One of the core values of the church I have the privilege of leading is that loving relationships should permeate every aspect of the life of the church. As Jesus Himself said: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35, NLT).
This may seem like an obvious, almost vanilla value – generic, assumed –
… but it’s not.
When I started Meck in the early 1990s, I commissioned a survey through the Barna Research Group to ask unchurched people who lived around Charlotte a simple question: “Why don’t you go to church?”. The leading answers fell into categories you might expect:
“There is no value in attending.”
“I don’t have the time.”
“I’m simply not interested.”
“Churches ask for money too much.”
“Church services are usually boring.”
What surprised me most was the strength of one response in particular, so strong it was the second most common answer for being unchurched, representing six out of every 10 people:
“Churches have too many problems.”
People outside of churches look inside churches and all they see is a group of people who are inflexible, hypocritical, judgmental and just plain mean. As one man in the survey quipped: “I’ve got enough problems in my life. Why would I go to church and get more?” The one thing churches should have been most known for – loving unity – was what they were least known for. In fact, they had the opposite reputation they should have had.
When the Bible talks about loving unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike. It also doesn’t mean unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board. By unity, the Bible means first and foremost a oneness of heart—a relational unity. Being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another—not assuming the worst, shooting the wounded or being quick to be suspicious.
Biblical unity is about working through conflicts, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit. It is giving each other the benefit of the doubt and distributing ample doses of grace in the midst of our sin and imperfection.
This is why I am such a jealous defender of the community of the church I lead. We’ve all seen division and discord, slander and powerplays—whether it’s in the home or the marketplace. We’ve seen people assume the worst of others and make accusations.
A good leader says, “Not here.”
Instead, we’re going to do everything in our power to relate to one another lovingly, truthfully, compassionately, graciously. And when there is conflict or tension (which of course there will be), stress or misunderstanding (which of course there will be), we’re going to tackle it head on within the context of love.
We won’t be equally close to each other. This isn’t about every single person being your best friend (there may be people you feel a little allergic to), but we can still be loving in our spirits, gracious in our hearts, and fiercely loyal to each other. We want to always take the high road, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, instead of being eager to be suspicious, wounded or offended.
In other words, the church is meant to be a highly functional family. In Peter’s first letter in the Bible it says, “You should be like one big happy family, full of sympathy toward each other, loving one another with tender hearts and humble minds” (1 Peter 3:8, LB). The family theme, as it relates to the life of the church, is so strong that the Bible says this about its leaders: “(A Pastor) must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5, NIV). The number one qualification of a pastor is that they have done a good job with their own family that they were entrusted to raise.
Why? Because the church is a family. And if someone can’t lead and serve and shape their own family in a loving, functional, healthy way, they can’t possibly do it for a church.
Because loving relationships don’t just happen!
Think about the typical family. Do you know how many times I’ve heard husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, moms and dads,
... cut each other down,
... be sarcastic to the point of wounding,
... call each other horrific names that I can’t even repeat,
... scream out, “I hate you!”,
... tear away at each other’s self-esteem,
... have relational conflict to the point of breakdown?
When that happens, a family leader should intervene. They should stand up and say, “We don’t talk to each other that way” or “We don’t treat each other that way.” A family leader should not allow conflict to run underground or simmer for lengthy periods of time. A family leader should not tolerate the lack of respect or honor, the appropriate civility and courtesy that is due another person. A family leader should say, “Loving relationships will permeate every aspect of our family’s life.”
I mentioned earlier that in the 1992 survey, “churches have too many problems” was the second biggest reason people cited as to why they didn’t go to church.
I wonder where it would rank now.
James Emery White
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.