When you read about the unity of the early church, does it make you jealous? Something in you wishes you were born 2,000 years ago so you could be a part of a group like this. You can get depressed by the dual realization that this is the very thing you’ve always wanted and you’re not going to find this in the typical American church today.
It’s sad that our churches look nothing like this. It’s devastating that we don’t believe it is possible.
What I see today is many people choosing to opt out of the church. Claiming a continued love for Jesus, they have decided that the church only gets in their way. It’s a sad time when those who want to be close to Jesus have given up on the church.
There is this terrifying verse in 1 Timothy where Paul talked about two men who rejected the faith. Paul said that he had handed them over to Satan, by which he meant that he’d put them outside of the church (1:20). Basically, these men were actively opposing the works of God, so rather than pretending everything was fine, Paul removed them from the safety and blessings of the fellowship of believers. He was hoping that the misery of being separated from the church would lead them to repent. Are you catching the weight of this? Paul equated removal from the church with being handed over to Satan! It is crazy to me that we live in a time when people are voluntarily doing this to themselves! No church has placed them outside of the fellowship; instead, they’ve handed themselves over to Satan!
Real love, unity and blessing were supposed to be found in the church. Many are having a hard time finding that, so they’re setting off on their own. Jesus said that the world would see the supernatural unity and love we share in the church and believe in Him through that. But we’re not experiencing it. We’ve given up on it. We no longer believe it is possible.
What if we took God’s description of the church as a family seriously? What would happen if a group of people sought Jesus fervently, loved each other sacrificially, and then shared the gospel boldly?
Sadly, there are a lot of people in our churches who aren’t interested in living out loving family like this. I’m going to say something that might be hard to hear: What if we let them leave? I know that goes against all of the wisdom of modern church-growth strategies, but it’s exactly the kind of thing Jesus would do. While we design strategies to slowly ease people into Christian commitment and grow attendance at our services, Jesus called people to count the cost from the very start (Luke 14:25–35). He didn’t expect His followers to be perfect, but He did demand that they be committed (Luke 9:57–62). The people who leave your church because they’re turned off by the level of relational commitment will find another church that can provide what they’re looking for. You can’t shape the life of your church around who might leave if things start to feel too much like the New Testament.
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but He does promise that His Spirit can bind us together in a way we’ve never experienced. Maybe we’ve just been too distracted by our efforts to make our church services exciting that we’ve hardly noticed the people the Spirit wants to unite us with.
What if we followed God’s design for the church, and in doing so allowed the church to be pruned down to only those who wanted to obey His command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12)? We might actually find that a pruned tree would bear more fruit (John 15:2). We might discover that the branches that weren’t bearing fruit were actually sucking all of the life out of the tree.
Don’t forget that there are times when God doesn’t just want us to let them leave, He wants us to ask them to. There is a difficult reality to face, which is that there are going to be people who try to take advantage of churches that are committed to love. In order to love each other like family, we will need to have grace and forgiveness. However, sometimes the most loving thing to do for someone is not to enable them in their sin, but to follow the aforementioned example of Paul in 1 Timothy who separated people from the church. It was for the good of the church as well as the individuals who were removed. Biblical unity is not achieved by overlooking sin, but through pruning which can lead to repentance. Unconditional love doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. It takes tremendous love to risk rejection for the hope of loving a sinner to repentance.
For years I honestly didn’t have faith that it was even possible for a church to possess the love and unity I saw in Scripture. People kept telling me this couldn’t happen in America. I would see examples of this in places like China, but church leaders would tell me it only worked there because people already lived communally and because they were experiencing persecution that forced them to bond. There was always a part of me that doubted those voices, but it was only a few years ago that I mustered up the courage to try. It was harder than I expected, but it’s also been more rewarding than I could have dreamed. This can happen wherever you are too. Holy Spirit love and unity are not confined to persecuted countries.