If you have been around the church for any length of time you have probably heard the phrase, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Sounds like some great life advice doesn’t it? Actually, it is a lot more than good life advice. When asked which commandment was the most important one, Jesus gave His answer and then followed it by saying that to love your neighbour as yourself is the second greatest commandment of all(Matthew 22:36-40). If you have ever read the Bible you are surely aware of the fact that there are a LOT of commands in it, and out of all of them the command to love your neighbour is the second greatest! If Jesus, God in the flesh, put such an emphasis on this command then it would be wise to take this command seriously. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours. So are we doing this? Do we really love our neighbours? Are we, the church of Jesus Christ, living in such a way that we demonstrate God’s love to our neighbours? Many people would answer yes to this. Or they would at least say that the church is making an effort to love their neighbours. I mean, we are a lot better than the generations before us aren’t we?
If we are honest, the visible “church” in previous generations is not remembered for being loving towards its neighbours. In fact many people remember the cold-shoulders that they received, the hypocrisy, the burdensome legalism, the unforgiveness, the gossip, etc. that they witnessed in churches all across North America. These churches emphasized proper doctrine and holy living, yet loving their neighbours was not always on their agenda. Instead of loving their neighbours and sharing the love of God with them, they often cast them aside as filthy sinners who were too far gone to be saved. Thankfully, the modern church seems to have recognized this problem, and has made a conscious effort to change the way the church approaches the world around them.
Churches have come up with all kinds of changes, plans, events, programs, etc. in an effort to reach those who had been hurt, ignored, or unloved by churches in previous generations. Some churches have taken to the streets with surveys, asking non-believers how they could make church more comfortable for them. Some have greeters with cool t-shirts and haircuts, pastors who wouldn’t be caught dead in a stuffy old suit, and others have even replaced those old hard pews with some soft cushioned chairs. Many churches have tried to make the sermons less “Hellfire and brimstone” and more fun, friendly, and relevant. You won’t likely hear the pastor preach against sins (especially specific sins), or hell, or the “Biblical definition of marriage” or anything else that our neighbour might find offensive. It is even fairly common now for a church to have a rock concert on Sunday morning with songs that mostly talk about love and other welcoming topics in lieu of the old fashioned hymns that talked about sin and all that harsh stuff. So is it working? Are we doing any better? Are we known for being loving towards or neighbours?
That depends. I would say that the modern church I described in the previous paragraph is known as loving in the eyes of the world around us. But what if we asked someone else? What is we asked the One who’s opinion really mattered? What if we asked God whether or not we love our neighbours, what would He say? Sadly, I believe that, in many cases, He would say no. Not only that, but I think that God would even say that some churches are no more loving towards their neighbours than those Hell-fire, judgemental, hypocritical church goers of previous generations.
I completely understand if you are confused at this point. “Our neighbours think that we are being loving, isn’t that the goal?” Actually, no. The goal was to LOVE our neighbours, not to make them THINK that we love them. Whether or not we are loving towards our neighbours is not dependant upon how loved they feel, but by whether or not we actually LOVED them according to how God commanded us to love them. This is where many modern churches fall short. we have succeeded in loving the world the way that they want to be loved, but we have failed to love them in the way they need to be loved, the way that God wants us to love them.
In order to explain my way of thinking, we need to return to that question that was asked of Jesus. The question was, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” I told you which commandment that Jesus said was the second greatest, but I left out His answer about the greatest commandment. What was His answer? It was ” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” That is the greatest commandment. This must always take precedent over any other commandment, including the command to love our neighbour.
Unfortunately the modern church, in it’s good desire to love it’s neighbours, has, in many cases, elevated the second commandment over the first commandment. By trying to love our neighbours, the way they want to be loved, we have changed our definition of who God is and what He is like, we have stopped taking righteous living(1 Peter 1:16) seriously, we have ignored God’s design for churches and brought the world in instead, and we have replaced the gospel with encouraging messages that anyone can relate to.
In striving to love our neighbours as they want to be loved, we have turned our backs on our first love, God. And in doing this we have failed to love both God and neighbour. You see, we must always keep the commandments in order. We must always love God before we love people. In fact, it is from loving and knowing God, that we actually learn how to love our neighbours(1 John 4:19). Our neighbour’s greatest need is not to feel loved by Christians, our neighbour’s greatest need is to know the love of God, as presented in the Gospel, in order that they too may Love God first and love their neighbours second. Sadly, if anything, we have showed them that our greatest concern is making our neighbours feel loved. So that is what they will think it means to be a Christian, to love people how they want to be loved. This will lead to so many problems in the church. This is why so many “feel-good preachers” like Joel Osteen are accepted, this is why people in the church don’t have a problem with sleeping together before marriage, this is why many church goers have accepted homosexual marriage, this is why entertainment has replaced true worship in the church.
If the modern church asked their neighbours what they thought the church was most passionate about, their answer would probably be “people”. What a disservice we have done to our neighbours, making them believe that the church exists for them. If the church really loved it’s neighbours well, it would be known for being most passionate about God. To really love our neighbours is to tell them the truth about who God is so that they can come to know Him and love Him with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Yes, we should lose the pharisaical attitude of previous generations(1 Corinthians 15:12-13), and we should be more gracious towards those outside of the church, but we must continue to preach the gospel, to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27-even the stuff that people don’t like!), to worship Him the way He desires to be worshipped, and to warn our neighbours of the coming judgement for those who fail to believe the gospel.
Even though the circumstances were different, there was a church mentioned in the book of Revelation that was guilty of abandoning their first love. I think the modern church would do well to listen to the Apostle John’s instruction to this church, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen: repent, and do the works you did at first.”(Revelation 2:5). We need to repent for our choice to love man more than we love God. We need to repent for the unbiblical changes that we have made in our churches to try and be more pleasing to the world. We need to repent of the way we have changed God, His character, and His ways in order to make Him more likeable to the world. And once we get the first commandment right, then let us continue to use our lives to love our neighbours and to show them how great our first love truly is. Then, and only then, will we truly love our neighbours.