Exploring the Biblical meaning of 'Loving Our Neighbors’


Chapter 9

Loving Christians from Other Churches

"Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together." - Vesta M. Kelly

 

First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida was ready to move into its beautiful new 5,000-seat sanctuary. The date for the dedication was set. The church was excited! But among those thousands of enthusiastic Baptists were many staff members and volunteers who couldn’t go to the dedication. Nursery attendants, children’s church staff, teachers, parking lot attendants, and others would have to be at their service posts, not in the auditorium.

Then another Orlando-area church, Calvary Assembly, heard about First Baptist’s problem. Calvary offered to send enough volunteers to take over all of First Baptist’s service positions on dedication day. First Baptist accepted. And all of First Baptist’s staff were free to attend their dedication!

A few years later, Calvary Assembly’s own new sanctuary was nearly complete. Can you guess what First Baptist did? Yes! They sent enough Baptist volunteers so that all of Calvary’s staff could go to its dedication!

It was a heartwarming example of two different churches with two different styles of worship loving and helping each other.

 

When you saw this chapter’s title, did you say "How can the Bible talk about loving people from other churches? In Bible times there weren’t any denominations!"

The answer is both "no, it can’t" and "yes, it does!"

"No," because today’s formal denominations didn’t exist then.

But "yes," because the New Testament does talk about loving Christians whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, or who follow different Christian leaders. And thoughtfully reading those passages can help us deal with our differences today.

 

We are supposed to love those from other churches (and not stop there)!

"But concerning the pure brotherly love that there should be among God’s people ... God himself is teaching you to love one another. Indeed, your love is already strong toward all the Christian brothers throughout your whole nation. Even so, dear friends, we beg you to love them more and more" (1 Thess. 4:9-10).

More Scriptures: John 13:34-35; 15:9-13; 15:17-18; Eph. 1:15-16; 1 John 3:14-16; 2 John v. 5-6.

 

Why should we love members of other churches?

Because we’re part of one body, the body of Christ!

"Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each needs all the others" (Rom. 12:4-5).

Also read: Rom. 15:1-2; 15:5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:3-7; 4:12-16; Col. 1:18; 1 Thess. 5:11; 1 Pet. 4:10; 1 John 3:14-19.

Scripture tells us to edify (build up) all of the body. Is that just Methodists? Catholics? Baptists? Lutherans?

No. The body of Christ includes people from all denominations. Building up other Christians starts in our own churches, but doesn’t end there.

Do we act as if we’re one body? Not always. We even lived in one town where the ministerial association disbanded. Few ministers wanted to work together. Those who did couldn’t agree on how to do it. And those who honestly tried kept getting "burned."

 

Do people from other churches even know God?

In my teens, few church members in our little town seemed to live Godly lives. But eventually I learned, to my surprise, that God loved and accepted people from each of those churches, and that many of them genuinely loved him.

I especially learned from the "charismatic renewal" in both the Protestant and Catholic churches (I even visited, and thoroughly enjoyed, one Jewish group it had reached). For many of us, it repeated the same lesson the early Church learned in Acts 10 and 11.

The earliest church believed that only Jews could be Christians. They wouldn’t even visit with non-Jews ("Gentiles"). Then God, in a vision, told Cornelius (a non-Jew) to invite Peter (a Jew) to his home. Through another vision, he instructed Peter to say "yes." (Acts 10:1-6; 9-20). Peter went.

But God barely let him start speaking. Then he interrupted Peter by pouring out the Holy Spirit on his audience. They began praising God in languages they’d never learned (Acts 10:28-48). Since that was exactly what had happened to Peter himself on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), it left him no doubt that God had accepted his Gentile listeners as Christians.

But church headquarters wasn’t happy! They called Peter on the carpet. (Acts 11:1-3). Peter’s defense was: "since it was God who gave these Gentiles the same gift he gave us ... who was I to argue?’ That made sense. "When the others heard this, all their objections were answered ... ‘Yes,’ they said, ‘God has given to the Gentiles, too, the privilege of turning to him and receiving eternal life’" (Acts 11:15-18).

