Sometimes loving the local church is hard. As with any relationship or commitment, there are ups and downs. However, loving other Christians is one of the clear signs of salvation (John 13:35). Unfortunately, many Christians do not have a right love for the church and most aren’t even sure what loving the church looks like.
Here we will examine four ways that we can love the church. This is not an exhaustive list, but one that includes four of the most neglected and crucial elements in the life of a church.
Most Christians I know say they love the church, but very few of them prove their love with their actions (1 John 3:18). This is because most people think that love is an emotion that can be devoid of action. Some would be puzzled to learn that loving the church requires action, specifically and chiefly the action of sacrifice. In fact, we can say that sacrifice is the first act of true love for the church because this is how Christ loved the church.
The expression of this sacrificial love will vary from person to person and from church to church. Sometimes sacrifice may mean relinquishing time, or money, or even your plans and dreams for the good of the body (Acts 4:32-37 cf.). It may involve doing things or being apart of things that you don’t particularly enjoy but do anyway to spend time with the flock. It may mean leaving your “group” to interact with a different group (Galatians 2:11-14 cf.) or leaving other established relationships to create new ones. At other times it may mean bearing the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), enduring conflict, or exercising mercy and patience towards the sins of others. Whatever may need to happen to help your church flourish it is likely to involve personal sacrifice.
This call to sacrifice shouldn’t surprise us. From the beginning, Christ calls us to a sacrificial kind of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33). Christ Himself sacrificed to establish the church; certainly, His followers are to love the church in the same manner. The truth is, no one can expect to enjoy the fullness of benefits and blessings within a church if they do not love it enough to sacrifice for it. But if one is willing to sincerely love the church by sacrificing for the church then the blessings are innumerable. Christ’s sacrifice for us is a model of how we are to love others.
One of the most serious threats to the future and health of the local church is the lack of commitment that exists in its members. God will always preserve His Church in the world, but many local churches are in grave danger because the level of commitment is incredibly low. Most members are hopping from church to church for very insignificant reasons. Conflict, apathy, and change are just a few of the things that cause people to flee to other churches or give up altogether. Style, preference, and opinions can also cause a person to seek something new or different in another local body.
The reality is, people are leaving their local church for small and unnecessary reasons. This new trend doesn’t strengthen any church nor does it work for the good of the person leaving. Instead, it only creates a discontented heart that is never satisfied and a fractured church that can never gain any traction for the Kingdom. In contrast, we ought to treat our membership in a local church as one of our highest commitments; committing to stay, if at all possible, for life. This kind of commitment shows care, investment, devotion, and love to your fellow members. If Christ could be committed to us at the cross than we ought to be committed to each other as well.
When we think about loving the church we often think about fellowship. But there is another “f” word that is more important: forgiveness. Forgiveness is such a big deal to God that He often links our responsibility to forgive others with His act of forgiving us. If we have been forgiven much how can we not also forgive others (Colossians 3:13 cf.)!
Even at the end of teaching the disciples to pray Jesus says, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15).”
After surveying the whole New Testament, we can safely say that a church’s health is contingent upon its practice of forgiveness among its members. If there is no forgiveness than a church will exist in chaos and disorder, but if forgiveness is an abounding priority than unity and fruit will be evident. Like ourselves, our churches are full of sin. They are full of the hypocritical who are being made holy. This process of sanctification doesn’t negate our call to love by forgiving, but rather forces it to be serious and frequent. If we are to exist in harmony together and glorify Christ in our assembly then we must be intentional and active in our forgiveness. Mercy and compassion were marks of Jesus and they should be marks of us too.
Lastly, a love for the church will be manifested in accountability – not just in holding the church accountable but in being held accountable by the church. Submitting your life to a local church is a great act of humility and trust. This is because accountability is a vulnerable practice. It involves confession, prayer, grace, encouragement, challenge, and community. Thrusting yourself into a relationship like this will transform an apathetic heart into a heart of passion for Christ and His church. Accountability that helps people conform to Christ can only breed sincere love among the members.
The list of practices that can foster love within a church is long. And yet, these four things are important starting points. Unfortunately, they seem to be missing or neglected within most local congregations. If love is to grow and be sincere in our local fellowships than we must be willing to take serious steps to change the culture and perspective. This can begin if we are willing to sacrifice, commit, forgive, and be held accountable by one another for the glory of God and our conformity to Christ.