Frenemies of Christ

Have you met the guy who says:

Yes, I’m a follower of Jesus, but I’m not a “churcher.” I have fellowship with my Christian friends, we pray together, we talk over coffee, we discuss the Bible, we have a commitment to hold each other accountable. These guys are my “church.” And they are more serious than regular church members about their faith. Doesn’t that fulfill God’s expectation that I meet with other believers? [1]

Church: "EVERY-body's invited!"
Church: “EVERY-body’s invited!”

By all means, get together with other believers. Church is not what you do for an hour on Sunday morning. On the other hand, being the church must include a regular, open meeting with all types of believers who draw together at a predetermined place and time. Meeting with a friend requires a special invitation; everyone is invited to the church meeting.

Sociologists and students of brain chemistry have proven that, no matter how broad-minded we think we are, “like” gravitates to “like”. It’s not in our nature to feel comfortable around people of different personalities or education or politics or level of spiritual zeal, and our brain is hardwired to resist diversity. This is why it’s a constant battle if any group survives without breaking into cliques or splitting up. It’s a miracle, literally, how any church can stick together.

At church you run into those you like, those you don’t, people you look down on and people with whom you connect. When you pull back from a non-homogeneous assembly (Community Church, let’s say) and pour your energy into people who are like you (St. Arbucks, if you will), you are sifting through God’s people and selecting out those with whom you have empathy. And it is at that point that we might swallow a misunderstanding about the gospel.

This verse sounds way too harsh to apply to this scenario, but hear me out:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars. (1 John 4:20)

A comment about style – John wrote in black-and-white terms: life/death; righteousness/sin. You are righteous or you are sinful; you are in the light or in the darkness; you love or you hate. No shades of gray for John, no off-whites, no violet-blacks.

How does John define the verb “hate”? Certainly not as my dictionary does, “to feel intense dislike for or a strong aversion towards.” Under that definition, a Christian could be able claim, “Why, I don’t hate anyone! I can’t think of a single person toward whom a feel an intense dislike.” But for John, hate = whatever is not a positive expression of divine love and, as we would say, love that can only come through the Spirit. Hate is whatever is not-love. Hate is that which does not fulfill “Love one another deeply [or fervently, or constantly] from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

We might paraphrase 1 John 4:20 this way – Those who say, “I love God,” and do not also love their brothers or sisters with supernatural love, are liars.

“The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.” [2] We just re-watched “Casablanca.” My favorite bit is when Peter Lorrie as Ugarte says: “You despise me, don’t you?” Rick replies: “If I gave you any thought I probably would.” Non-love may include loathing; but also apathy, insensibility, scorn, avoidance, aloofness. It is not just crossing the street to avoid someone; it’s also not taking the effort to cross the street to encounter someone.

When they asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” what happens in the story? Did the priest hate or loathe the injured traveler? Did the Levite? No, they just looked the other way. The point is, if they didn’t rescue the man, they were not loving him; as John would say, they hated him.

And who is my brother or sister? At the very least, all for whom Christ died, and particularly those within my church. The result of non-love might well be: “because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed” (1 Cor 8:11 NLT).

Here are some ways to be unloving to our fellow believers.

The Dropouts:

You just knew that Hebrews 10 will come along sooner or later:

And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25 HCSB).

As another version has it, “Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship” (CEV). The author is not speaking of “getting together” but of regular meetings of the whole congregation, to which all members are summoned. He uses a verb that is related to “synagogue,” the weekly constituted meetings of the Jewish community. [3] The author implies that the Hebrew Christians felt a strong temptation to “lie low”, since attending church meetings might draw attention to them, leading to persecution. [4]

On the other hand, here is an incident when Peter stopped “eating with” non-Jewish believers (Gal 2:11-14). This may have entailed not attending regular church meetings where gentiles would be present. Paul says his motive was “fear” – probably he dreaded the hassle that stricter Jewish believers would give him; maybe he justified himself by saying that he was only trying to preserve peace in the church.

Peter was afraid of going to church because of the unpleasantness; the Hebrews were afraid of persecution. Poor excuses? Maybe so, but at least they had better reasons than simple distaste of other personality types.

The Posse:

If we handpick our Christian companions, surrounding ourselves with people with whom we are socially and spiritually congenial, we are not “doing church” – we are going around with a “posse,” a hand-picked group of close friends to hang with.

The local church is non-homogenous, it is a group of people brought together by the cross. It is spiritually healthy for us and for others if we work with people we normally would not gravitate to.

