The calling of the church to reconciliation in a time of division


WD Jonker

  1. John’s message of love

The message of 1 John 4:7–21 is a message of the reconciling love of God for sinful men, and of the mutual love amongst redeemed men, binding them together in a reconciled community. It is to this message that we direct ourselves at this time, when our hearts are disturbed by the situation of division in Church and society in our country. May the Lord guide us by His Spirit as we seek to understand what He has to say to us in these circumstances.

That the Church has a calling to serve the cause of reconciliation between conflicting parties in a time of strife and division, will presumably be accepted by all Christians. Not all of them will, however, agree on the way in which the Church should try to do it. I suppose that is why this topic has been chosen for discussion today. The prescribed portion of Scripture indicates that the organisers of this Conference wanted to suggest that Christian love is the only answer to the problems of human antagonism and enmity which we face. Let us try then to listen to the message of love as it comes to us in this chapter and in the New Testament as a whole.

The very first point that I want to stress, is that John in in keeping with the whole New Testament when he accentuates the paramount importance of Christian love in the message of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is not just that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, in order that we may be saved from the guilt of our sins. The good news is also that we are saved by Christ in order to become new creatures who may live in a new relation towards God and our fellow men.

The redemption of which the Bible tells us is nothing less than redemption from sin. But sin has a twofold disruptive effect: it alienates us from both God and our fellow men. Sin against God expresses itself not only in unbelief and rebellion against God, but inevitably also as enmity against other people. To be sure, the human rejection of God finds its expression in the rejection of our fellow men, and visa versa the rejection of our fellow men is tantamount to the rejection of God. That is why John without any explanation binds together the love towards God and towards our fellow men, saying that love for our brothers is a true sign of the presence of God in our hearts (vs 12), while on the other hand he states that it is a lie to say that we love God, if we hate our brothers (vs 20).

Redemption form sin therefore cannot mean anything less than taking away our enmity towards God, and at the same time delivering us from the enmity and hatred towards our fellow men. The very act of salvation, the new birth of which vers 7 speaks, is the restoration of love towards God and our fellow men within our hearts. If the redemption in Christ would have meant anything less than that, it would not have been complete redemption.

Love towards God and towards our fellow men is the fulfilment of the whole law of God. We are saved in Christ in order to be able to live in harmony and love with God and our brothers. The fruit of the Spirit is constituted in all its fullness by love. No wonder the apostle Paul calls love the greatest and most excellent fruit of the Spirit. God is love, says John, and those who are renewed after His image must be filled with the same kind of love that God manifests in all His activities towards man (vs 11,16). It is only when we love that we really know God (vs 8). The knowledge of God is not just something theoretical or intellectual; it is personal communion with God, a new way of life, in which we do not only love God for what He is in Himself and what He has done to us, but also in His creatures, sharing with Him the Spirit of love for all His creatures, and especially for those who share with us the redemption in Christ, our brothers in Christ.

Consequently, the New Testament teaches us that we cannot have God without our brother. We cannot be reconciled to God if we are not reconciled to our brother (cf. Matthew 10:23). We cannot say that we love God if we do not love our brother (vs 20–21). We cannot claim the forgiveness of our sins by God, if we do not forgive them that sin against us (Matthew 6:12, 14). Of course, the message of the New Testament is not that we are reconciled to God because we are reconciled to our brothers, let alone that reconciliation to our brother or our forgiving his sins is regarded as something by which we earn our reconciliation to God. It is precisely the other way round: we are being made free to be reconciled to our brother or to forgive him because God has reconciled us to Him in Christ. But – and this is the serious point about all this – the fact that we are willing to forgive our brother and to be reconciled to him is a sign and the fruit of our being reconciled to God, and if we display a total lack of love and do not want to be reconciled to our fellow men, it proves that we are not yet reconciled to God. That is what the parable of the unmerciful servant stresses very clearly in Matthew18:21 ff. And exactly the same truth is being proclaimed in 1 John 4:20.

When the New Testament continuously confronts us with the demand to become reconciled with our brothers, to love them and forgive them, to accept and to serve them, to bear their burdens, to wash their feet and to do unto them as Christ has done ta us, it is because this attitude of love is exactly the manifestation of our redemption in Christ, the living up to what we have received in our new birth, and therefore also the proof of our taking the gospel seriously. Our love of God should be demonstrated in our love for our brothers. If we do not love our brothers, we do not really love God. If we examine ourselves and become convinced that we lack this kind of love, we should repent and turn to God, asking Him to renew our relationship to Him and to fill us by His Spirit of love, so that we may become what we should be as children of God. Only then we will be able to be reconciled to our fellow men and to fulfill our calling in a time of division.

