Let’s Be Friends
by Ian Hamilton, Editor, The Banner of Truth
Reprinted from the January 2020 issue
I recently came across this striking comment from one of the early Church Fathers, Theophylact: “It is a matter of shame to Christians, that while the devil can persuade wicked men to lay aside their enmities in order to do harm, Christians cannot even keep up friendship in order to do good.” Theophylact was commenting on Pilate and Herod laying aside their enmity and becoming friends (see Luke 23:12). It would hardly be doubted by any thoughtful Christian that the ancient Father was speaking the truth. Thomas Brooks, the eminently readable Puritan, said something very similar: “It is a natural thing for a wolf to worry a lamb; but it is a monstrous and unnatural thing for a lamb to worry another lamb.”
Why do Christians find it so hard to practise that brotherly love that our Saviour said would mark us out as being his (John 13:25)? When Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was speaking to men who were diverse in temperament, background, culture and outlook. No doubt the reasons are as many as there are Christians! But some reasons in particular are obvious to us all.
In the first place, we are too denominationally minded. We talk too much about being Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans and the like. Don’t misunderstand me: I am a convinced Presbyterian. But while Presbyterian distinctives are precious truths to me, the word of God reminds me that there are no Presbyterians in heaven (nor Baptists for that matter), only Christians. It is surely possible for us to hold fast to our distinctives, without keeping at a distance those believers who don’t; to cultivate that largeness of spirit that embraces all whom God in his grace embraces — unless, of course, we are holier than God! Before believers are anything else, they are Christians, members of the family of the living God, bound together in that divine family with a countless multitude of sinners saved by grace, blood-bought brothers and sisters. We should take care lest we unthinkingly do harm to someone elected by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and indwelled by the Holy Spirit.
A second reason why Christians can be less than generous-hearted to one another is our tendency to major on doctrinal correctness. Again, don’t misunderstand me. We can never be too much concerned to believe the truth, love the truth, practise the truth and commend the truth. What then do I mean? Simply this: the New Testament takes heresy of the heart every bit as seriously as heresy of the head. When did you last hear of a Christian being disciplined for lovelessness, gossip, back-biting, or envy? It is only too possible for us to be doctrinally on the ball, be “Reformed”; and yet have cold, loveless hearts, so showing that we are not true Christians (read 1 John 4:7-12, 20-21). When God’s truth breaks into our lives, it not only informs and reforms our minds, it melts our hearts and transforms our lives. Listen to Paul: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves…Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5). Paul proceeds to highlight the self-denying humility of the Saviour as he pursued our everlasting good. It is not nothing short of scandalous the way some Christians speak and write about their fellow Christians, sometimes anonymously in blog posts? It would do us well daily to breathe the air of Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If these Christlike graces are not in some measure marking our lives and our relationships, our heads may well be filled with truth, but our hearts will be as yet unregenerate!
A third reason why Christians are not the friends they could and should be is fear. “The fear of man brings a snare,” says Solomon. Too often Christians are influenced by what “others will think”. Again, don’t misunderstand me. It is right that we consider the impact of our words and actions will have on other Christians. But there is a tyranny from which some Christians never escape, the tyranny of fearing the displeasure of “important” believers. And so we narrow our circle of friends and curtail our range of spiritual engagements, in order not to offend those of a less catholic* spirit. Again, let me say, is it not possible for us to hold passionately to our biblical and theological distinctives, and at the same time practise the largeness of heart and spirit that marks the character of the God of grace? Too often, some Christians are more concerned not to get things wrong than to get things right. Those two attitudes produce two Christian lifestyles: one is cramped and defensive, while the other is generous and catholic-spirited.
Some years ago, Mark Johnston wrote a book on the Church with the provocative title, “You in Your Small Corner”. God’s saved people, the Church, is his family. We are not to live in isolated small corners, but in interacting, loving fellowship. This is easier said than done. It will take effort, generosity, frankness, courage. We will never all agree about everything: we don’t need to! But we do need to learn to disagree in ways that “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” We do need to speak to one another, and about one another, in ways that honour the Christ we serve and the people he loves. We need to look fellow Christians in the face and see Christ. Writing to the church in Colossae, Paul urged them to recognize a fundamental gospel truth: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11). “Christ is all, and in all”. Are these not glorious but sobering words? The Lord Jesus Christ dwells in the lives of all his blood-redeemed people. If we could see Christ in our fellow believers, I wonder if we would be as quick to speak ill of them, slight them, or refuse them our fellowship.
Let me give the last word to John Murray:
The lack of unity among the churches of Christ which profess the faith in its purity is a patent violation of the unity of the body of Christ, and of that unity which the prayer of our Lord requires us to promote. We cannot escape from the implications for us by resorting to the notion of the invisible church. The body of Christ is not an invisible entity, and the prayer of Jesus was directed to the end that the world might believe. The unity prayed for was one that would bear witness to the world, and therefore belonged to the realm of the observable. The implications for visible confession and witness are unavoidable. (1)
In other words, let’s be friends!
(1) The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:335.
* Do not confuse this with the Church of Rome. This “catholic,” if not familiar, is the belonging to the universal Christian church, the body of Christ as taught us in the Scriptures.