Alicia Myers, Assistant Professor of New Testament, United Theological Seminary
A key biblical passage for church renewal is a bit hard to define. Perhaps this is because of both an over-abundance of possible options and the fact that our desire for the biblical text to answer such a question is almost unfair. We might turn to provisions for Israel in the Torah or to songs of repentance and hope in the Psalms, to Jesus’ instructions for discipleship in Gospels or even to John of Patmos’ admonitions for the audiences of his Revelation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that any notion of “church” in the contemporary sense is not present in the biblical text. Thus, to ask biblical passages to respond to concerns about the modern “church”—let alone the renewal of such an entity—can seem out of place. Yet, when we look a little more closely at the communities of faith about which we read in the biblical narrative, we should be startled to find a number of similarities and we should rejoice that we can still find guidance from their triumphs and their mistakes.
When I first began reflecting on various passages for this blog, I was continually drawn back to the Johannine writings. These believers were in the midst of conflicts that make considering their example ideal for our topic. For example, these believers struggled with self-identification in light of traditions concerning Jesus’ ministry and his departure after the resurrection. In other words, the Johannine community faced a single question: How, now, do we live?
One answer that was given to the Johannine community is provided by the author of 1 John. In 1 John 4:7-8, we read:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whosever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (NRSV)
For this early Christian teacher, believers should imitate the love of God as revealed in the person and work of the Son, Jesus (4:9-10). Even though this passage threatens to have easy application for our current query, one that drifts easily into the waters of platitudes and bumper-sticker fixes, it is important to remember that the author emphasizes this life of love in the midst of conflict. He faced very real opponents who encouraged believers to rely on what they considered revelations of the Spirit alone and, in that way, to move beyond the initial revelation Jesus provided. Vehemently opposed to his opponents’ instructions, the author lashes out by calling them “false prophets,” “deceivers,” and “antichrists” even as he prepares his commands to love in the later verses of 1 John 4.
With its mix of harsh polemic and elevated language of love, 1 John 4 is a challenging passage to understand. How, exactly, does such name-calling showcase the love which the author claims to be the defining characteristic of those who “know God?” One way to answer this question is to highlight the rhetorical use of polemic that was common in Mediterranean antiquity. Another important aspect is that, according to the author, these opponents had already shown their true colors by failing to love (cf. 4:20). In so doing, they placed themselves against the traditional teachers of the community, rather than attempting dialogue with them, and helped to create an unbridgeable divide.
Even though not all aspects of this passage resonate with the contemporary questions of church renewal, 1 John 4 nevertheless can guide us in our own search for answers. Like us, these early believers wondered how they were to live out a life of faith. And they wondered this in the face of profound differences of opinion. In the midst of all this, the author of 1 John calls for the Johannine believers to love and, moreover, to use love as a litmus to “test the spirits” around them lest they should also find themselves on the side of the “opponents” (cf. 4:1). Sadly, churches today often fail this test in the face of controversies and contrary opinions. We forget that it is in the moments of deepest division that we should pause and remember words like those from 1 John 4:10 which tell us that it was not we who first loved God, but God who first showed love toward us through the Son. If we are to find once again fresh air for renewal, I suggest that we must, like the believers in the Johannine community, recall the example of Jesus and move forward with humility.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.