A friend recently told me about a church that has replaced their Sunday services (or just some of them? I’m not sure which) with service (the verb). Instead of meeting to worship God, they go out into the community and serve others. I felt a pit in my stomach, but I didn’t fully understand at the time why this hit me so wrong. My friend said this church wants to be the “hands and feet of Jesus” rather than meeting in a stuffy building to read and learn about God. Exchanging corporate worship for group service is a pretty extreme example, but judging by the music and literature coming out of the church at large, it seems that our focus has become myopic in our emphasis on loving other people.
Am I really going to do a blog post about how we need to focus less on loving others? As a church, don’t we need more emphasis on service? Don’t people need to get out of their pews and into the streets? Aren’t there lost souls out there just waiting to hear about Jesus? Well, yes and no. Yes, these are good things, but no, they are not the main things, and the minute they become the main thing, they become pointless and fruitless.
The golden rule is arguably the most recognizable tenant of the Christian faith: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s beautiful, and can be incorporated into any religion, and will make life better wherever it’s applied. But it’s not the greatest commandment; it’s listed second! And the first commandment applied will make life rich, abundant, joyous, full, alive: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, ESV).
What does this mean? Isn’t the way to love God to serve and love others? After all, Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV). But is that a directive or a promise? If it’s a directive only, then we are constantly trying to prove our love through our service. If it’s a promise (or a directive and a promise), and I think it is, then the obedience is a natural outpouring of love, and our focus should be on loving God more and not on carrying out only the letter of the law regarding the commandments.
Still not convinced? The story of Mary and Martha is an explicit teaching of this concept. Martha was “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40, ESV). But Jesus chooses Mary to commend, Mary who was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching, not serving the poor or even serving Jesus directly. “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke10:42, ESV).
Jesus talks of a similar result in John 15, with the parable about the vine and the branches. If you abide in Jesus, you will bear fruit. What fruit? Peace, joy, love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Fruit comes from spending time with Christ, in His Word and in prayer. How do you know how to abide in Christ, how to love God? By reading your Bible, praying, and attending a church where people who have been called by God teach the Word — ministers of the Word who make it their vocation to know the contexts of the Scriptures and the original languages and the historical teachings of the church (on important matters such as the Trinity, which are not laid out explicitly in a single, specific passage of Scripture). We were not created to serve others. We were created to glorify God and enjoy him. If we are focusing on that, we will serve others, make no mistake, but this rightly-ordered service will bring glory to God and enjoyment to us. Genuine expressions of love must originate from Christ, be expressed through Christ, and ultimately present people to Christ.
CS Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.” I think the same principle can be applied here. If you aim for the first commandment, and you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you will get the second thrown in: loving others as yourself will be natural and genuine, and service will be second nature. But my fear is that if we spend our time in churches that aim exclusively at the second commandment, we will not only lose out on the riches of loving God wholly; we will also fail at truly loving others.