Frenemies of Christ:

Let’s use another contemporary word, a combination of “friend” and “enemy.” One definition of a frenemy is “The type of ‘friend’ whose words or actions bring you down.” In this case, if I do not actively show love to all believers within my reach, whom Jesus loves, I make myself a poor friend of Jesus – I am a friend who causes him grief, a “frenemy.” I discriminate between people for whom Christ went to the cross.

I am a fan of smaller, less formal churches. But if anyone imagines that meeting in a house is the answer to our problems, since “it’s the way they used to do it,” remember that it raises as many questions and creates as much friction as it solves. And a house church model did not keep Peter or the Hebrews from disengaging. Plus, only the Spirit can create love for one all other believers.

To be sure, some churches are shows, and it doesn’t matter if the service is traditional or contemporary: preachers or singers are the stars; people attend and their donations are the entry price. Instead, the church meeting must be what God says it is: an assembly for prayer, confession, healing, Scripture reading, teaching, mutual encouragement, regular observance of the sacraments. A service that combines a few songs and a long sermon is not following the apostolic model; a service that has a bit of prayer and a byte of Bible reading is not apostolic; a meeting that consists in platform-and-pulpit-banter would not be recognizable to Paul, as would be a church where no-one knows you or bothers to find out. I can also testify that I have attended church meetings, where I came out more spiritually drained than I was when I entered.

Let the church bear its responsibility to be the church, and let us bear our responsibility to be the church.

To quote an early church father:

Make every effort to come together [a word related to the term “synagogue”] more frequently to give thanks and glory to God. For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith. (Ignatius to the Ephesians 13.1 Holmes).

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Other Post:

“Why Didn’t I Drop Out of Church”


[1] So that I don’t kill this essay with a thousand qualifications, I’ll add:

A. Yes, much of what we have said about Christian posses could also apply to cliques that exist within a church. These realities do not overturn my argument.

B. A note about the church of the apostolic era. (1) Paul’s churches typically met in small rooms, crowded apartments or in villas the size of medium homes today. The early home church in Dura Europos accommodated perhaps 50, and that would be the larger size of other home churches in the Roman Empire. This means that the average gathering would have been from 10-50 people. (2) That sociological information means that the early church had an entirely different dynamic than its counterpart of today. When Paul said “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26), he seriously meant that on any given Sunday a high percentage of attendees might lead at some moment. (3) All things being equal, the larger the church today, the less likely it is that an individual might provide leadership during the church meeting; a smaller percentage of people contribute music, teaching, leadership, and the church becomes professionalized. I say “all things being equal”, since a large church with a thriving cell group ministry might have a “flatter” leadership pyramid than a church of 75 in which one pastor does all the ministry for the group.

C. Meeting over coffee is an excellent place for mutual accountability or for mentoring, both of which are of great value.

D. Of course, even if we associate with a conventional church, there is still an element of picking and choosing one that suits us, that looks like us. It’s an important topic, but for another day.

[2] This aphorism found on a slip of paper, delivered via a cookie baked and stuffed at Wonton Food, Inc., Brooklyn, New York. I thought it sounded familiar, and I found out that it came from Elie Wiesel.

[3] Ceslas Spicq captures it thus: “…in Heb 10:25, episynagōgē is a religious term, designating not a “grouping together” or a society of any sort, but a meeting for worship, at more or less regular intervals, of Hebrew Christians in a set place, in a certain ‘house’ in an unknown city”. See Spicq, Theological lexicon of the New Testament 2:64.

[4] “The avoidance of public meetings on the part of Jewish Christians may have been caused by the understandable desire to escape persecution, whether from the Romans or from the non-Christian Jewish community. Perhaps in the light of past experiences (see vv. 32–34) as well as threats concerning the imminent future (12:4), it was deemed wise to avoid attracting attention.” D. Hagner, Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 166.

“Frenemies of Christ,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

15 thoughts on “Frenemies of Christ

  1. Good stuff. Thanks.
    Lots of challenges, things to chew over.

    Loved this: “This aphorism found on a slip of paper, delivered via a cookie baked and stuffed at Wonton Food, Inc., Brooklyn, New York.”

    Take heart, it was not my only take away… 😉

  2. Challenging on many levels here. I could not agree more with your (implicit?) admonition re: thriving, healthy “cell” groups. My wife and I have always operated under the basic principle that “effective ministry always occurs in the context of relationships.” Looking at the back of peoples’ heads you don’t / hardly know while listening to one talking head, then offering a high five on the way out to the parking lot a church does not make. Thanks very much for writing, Gary!

