This article is part of the 7 Tips series.
A Common Struggle
What do you do with “those” people in your church—the ones who drive you crazy? Maybe it’s their vocal political opinions. Maybe it’s a personality that gets under your skin. Maybe it’s a particular lack of appreciation or sensitivity to your culture. Maybe it’s someone who’s critical of you in ways that seem wrongheaded. And then of course, there are the people who have hurt you.
You know Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12, that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). But couldn’t some of “those” people be indispensable to someone else’s church body instead? What do you do with “those” people in your church?
This struggle is no accident. Jesus said that all people will know we are his followers “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). But if love at church were easy, how would that testify to the power of his saving work in our lives? As Jesus asks in Luke 6:32, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?” What does that say about the transforming power of Jesus in your life? And so Jesus says, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36).
If we’re to love our enemies, surely we’re to love “those” people at church. Even the ones who drive us crazy. So how can we do that? Consider these seven ideas, drawn from Paul’s teaching near the end of the book of Romans that, in many ways, functions as a “how to” guide to Jesus’s bracing, enemy-loving ethic of Luke 6.
1. Power your love with God’s mercy.
This is how Jesus concludes: “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). And it’s how Paul begins in Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” As becomes clear in this chapter, the “living sacrifice” Paul has in mind is the would-be enemies of Jew and Gentile functioning together as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4). But such love is only possible if it begins with the love God has shown us. When your ability to love mercifully is flagging, consider the undeserved mercy you yourself have received through Christ and the overwhelming cost that mercy was to him. As knowledge of mercy flows into gratitude, and gratitude into love for God, remember that God has called you to love “those” people. Or to put it more simply, if you have an attitude problem, it’s because you have a gratitude problem. Having lost sight of God’s mercy, your heart is deficient in gratitude, and so your love is deficient in power.
2. Consider that division in a church tells lies about who Jesus is.
When Paul encounters factions and disunity in the Corinthian church, his rebuke is strikingly theological: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). In other words, People, these petty fights aren’t just about you. Think about what they say about Christ. You’re his body, after all! More positively, when Paul is preparing Jewish and Gentile Christians to love each other in the Roman churches, he encourages them in Romans 12:2 to not think like the world does—where Jew and Gentile are kept comfortably separate—but to be “transformed” in their thinking, that they might prove out God’s will for united churches to be what it really is: “good and acceptable and perfect.” As such, when faced with differences over secondary matters where the gospel’s not at stake, unity in Christ must be our paramount concern.
3. Trust God’s composition of your church.
Why does my church need to include that person? Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ, with its glorious diversity of members (Rom. 12:3–5) sounds sweet and wonderful—until you meet some of those members. But that’s when we need to trust what God has done. He determined that your church body was incomplete without “those” people. He decided that you and they would be “individually members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). Because God has made you one in Christ, you belong together. So rather than grumbling about what God’s done, trust him for what he’s done—and see if over time you might discover how you’re suited for one another.
4. Discover the affection that comes through hope.
Paul’s words in Romans 12:9–11 are an ambitious—and often convicting—standard for love in a church. Love should be genuine. Not forced or pretended. Love should be affectionate—something that’s more than just willpower. Love should honor those it loves, not denigrating them as charity cases. And it should be zealous, persistent through struggle. How on earth can we do this? Paul’s next words are insightful: “rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12). I see a shadow of this in the affection I feel for my children. Let’s say that one of my kids goes above and beyond to do something kind and thoughtful for a sibling. The affection I feel in that act of love isn’t a naïve belief that, from now on, my child will only ever be kind and thoughtful. Yet there’s a real joy in that hopeful glimpse of the godly man or woman I pray my child is becoming. In the same way, there’s real joy when we see the glory of God beginning to shine in those around us at church, even if it’s embryonic. That’s a joy powered by hope. Learn to love the glimpses you see in your church of Jesus’s glory, trusting that there’s more you cannot yet see, and you will learn to love your brothers and sisters with the affection of Christ.
Having lost sight of God’s mercy, your heart is deficient in gratitude, and so your love is deficient in power.
5. Forgive by entrusting justice to God.
Very often, loving “those” people in our churches will involve forgiving them. Yet how often have we made earnest attempts to forgive, yet angry, bitter thoughts still roil our hearts? If our goal is to “live in harmony with one another” (Rom. 12:16), the failure of forgiveness to secure legitimate peace and harmony is a real problem. In a fallen world, forgiveness can’t always restore a relationship. Yet too often, the real problem is that what we call “forgiveness” hasn’t gone far enough. The solution? We must deliberately hand the demand for justice entirely over to God, as Paul tells us in Romans 12:19. Only then can we willingly and contentedly absorb the costs of someone else’s sin, taking on ourselves the consequences that they would otherwise deserve to pay. God will secure justice, so we are free to love.
6. See the faith of those you disagree with.
In Romans 14, Paul writes to Jewish and Gentile Christians at Rome who have differences of conviction over a wide range of matters where Christians can legitimately disagree and still faithfully follow Christ together in the same church. Yet living with such differences of conviction is easier said than done, isn’t it? Think of all the differences of conviction that threaten the unity of our churches today: the right response to a world infatuated with the LGBTQ agenda, consuming alcohol, how to discipline our children, the best path to combatting racism, and so forth. As such, Paul’s prescription in Romans 14:6 is important. Essentially, he says, That person whose conscience you so strongly disagree with is also seeking to serve Christ. Very often we’re told to understand the position of those we disagree with. That’s important, but what Paul suggests is even better: How is their position motivated by love for Christ? As you see the faith of those you disagree with, you will be far better prepared to love them through disagreement.
7. Prioritize God’s priorities.
But there’s more that Paul equips us with when we’re faced with differences of conviction at church. Later in Romans 14, he shows his cards, revealing that he agrees with the Gentile Christians in this particular debate of whether meat is a “clean” food. “Everything is indeed clean,” he writes (Rom. 14:20). And he continues, “But it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.” Do you see how he brilliantly re-prioritizes what is right and wrong in these churches? You’re right; they’re wrong, Paul says. But what’s really wrong is your willingness to exercise your Christian freedom in a way that destroys the unity of the church—and even the faith of weaker Christians. It’s good to debate issues like this with fellow Christians. But as we do, let’s prioritize what God does: unity and love matters more than getting to the right answer on secondary matters of Christian freedom.
As Paul concludes this section of Romans, his closing prayer is telling: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5–6). The differences and disagreements that threaten to tear your church apart are opportunities to demonstrate that being “in accord with Christ Jesus” is all we need to be in “harmony with one another.” That’s how “with one voice” we “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as God gets greater glory through redemption than through creation alone, the glory he receives in your church’s unity is greater in disagreement and difference than if everyone were in the same place to begin with.
Jamie Dunlop is the author of Love the Ones Who Drive You Crazy: Eight Truths for Pursuing Unity in Your Church.
Popular Articles in This Series
Jesus came to make it possible for all kinds of people, including angry parents, to be changed into people who yield their expectations to God in service to others, specifically their children.
Before teens can actually explain the gospel, they must first know it themselves. Then they must know how to articulate it.
Scripture speaks directly to the Christian’s responsibility to address or confront sin in the lives of other Christians.
Reading the Bible, like eating a meal, isn’t only for individual consumption. Some of the greatest joys come when we enjoy God and his word together with others.