Saturday, April 9, 2011

Relationships: How Deep?

In my last post, I argued that the unity described in passages like Eph. 4 can only be referring to love relationships between believers in a local church, and that modern definitions are superficial and inadequate.

But how do we know what the New Testament means when it calls on God’s people to love one-another? Is our modern understanding necessarily deficient or superficial? How could we ever know what the inner lives of people in the New Testament church were like? Maybe their experience in church wasn’t much different from ours.

Here is where objective teaching meets interpretation and application to form a group’s ethos. We could take the call to speak the truth in love in a number of ways, some of them quite superficial. But New Testament teaching won’t let us do that if we face it honestly.

The “one-another” passages

One of the clearest ways to look at this question involves the so-called “one-another” passages in the New Testament. These passages, found scattered all over the New Testament form a baseline for what we should expect when it comes to relationship building and koinonia. Because the apostles repeat these calls in dozens of diverse contexts, they must be universal imperatives. Look at these selected examples and consider, in each case, what would be necessary before that passage could be any more than a dead letter.

Galatians 5:13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Serving is the concept of ministry. This passage is a plain call for serving love in the body of Christ. How could we possibly accomplish this if our only context for knowing people is a large worship service on a Sunday morning? Those who think the Bible never calls on Christians to become involved in smaller group fellowship are mistaken. Fulfilling these commands is inconceivable apart from some kind of small group involvement.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
To encourage others effectively, you need to know what’s going on in their lives. You would have to be aware of their progress in various areas in order to know what to encourage. Likewise with the notion of building others up--how are we to do this unless we know each others' needs and progress? Unless we have a reasonably good idea of where others are in different areas of their lives, any attempt to build them up would be pure guesswork. Those who have worked to help people grow spiritually know that the transforming power of love and truth doesn’t work at arm’s length. This imperative assumes people have built good relationships with each other.

Colossians 3:16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another.
If we are to speak the truth in a life-giving way, we first have to let that word “richly dwell within” us. This suggests extensive learning--way more than the average western Christian today. But we would also have to know each others' lives well in order to not only teach doctrine, but to “admonish” (nutheteo)--a term related to our concept of counseling. This passage envisions Christians who are knowledgeable in God’s word, wise in its application, and engaged enough with each other to counsel one another's lives. Doing this with relative strangers or acquaintances is unrealistic. Would you accept admonition from someone who didn’t know you or understand your life situation?

James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.
Some churches have arranged to have people confess their sins through a screen to priests who barely know them. But this can hardly be what James has in mind. In the context of the New Testament church, this verse refers to something normal Christians do with each other. Most of us would find it difficult to open up about our sin problems with anyone unless we felt significant trust. To be as vulnerable as this verse suggests would take lengthy personal investment to build trusting relationships where people feel safe opening up to one another.

Ephesians 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
Conflict and alienation are constant threats, preventing us from building a community of trust and grace. Many people come to Christ with obstinate habits such as hostility, insensitivity, suspicion, and judging others. Many lack the ability to forgive offenses and need extensive training in grace. Every local church would love to see their people acting like these verses describe. But any group that has tried, knows how difficult it is to get a group to move from fleshly selfishness to forgiving love. Close-in modeling, counseling, and admonition are essential to such a transformation. Teaching people how to practice grace with each other must happen in community, just as surely as teaching people to swim needs to happen in water. Too often, modern churches aren’t sure whether they have a problem here for one simple reason: their people are so disengaged and distant they rarely interact enough to take offense at each other--not exactly what Paul had in mind.

Romans 15:7 Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory.
Romans 12:16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.
These verses aren’t just telling us to accept people we like. In the body of Christ, all are welcome. This is a tall order for any sizeable group of people. It doesn’t mean we can’t admonish unruly people, but it does mean we must learn to love them. Every healthy church has significant numbers of hard-to-love people, people with serious problems, including annoying relational dysfunctions. Obeying these passages will test the maturity and graciousness of everyone in the group, especially when people spend time and build close community. In healthy churches, difficult people are not only included, but often become unrecognizable compared to their former selves, and stand as powerful examples of God’s life-changing grace. Proper understanding of these passages rules out merely saying, “I have a friend I love and try to build up.” That’s not good enough. This passage is referring to the body of Christ, not to someone we already love. Two people who love each other is a nice start, but we are called to form Christian community with everyone.
1 Peter 1:22 Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart.
The language of these verses and others like them simply cannot be understood as a superficial definition of love too often accepted in western churches. To “fervently love one another from the heart” has to mean deeply committed and involved relationships. This is not describing simply a friendly demeanor toward others we see at church. Love like this is going to take time. Love like this will mean sacrifice.

Getting our bearings

Before deciding what you think these passages mean for the church today, remember:
  • These passages are all moral imperatives direct from God to us, and are not optional for serious Christians.

  • These commands are not linked to any particular cultural setting, like the first century Greco-Roman world (unlike, for example, women wearing veils, or greeting one another with a holy kiss). They apply directly to twenty-first century America.

  • The content of these imperatives applies to all Christians except perhaps those who are severely impaired. The “one-another” language makes it clear that carrying out these actions is not the responsibility of leaders or an elite group, but of all ordinary Christians. The leadership is responsible only to equip members so they can succeed.

  • These passages, in context, are not describing how we should relate to our families. Although we should certainly love our families, these passages are about the much more difficult setting of the church. Switching the intended venue from the church to our families would be another example of radical reinterpretation intended to reduce God’s call to something we are already doing (Matthew 5:46).

  • Disregarding any of these instructions would be sin--just as serious, and even more serious, than stealing, swearing, getting drunk, or watching pornography. After all, Jesus put loving others at the very top level of importance, second only to loving God. As James says, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17)
Some western Christians become unhappy when studying the one-another passages because they already have set priorities in their lives that make obeying these impractical. While following these instructions from God may be difficult, and may be different from what we are used to, we must accept that this is biblical Christianity. We cannot claim Christianity is a livable teaching unless we substantially carry out these oft-repeated instructions.

Think about it: deleting from the New Testament every call for Christians to pray would fatally distort the Christian message, and it would leave Christians in an unspiritual, miserable state. So too, deleting the “one another” passages from the New Testament would destroy the spiritual vitality of the church and everyone in it. While we can always find churches that excuse us from following these instructions, we would only be fooling ourselves about true Christianity.


As a Bible teacher, I’m aware every time I teach this area that some people in my audience begin to bristle in anger or uncomfortable resistance. Facing God’s word is often uncomfortable, and it should be. Strangely, even some Christians who take a hard line on a wide range of moral issues think nothing of ignoring and disobeying these very important moral instructions.

The first step in reforming our situation in the church today is to admit where we stand. Are we doing what God tells us to do? Have we developed the kind of dynamic, health-giving community of love described in these passages, where everyone is being equipped, is loving, is ministering to each other? Or have we accepted a version of the church where most people just watch and listen; a picture that comes nowhere near what God describes in the New Testament?

If we have a problem in the western church today, the best thing to do is admit it. We can rely on the grace of God to forgive and to help us change. But nothing will happen if we choose to justify a western version of church life that safeguards our right to be individualistic consumer Christians.