Beginning around the 1950’s, God repeated that same lesson by pouring out his Spirit widely among Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and some Jews. We learned to honor what we saw God doing in each others’ lives. We said of each other: "Look! God has accepted them!"

When we turn to God, we don’t all use the same prayer or ritual. Some of us kneel at an altar and repeat a sinner’s prayer. Others lift up a heartfelt prayer during the Mass. And many pray informally, like my wife, who became a Christian with an earnest prayer on her grandmother’s basement landing. God reaches past the details, words, and methods. He meets us when we honestly cry out to him. Joel 2:32 says: "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved."

 

Paul says God has adopted us (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5).

Let’s think about that. then we adopt children, must they learn all about us before they join our family? No! They’re adopted because we loved them. We chose them. We paid the price. And we made the transaction legal and complete.

Just so, we become God’s sons and daughters when we accept his love. It doesn’t matter much whether we learn about him before or afterwards. We’re his children. And we’re brothers and sisters. Squabbling ones, perhaps, but still siblings.

At times, we’ve visited other churches in our community – with our pastor’s knowledge and permission - just to meet more of the Body of Christ and to build bridges between congregations. As we did, we saw the fruit of the Holy Spirit in people from all denominations. It was enriching and humbling!

 

Did the early Church accept just anyone as a Christian?

The church tried to distinguish between vital and trivial. It took firm stands against false teachers:

"Please ... try to stop the men who are teaching such wrong doctrine. Put an end to their myths and fables, and their idea of being saved by finding favor with an endless chain of angels leading up to God – wild ideas that stir up questions and arguments instead of helping people accept God’s plan of faith" (1 Tim. 1:3-4).

Also read: Matt. 7:15-20; 2 John v. 7-11; Jude v. 4; Rev. 2:20; 2:24-25; 3:9.

 

The early Church was also cautious of "Christians" who said one thing but lived another:

"There are many who walk along the Christian road who are really enemies of the cross of Christ ... their god is their appetite: they are proud of what they should be ashamed of; and all they think about is this life here on earth" (Phil. 3:18-19).

 

When one church member did "something so evil that even the heathen don’t do it" ("living in sin" with his father’s wife), Paul asked, "Why aren’t you mourning in sorrow and shame and seeing to it that this man is removed from your membership? ... you are boasting about your purity and yet you let this sort of thing go on ... Remove this ... wicked person from among you, so that you can stay pure.

"When ... I said not to mix with evil people ... what I meant was that you are not to keep company with anyone who claims to be a brother Christian but indulges in sexual sins, or is greedy, or is a swindler, or worships idols, or is a drunkard, or abusive. Don’t even eat lunch with such a person.

"It isn’t our job to judge outsiders. But it certainly is our job to judge and deal strongly with those who are members of the church and are sinning in these ways. God alone is the judge of those on the outside. But you yourselves must deal with this man" (1 Cor. 5:1-13).

God asks "How can we walk together with your sins between us?" (Amos 3:3.). But those who honestly tried to mirror the Gospel were welcomed as Christians.

Also read: Ps. 119:63; Matt. 7:21-27; Mark 9:38-40; 1 Cor.1:2; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:4-6; 3:3-10; 3:20; 5:18.

 

What if other Christians don’t believe as we do?

"For God has accepted them to be his children. They are God’s servants, not yours. They are responsible to him, not to you. Let him tell them whether they are right or wrong. And God is able to make them do as they should" (Rom. 14:3-4).

More Scriptures: Rom. 14: 1; 14:6-13; 15: 6-7.

Which should be harder? Loving our enemies, or loving Christians who partially disagree with us?

How can we do it?

 

Focus on what we have in common.

