Some friends thought they had finally found an undeniable contradiction in the New Testament. Two weeks ago, the sermon on Sunday focused on the command (Matthew 5:48) that we must love as God loves. More than loving those who love us, followers of Christ must love people who hate us, forgive people who offend us, even pray for angry souls who persecute us. We must love as God loves; that is, completely. Then last Sunday, one of our Bible Study classes hit the wall with 1 Corinthians 5:11. Paul writes, “I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people.”
Someone raised a logical question: “So are we supposed to love everybody, the good and the bad? Or should we shun them because they are evil?” On the surface, questions like that seem to make sense. You can’t have it both ways; either you love everybody, or you turn your head and refuse to look at some people because they are evil. What does God really want us to do?
Here’s the answer: To love someone means to desire what is best for that person; to refuse to tolerate angry, hateful feelings toward that person. Followers of Christ love everyone and desire what is best for everyone we know. However, common sense dictates that the command to love everyone does not equate with the idea of spending time with everyone. You don’t have enough time to spend an hour with everyone in your church, much less the nation or the world. You can’t choose whom you will love but you absolutely have to choose whom you will spend time with. This is where godly priorities come into play.
You and I have a Christian obligation to lost people in our world: we want to reach them for Christ. I can’t reach people without having a venue for sharing Christ with them. In order to build a bridge for sharing my faith, I have to make a conscious decision to reserve some time for lost people in my circle of influence. I can’t possibly spend time with every lost person I know, but I strategically spend time with some because I believe I can use my influence to point them to faith in Christ. So I choose to spend time with some people based on the chance that I may have enough influence to carry out ministry.
By contrast, you and I have a different obligation to people in our church. We must love them, encourage them, pray for them, and do our best to help them grow to maturity in faith. If people in the church adopt habits that make a mockery of the faith, we must find ways to correct them. First we pray for them. Then we rebuke them. Then we warn them. And then if all else fails, we remove them from membership in the church, in hopes that they will repent and return. That’s precisely what happens when Paul’s first letter (5:1) warns the Corinthians they should not tolerate a man in the church who is living in sin with his step mother. Eventually, he is excluded from the church. But after the man repents, Paul writes a second letter (2 Corinthians 2:7) encouraging them to forgive him and restore him before he becomes discouraged! That’s the cycle of grace.
In the name of mercy, 21st Century churches tend to overlook immorality among members until it spreads and becomes routine. Tolerance turns up everywhere until holiness can’t be found anywhere. In Corinth, the believers dealt strongly with an immoral brother, and were able to restore him to friendship, membership and spiritual health.
Refusing to associate with a person does not mean you must shout at him, glare at him, or treat him harshly. It simply means you advise him that his behavior is a stain on the reputation of your church and, regretfully, you will invest your time with other people you can genuinely help until such a time as he recognizes his need for repentance and restoration. That’s not mistreatment: it’s tough love. People who are afraid to be firm in their love are often the very people who enable others to slide farther into sin and self destruction. Love refuses to watch a brother drown.
Love like God loves. And lift up the Cross!