  1. What kind of love?

The second point that we must stress, is that the Bible demands a specific type of love. Christian love is totally different from what is normally called love in our ordinary conversations. Normally when we talk about love, we speak about what in Greek would be called “eros” or natural love. But real Christian love is what the Bible usually calls “agape”. It is to this Christian love that we are called. And it is this type of love which we are lacking.

Of course, we are not without some form of love. Most of us lead a more or less normal life in the sense that we try to keep peace with others, that we do not assault them willfully, that we manage to conform outwardly, at least, to the accepted norms of civil righteousness. We even love other people in some sense, especially those that belong to us, such as our wives, children and parents, our friends and kinsmen, and in a vague sense all who belong to our ethnic group etc. But it is easy to see that there is nothing especially Christian to this type of type of love. This type of love is found all over the world, and sometimes we will be astonished to see how this kind of love is practiced even more readily amongst less sophisticated non-Christian communities than in our so-called Western civilised world.

Now, nobody should disregard the value of this type of natural love. It is in itself a gift of God and the very fact that it is a major force in keeping our life in the world within the bounds of respectability and even provides us with a great amount of joy and happiness, is of great value to the human race as such. If this should fall away, the very characteristics of human life would disappear from society. But let us have no doubt about this: this is not yet the type of Christian love of which the Bible is speaking. It is in connection with this type of love that Jesus said that the tax collectors and the pagans do exactly the same as those so-called followers of Him who love and greet their own brothers only (Matthew 5:46–47). Surely, Christian love must be much more than this.

The trouble with this kind of natural love is that, if it is not infused by real Christian love, it is controlled by our sinful nature, with the result that, to a very large extent, it becomes nothing more than a form of self-love in disguise. We love those that love us, that have some worth for us, from whom we derive some or other form of benefit – in short: we love those that form an extension of our own self-interest. Natural love can easily be harmonised with self-centeredness, and it often stops when it is not returned or when we cannot any longer benefit from its object. That is why Jesus tells us that this kind of love is not yet the kind of love that is a sign of the kingdom of God. True Christian love must bear a resemblance with the kind of love that God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The Christian love of which the Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, in Philippians 2 and in 1 John 4 is the selfless love that is not seeking one’s own interests, but that of others. To be sure, Jesus Himself is the incarnation of this type of love, love reaching out ta worthless sinners, love willing to accept the cross for the sake of the lost (cf. 1 John 3:16).

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is actually demonstrating what this kind of love is. It is love for those in need of help, for those who have nothing to reward us, for those on our way for whom we may be a neighbour in the true sense of the word (Luke 10:36–37) Jesus tells His disciples: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke14:12–14, 1 John 3:11 ff, 17).

The quality of love that is in keeping with the kingdom of God differs radically from what we usually call love, because we are inclined to regard love as something instinctive, as the product of our natural inclinations. But the Bible tells us that real Christian love is a fruit of the Spirit of God, and therefore it is often in conflict with our natural and always opposed to our sinful inclinations. The most pointed way in which this can be formulated, is the command of Jesus to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). The apostle Paul explains that this type of love should enable us to bless those that persecute us, to bless when we would be inclined to curse, and to refrain from repaying evil with evil and from taking revenge (Rm. 12:14–21). Only this type of love really resembles the love of God, who demonstrated His love in giving His Son to die for us when we were still sinners, who reconciled us to Himself through the blood of His Son when we still were His enemies (Romans 5:8–10).

It is this type of love that the world really needs. This is the kind of love that we owe to the world. What a difference it would make if we could manifest this type of love in our situation in this country! That would simply be to live according to the righteousness of the kingdom of God. It would change our relationships completely. It would transcend the barriers that exist between us, barriers of a natural kind that can be expected to exist between people of such different racial, cultural and historical backgrounds as we are in South Africa. These barriers should not bar us from knowing, loving, trusting and helping one another. Especially within the church, the one body of Christ it should have been possible to love each other with this kind of Christian love. Whatever we may say about the calling of the church in this country, it is impossible not to mention the duty to practice this kind of love as a first priority.

The painful thing about us is that we have not been able to live up to this aspect of our calling. In many respects we have not risen above the level of our natural love for our own people. Even in the church we did not succeed to demonstrate to the world that we were living by a love that is able to transcend natural and sinful divisions between the children of God. In our ordinary life as citizens we tended to barricade ourselves behind the barriers of race and colour, class and culture. And although we knew that it should be different in the church, we were too reluctant to live up to the unique character of the church. We identified ourselves too unreservedly with the hopes and aspirations of the communities to which we belong by nature, and we did not have the courage to practice a Christian love that would perhaps have estranged many members of the church whose reactions were not guided by real Christian love, but by sinful natural love. We got entangled in political and social ideas and attitudes reflecting the natural inclinations of our peoples, and we were not able to transcend these inclinations in the reality of Christian love.

