Do you really love your church?

Some while ago, I left the church I first joined in 1996, and where I had served as an elder for a good part of a decade.

I was excited to leave. I hated leaving. And love is why.

Sixty of us departed to plant a church in our own neighbourhood. We meant to love our non-Christians neighbours with a congregation within walking distance. Yet leaving meant transitioning away from one-on-one discipling relationships; breaking up small groups; re-prioritising who got invited to lunch or dinner. It meant no longer sharing weekly fellowship and ministry opportunities with names and faces we love, like Bill and Careen or Daniel and Brittany.

And, oh, it was heart-rending.

The love shared inside a church is the love of a family – mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers (see 1 Tim. 5:1-2). And like a son or daughter who comes of age, sometimes you’re sent, with all the bitter-sweet joy that accompanies this sending.

What do you think love inside a church is? Do you love your church? How?

A church is where we first model loving our neighbours and enemies.

Trace out a Biblical theology of God’s people through the Bible’s covenantal storyline. You’ll discover that one of God’s purposes for His special people is to model what He expects of all people. God means for everyone made in His image to love Him and their neighbour. But He specially employs His churches to exemplify such love, like department-store mannequins modelling clothes.

We’re to clothe ourselves in love for the world to see.

But that’s not all. The church is where humanity – or a new humanity – begins to love its enemies, just like Christ loved us. Think about it. We were all wannabe kings in the flesh:

‘I want to be king.’

‘No, I want to be king.’

Which means, yes, your fellow church members are your natural-born enemies. You forget that – praise God! – because a church consists of wannabe kings who have laid down their swords and become citizens of Christ’s kingdom. It’s inside a church, then, that we practice loving our former enemies.

You should have seen how arrogant that young man was who showed up in 1996. Talk about being my own king. Yet the church loved and embraced me. How could I not learn to love them in return?

And you? Do you practice loving people with different agendas in your church?

A church is where the world witnesses God’s love.

It’s not some generic brand of love that the church models. It’s God’s love in Christ that we should display: ‘… just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35). Jesus emphasizes the fact that the world will know we’re His disciples not by our love for the world, though that’s certainly true, but by our love for each other. Through our gospel cultures of forgiving words and righteous deeds, we demonstrate what Christ’s love is like.

The world thinks it understands love. It doesn’t. It only knows zero-sum-gain love: ‘I want you to love others less so you can love me more.’

Yet God’s love is a generative love. It creates more of itself. Watch this: the Father loves the Son, and the Son the Father. The Father and Son then sends the Spirit to form a people who will receive the Father’s love for the Son. And through the Spirit they learn to love God and each other like the Father, Son, and Spirit. Learn about all this in John 17.

God’s love is a boomerang that goes out into the world and then returns to Him bearing the bounty of even more love. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.

This is why my church can send 60 of us away as an act of love. Leaving friends behind doesn’t mean loving them less but more, because we go to increase the universe’s overall supply of love. We go to make disciples and create more lovers of God, more love within Christ’s church, more disciple-makers who in turn will love the non-Christian neighbours, too. The boomerang goes out and comes back, goes and comes back, the universe’s quantity of love always growing.

Our love for each other reveals his love. Sometimes that means staying, sometimes sending, sometimes going. Does your love for your church involve sending others away? Or going yourself?

Love involves sacrifice and obedience.

As I said, the young man who showed up in 1996 was arrogant and wanted to be his own king. It was a sacrifice for others to love me. I offered them little. Yet for me to receive that love and learn to love in return involved a sacrifice of my own: repenting of self-rule and trusting in Christ. It meant confessing sin and living transparently. It meant listening and obeying.

Our culture defines love as giving people whatever they want: love means prioritising self-expression and self-realisation.

Yet Jesus teaches that love leads to obedience, and obedience is a sign of love (John 14:21,23; 15:10-11; 1 John 5:3). It does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth, says Paul. It heeds the will of the Father. It desires good for others, but that good is always God, and nothing other than God.

Love even involves discipline. The Lord disciplines those that He loves. A church that never disciplines or corrects sin, is an unloving church.

Do you practice loving your fellow members by listening to them? Accepting their discipline? Offering gentle corrections when occasion requires? Are you willing to submit to the church’s leadership?

Love involves mercy and compassion.

Yet love in a church also involves mercy and forbearance, even as we have received mercy and forbearance. Love covers a multitude of sins.

Christ’s love for His church, like a bridegroom to bride, is not the love of a prince for a princess, but for a whore.

Some of your fellow members are easy to love. Some are difficult. And that’s just the point. The easy-to-love teach us how to love the difficult-to-love. The annoying ones. The immature ones. The ones who don’t show up for nursery duty on time or whose kids snub your kids. Don’t tell me you love all Christians everywhere if you don’t love a specific and sometimes troublesome group of Christians somewhere. Don’t tell me you have the gift of prophesy or faith or do good deeds, if you don’t love real live people who are different from you – older, younger, darker, lighter, richer, poorer, mature, immature.

If love is patient and kind, as Paul says, you can assume it will be people who tempt us to impatience and unkindness that best train us in the ways of love.

Love for the church starts in a church – a place with real people with real gifts and real problems. Get to work here, and then let your love for other churches, other denominations, and Christians around the world, grow out of this seedbed.

The world will love and hate the church’s love.

A last word: the world will both love and hate what your church calls love. If they only love it, you can be sure you’re offering them a false and worldly love. The love of the Father is not in the world, and so they will sometimes call love hate and hate love. Expect this.

Our church plant expected this kind of opposition. We live in a very progressive community. Still, our task together is to love them by believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.

Honestly, our new church, like your present church, can only offer a vision of heaven’s love as in a mirror dimly. The good news is, we can point our neighbourhood to the one who loves them and us perfectly, the perfect who will one day come to welcome us fully into His love.

That’s the heart of our faith and hope.

Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in suburban Washington, D.C., editorial director for 9Marks and the author of How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics for a Divided Age (Thomas Nelson)

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in suburban Washington, D.C., editorial director for 9Marks and the author of How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics for a Divided Age (Thomas Nelson)