The heart of the message is the same in most Christian churches, Protestant and Catholic. It is that Christ died for our sins, and was resurrected. It is that we should love God, love our neighbors, and help them. On those central beliefs, few churches disagree.

And when we love God personally, our differences shrink still farther. Catholic nun Sister Francis Clare put it this way:

"Once we put more stress on the who we believe in rather than the whats, a lot of the whats that have separated us become so-whats ... So what if you believe in immersion and I believe in pouring. It is not so much how we get it as long as we are born again into the family of God, and who we walk with after we are in ... and in what measure of God’s power.

"Perhaps the greatest shift all denominations need to make is that shift of emphasis from the whats we believe in to the who we believe in.

"What we have made so complicated can be so simple when we allow God to reveal Himself not only to our minds but also to our hearts. As some mathematician computed it, it is possible to miss heaven by seventeen inches – the difference between the mind and the heart, the difference between the what and the who" (Francis Clare, Wow, God, Resurrection Press, Mineola, NY, 1998, p. 179).

 

Stay humble.

Out of all today’s denominations and independent churches, what are the odds ours understands everything best?

Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 3:12: "I haven’t learned all I should even yet."

If Paul didn’t claim to know all the answers, how can we?

He stressed humility: "Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Try always to be led along together by the Holy Spirit and so be at peace with one another" (Eph. 4:2-3; also 1 Pet. 5:5).

 

Keep our love fresh and alive.

One church we attended was so much in love with God that we had to arrive 20 minutes early to get seats anywhere near the front! Later, we visited a church of the same denomination in another state. Nearly everyone was sitting in a large "U" at the rear and along both walls. My first thought was "Oh, oh!"

We lived there long enough to learn that those were wonderful, friendly, caring people who still loved God. But now they were resting in how good God had been 20 years before! Their God was the same, but their love had cooled.

Is our "first love" for God and others still fresh? (Rev. 2:4-5.)

 

Don’t argue about differences.

Paul’s words to two "sisters" from Philippi strike chords today:

"I want to plead with those two dear women, Euodias and Syntyche. Please, please, with the Lord’s help, quarrel no more – be friends again" (Phil. 4:2).

 

He emphasized it:

"Remind your people ... and command them in the name of the Lord not to argue over unimportant things. Such arguments are confusing and useless and even harmful" (2 Tim. 2:14).

More verses: Phil. 2:14; 1 Tim. 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:16-17; 2:23-25; Titus 3:9-10; Heb 12:14-15.

 

Treat differences in beliefs with a mature, caring spirit.

"I hope all of you who are mature Christians will see eye-to-eye with me on these things, and if you disagree on some point, I believe that God will make it plain to you – if you fully obey the truth you have" (Phil. 3:5-16).

Also read: Rom. 14:13-23; Col. 2:16-18.

 

How can we love Christians with other styles of worship?

Husbands, may I ask you a question? Do you always agree with your wife’s tastes – or she with yours? No? Then why do you stay married? Isn’t it because you love each other and have much in common despite your differences?

We can all learn from that.

Small differences can become severe "thorns in the flesh." Friends of ours attended a church that split in two over styles of music. It had been one of the city’s leading places of worship. Now neither half of that split church exists. Does that honor God? Can’t we learn to love those with different tastes, appreciate the good in each others’ preferences, and "take delight in honoring each other" (Rom. 12:7)?

 

Understand how each others’ traditions developed.

Libraries and the Internet are marvelous sources of information about each others’ histories. We can also borrow books or videos from local pastors. As we learn, traditions and styles of worship take on new meaning. We can understand, appreciate, and honor without criticizing.

 

Appreciate how denominations "fit" different people.

Our preferences in worship come from many sources: how we grew up, our personalities, our pastors, our experiences.

When we eat out, do we ask "which restaurant is right?" Don’t we ask what style it is? How good the food is? How varied the menu? Whether it’s Oriental? Mexican? French? A health-food restaurant? A fast-food outlet? Casual? Elegant? Costly? Economical?

