How to Grow a Loving Church (Part 1)

In Romans 12 Paul gets very practical about our relationships with other believers AND even with non-believers – especially with difficult people.  And the basis for all of those relationships, Paul says, is LOVE. When followers of Christ begin to really love each other the way God wants them, the world will be attracted to Jesus Christ and His Gospel. And that’s because people are looking for love. So, the all-consuming question becomes: “How do I love people like God wants me to?”

That’s what Romans 12:9-21 is about – loving people God’s way. And this passage is so simple it’s almost embarrassing! There are two major questions addressed here.

First (vs. 9-16): “How Do I love my fellow believers in Christ?” Paul’s saying we need to learn to love each other. And there are eight things we can do to grow a loving church in those first 8 verses. Then in the second half of the passage (vs. 17-21) Paul answers the question: “How do I love unbelievers?” – in particular people who oppose me and who are my enemies. How do I deal with people who hate me for my faith in God?

Lets’ find out how we’re supposed to do that, starting with… LOVING FELLOW-BELIEVERS:

The first thing mentioned is Be genuine vs. 9a: “Let love be without hypocrisy…” Love, Paul says, has got to be genuine. Don’t wear masks. “Love must be sincere.” One of the greatest complaints against the church today is that it is full of hypocrites.

According to a LifeWay Research study, unchurched people in America are willing to hear what people have to say about Christianity. But of those interviewed, 72% also think the church is “full of hypocrites.” And 79% of unchurched Americans think Christianity today is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.

Do you know what that says to me? It says that if you want a loving church you’ve got to be authentic. If you’re going to love people you’ve got to be real. You’ve got to be yourself. You’ve got to be “without hypocrisy.”

Paul’s point is: Don’t be a phony!  In the entertainment world especially – everybody “loves” everybody, but nobody really loves anybody.”  It’s a phony kind of love.

Why do you suppose it’s so hard to love people genuinely? I think a lot of times it’s because we’re afraid to love. And we’re afraid to love because loving you means I’ve got to become vulnerable with you, and if I am vulnerable with you, you may not like me – and me is all I’ve got! It’s risky to love.  We find it hard to love genuinely because we’re insecure and afraid of being rejected. Also, truly loving someone means sometimes we have to take a stand against something.

The latter half of verse 9 says: “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” Sometimes we have to take a stand against something because love without standards is just niceness.  And niceness alone isn’t worth that much. The word “to hate” or “abhor” literally means to “draw away.”  Love “draws away” from evil because evil hurts people. It destroys and damages them.  If it hurts others, then we ought to abhor it. Genuine love causes you to hate some things.

Proverbs 6:16ff gives us seven things that we’re told to hate because God hates them. “There are six things that the Lord hates. Seven that are detestable to Him. Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” 

These are the things God despises. And so, a loving person is going to hate these things – among others. The deeper your love for God grows the more you’re going to hate what God hates. Our problem today, as Christians, is we don’t get involved in sin; we just let it entertain us. Satan loves to break down our intolerance to sin. What Paul is saying is the best defense against sin is to be shocked by it. Unfortunately, nothing seems to shock us anymore. We “American Christians” have lost our ability to blush at sin.

So, Paul says there are some things we should hate, and then he says “…cling to what is good.”  Literally, one translation says, “Be wedded to what is good.”  In other words, we ought to spend so much time doing good, that we don’t have time to do bad.

We must reject sin without rejecting people. That’s a crucial truth. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s just a religious cliché. That it’s impossible to do. (I.e. – the gay political activist or the straight adulterer or the bigot or the racist who doesn’t want to face his/her sin). We’re commanded here to hate sin – no matter what it may be – but still love the people involved in the sin. Usually what we do is the opposite: we love sin, but hate the sinner. The exact opposite of what God does!

So, if the Church is going to be a loving, growing Church, then all of us followers of Jesus Christ have to be genuine and authentic – we cannot afford to be insincere or disingenuous.

A second things we’re told in this passage is to Be careful of other’s needs vs. 10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.” In other words: Be courteous. Be sensitive to the needs of others.

