discussed previously, there’s a tension between our settled forgiveness of sins through Christ and our tendency to sin anyway. Because sin is not isolated, the results are domino in effect and often deeply hurt the people who surround us.
And this hurt is rampant. A quick Amazon search using the key words “church hurt” yields numerous books, memoirs, workbooks, and even songs! Research indicates 32% of those who have walked away from the church did so because “members seemed judgmental or hypocritical.”
Perhaps a buzz word, but the presence of hurting people within the community of believers is a reality. Sadly, this is not a new problem. In Philippians, Paul urged Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord (Phil. 4:2). Paul himself suffered a broken relationship (Acts 15). James reminded his readers how pure religion is caring for orphans and widows (Jas. 1:27). Peter told his audience to get rid of evil, deceit, and hypocrisy (1 Pet. 2:1). And John, the writer of our focused text, wrote how the one who hates “his brother is a murderer.” He asked how the love of God could reside in one who sees his fellow Christian in need and “shuts off his compassion” (1 John 3:12–17).
A Biblical Response
Just as we must be honest with ourselves regarding our tendency to sin, we must also be honest about our ability to hurt others within the church. Christ admonishes us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). Ephesians 4:32 paints a clear picture of what that looks like. We are to be kind and loving and forgive others just as we have received forgiveness in Christ. This does not mean we refrain from holding one another accountable to the truth. The life of a Christian should look differently than the world—and that we will discuss next.
For now, how do we love one another? What does it look like to live in fellowship with other believers?
First, we must remember that our love is action packed. In the words of the great “theologian” Dumbledore, “Indifference and neglect often do more damage that outright dislike…” Author and pastor Barry Jones agrees. He writes, “Our faithful attendance and passionate expression in corporate worship is meaningless—in fact abhorrent to God—if not accompanied by a commitment to love and serve people who are broken and in need.” In other words, we cannot simply say we love our brother and sister in Christ and then sit idly by when they are in need. Be it physical, emotional, or social, we are called to count the cost.
This love is also peacemaking. We will always have differences, but these differences should not create excuses to sin. We must remember, slander in the name of God is still slander. Words spoken in anger, under the guise of “righteous indignation,” is still anger. Deference to some believers based on gender, ethnicity, race, or social class is emphatically called out by James. Simply put, we cannot call ourselves followers of the Way if we ignore the principles instilled on Mount Sinai (Ex. 20) and reinstated in Christ’s sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7).
I never found out why my little friend bit me that day. Thankfully, like most biters, she outgrew it. In the church might we outgrow the biting stage as well? Can we restore the church to a place and people in which believers and searchers alike might feel safe?
“And ev’ryone with tender heart, forgiving others, take your part, alleluia, alleluia!” — St. Francis of Assisi