Nearly every church that I am aware of has adopted differing practices since the recent virus scare began. Some churches continued to meet during the state lock downs, and other churches left their building empty, meeting online through various video conference technologies. Some churches have gone back to life as normal with a pump bottle of hand sanitizer near the front door, and others have taken extreme measures of sanitation and hygiene.
One of the easiest things for churches to do in response to this is to bite and devour one another.
James tells us, on the other hand, to count it joy as brothers, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” James 1.2-3.
James’ comments are interesting considering the time in which he wrote to the brothers. This letter was written during the early persecution of the church we find in the book of Acts. The church is being persecuted in Jerusalem, the Apostles are being beaten and imprisoned and a newly installed servant of the church, Stephen, is martyred. Church members were losing family members, homes, land, everything for following Jesus and His Apostles. In the middle of this fiery trial James writes to the church, “Count it joy brothers.”
We can easily imagine how quickly the back biting and devouring would occur. We can hear people in the church say things like this:
“The Apostles are the ones gathering people together in a time of persecution. How dare they! Don’t they know they are endangering the lives of their neighbors!”
“The Apostles and elders are to blame for Dad and Uncle Joe being taken to prison!”
“Stephen was killed because he followed the leadership of the church!”
“Perhaps it would be better to forsake this way of Christ and go back to the Temple worship of the Jews.”
Blaming, tension, and perhaps even violence could have risen in the first century church, but the Apostle James exhorts the persecuted church to count it all joy, brothers.
That word, ‘brothers’ is an important word in the Bible. We do not have to read very far into the text before we find brothers and strife between them. In Genesis 4, we are confronted with two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain undergoes a trial in which God calls him to repentance and faith. God speaks directly to him that sin is crouching at the door and Cain must overcome. He must not give in to the desire of his heart, which is hatred of his brother. There is tension between the brothers, and Cain does not see that moment as an opportunity to love God and love his brother. He does not take the moment to grow up, to mature in the likeness of God. Instead of counting it joy, Cain decides to murder his brother.
There is tension between the sons of Noah in which Ham gives in to temptation. Noah drinks some wine in the new creation, he makes merry in his heart and lies down in the solitude of his own tent. Ham is tempted to take his father’s robe, the robe of his authority. He is confronted with tension and he has the opportunity to honor his father and unite the brothers. Instead, he does not count it as joy, but sees it as an opportunity to grasp, to take, and he tries to unite his brothers in a conspiracy against their Father. The brothers are set against each other and Ham receives a curse.
Esau and Jacob are famous brothers because of their strife. God gives the blessing to Jacob, the younger brother, before the twins are born. Esau desires the blessing of the birth right and strong tension rises between them. Jacob eventually receives the blessing from Isaac and Esau has opportunity to count it as joy. He can yoke himself to Jacob and receive the blessing of the covenant through his younger brother. Instead, he seeks to shed Jacob’s blood. Like Cain, Esau allows the tension between him and his brother to overcome his heart and he seeks to murder his brother.
Joseph and his brothers are likewise famous for their conflict. Joseph is given dreams by God promising his elevated position above his family. He has the favor of Jacob, their father. The brothers have the opportunity to count it all joy, but instead they harbor murder in their hearts. They decide to kill him, but take it back. No, they won’t kill him, they will throw him in a waterless cistern and let him die. No wait, they will selfishly profit from their hatred and sell Joseph into slavery.
From the very beginning brothers have been at war. From the fall of Adam and the human race there is one guarantee between brothers: strife. The world in Adam is brother against brother. Tension brings about destruction and the growth of sin. Rather than counting it joy and debasing oneself for the sake of a brother, we would rather tear our brother down and profit from his death.
James writes to the brothers, the brethren in the church, in the midst of a severe trial where tension is running high, “Don’t be brothers in Adam. Count it joy. Church members, don’t blame your leaders for Stephen’s death. Deacons, stop fighting among yourselves. Count it joy when trials hit you.”
The members of the body of Christ are to be a different kind of brother.
Every member of the Church is a member of a new family. We belong to the family of God, through union with our Elder Brother Jesus (Romans 8.29; Hebrews 2.11). By God’s grace, we have been brought out of Adam and placed in Jesus and we, therefore, can no longer live like brothers in Adam. We cannot be like Cain and murder Abel. We must be like Jesus who died for His brothers.
Every member of the church today, in the year 2020, is living in a time that none of us have ever experienced before. We might not like the way Baptist Church Over Yonder is conducting themselves through this, or the way Presbyterian Church Up the Hill has done things in response to the state’s regulations. We might not like any number of things about our brothers at this very moment and the tension between churches, and pastors, is very real. The temptation to bite and devour and murder in our hearts is a present possibility. Instead, the Scriptures call us to use this opportunity in a different way as we count it joy among brothers.
When Stephen was murdered in Acts 7, what the church needed was not more division. What they needed to do was what Stephen did, they needed to do what Jesus did, they needed to serve one another at the expense of themselves, even if it led them to their deaths. James says that if we do this sort of brotherly action for the love of Christ, it will bring to us the crown of life (James 1.12). You Reformed folk, are you willing to die for your Baptist brothers? You church who will never shut their doors, are you willing to die for the church that has met online for the past six weeks?
How should churches respond to one another?
We should not be using this time to tear our brothers down, rather we should be using this opportunity to serve each other with joy in our hearts.
This trial has come from the hand of our Father to test our faith, and by His grace it will produce steadfastness so that we may grow into Christlikeness. If we do not love God more, love those in our church more, and love other Christians more because of this trial, then we have failed the test.
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” 1 John 4.20-21.
Jonah Barnes is pastor of Emmanuel Church (CREC) in Helena, MT.
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