Consequently we did not succeed in demonstrating the love and reconciliation that the Bible is talking about. In many respects we got insensitive to the views and needs of one another. We did not listen to one another, and even when we tried to listen, we did not understand each other, because we were preoccupied by our own ideas and plans. We often lived and prayed behind closed doors. We even tended to absolutise (sic – GJD) our relative differences, because in many instances the driving force behind us was the natural love with its exclusive character, in stead of the Christian love which includes everybody. Natural love is a good and necessary thing, but the church can never live by it. The very essence of the church is that it is the community of those sharing in the love of God that binds all His children together, regardless of their natural differences.

In so far as the church in this country did not succeed in helping us to love each other with the love of Christ, it failed the cause of Christ in the world. It failed the kingdom of which it is the sign and first fruits. And if we talk about the calling of the church in a time of division and strife, we should start off by saying: the church must demonstrate real Christian love to the world. The church should again become what it really is meant to be. The best service that the church can render to the world is to live in the world as the true church of God, radiating the love of Christ in the world. Our first step should be to recover the unity of the church. We must start talking to one another, praying and planning together, in order to be able to find one another. That would lead us towards the reconciliation that is necessary amongst us, because if this reconciliation can take place within the church, it will bear fruit for our country as a whole. The light will shine through the windows of the church, and those outside of the church will see its beauty and share with us in the blessings of Gods grace.

  1. The calling of the church with regard to politics

If reconciliation becomes a reality within the church, we will be able to help the conflicting groups in society to get reconciled to one another. But let us be clear about the difficulty of this task. When we say that Christian love should be able to bring about reconciliation between individuals and conflicting groups, we must realise that this can only happen if the love of which we are talking is willing and strong enough to deal satisfactorily with the factors that have caused alienation and animosity. We are not just talking about a change in attitudes to one another. Of course, that is a prerequisite for any real form of reconciliation. But changing our attitudes on a personal basis is not enough. Reconciliation is only possible when the concrete problems within a situation of conflict (sic – GJD) are dealt with in away that is in keeping with the kind of love of which we have been speaking. That is already true of reconciliation between individuals. In the case of groups the situation is much more complex and the factors causing the estrangement are often of a structural nature.

We cannot escape the responsibility to look at the concrete problems that cause division and strife in our country. These problems are mainly of a social and political nature. If we talk about reconciliation in a time of division, we are talking about reconciliation between people who are divided socially and politically. The concrete question is: What is the calling of the Christian church with regard to the socio-political divisions that are tearing our country apart? What does the Christian love demand of us in this specific situation?

With regard to the calling of the church in socio-political matters, we can distinguish between three divergent views. (a) Some Christians believe that the church has no calling as far as these matters are concerned, because the calling of the church is of a purely spiritual nature. (b) Others defend the view that the church has a direct Political role, because they interpret the message of the Bible as a message of political liberation. Consequently, they assign to the church the task to associate itself with those who are involved in a struggle for liberation and to further their cause. (c) Lastly there are those who believe that the church has a spiritual calling, but that, if the church takes this seriously, it will not only have an indirect influence on politics but will also have to play a critical and prophetic role with regard to politics in the light of the Biblical message of the righteousness of the kingdom of God. I believe that this third point of view is the correct one.

As for the first view, it holds that Jesus is a Saviour in a purely spiritual sense. He came to affect the forgiveness of our sins and to give us peace with God. He had nothing to do with social and political matters. He refused to become an earthly messiah or a revolutionary leader. When He was asked whether taxes should be paid to Caesar, He answered that we should give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s (Lk. 20:25). This is interpreted as clear evidence that Jesus deliberately refused to get involved in political matters, and that He actually urged people to submit themselves to the powers that be. The conclusion is made that if the church wants to fallow Jesus, it should likewise keep out of the politics, except for preaching obedience to those that are in power. This point of view is often defended by referring to Romans 13:1 and to the obvious fact that neither Jesus nor the apostles worked for the abandonment of slavery or any other form of social and political injustice. And the final conclusion is quite clear, viz: the church should have nothing to do with politics. Politics should be left to the political parties and the state.

The trouble with this kind of position is that is mostly favoured by people who have themselves deep political commitments and who benefit from the political status quo. If they say that the church should keep out of politics, they actually mean that the church should not criticise the prevailing state of affairs. In fact, they very often see the church as a powerful factor for the conservation of the political status quo. We should, however, realise very clearly that it is simply not possible for the church to ignore political realities, because these realities affect the lives of people, and the church may not remain silent if political measures cause harm and suffering to human beings, or jeopardise the development of their human potential. If the church remains silent on these issues, it is in fact untrue to its calling to proclaim the Word of God in every situation. The church can also by its silence in reality condone and support the prevailing political structures. In a certain sense it is impossible for the church to stay out of politics, because even its silence has political significance.

