Through the centuries, the lord’s church has endured countless crises.
She has weathered storms of fierce persecution (Acts 3, 4, 8); she has had to deal with internal, moral corruption (Acts 5; 1 Cor. 5); doctrinal impurity likewise constantly plagues God’s people (Acts 15; Gal. 3; 1 Tim. 4; 2 Thess. 2). Each of these constitute significant, menacing threats to the continuity of the lord’s cause.
One problem, which too often festers inappreciably, is the failure on the part of our brethren to develop friendly, brotherly relationships with one another. This failure takes several forms:
(1) Some perceive themselves to be isolated islands of faith. They feel no need to assemble and connect with fellow believers, at least not on a regular basis.
(2) Others, who attend church, nonetheless maintain closer connections with unbelievers than fellow-Christians. Since they have more in common with the people of the world than with the people of God, they esteem lingering after services to socialize with God’s people to be inconvenient; so they come to services, say ‘hello,’ give God ‘his due,’ say ‘goodbye,’ and then return to their secular life, never really getting to know those who sit next to them in the pews. Among this class, there are those misguided souls who feel they may enter just in time to take the Lord’s Supper, and then exit as soon as the sacred meal is completed.
(3) Another class of believers feels they are only obliged to befriend Christians if it comes naturally to them. Otherwise, they are off the hook.
In contrast to these attitudes, the Bible insists that maintaining a bond between believers is just as important as preserving the faith itself.
Jesus once taught that his own disciples were like family (Mt. 12.46-50); in fact, they are more important than fleshly family (Mt. 10.34-37). As such, while he deeply cared for his earthly kin (cf. Jn. 19.26-27), he spent most of his time with his brethren in the faith, for he “loved them to the end” (Jn. 13.1).
The early church likewise spent a vast amount of time together, both to engage in religious activity, as well as to socialize with each other.
At the church’s inception, Luke notes that “all who believed were together” (Acts 2.44). The imperfect tense here suggests that they kept being together. In verse 46, they continued meeting “daily with one accord” both in the temple complex, and at each others’ houses. Their disposition is a far cry away from those who begrudge ‘having’ to ‘go to church.’
Individual disciples in the New Testament also sought the company of their brethren in Christ. For example, Paul desired to make friends of the Roman brethren. Why? He wrote:
“that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Rm. 1.12).
Too, the affinity between Paul and the brethren at Ephesus was so strong that when he informed them of the fact that they would never again meet on earth, they “all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more” (Acts 20.37-38). Attempting to spend as much time together with him as they possibly could, they even “accompanied him to the ship” (v. 38c).
Set that in contrast to those today who regularly pop in and pop out of the assembly, scarcely even uttering a word of greeting to their fellow congregants.
The foregoing examples are reinforced by a number of explicit, divine instructions, enjoining us to maintain a closer bond with the brotherhood than with the people of the world.
(1) In his letter to the churches of Galatia, Paul instructs those congregations to “do good to all men” (6.10; cf. 1.2; 6.11). He further remarks that we are to perform such good deeds “especially to the household of faith.” This accentuates the fact that there must be a closer tie — a special caring — for those who are in Christ, above those who are not.
(2) God specifically instructed the brethren in Thessalonica to “love one another” (1 Thess. 4.9-10). Not only did they obey this command in their own congregation, but they did so “toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia.” Their deep, personal bond with the brethren, both at home and abroad, advanced their own worthy reputation far and wide (cf. 1 Thess. 1.8-9). Even so, the apostle urged them to “increase more and more” in expressing their care for the saints.
(3) In that same letter, the apostle instructed the church to “comfort each other and edify one another” (1 Thess. 5.11). He likewise shared his prayer that the lord would “make [them] increase and abound in love to one another and to all” (3.12). What Christian can fulfill these commands who thinks of himself as an isolated island of faith?
(4) Peter urged Christians to “love the brotherhood” (1 Pt. 2.17), and, in particular, to “love one another with a pure heart” (1 Pt. 1.22). Furthermore, this love is to be of the “fervent" variety, a word which denotes: fully stretched out; nothing held back — hence, strenuous love, which moves with passionate exertion (cf. 1 Pt. 4.8 “intense charity”). The church-attendee whose name is never learned, whose voice is rarely heard, will never experience this type of brotherly-love.
(5) Paul instructed the church at Corinth that if one member suffers, then all should “suffer together;” and if one member is honored, that all should “rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12.26). The bond between believers should last through thick and thin.
