Scripture teaches us about ourselves, our condition, and our God. God’s love, of course, is a focal point of Scripture and a focal point of our stories of salvation. God’s love is aimed at the individual, yes, but also to the Body of Christ, comprised of his redeemed individuals. The local church is a centralized representative of this body, a body promised to conquer even the gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18).
There are perhaps innumerable ways to describe God’s love in relation to the local church, but here are four significant ways our churches can reflect God’s love properly to each other and the world.
1. Christ-Centered Leadership
It is imperative to understand that there was no greater man than the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is the standard for anyone in leadership of a local church. At the end of the day, leaders can do nothing to save a soul but they can preach, disciple, and live scripturally knowing that God uses such people. The most basic standard for Christ-centered leadership is laid out by Paul (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9) and it mirrors Christ’s life rather well.
In the local church, qualified leaders have the unique opportunity to lead a group of believers toward Christ. As such, pastors should mimic the True Leader. Jesus felt compassion for the hurting (Matt. 14:14), showed care for the lost (Mark 6:34), was a humble servant to his people (John 13:1-17, Mark 15), and was willing to boldly defend the God’s honor (Matt. 21:12-13). You cannot show love to someone more than by showing them Christ and his love (1 John 4:9-10).
Leaders should strive for excellence and use their gifts, but never in a way that compromises their call to love people with the love of God. As Jared Wilson has so aptly put it, “Someone will always have better coffee, music, facilities, and speaking. Showcase Christ and his gospel. No one can improve on that.”
2. Community Engagement
There are numerous evangelistic models that are being used in the church today. Regardless of your style or combining of these methods, one thing cannot be forgotten: loving and showing Christ to the community was the paramount aim of the New Testament church.
The first instance in which Scripture talks about gathered believers post-resurrection is in Acts 2:42-47. This church did not only meet at the building of worship, they met in their homes. They lived life together. This was not a once a week social club–this was a lifestyle. They had several key distinctives according to this passage:
- They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
- They devoted themselves to fellowship.
- They devoted themselves to prayer.
- They had all things in common (they shared all property and possessions).
- They sold their belongings and gave to all who had need.
- They attended the temple and their homes together daily.
- They received food with glad hearts and praised God for it.
- They had favor with all people.
Notice that verse 47 says that people were being saved daily–just by watching these people live their lives! There was no magic formula and no persuasive gimmicks; they simply loved God and loved others. This was certainly a different context, but our practices should be built upon these ideas.
Living in community with one another and in the midst of outsiders is challenging and not for the faint of heart. But we must fight for it because God’s love is reflected in our love toward people. This is why the Great Commandment, according to Jesus, is to love God and love others. And this is why Jesus reminds his disciples that love for each other identifies with love for him (John 13:35).
3. Church Membership
This point in many ways builds upon the last one. For some, church membership is a box to check off the proverbial to-do list. It is a tradition, a felt obligation, or a way to meet people and get “plugged-in.” But it’s much more.
Church membership is not specifically listed in the New Testament by name but it is certainly implied in many ways:
- Elders are given an office of authority to oversee a group of people and are held accountable for their souls (Matt. 18:18-20, Acts 20:28, 1 Tim. 3:5, Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:2-4).
- Believers are seen as fellowshipping both at the temple (a designated place of worship) and in their homes (Acts 2:42-47).
- Believers are to exercise gifts as individual members of one local body (1 Cor. 12).
- There is a responsibility to carry out discipline and offer accountability (Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5, 1 Cor, 6:15).
There are several other passages that could be added here, but this is a concise portrait of a group of people worshiping and living life together in a group setting. These believers held one another accountable and it appears that there was clarity on who was committed to the mission.
Believers are adopted into God’s family (Rom. 8:15, Eph. 5:1) to receive his blessings (Eph. 1:14) and do his work (Eph. 2:10). Simply put, the life of a believer is now bound to advancing his Kingdom. Believers are identified and called through new life in Christ. Jesus specifically gives the keys to this Kingdom to his followers (Matt. 16:19) and tells them that this a blood covenant (Matt. 26:28). When God’s people reflect the character of Christ, bear one another’s burdens, break bread together, and live life on God’s mission, his love is clearly evident in the midst of them.
4. Church Discipline
Church discipline is quite possibly the most difficult form of love for the local church to practice. It can be cloudy, messy, and painful. However, in reading the New Testament, there seems to be no such thing as a church without discipline. This principle is taught by Jesus (Matt. 18:15-20) and seems natural in New Testament churches, most clearly described in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5). Jesus and Paul both appear to agree that where there is a gathering of believers, there is discipline.
In Christian Fellowship, John A. James lists five biblical instances that require church discipline. Of course, this list does not fully cover or typify the random issues pastors deal with, but is a helpful foundation:
- Scandalous vices and immoralities (1 Cor. 5:11-13)
- Denial of Christian doctrine (Gal. 1:8, 1 Tim. 6:35)
- Causing division (Tit. 3:10)
- Failure to provide for near relatives (1 Tim. 5:8)
- Unreconciled enmity (Matt. 18:7)
Though every believer sins and is in daily need of the gospel, there are times that sin can be devastating to the whole body (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Paul is forthright that removal from the local church is carried out as an extreme measure in hopes that the person removed will realize the severity of their sin (1 Cor. 5:5). This act of “turning him over to Satan” gives the offender the opportunity to see what it is like outside of the grace and love of God’s assembly. It’s not loving to allow a brother or sister to wallow in their sins.
Discipline in the church results in life within the body. Some of the greatest stories of repentance and rejuvenation that I’ve encountered (and experienced) began with a person being held accountable for their actions. Likewise, God’s love for us is often disciplinary, but it is for our good (Heb. 12:1-17).
As stated before, this is very basic. These things are not easy and the local church may stumble and fall trying to live this out. The point is not perfection, for Christ has done everything perfectly for us; the point is that we press on toward the upward call of God, pursuing maturity and truth (Phil. 3:14-16). The greatest gift to the world is the love of God through the sacrifice of his Son. May we proclaim this boldly in our churches in both word and deed.
Brandon D. Smith serves in leadership at Criswell College, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, and the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He recently edited the book Make, Mature, Multiply: Becoming Fully-formed Disciples of Jesus and is Associate Editor of the Criswell Theological Review. Follow him on Twitter.
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 I found this list in Jonathan Leeman’s extraordinary book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love.