The word here in this verse, “brotherly love” (philadelphia), is really two words put together. It literally means “a family relationship.” It says we as believers, are to have a family kind of love – like between brothers and sisters in a family. Brotherly love is the ability to live close together with mutual respect. It means to be tender and affectionate in your love for other Christians. We ought to be affectionate towards each other as believers in the body of Christ. It involves a lot of genuine hugging.

The last half of that verse says: “…give preference to one another in honor.” It means we should strive to outdo each other in expressing appreciation. To outdo each other in expressing genuine affirmation. To genuinely care about each other. When you have a church family that is genuine and unhypocritical in its love, where courtesy and care of each other’s needs are the norm, then you’re going to have a church that pleases God and draws people to Him.

A third things these verses tell us is Be contagious with enthusiasm vs. 11: “Not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” (NASB). “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (NIV)

Literally: “Be on fire with the Holy Spirit!”  Being “fervent in spirit” means being – super hot for God. Be full of enthusiasm!  And you don’t have to be noisy to be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm comes from two Greek words, en theos –“in God”. When you get in God you’ll be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm comes from being in God. Loving people are enthusiastic people. The church that has a lot of love is an enthusiastic church. A church that doesn’t have a lot of love is apathetic. How do you keep your enthusiasm?  By “… serving the Lord.”  It doesn’t say “serving people.”  We keep our enthusiasm by focusing all of our service, even ministry to others, on God by saying, “Lord, I’m really doing this for You.” If you want to recharge the enthusiasm in your life, memorize Colossians 3:23 and apply it in your life. It says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Layton Ford, Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, went to talk with Mother Teresa when she was still living. He said, “How do you keep your joy?  You’re in the worse part of Calcutta with all the death, the debris, the dirt, the disillusion, the destitution. How do you keep your joy in Calcutta?” Her answer was: “We do our work for the Lord and with the Lord and to the Lord.” That’s so simple, yet so profound. Everything you do, do it for the Lord, and with the Lord and to the Lord. When you’re serving the Lord, then you’ll have that enthusiasm. So, be contagious with enthusiasm.

Another things Paul tells us is Be positive, patient and prayerful vs. 12: “Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer” (NASB). Another translations puts it: “Be joyful in hope, be patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

He says three things here. If you’re going to build a loving church you need to…

  • Be positive. “Be joyful in hope…” We can be positive (joyful) because we have hope. People are hungry for hope, hungry and for joy. Followers of Christ ought to be the most positive, joyful people in the world. Be positive. Be joyful (rejoicing) in hope.
  • Be patient. “Be patient in affliction…” The Bible says that we can be confident that the plan of God and the power of God are greater than the problems we’re going through (Rom. 5:3-5). We can be patient because we know that God’s using even hard and difficult things in our lives to strengthen us.
  • Be prayerful. “…devoted to prayer.” How do you get God’s love? By being “faithful in prayer.” If my prayer life isn’t up to par, then I’m going to get upset with people more easily. If you’re having a hard time loving somebody, start praying for them. Praying for them will change your heart and possibly theirs.

The apostle Paul’s own life is an example of this. One of the results of Stephen’s prayer was Paul’s conversion. When Stephen was stoned for his faith, Paul stood by in approval and held the coats of those who stoned him. Stephen’s last prayer in Acts 7 was, “Father, don’t hold this against their charge.”

Here’s another thing that helps grow a loving church: Open your heart and your home to others.  vs. 13: “Contributing to the needs of the saints; practicing hospitality” or “share with God’s people” (NIV).  James 2:15 says if you see a brother in need and you just say, “I’ll pray for you,” what good is that?  I John 3:16 conveys the same idea.  If you see somebody in need, if you really love them, you’ll help meet that need in a practical way.

There are few things more enjoyable than to get together for a meal and some genuine hospitality. The word hospitality literally means “stranger love.” Paul’s saying “Be kind to strangers.” And “Never grudge a meal or a bed to somebody” (Phillips Translation). Be willing, when you have the means, to give practical assistance. Show love for strangers.

