Here’s a riddle for you: What is an object that is a significant threat to maintaining Christian fellowship within our churches?
Answer: The automobile!
With the car, Christians have the opportunity to leave their fellowship when “things don’t go their way” and simply drive to another church. The car has increased the breaking of fellowship because I no longer have to be patient with you at church. I no longer have to be kind to you or bear with you. I can simply pile my family in the family sedan and leave for another church miles away. The car has allowed us not to work at loving each other based on 1 Cor 13. Our SUV’s make it way too easy to leave the church when we are unhappy.
People choose to leave because the business meeting doesn’t go our way; the worship pastor doesn’t play the music I like or uses instruments I don’t prefer; the mission team picks a missionary I don’t like; the pastor doesn’t do church the way I like; or—you get the idea. No matter what the reason one gives, Christians generally say at their exit: “We love the church; but we’re leaving.” However, anyone understanding 1 Cor 13 recognizes that such a sentiment demonstrates either a lack of knowledge of what biblical love is, or it is at best disingenuous.
As a believer, I can’t say “I love” and “I am leaving” in the same sentence. Why? Because love is patient (1 Cor 13:4). Why would a patient love ever leave? Why would a patient love ever draw a line in the proverbial sand? Such a patient love can’t. Why? Because such a love is always patient when church life doesn’t go their way. I can’t say “I love but I’m leaving” because love does not seek its own way (1 Cor 13:5). It’s like a husband that says he loves his wife but leaves for another woman! That is not a demonstration of love in anyone’s mind.
Some background to 1 Cor 13
In the midst of his treatise on spiritual gifts (chapter 12-14), Paul pauses to remind the Corinthians who had become arrogant and puffed up in their knowledge of their spiritual gifts that above all, they didn’t need more or different spiritual gifts. What they needed was to exercise love towards one another within the church. For as the apostle makes clear in 13:1-3, no matter what gift you or I have, if we don’t have love for each other, we gain nothing, and I am nothing. Since “nothing” is certainly not what you or I want for our lives before our Savior, then we should give heed to how we love one another according to this chapter.
This love that Paul so deeply defines for us is a love that is to be evident when life in the church doesn’t go my way. It is for when you or I as fellow believers (who I need in Christ as a member of the self-same body according to 1 Cor 12), drive each other nuts! When one does things that the other may not like, agree with, understand, support, etc. This is a love that is given to the unlovable. As Leon Morris observes,
“It is a love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought whether they are worthy or not. It proceeds from the nature of the lover, not from any attractiveness in the beloved. The Christian who has experienced God’s love for him while he was yet a sinner (Rom. 5:8) has been transformed by the experience. Now he sees people as those for whom Christ died, the objects of God’s love, and therefore the objects of the love of God’s people. In his measure he comes to practice the love that seeks nothing for itself, but only the good of the loved one. It is this love that the apostle unfolds.”
The essence of Christ-like love is not loving you when you are lovable. The essence of Christ-like love is loving me when I am a miserable, selfish, pig.
Today, love even in the Church has lost its enduring quality—the car makes it simply too easy to leave. Sadly, as soon as difficulties come, believers jump in their SUVs. Church relationships last only as long as the church and pastor do what I like. As long as the church music is what I enjoy, the church pews are comfortable and the pastor ends his message on my time table, I’ll stay. But when something happens in the church that I don’t like, all we see are the rear lights of the minivan headed for a different church. It is the unique and loving believers who decide to let their love not fail (1 Cor 13:8), and they stay and continue to love.
I am convinced that for our local assemblies to be healthy and see people call our churches home, we must be churches that demonstrate clearly how each of us individually loves others as Paul called the Corinthians to do. To act in any lesser way is not biblical love. Remember, we can’t say “I love the church, but I am leaving.”
-Mark McGinniss, Ph.D., Baptist Bible Seminary Assistant Seminary Dean, Professor, Editor of The Journal of Ministry and Theology