One of the realities that Christians face with some regularity and difficulty is the challenge of loving brothers in error.
All three of those words are important: loving. brothers. error.
Given the harsh world around us full of violence and terror and murder, the Church is called to be a massively different kind of place. We have the blood of Jesus that is for the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth. We have the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, who convicts us of sin, who binds us together in Christ.
One of my favorite lectures I have ever heard was by Gordon Fee at Erskine Theological Seminary. I am paraphrasing, but as he explained the role of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s letters, he said that for Paul, the Church was proof of the reality of the Holy Spirit. The Church is a body of believers from every tribe, every class, every race, men and women, young and old, slave and free, etc. The fact that the Church exists, the fact that we can love one another (when we have no business doing so — humanly speaking) this proves that the Church is no human organization. We are no Elks Club, no political party — there is something supernatural that makes people of such opposites into friends. This is true. This is glorious. And we must endeavor to keep this unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).
And yet, the Holy Spirit still requires us not to associate with some believers. It is one thing to be obedient to the commands of Jesus, in excommunication, letting some be to us as “tax collectors and sinners” (Mt. 18:15-17). This is still terribly difficult. It is a terrible duty to hand someone over to Satan who arrogantly continues in their sin (1 Cor. 5:1-7). Many churches are even disobedient to Jesus in this regard. But perhaps it is yet more difficult in some ways for there to be some believers who are not outside the Church but who are still in grave error. How do you love those kinds of brothers? Listen to the Holy Spirit — the same Holy Spirit that binds us together in unity with many we have differences with:
“Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly… if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15)
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
“But avoid foolish controversies… for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing to do with him, knowing that such person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Tit. 3:9-11)
The same Holy Spirit of concord and unity requires us not to associate with some brothers, to avoid some brothers, to have nothing to do with some brothers — not counting them as enemies, but admonishing them as brothers.
In other words, the way that some brothers must be loved is by avoiding them, admonishing them, not keeping company with them, and withdrawing from them. This must not be done in a spirit of bitterness or malice. It must be done honestly asking God to use it to bring about reconciliation, peace, healing, restoration of fellowship, etc. But it is not obedience to God to go on pretending that everything is OK except for the fact that your brother has begun bowing down to pictures, kissing them, and praying to them. It is not loving to go on pretending that everything is OK except for the fact that they are routinely posting slanderous lies about godly pastors online. It is not loving to go on pretending that everything is OK and we’re still friends even though they are stirring up dissension in families or the Church.
No, the unity that we share in the Holy Spirit is a unity in the truth. It is not a false unity. It is not a pretend unity. It is not a hypocritical unity. It is only true unity when it is unity in the Truth. This does not necessitate that we agree with everyone about everything. Not hardly. But where we disagree, we have honest disagreements, not accusing one another of underhandedness or lies or deceit. I can maintain unity with a baptist brother who holds his views honestly, and does not accuse his presbyterian brothers of wickedness in baptizing babies. But you cannot accuse your brother of evil and lies and wickedness, and then honestly want to be friends. You cannot join a church that anathematizes your old church, and then honestly say its nothing personal. No, that’s pious sounding hogwash. That’s manipulation. At best, that’s oblivious folly, and at worst, it’s straight up evil.
Love in Christ is built on grace, and grace certainly covers multitudes of sins. But grace is not a wet blanket that pretends away sin and error. Grace names sin and then actually puts it away. But bitterness names it, lists it, memorizes it, remembers it, shares it, and weaponizes it. And godliness means staying far away from those kinds of people.
Lastly, it should not be surprising of course that many of the most divisive people will run to these very same verses to find comfort in their sin. Remember, Paul warned that they would have “an appearance of godliness” while denying its power. Some of the worst offenders have deep passive-aggressive tendencies, claiming to want peace and unity and healing, while insisting that the dagger they’re wielding behind their back is just for decoration. They will accuse the righteous of being the divisive ones and claim that they have only sought peace but now they’ve been forced into separation. It was no different in Paul’s day. He was hounded by these very accusations as well. And he assures us that all who desire to live a godly life will suffer these same persecutions (2 Tim. 3:12).
And on the flip side, it needs to be pointed out that certain prickly, perfectionistic, and legalistic Christians are far too quick to pull this trigger on their brothers. Remember that love is patient, kind, long-suffering, and keeps no record of wrongs. If you have a long list of people you’re avoiding in this way, you should do a serious gut check. If you are out of fellowship because your old friends might have one time said something that might have insinuated something bad, get a grip. But just because people will do this the wrong way, doesn’t mean the righteous must not do what is right.
So what is to be done? Live the kind of life that makes these accusations manifestly false (2 Tim. 3:10). Speak gently to your wife, respectfully to your husband, discipline your children with joy and patience, be quick to confess your sins, quick to forgive, receive correction well, be friends with Christians that believe differently than you do, work hard with your hands, tithe faithfully, pray earnestly, and worship in accordance with Scripture.
And trust Jesus to sort it out.