There is no more difficult command in the Bible than for each one of us to love the brethren. This isn’t just a worldly love in the family or emotional sense, it is agape love that gives of itself because it is right to give. Perhaps there is no more direct application to G.K. Chesterton’s statement than in this area of the Christian life, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”1
My mother used to say that it is hard to love the unlovely. Churches and individuals have been guilty of this failure and I think more so as America celebrates an opulent life-style where unlovely people just don’t fit it. It is a dangerous trend for churches to “target” audiences to which it wants to minister, and not at all surprising that too often such audiences turn out to be the upper classes of society. Even the “millennial” kids with their lap-tops and trust funds are only a small percentage of all of our nation’s young people.
But with that said I want to turn the attention of this article toward another neglected area of biblically mandated love. That is the Bible’s command to love the brethren that are in the church! I don’t mean the ones that are on the fringes of Christian living (and neither do I sleight that worthy and proper attitude), but the ones that are holy and pure and have hungered and thirsted after a biblical righteousness. I find, especially in John’s first epistle, the consistent command for the errant believer to love the obedient believer.
It has been a trend in our current society to make heroes out of those people who fail. And of course failure is never their fault, always the fault of the rest of society. Failure is celebrated as victimhood and therefore deserving of both applause and redistribution of resources to make things even. I am simply making a comparison that has drifted into the church and caused us to forget how God in His Word admonishes failing brethren to love those who have not failed.
As a pastor I have often seen and felt the love of good Christian people for the sinning and disobedient within the church, but I have also seen and felt the antipathy of the erring brethren toward those who would encourage and even admonish them to do right. Of course we know that sin blinds the perspective and obedient believers are to continue ministering to the disobedient. But we must not forget that those who are in sin and disobedience lie under great obligation from scripture to repent and change.
The cure for our sin is to look upon Christ and see the difference in our lives and His and then to confess our failure to meet that holy standard. Kyle Yates wrote, “No stronger cord can ever bind us than the cords of love so clearly seen as we look upon the incarnation, the life, and the death of our Lord and Saviour.”2 I find several ways in which the sinning Christian is admonished in scripture to follow this pattern toward Christ and also toward the brethren.
The erring are to love the righteous
In his third epistle, John admonished believers to love one another and not be like the world which hates believers because believers are righteous. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous (1 John 3:11-12). John does not bother us with whether or not Abel loved Cain. True Christianity will be like Abel and not like Cain. But when brethren fall out of love with one another, the attitude of Cain has crept in and caused the sinning brother to react in the same way (as the whole lost world). Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer (vs 15) John says of him, and has called into question his own salvation: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.
Who is called upon for action here? The sinning brother! And what is he to do? Love the “righteous” brother! The righteous brother has remained true to his Lord, loving in spite of the lack of return on his investment. He cannot do more than he has done any more than Abel could change his righteous actions at the altar of God. But Cain could have and should have changed his attitude toward his brother! John has merely drawn the parallel to believers within the church.
Long ago William Wilberforce observed, “John Owen has made an apt comparison: Religion in a state of prosperity is like a colony that is long settled in a strange country. It is gradually assimilated in features, demeanor, and language to the native inhabitants, until at length every vestige of its distinctiveness has died away.”3 This happens as much in the matter of brotherly love as in any matter. We have let the world dictate how the sinning brother should respond and we have encouraged him in it rather than admonished him to love the brethren.
The prosperous are to love the poor
Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (1 John 3:16-17). In an affluent society, it is common for the church to cater to the rich and famous and to overlook their obvious sins. It is always easier to admonish the lower class to respect the higher class than to admonish the wealthy. James called this “respect of persons.” My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons . . . . Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? (James 2:1, 4).
In this case, it is the wealthier brother who needs to find it within himself to love the poor brother as an equal. The very lack of it is to admit to his sin. Perhaps it is the repulsive thought of shaking hands and embracing; or the loathsome task of having such an one to the house for dinner; or just the pridefulness of thinking oneself better because of possessions. And we ought to avoid all humbuggery like “I love him as a brother” which, of course, is to admit that you do not at all!
Chesterton wrote once, “Love desires personality; therefore love desires division.”4 It is the world that tries to put everyone on equal footing so it can bring itself to love everyone. The early churches seated slave and master on the same pew, and rejoiced that God had made such an arrangement possible through the cross of Calvary! He that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant (1 Cor 7:22).
The deserters are to love the loyalists
It is one of the sad realities of church life that when a sinning believer needs the church the most he slips away, almost hiding and waits for his brethren to discover what has happened and come and find him. John says that’s the attitude of the world, not believers! They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: (1 John 2:19). The book of Hebrews was largely written to keep the true believers from deserting the fellowship and going back to the temple worship: But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul” (Heb 10:39).
I was given a book by a good friend of mine who had gone through difficult times and found great help in the book. In it, the author, David Jeremiah, writes,
“We’ve missed you in church.” “Well, the truth is that we’re having trouble in our marriage.” If that’s true, get up early and go to both services! You need all the church you can get in such a time. Our faith isn’t a luxury intended for periods of smooth sailing—neither is our fellowship. When trouble comes along, that’s when it’s wonderful to be part of a faithful, Bible-believing body of people who will rally around you. They’ll pray for you, support you with their resources, encourage you, and counsel you in the tough decisions. The devil is the only one whose opinion is that you should take a sabbatical from church in the hard times.5
Who is commanded to love the brethren during those times? The ones who have remained have not ceased to do so. It is the one who has left who needs to love the brethren! (Note: Even if he has been wronged, separation only adds insult to injury. I am writing of those who sin and then leave). When Peter developed a wrong attitude, he separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision (Gal 2:12). Jude says this is the action of the lost, not the saved, These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit (Jude 19).
The unbelievers are to love the believers
This is not redundancy but warning. When John says, He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now (1John 2:9), he means, of course, that such an one claims to be a brother but in reality is not. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15). Sinning “brothers” may be sinning because they are not brothers at all and therefore have no brotherly love in them. Such hypocritical ones need desperately to experience the love of Christ so they can truly love the brethren. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren (1 John 3:14).
And So . . .
I hope this can be taken as an additional view of what it means to love the brethren. It should be a subject for introspection. As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “We must not get angry. If people say, ‘You don’t love other Christians,’ we must go home, get down on our knees and ask God whether or not they are right. And if they are, then they have a right to have said what they said.”6Notes: 1. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 37. 2. Kyle Yates, Preaching From The Psalms (New York: Harper, 1948) 168. 3. William Wilberforce, Real Christianity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997) 99. 4. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1994) 142. 5. David Jeremiah, A Bend In The Road (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000) 97. 6. Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1972) 13.