Varied Christian traditions also fit distinct tastes. Most offer similar menu items. But they are cooked differently, the spices vary, and each has its own "house specialty."

 

Each of my six children has a distinct personality. Does that make me love them less? No. My youngest son and daughter are near-opposites. She’s quiet, intellectual, and sensitive. He’s outgoing. Yet they’re close friends. They both love God in ways that reflect their own personalities. Shouldn’t we respect that in all of God’s children?

 

When Christian writers and speakers John and Elizabeth Sherrill began seeking a church home, they visited a dozen local congregations. Elizabeth said in her book All The Way To Heaven that "What we were looking for we didn’t know, just that we weren’t finding it." Finally, two years later, they decided to look for an unfriendly church. There, Elizabeth mused, "people would leave you alone. Let you have your own experience, if you’re going to have one."

That’s not how most of us would choose a church! But, for them, it worked. There they grew and matured marvelously as Christians.

 

The motto of the National Association of Evangelicals says it beautifully: "In essentials unity, in distinctives liberty, in all things charity."

 

Give credit for each others’ strengths.

The Christian life is like a multi-faceted diamond. The facets include love (for both God and our neighbors); joy; peace; faith; prayer; worship, miracles, God-honoring lives; the fruit and gifts of the Spirit; Christian education; missions, disaster relief, medicine, and more. Almost every church I’ve visited was more "polished" than its neighbors in some facet. Each deserves credit for what it does well.

So, instead of belittling each other, why not honestly acknowledge each other’s strengths? Why not learn from each other?

What happens when we don’t? Jesus told the Pharisees "A divided kingdom ends in ruin. A city or home divided against itself cannot stand" (Matt. 12:25).

When we "put down" other churches, aren’t we making Jesus cast out Jesus? How, then, do we expect his kingdom to stand?

 

Paul had a forceful, sobering view of early Christianity’s divisions:

"Dear brothers, I beg you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to stop arguing among yourselves. Let there be real harmony so that there won’t be splits in the church. I plead with you to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose ... Some of you are saying, "I am a follower of Paul"; and others say that they are for Apollos or for Peter; and some that they alone are the true followers of Christ. And so, in effect, you have broken Christ into many pieces" (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

What would Paul think of how much more splintered we are today? In his words, "When you ... divide up into quarreling groups, doesn’t that prove you are still babies, wanting your own way? In fact, you are acting like people who don’t belong to the Lord at all ... Doesn’t this show how little you have grown in the Lord? (1 Cor. 3:3-9; compare 1 Cor. 4:6).

When we take sides among competing Christian leaders like Peter, Luther, Calvin, Knox, or Wesley – who all deserve honor – aren’t we, too, "breaking Christ into many pieces?" Doesn’t that just break God’s heart all over again?

The comic strip character Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" Isn’t it time we matured?

Acknowledging what’s good in other churches, rather than disparaging them, may seem radical. It is radical! It takes maturity and courage. But I have to believe it pleases God.

 

When my family hunts minerals, we use the individual gifts and abilities God’s given each of us. I use logic, reasoning, and planning. My wife and daughter? Sensitivity to God’s leading. My son? Observation and interpretation.

But when we combine those talents, and work together as a team, we achieve much more than any of us could alone.

Some of our individual abilities are natural, some spiritual, and some come from study, experience, and growth. But we all have them. We value them. When combined, those "gifts" multiply our successes. That can also be true when our communities’ churches recognize each other’s strengths and learn effective ways to minister together.

"Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other" (Rom. 12:10).

More Scriptures: Rom. 14:10; 1 Cor. 13:7; Eph. 4:1; Phil. 4:8; James 4:11-12; 1 Pet. 4 10.

 

How does loving each other affect our communities?

What reasons do people give you for not attending church?

