Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
1 John 2:15, James 2:8-9
Bellingham is warming up.
In order to determine the seasons in Western Washington, you can’t ask yourself if it’s sunny, snowy, or rainy. You assume the rain part and then you look to see what else is happening. Rain with snow means it’s Winter; rain with golden leaves means Fall (if it’s raining, there are golden leaves, AND there are kids outside, it’s Halloween); and if it’s a completely clear sky accompanied by rain, it’s probably the fourth of July. Lately though, as we’ve start to get rain mixed with partial sunshine, we know Spring has made an entrance into the great Northwest.
As I write, remnant beads of last night’s rain rest on the pink flowers blooming outside my window. Hopefully, the rain doesn’t come back and I’ll have the opportunity to join the Immanuel Bible Church C-team in victory this afternoon. Over the last year, my relationship with my local church has bloomed like the glistening Rhododendron flowers; both have given color to an otherwise grey environment.
How do we love?
Last night, my church college group gathered to discuss what its Summer schedule would look like. The goal was to brainstorm different ideas about what activities, ministry, or hang-out times we should plan for. At one point, Mark, our pastor, suggested that he didn’t want our group to function like a country club – i.e. something all of us could do for fun while excluding the people and community around us.
This isn’t the first time Christians struggled with the idea of isolating themselves from the world around it. In fact, it’s a problem that has plagued the church as long as it has functioned.
At different points in history, the church has either erred on the side of loving the world in order to gain popularity with unbelievers (i.e. the 4th Century, when the church at Rome prostituted itself to become a national religion) or trying so hard to avoid the world, the church neglected to reach out at all (the Puritans & Pilgrims, as they tried to create a theocracy in America, chose to flee England, rather than continuing to confront the Anglican church…and few reached out peacefully to the Native Americans with the gospel). For this reason, it is extremely necessary to discuss the topic of love. Not romantic love; but Christian love, or the love of the Church.
Essentially, the problem for all Christians comes to this: we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, yet we are also called not to love the world.
I’ve never read any books or articles about this difficulty, nor have I heard a sermon that specifically addressed it, but it strikes me as an issue that, if understood biblically, could shed a lot of light on many issues within evangelical churches today.
Whom do we love?
About two years ago, I began working at the Gap. As I formed relationships with co-workers, I found myself immersed in a new culture. Key traits of the group were: deep intellectual conversation, good food, and alcohol (don’t worry…drunkenness was never my thing). These people are not Christians, but they aren’t hooligans either. I’ve developed a lot of respect for them. They are wonderful company, and they have (usually) been very respectful of my commitment to Christ.
As people moved away or found jobs elsewhere, I started to lose many of those connections and began pursuing my relationship with my church a lot more. Not that I had lapsed in my attendance or my love for my church (or my savior Jesus Christ), but I have to admit: spending time with the college group was many times more awkward than my friends from work. I say I “pursued” my church because I stepped up my attendance at events, became more proactive about getting to know people, joined the worship team, and made my membership at Immanuel official.
I simply cannot be constantly involved in two different communities. While they aren’t mutually exclusive, I will find my identity in only one. I will have one community that I see as a refuge, and another I see as a mission.
This is how we must distinguish loving the world from loving my neighbor: If you embrace a predominantly secular community as the one in which you find refuge, you step over the command to love your neighbor and you begin to love the world. It does no good for witnessing to unbelievers if I identify myself with them, rather than with believers. In a way that might bother some people of the “emergent” crowd, I must always remain distinct from unbelievers when it comes to my identity. God’s word says I am a new creation and the old has passed away. The Holy Spirit indwells me. I have been accepted into a local community of believers who are also redeemed like me, and “no longer…conformed to the pattern of this world” but are being “transformed” to the image of Christ by the renewing of their minds.
Back to yesterday’s meeting.
As we discussed how to keep our college group from being a country club, my brain switched from “sleep” mode to “high power” in order to come up with some sort of evangelistic idea that I could embrace. I want to love my neighbors. I want them to know about Christ. But I don’t want that desire to translate into me trying to drag along my co-workers to church with me. They don’t go to church for a very good reason: they don’t believe. The goal is to bring them to the Savior, not the building.
Whose love do we show?
As my brain continued to church this idea of “how to not make this a country club”, I retraced my thoughts about evangelism through Junior High, High School, college at TMC, internships. I wanted to come up with some sort of idea which I could set before my brothers and sisters as a great way to reach out without to our community in a godly manner. Half of me was saying “You can’t combine your church friends and your work friends.” The other half was John Piper saying “Don’t waste your life!”
There had to be a way to love my neighbor and embrace my church while also retaining distinction from the world!
I find guidance in Acts 2:44-45:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
The most important word in this passage is not “selling”, “possessions”, or even the phrase “sharing them with all”, I think the focus is the word “need”. The early church met needs. It is by the church coming together, gathering its resources, and meeting the needs around the community that the Church both fosters its own fellowship and portrays Christ to the world. Not individual Christians going solo to save the world, not para-church organizations meeting the world on its own level, but the local church serving their community needs.