Not too long ago, I heard an analogy on a Christian radio station that stuck with me. It was a pastor trying to convince listeners they need a church to fellowship with. He said that since the church is Jesus Christ’s body and He is the Head, if we say we want a relationship with Jesus and ignore the brethren it’s like telling your spouse, “I love you from the neck up, but I could do without your body.”
This analogy is not an exaggeration. John’s writings make very clear the high value Jesus puts on love among believers. If we can’t love our brethren, we’re actually incapable of loving God.
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21)
Instructions in the Bible don’t get much simpler than that. It reinforces what Jesus said in the gospels about the greatest commandments. When Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” His answer involved two commands. Our first priority is relationship with God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He didn’t stop there, though: “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Matt. 22:36-40). The command to love other people is paired with and likened to the command that we love God.
A Sign of Covenant
With such a strong connection made between loving God and loving other people, it comes as no surprise to see Jesus say, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Love is a defining aspect of Christ’s followers. Not only that, but we cannot profess to follow Jesus if we don’t have love.
He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
A little later in this epistle, John tells us that a child of God “practices righteousness” (1 John 3:6-7). He goes so far as to say, “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). If we don’t love our brethren then we’re not God’s children. The converse is also true: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Love for others is a sign of our conversion.
It’s worth noting, especially in this age of snap judgements, that the word “brethren” includes physical relatives, neighbors, and the community of faith (G80, adelphos, Zodhiates dictionary). I haven’t voiced a position on the Target controversy here yet, but I’m not sure the way many Christians have reacted is indicative of love. One Christian pastor’s wife shared, “I had a Christian, someone I actually know, call into question the salvation of people who continue to shop at Target. Legitimately.” We should be able to disagree with others who profess to follow Jesus without resorting to knee-jerk reactions and slander. Love never encourages people to continue in sin, but it also doesn’t attack people so viciously they’re turned off by our faith and don’t desire to come to repentance. We need to represent our God and His love better than that.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul spends quite a bit of time explaining how the spiritual body works. He’s talking about different gifts and the fact that not everyone in the body fills the same roles. “The body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many” come together to create one body in Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14). God has tempered the church together in this way for a reason.
That there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1 Cor. 12:12-14)
People are given different gifts, roles, and responsibilities for the purpose of creating unity. No one is meant for exhalation over other members of the body. Even the more (potentially) high-profile roles like ministry are given “for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). The goal is for each member to become like Jesus and help others toward that goal.
speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Eph. 4:15-16)
This sort of care and concern for others and unity in the church is not possible if we isolate ourselves. There are cases when its impossible to fellowship with other believers, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about those who forsake assembling with other people of faith, which goes against direct commands from God (Heb. 10:24-25). If we can’t manage to fellowship peaceably with our brethren and love others in the church, then God says we don’t really love Him. Loving the Head is of paramount importance, but we can’t have Him if we reject His body.