In our last few posts we’ve seen what can happen when a Christian or a church puts too much emphasis on only one aspect of our responsibilities towards God and towards each other.
One way this can happen is an over-emphasis on challenging false teaching and rejecting from the church those who promote it. If taken to an extreme, as with the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), this can create an environment in which Christians no longer trust each other and may begin to see each other as potential heretics to be investigated rather than as brothers or sisters to be served.
Another way this can happen is an over-emphasis on performing acts of charity and kindness to those in need. If taken to an extreme, as with the church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29), this can create an environment in which Christians are thinking only about the concerns of this life and have forgotten our responsibility to teach God’s message and prepare people for the life to come after this one.
Perhaps you have seen for yourself what can happen in these situations. Neither is what God intended for his church.
Upholding the truth of God’s message and performing acts of kindness are both an essential part of a Christian’s life, but both are only one part of our responsibility within the church. Both must be kept in balance with each other.
How can you do this?
What is your motivation for anything that you do as a Christian? Jesus said that the most important things are to love God and others with everything you have. That means you should be motivated by a desire to bring honour to God’s reputation and to do whatever will help your fellow Christians receive eternal life from Jesus when he returns.
Why should we challenge false teaching within the church?
First, because if untrue or inaccurate things are being said about God, it may damage his reputation by presenting a false impression of what he is really like.
Second, because if people are being taught things about God that are untrue, it may damage their prospects of coming to know him and being part of his family.
It’s not about protecting the church’s reputation or maintaining the church’s “holiness” from things we may see as contaminating us. If a person teaches or believes something that is false, our first priority should be to try and help that person, not push them away or kick them out at the first sign of error. We should be motivated by a desire to help that person receive eternal life, not sacrifice them so the rest of us can remain pure. Removing someone from the church should only be done as an absolute last resort.
At the same time, it means you cannot remain silent when someone whom you do not wish to confront or criticise is teaching something false. It could be a person of high standing or prominence within the church, someone popular or charismatic who is very rarely challenged by anyone. It could be someone to whom you are very close, perhaps a close friend or family member, and who you do not wish to offend or upset. It could be someone you don’t know very well in which case you might be concerned that you don’t know the full story.
You may feel that the loving thing to do would be to simply remain silent and avoid rocking the boat or hurting anyone’s feelings. Here in the UK we live in a largely secularised society where love and moral goodness are essentially defined as whatever will promote human happiness or human wellbeing in this life.
Challenging false teaching doesn’t serve either of those ends and that may be why it can make us uncomfortable. Yet for a Christian, love and moral goodness are what we saw above: honouring God and helping people receive eternal life. That means you must be prepared to hurt other people’s feelings and knock them out of their comfort zone when necessary, and be willing to let others do the same to you.
Why should you perform acts of charity and kindness towards others?
First, because God’s reputation will be enhanced and communicated to anyone who sees you reflecting God’s character in the way you live. The world will know how awe-inspiring and loving God is if you show his love to those you meet.
Second, because if people can see in your daily conduct something of what God is like, it may inspire them to come closer to God themselves and learn about the hope of eternal life he offers.
Knowing what God is like, what God has promised you and what God has already done for you should inspire you to want to do the same for others. Yet whatever you do in service for others should always be done with God’s promises for the next life in your mind.
It seems to me that the best approach is to focus on people as individuals, doing whatever you can to help them while getting to know them, understanding where they’re at, if possible forming friendships, and always looking for ways to introduce them to God’s promises of what lies beyond this life.
Taking the approach of, for example, “we are going to end poverty in this area” seems to me more likely to focus on the problem rather than the individual people. As Christians our priority should always be the individual people.
We are not going to solve the problems of this world on our own. Feeding the poor, caring for the sick, providing refuge for the oppressed and so on, while all essential things for a Christian to do, are never going to make those problems go away for good.
We’ve seen in previous posts that the experience of suffering is what enables Christians to grow and mature as children of God. When life is easy and comfortable, we stagnate and grow only rank. This suggests that it is not God’s will for human suffering to be entirely eliminated in this life. This doesn’t mean that we should neglect opportunities to make other people’s lives less painful or onerous, but we should always keep in mind that God may have his reasons to allow certain people to endure certain things for a period of time.
As hard as it can be to witness the suffering of others, whether they are strangers or people you love, you must always keep the perspective of eternity in view, remembering that when eternal life is granted, the sufferings of this life will seem utterly insignificant and meaningless by comparison.
Next time we’ll look at the temptation of trying to appear good to others without actually doing anything good, using as an example the modern practice known as virtue signalling.