Why aren’t we more hospitable? Primarily because we’re too just too busy. We’re preoccupied. Our schedules get so filled up that we don’t have time to be hospitable.  Whenever you give your time to somebody, that’s hospitality. It’s caring and not being self-centered. Practicing hospitality builds a loving church. Open your heart and open your home to others.

Also, if you want to grow a loving church, Do your best to bless people who speak evil or negatively of you vs. 14: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”

Do Christians ever persecute other Christians? Yes, they do. Someone has said, “The Christian army is the only army that shoots it’s wounded.”  Some Christians will get “carnal.” They will get “in the flesh.” And when they do they will make church life miserable.  Phillips translation says, “Bless those who try to make your life miserable.”

 The word “bless” literally means “speak well of.” When somebody criticizes and maligns you, you are to speak well of them. It’s the exact opposite of our natural inclination. My inclination is to criticize them back. If somebody strikes out at me, my natural inclination is to strike back.

Paul is saying: “Don’t get involved in backbiting against those who make life difficult for you. Do your best to find something in them to affirm.”  In other words find a way to bless them. How? By the way you talk about them. You can’t control what they say or how they act toward you, but you can control what you say or how you act toward them. That’s what God will hold us accountable for.

When somebody criticizes somebody else in the church, they shouldn’t go around bad mouthing the offending person back. Instead, they should bless them. Find something you can approve of. Sometimes it takes a lot of creativity to find it, but you can find something to approve & affirm in them.

This is no question one of the hardest commands to follow in the entire Bible. I have no illusions about this being easy.  (I got convicted reading this.)  But it’s a very practical “rubber meets the road” kind of counsel.  Paul makes it very concrete.

James counsels us: “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. There’s only one law giver and judge, the one who’s able to save and to destroy. But you, who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11).

CAVEAT: This doesn’t mean we are not to be discerning and wise regarding one another’s behavior and words. As one of my mentors puts it: “We may not be allowed to judge one another. But it’s OK to be “fruit inspectors.” In Matt. 7, speaking on the very subject of not judging one another, Jesus said of the false prophets: “You will know them by their fruit.” Don’t judge and backbite and criticize one another, but don’t be naive about right and wrong (truth and error) either. So…Be genuine. Open your heart and home. Be loving. Be hospital. And do your best to bless people who speak evil or negatively of you.

Here are two last things, we’re to do to help grow a loving church.

Be sympathetic to each other’s feelings vs. 15:“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” In other words, take into account each other’s moods. Be sensitive. We all love being around that kind of person, don’t we? When you’re up, they celebrate with you. When you’re down, they sympathize with you. Jesus did that.  He was at both the weddings and the funerals.  Everybody needs understanding. We all need somebody to listen to us. Paul says be sympathetic to each other’s feelings.

Finally, when it comes to loving a fellow believer, Don’t play favorites or show partiality vs. 16: (NASB): “Be of the same mind toward on another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.”

Nothing will destroy love and unity in a church faster than playing favorites. Paul says: Treat everybody with respect. Don’t think you’re too good for some people in the church. We’re all at different levels economically, age wise, and educationally. But the fact is, in Christ we’re one. That’s what counts! The book of James tells the story of the snobbish usher and the rich man who comes to church. The usher gives him the good seat down front. But he sticks the homeless kid with purple spiked hair, scraggly clothes, and B.O. at the back of the church. Paul says, “Don’t do that. Treat everybody the same. Be at home with humble folks and love everybody equally.”

“Lord, enable us to be genuine. Equip us to be courteous and devoted to our brothers and sisters in Christ in brotherly love. Establish us in contagious enthusiasm. Empower us to be positive and patient and prayerful. Encourage us not be too busy to be hospitable with our fellow believers. Empower us to do our best to not speak evil of a brother or sister who criticizes us. Help us not let them determine our response. Help us to engage with those who rejoice and weep, to be sensitive and sympathetic to other people’s feelings. Help us to eschew pride and partiality, to not play favorites even in the church. Remind us that we’re all one in the Body of Christ and to be at home with each other. And Lord, thank You for the practicality of Your Word. It has spoken to us — each of us in a different area. It reveals our motives. Help us to practice this word today and every day of our lives.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.”



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