  3. Gary,
    I have met some, whom may be described “warriors” or rather anti-establishment churches;often with good reason, though even a one, or two man “church” can eventually devolve into a ritualistic formal body. I must confess that I have somewhat unconsciously morphed into this state myself!
    Is there such a thing as the definitive church? I think that most would try to emulate the Apostolic model, if indeed it is possible to do so, in order to be as Biblical as possible? And in my opinion at least, I think that we are in what some would describe as the “post church era”? This may have something to do with the specific apostasy Paul speaks of in 2 Thessalonians 2.3?
    I think I have got your handle on cessationism, and as you are a “reformed Christian” you have put it very well!

    1. Hi Colin, blessings.

      Let’s begin with 2 Thess 2:3, about which I have written in another post,

      For 2000 years, someone or another has claimed that the church is apostate and that therefore it is impossible to stay connected with the institution. I am going to write another post on the topic in the near future. For the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially, the Church of England was antichrist. Harold Camping argued the same thing in the last few years. People always imagine that things cannot get worse and that the End Times are upon us, but the lesson of history is that it is unlikely.

      I think there is an apostolic model. Nevertheless, I do not believe that God wants us to limit ourselves only to those features of the church which happen to be mentioned in the New Testament. There are plenty of worthwhile ministries today that may or may not have existed in the first century, such as Youth Groups, Sunday School, literature work, tract writing, multimedia, and on and on. We know very little of what the apostolic church meetings looked like, and I’m not convinced the NT gives us the full picture or intends to do so.

      The NT church met in homes, typically but not always, and while house churches have many benefits – even beyond having to pour so much time and money into a physical plant – I don’t believe that’s canon law for every church in every age. They met in homes in NT times because that was the only option they had.

      Many blessings!

  4. Gary,
    A very well balanced essay in my opinion. As a believer that came to faith in my mid thirties, and “jumped in” to church, I quickly became disillusioned. Obviously I “jumped in” to the “wrong?” church and when I said to the Reverend that I didn’t agree with evolution, and his “kingdom now” beliefs, I was called a “grumbler and a fault finder”.
    I am surrounded literally by 00s of ritualistic and formalist churches!
    What do you say to those who claim Matthew 18.20 IS the definitive church? And as you somewhat alluded toward the subject; would you call yourself a cessationist?

    1. Hi Colin, always great to hear from you.

      My opinion is that every church meeting, from a tiny house group to a huge meeting, is formalistic and ritualistic. Even a brand-new and consciously anti-ritual group will develop its own forms and rituals within the month; that’s simple the nature of human beings. I sometimes visit a church (not Roman) that is more liturgical than my own, and I don’t believe it is any more or less alive and holy for, let’s say, using the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or a confession of sin.

      I do not accept the term cessationist, since to me it signals, no so much a theological stance, so much as a culture of defensiveness and skittishness concerning the Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of live, whose presence we must seek in order to follow the gospel, serve God in power, live a holy life, see the conversion of our friends, build up others.

      Or did you mean something else?

      I’m not sure what you mean by Matt 18:20 being the definitive church. In context, Jesus isn’t speaking about regular meetings but about disciplinary action, where the “two or three” includes the witnesses of someone’s sin.

  5. LOL on note #2. 😀
    Oh, boy is this a tough one and all too common since we are all naturally subject to our own preferences and comfort zones.
    There’s one more little point I’ve seen that ties in: leadership who see formerly faithful members suddenly drop out and do nothing, zippo, to find out why. If they really cared about those people, you know they would check up to see if they are OK or if there is a major blindspot in the church.

    1. Absolutely agree with you, Cheri, it’s a tricky issue, and I’ve been writing this post bit by bit for a couple of years. The point you mention is a major problem. Maybe leaders are too afraid of appearing obtrusive, but the role of the shepherd IS to be proactive.

      So, a pastor says that all of the young adults have fled the church, and he chalks it up to the superficiality of today’s twenty-somethings. But: where is the passion to track them down?

  6. Good exhortation on not being isolated. Although I’m a proponent of smaller churches with more interaction, we as a group have had to deal with the endless barrage of Christians looking for a group that they can perpetuate their false teaching, quirky, unchristlike behavior, or “us four and no more” attitude.
    One thing we do that seems to help is celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a full meal each week. It is difficult to have indifference or even hostility with a brother while eating together.
    BTW in India Christians will eat a cracker and a sip of juice in the “pew” with members of a different caste, but will not eat a full meal together, inside or outside the church building.

    Thanks for your service!

    1. I’m probably going to publish a sequel in which I address the dangers of small groups, and yes, the risk of false teaching does seem to rise.

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