Poverty in churches and friendships?


[‘encouragement’, ‘exhortation’, for life and ministry]

April 2024

Peter Adam

Dear friends,

I have become vividly aware of the relative poverty of much church life and of Christian friendships. How easy it is to provide social support and sympathy and concern to each other, but for that to be little more than what our world offers. We need to learn and practise deeper and richer relationships. We need ‘spiritual support’, as well as ‘social support’! We need more than superficial relationships with other believers.

Make no mistake! I love social support and sympathy and concern! I praise and thank God for it! It is a wonderful gift of God’s common grace that we all receive through friends who are believers, and friends who are not.

But our after-church conversations, our Home Groups, Bible study groups, our Christian friendships, and our friendships with other people in ministry should be much deeper and much richer than that.

Notice, for example that there are some topics we do not often discuss in ‘social support’, such as our prayer life; our giving to gospel ministry; our common temptations; our progress [or regress!] as a believer; our sins; our deepest needs and prayers. Nor do we challenge each other deeply, correct or rebuke each other, and nor are we likely to pray together when we meet. [How long is it since you prayed at the end of conversation with someone after church, or prayed with a friend?]

By way of contrast, ‘spiritual support’ will include open honesty about our prayer life, our giving, our temptations, our sins, our deepest desires and prayers. And it will include giving and receiving loving challenges, corrections, teaching, and rebuke. The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice’ [Prov 12:15]. ‘Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses’ [Prov 27:6].

‘Social support’ without ‘spiritual support’ is a sign of worldliness. ‘Social and spiritual support’ is a sign of Christian maturity. The Christian life is not designed to flourish without positive mutually supportive relationships: and those relationships include members of our church, believing friends, and, for those in gospel ministry, others in gospel ministry. [How long is it since you prayed with a friend in ministry?]

Here are some of the ‘one another’, ‘each other’ instructions and expectations of the New Testament. Please notice that they are all different expressions of what it is to ‘love one another’ [John 13:34]. And I follow each one with an impertinent comment or question!

Love in life, attitude, and actions:
‘through love become slaves to one another’ [Gal 5:13].Do you love others by humble and uncomfortable service, or only when you can use your comfortable strengths?
‘bearing with one another in love’ [Ephes 3:2].I find it easy with people I like, but not so easy with others! How about you!
‘bear one another’s burdens’ [Gal 6:2].The same question!
‘forgiving one another’ [Ephes 4:32].The same question!
‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ [Ephes 5:21].Ah, being subject to others in church: to their music, their patterns of relating…
‘you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more’ [1 Thess 4:9,10].Yes, you do love your friends in ministry. Good! But do you look for ways to increase your love for them? How might you do this?
‘maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins’ [1 Pet 4:6].The closer we are to people, the more likely we are to notice their sins. Does your love cover their sins? Or are their sins a reason to move away from them?
‘serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received’ [1 Pet 4:10].Are you happy serving others? Are you happy when other serve you?
‘all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another’ [1 Pet 5:5].What a good idea! Especially when our relationships with other ministers are so easily contaminated by envy, competition, pride, or despair and anger!
‘Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other’ [Col 3:13].Forbearance is when we accept people who are different to us, who are not attractive to us. Forgiveness is when people harm us. Do you recognise the distinction between the two? Do you do both?
‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ [1 Jn 3:16].What is a recent example of your extravagant and sacrificial love for a fellow believer, or for your church, or for gospel ministry?
LOVE IN WORDS SPOKEN AND HEARD[This is more risky, and so more rare!]
‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing’ [1 Thess 5:11].Paul does not mean social encouragement, but spiritual encouragement, exhortation, challenge, in order to build others up, by teaching them, reminding them of great gospel truths, and urging them to trust God and his promises [See the parallel words in 4:18].
‘But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’ [Heb 3:13]How long is it since someone has warned you that you have been hardened by your deceitful sin? How long is it since you have exhorted someone not to be hardened by their deceitful sin? Why is it such a long time? Why not ‘every day’?
‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ [Col 3:16].The word of God dwells in us richly, not with ever longer sermons, but by the mutual ministry of teaching and admonishing each other. Does this happen in your church? Does this happen in your friendships? How long since you have done this, or received this?
‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed’ [Jas 5:16].Wow! What an embarrassing instruction! It would be tedious and time-consuming to confess all our sins to each other! But perhaps there are some times when it would be good to do so. It makes us accountable to others, and it encourages others to see us still dealing with our sins. Have you ever done this? [My most recent confession of sin to others has been that of self-pity, just for the record!]
‘Therefore encourage one another with these words’ [1 Thess 4:18].Yes, I quoted this verse above. Paul is telling the Thessalonian Christians to tell each other what he has just written. The more we hear God’s words from the lips of others, the more we will believe them. Do you do this?

And here are some activities we should avoid!

‘[Live in harmony with one another;] do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are’ [Rom 12:16].

Many of us assume a natural superiority, an assumption which is obvious to others, even if invisible to us. Stop answering all the questions! Practise saying ‘I don’t know’; ‘I am sorry’; I made a mistake’; and ‘what do you think?’

‘Owe no one anything, [except to love one another]’ [Rom 13:8].

We are often more aware of our generosity to others than their generosity to us. Try to excel in love!

‘Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another’ [Rom 14:13].

Do you ever do this? What does it achieve?

‘But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense’ [2 Cor 10:12].

Is there anything more destructive than comparing ourselves with others? We either despair, or become arrogant. Why choose to poison yourself, and also damage your relationships [with those with whom you have compared yourself]?

‘however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’ [Gal 5:15].

A bad case! Have you ever experienced it? Have you ever done it? Have you ever rebuked or challenged someone else for doing it?

‘Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another’ [Gal 5:26].

Here we go again! Perhaps a special danger among gifted and able people, high achievers, notable leaders…

‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, [and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you]’ [Ephes 4:31,32].

How often sharing in the life of the church includes experiencing bitterness, wrath, anger, competition, envy…

And how often those in ministry end up in the same evil swamp.

Ask God to make you kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving … just like God!

‘See that none of you repays evil for evil, [but always seek to do good to one another and to all]’ [1 Thess 5:15].

Revenge is sweet, and often increases in violence. When you receive evil, always seek to do good.

‘Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged’ [Jas 5:9].

Nothing like a good old grumble. Can’t do any harm. Or can it?

Which is better: grumble pie, or humble pie?

These are really challenging instructions! I suspect that a common response is to avoid close relationships, keep a non-intrusive, non-disclosing distance, a polite avoidance, a strategic retreat from spiritual support, so that we remain distantly polite, but spiritually remote.

When we do this, we try to avoid doing harm, or endangering our relationships, but end up not helping others, and not being helped ourselves.

We sometimes say, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. But God tells us to love our neighbours, not retreat from them. As Jesus said, ‘love one another’ [John 13:34].

‘Gracious God, please help us all to love the fellow members of our churches, to love our friends, and to love our friends in ministry, by our lives, our deed, and our words. Grow us to maturity in Christ, for his sake. Amen.’