(6) The lord himself taught us to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Mt. 6.33). Hence, the church, which is his kingdom (cf. Mt. 16.18-19), must take precedence in our lives over everything else — and that includes those who belong to it (cf. 1 Cor. 12.27). God’s people must be far more precious to us than anyone or anything else!
(7) Finally, Paul issued this command to the church at Rome:
“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love” (Rm. 12.10).
The phrase, “kindly affectionate,” translates the word, philostorgos. It has to do with having a devoted affection and tenderness for someone.
Many who work in the secular environment have developed the philosophy that ‘we don’t have to like each other, we just have to work together’ — i.e., just do enough together to get the job done, and then we won’t have to deal with each other later.
That may be perfectly acceptable in the work place, but not the church! Unfortunately, too many of God’s people believe they do not have to like their brethren, they simply have to love them. Conversely, God urges us to develop friendly affection for our brethren in the faith. We will spend eternity with these people, after all!
Certainly, developing friendly affection with brethren will come more naturally for some than for others. And some people just click. Yet, frequently, this feeling of togetherness, which believers must develop with one another, must be worked at.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul urged the disciples to be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3). This “bond” between believers is thus an endeavor. The term (spoudazo) suggests: to move swiftly with full diligence; hence, to apply oneself fully.
With that in mind, we must realize that congregational rapport should not be something which happens by itself. Congregations which take this approach rarely develop strong ties of affection with each other, and many windup developing personal differences which eventually drive a wedge between various camps inside it, leading to a carnal split. Indeed, if everyone in the congregation is waiting for someone else to initiate a connection with them, connections will never be made.
Instead, we must always be reminded to exert ourselves in ways that contribute to fortifying the ties that bind us together in Christian love. Only when we are all “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” will we all achieve such peaceful unity!
Finally, after instructing the Roman church to be “kindly affectionate to one another,” Paul wrote:
“in honor giving preference to one another” (Rm. 12.10).
“Giving preference” (proegeomai) means: to go before and take the lead; hence, take the initiative. Don’t wait for others to honor you; you take the lead in honoring them. Instead of a contest of selfish rivalry (cf. Phil. 2.3), Christians should involve themselves in a contest of kindness — who can “outdo” (ESV) the rest when it comes to acts of praise and tenderness for others? That is the challenge Paul gave the brethren!
There are a variety of ways the bond between believers can be strengthened. Certainly, worshipping together frequently will help. Beyond that:
Devote a few minutes of your time, both before services, and after, to converse with your brethren about life.
Don’t limit yourself to interactions with the same brethren; get to know as many as possible. It is true that we will naturally be closer to some brethren more than others (as Jesus was with John); but that does not excuse us from befriending the other brethren. “Greet the friends by name” was John’s instruction (3 Jn. 14). We may not be best friends, but we must at least make ourselves friendly (cf. Prov. 18.24). It is a sad state of affairs when brethren who worship together regularly don’t even know each others’ names!
Invite individuals over to your home for dinner or other recreational pursuits; or, when others extend such an invitation to you, accept it. While the formality of congregational worship has done much to increase my reverence for God, some of the most character-molding moments in my life have transpired in the homes of other Christians, where my love for the faith and for the faithful was solidified by the informal conviviality that exists between brethren.
Spend time outside the home and church with your fellow congregants. See a movie. Take in a show. Attend a concert. Go to the park. Take up a sport with them. In short, as the song says, “make friends of God’s children.” In this way, we are “tak[ing] time to be holy.”
Remember this: there is a reason God called us to become members of a local congregation. While we can easily “love the brotherhood” worldwide in a conceptual way, it is impossible for us to be together with all believers everywhere. For every brother or sister in Christ I have met, there are at least a thousand more worldwide of whom I know nothing. How can I exert tenderness toward them, or in any way influence them (or they, me), if I do not even know they exist?
Yet, I can act concretely for those who sit in the pews next to me. I can familiarize myself with their faces, become acquainted with their names, learn of their triumphs and their struggles, and help to increase their faith, and they, in turn, my own. I may not be able to maintain unity and peace with the church worldwide, but I can at least apply myself to the togetherness of the local congregation.
Christianity is more than formality and learning; it is also “brotherliness” (2 Pt. 1.7), “joy” (Phil. 4.1), and sometimes “tears” (2 Tim. 1.4). A Christian is only half-complete who has not developed a bond with his fellow believers in Christ. So let us call that bond “blessed!”
“Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts, and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again”
(“Blest be the Tie That Binds,” by John Fawcett, 1782).