But what is more, the argument from Scripture is also an over-simplification. Of course, it is true that Jesus was not a political leader or revolutionary figure. He did not associate Himself with any political group, much to the disappointment of the Zealots who had hoped that He would be a political liberator for the Jews. He refused to assume worldly power or to use force of violence to transform His society. When the crowds wished to make Him king, He went away (John 6:15). He cannot be understood as a political messiah in any sense of the word. For this reason, we can never agree with those who try ta politicise the whole Bible and to portray Jesus as a political liberator. This vision of Jesus is very often defended by the protagonists of a political theology which translates the whole message of the Bible into the terms of political liberation and as a result also urges the church to become politically involved and to further the cause of a revolutionary overthrow of the political status quo. This is, of course, typical of the second viewpoint which we have mentioned in connection with the calling of the church with regard to politics. We reject this view, because we are convinced that the Bible does not represent Jesus, nor the salvation brought about by him in this way. Against such a radical politization (sic – GJD) of the gospel and the church we must maintain that this is a misrepresentation of the message of the Bible, because it has no place for the spiritual dimension of Biblical eschatology, reduces the message of the gospel to fit only social and political needs, and easily fits into revolutionary and ideological patterns of thought which are more humanistic than Christian.

However, rejecting the political interpretation of the gospel does not mean that we accept the view that Christ was an a-political figure who brought about a salvation that has only meaning for the individual soul and our eternal destination. The preaching of Jesus and the redemption accomplished by Him have a profound meaning for our whole life, including our political life. He preached and effectuated the righteousness of the kingdom of God, which has direct consequences for the totality of our human existence. The salvation that Jesus brought to totality world does not only have effect for our eternal life; it is of immediate value for our earthly existence.

When Jesus refused to become a political messiah in the sense of the Zealots, and when He refrained from giving political blueprints to change the structures of society, it was not because these things did not matter to Him or because He withdrew Himself from these mundane things in order to foster a purely spiritual communion with God. Neither did He accept the situation as it had been in a spirit of passive acquiescence or because He held that those in power should be obeyed uncritically. But what Jesus had in mind for this world was much more and much deeper than the political liberation of the Jews from the suppression by the Romans. If that were His only goal, He would have been forgotten long ago, or would only have been a name in the history of Jewish resistance. In reality, Jesus came to bring about a liberation and a salvation of a much more profound nature than any political liberation can ever be: the liberation of people to seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God and to live like children of the kingdom, knowing that, wherever that righteousness would be practiced, liberation in all the other senses of the word, including political liberation, would come about as a fruit of it.

In His earthly life Jesus illustrated the righteousness of the kingdom of God in the way He behaved. He gave His love to all who surrounded and needed Him. He ignored the harsh customs of the Jews and made friends with the tax collectors and the sinners. He did not reject people because they were rich, but He called them to a new relationship towards material riches and to the acceptance of responsibility for the poor. He undoubtedly showed special regard for the poor and the needy, but not for ideological or political reasons, but because of His love and mercy. He did not take sides with one group against the other, but He stood on the side of righteousness against every form of sin and unrighteousness. In His small body of disciples, He brought together men of different background and persuasion, such as Zealots and tax-collectors. He practised a love that would change all those who came into contact with Him, challenging them to seek the righteousness of the kingdom of God. In the long run this must have and did have consequences also for social and political matters.

It is an over-reaction against an individualistic and pietistic view of Christianity when people start politicizing the Christian faith. But the church should not lend itself to either of these two possibilities. The church should practice the love that it preaches and proclaim the righteousness and mercy of the kingdom over against every form of unrighteousness, oppression and exploitation. But the church should not side up with political movements, because that would make it impossible for the church to act as a power of reconciliation, being itself involved as a party within the struggle. The church can have a profound effect on the social and political life of the nation, but only if the church has the quality of love of which the Bible speaks. It is this love only that would make it possible for the church to act as a go-between, bringing the conflicting parties together, pleading with them to look at each other in a new way and to accept each other as co-patriots. The church will have to guide us spiritually to take responsibility for one another, and not to act like Cain, “who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother” (1 John 3:12).

It is not the task of the church to practice politics, but it is the task of the church to practice and propagate the love of Christ and thus to bring together in love and understanding people who by nature could only have hated each other. But in order to do that, the church must repent and seek anew the face of the Lord. And the different churches must come together and find a new way of looking at each other and living with each other. The churches will have to find each other as far as the implications of their message is concerned. And only then will the churches be able to play a credible role in bringing about reconciliation in our country. May the Lord help us to do it!