There are many answers. One young woman told my youngest son she didn’t believe in God because she’d never seen anything "real" happen in church. No answers to prayer, no miracles, no love. A lady told me she and her husband "never felt part of the family" in a church they’d attended for six years. Others think churches just want money.

Our own children tell us their faith didn’t come from any of the excellent churches we’ve attended, but from seeing us live consistent lives at home, and from the miracles and answers to prayer they saw in our own family.

 

And often we don’t love and help each other as we should.

 

We’re all close to our own churches. We see the people who come, but not the many who don’t. We see the small battles we win, but not the larger war we’re losing. Are more people forgetting God? Are there more single mothers? More poverty? More drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, suicide, spouse and child abuse, and witchcraft?

How much of that is because we don’t love and help each other? Some certainly is. We’re amazed at the enthusiastic reactions we get from non-Christians about "loving our neighbors". When the fast food outlet my son managed decided that all tips would help a local family pay for their son’s kidney transplant, one unchurched worker said "Oooooh, we’re helping somebody? That makes me happy inside!"

Helping neighbors draws people to church. Leaders of two large "help" organizations told us that all their partner churches grew after they chose to cooperate to "love their neighbors."

 

Are any churches today moving toward loving and helping each other?

There are encouraging examples. One thriving church in the shadow of Wyoming’s Teton Mountains, Jackson Hole Christian Center, was formed through the merger of four local churches.

Our close friends include a pastor and his wife from the Worldwide Church of God, a former cult that’s turned back to mainstream Christianity. After founder J. Herbert Armstrong’s death, the church’s leadership determined to make the Bible their standard of belief, and studied it. The result? The church swung sharply back into agreement with most Christians. J. Michael Feazell tells the story in The Liberation of the Worldwide Church of God (Zondervan, 2001).

Feazell says: "The gospel broke into our hearts like a clear, fresh, bubbling mountain brook after an exhausting, seemingly endless climb over burning rocks and parched soil on a blistering day. It was everything our souls craved and longed for. It was the power of God for salvation bursting upon us like the light of day and like shouts of rescue to hopeless souls, beaten, starved, and imprisoned in darkness."

 

How can we show we love people from other churches?

    • Accept members of other churches as brothers and sisters, especially when their "fruit" tells you it’s true.
    • Pray for all of your city’s churches to grow.
    • Work together on special events (like World Vision’s "30 hour famine").
    • Be alert to the needs of other churches, like Orlando’s First Baptist and Calvary Assembly.
    • Join interchurch committees. Work on emergency shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, or clothes closets.
    • Volunteer your mens’ group to help erect a new building for another church.
    • Give pastors "no-strings-attached" friendship. When one of my colleagues became a church leader, he lost his former friends. When he tried to keep up their friendship, he told me he could "see" them thinking "what does the Bishop want?"
    • Mention noteworthy activities at other churches in your announcements.
    • Join other churches for events like an African Children’s Choir concert.
    • Forgive snubs and slights. We know one man who’s still very hurt, years later, because his non-denominational church was excluded from a joint crusade. "Watch out that no bitterness takes root among you, for as it springs up it causes deep trouble, hurting many in their spiritual lives" (Heb. 12:15).
    • Recognize our responsibility to not further "break Christ into many pieces." Instead, help heal the breaks that exist. Communicate lovingly with brothers and sisters in other denominations.
    • Remember, God does want us all to become one in Christ.

"I am giving a new commandment to you now – love each other just as much as I love you. Your strong love for each other will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:34-35).

More Scriptures: Rom. 15:6; Eph. 2:16; 2:20-22.

 

Russ Taff’s song sums it up it beautifully:

. . .But I don’t care what label you may wear

If you believe in Jesus, you belong with me ...

You’re my brother, you’re my sister, so take me by the hand

Together we will work until He comes

There’s no foe that can defeat us when we’re walking side by side

As long as there is love, we will stand.

 

 

"The days are too short even for love; how can there be enough time for quarreling?"

Margaret Gatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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