“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35
I grew up hearing that for most unbelievers, their biggest complaint about the church is that it is full of hypocrites. The answer I was taught was “well, we are all sinners, we aren’t claiming that Christians are sinless. Unbelievers are just using that as an excuse not to come to church.” There is certainly some truth in that answer. But could it be that we as Christians too easily dismiss these complaints?
Look at the state of the church today. So much of it is in disarray. Petty arguments rip congregations apart. Abuse of power by leadership is so common, it almost isn’t shocking anymore. Denominations alienate each other, viewing themselves as having the corner on truth and villainizing anyone who doesn’t agree. Congregants say they agree with the church’s stated doctrine, but then live a lifestyle that asserts, “I don’t really believe that.”. Maybe there’s a lot more truth to the claim of hypocrisy than we wish to believe.
Francis Schaeffer observed in his book, The Mark of the Christian: “What divides and severs true Christian groups… what leaves a bitterness that can last for 20, 30, 40 years (or for 50 or 60 years in a son's or daughter's memory) – is not the issue of doctrine or belief that caused the differences in the first place. Invariably, it is a lack of love – and the bitter things that are said by true Christians in the midst of differences.”
Schaeffer is pointing to the truth that Jesus told His disciples: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35. It’s our love for one another that’s going to captivate the eyes of a watching world. Jesus didn’t say that the world would know that we are His disciples by the purity of our doctrine, or the miracles we work, or the power of our preaching. Rather, it’s our love for each other -a love that can’t be explained by anything but Jesus- that’s going to win people to Christ. I’m talking about having a “gospel culture”. A culture within our Christian community that is validating its claim to believe in Jesus by the beauty of its relationships. That is what is going to compel people to Christ.
This isn’t to downplay the very critical role of proper doctrine. Real love must necessarily be informed by true doctrine! But Galatians 2:11-14 tells the story of Paul confronting Peter because out of fear of the Jews, Peter stopped eating with his Gentile church family. It wasn’t Peter’s doctrine that was off, there is no indication that he was changing his teaching or theology. Rather, Peter was denying the gospel by denying gospel culture.
So how should the gospel impact our culture? We look at what Christ has done for us, and then consider how we can extend the same kind of love to others.
God Welcomed Us
God welcomed us when we were unlovely. We hated God. We were his enemies. Not in a Montagues vs. Capulets (or Hatfields and McCoys depending on your preference of culture) kind of way, where we were just born into a family feud. No, we were traitors. We were given life by God, made by Him as the only creatures in His image, and given every good and perfect gift… His most exalted part of creation. And we chose rebellion against our Father. But God did not allow us to remain miserably in our rebellion. He lovingly pursued us. He sought out His enemies and won them over to Himself again.
He not only pursued us, He came in the form of a human, lived the perfect life we could not live, died the death we should have died, and rose from the dead, defeating death and sin forever. This kind of love was not the kind of love people make into mottos and cross stitch onto pillows. This kind of love is costly.
We are Secure
Jesus never lets us go. We aren’t accepted back “on probation”. It’s not “three strikes and you’re out” or even “just don’t commit a mortal sin.” We are adopted. We are brought into the family of God, irrevocably. We don’t have to keep our act together to remain in God’s favor. We are loved, accepted, and cherished by God Himself, forever. He will never get fed up and leave us.
So how do we live out this same kind of gospel love in the church?
We actively seek out the lonely and outcast. We pursue the outsider and draw them into the family of God. We aren’t a country club where you need to fit in and earn your way. We are a family. Our unity as a church is not based on our interests, social status, skin color, or cultural background. Our unity is that we have been loved by Jesus. We are part of the family. We will have unity in the gospel, without forcing a cookie-cutter culture on each other, and losing our beautiful diversity. No other social group in the world is like this.
Loving each other is going to be costly. Just like it came at a great personal cost to Jesus, loving this way is going to be a great personal cost for us. It’s going to get uncomfortable, and we’re going to have to take risks. We’re going to have to make sacrifices and put our time, energy, and money where our mouth is. We’re going to have to fight for the unity of the gospel, even if that fellow Christian in the pew next to you wronged you, and you want to just move on and keep your distance from now on. Costly love doesn’t give up on family. We need to be willing to do whatever it’s going to take to show this kind of Jesus love.
We don’t expect people to keep their “act” together. They aren’t accepted until they mess up bad enough, or mess up for the 1047th time. Gospel love recognizes God’s daily forgiveness of us, and gives both safety and time to sinners. Safety to be honest and messy, and time to repent, grow, and change. We don’t extend forgiveness only for a while and cast people out if they mess up too often.
Unfortunately, when we look around our churches, we see a lack of gospel culture. Why? Because we have a lack of true gospel understanding. If we really allowed the gospel to sink into the depths of our own story and identity, we would have this kind of gospel culture. But we don’t.
The welcome that we believe we are receiving from Christ is the welcome we will extend to others.
Legalistic doctrine produces legalistic culture. Unfortunately, we too often believe the false gospel that says “We need to get our act together and then Jesus will welcome us. But we need to mask our mess, because we are just one sin away from getting kicked out of the club.” So we expect people to get their act together and “fit in” with what we’re doing, look like us, talk like us, and don’t allow too much of their mess to show. We keep people always in suspense about their insider status, fearing that they are at risk of being thrown out if they fail.
How do we change our church culture? Only Jesus can motivate this kind of change. We don’t need to do something differently, as much as we need to know someone differently. We need to get to know Jesus better. We need to cry out to him and ask Him to reveal Himself to us more fully, and then follow Him.