Love Despite Difference

The Real Call of One-Anothering

“Oh, my. You have to pull over!” the woman pleaded from the passenger seat. “My head hurts.”

Her head hurt because my son was screaming his head off.

Rewind five minutes to when I first pulled up to her apartment building, towing a fussing baby. My one-year-old hates the car, but the ride to church is short (usually). This morning we took a detour, and he knew it. Complaints mounted to cries as we waited for the woman and her son to come outside.

She’s a single mom, and he’s a high school boy. They’re refugees, new to our country, culture, language, and (as I later realized) traffic laws. Neither of them has an American driver’s license, but what they do have is a church — our church. Just a few months back, when they took vows before the congregation and became members, others started coordinating rides for them each Sunday.

So there they were, in my car. And there we all were, listening to a baby wail at soaring decibels. His cries had become fever-pitch screams when two relative strangers, with skin far darker than mom’s or dad’s, opened the doors. I flung crackers and toys into the backseat, but there was only so much I could do while driving.

Then she had an idea: “Put him on your lap! Put him on —”

Before she could finish, her son began to protest, explaining how “they don’t do that here.” I nodded vigorously, even gratefully, as he spoke, my own voice wobbling between saying sorry and making shushing sounds. “Well, in our country,” she replied, “the police would pull you over. They would think you stole this child.”

Lost in One-Anothers

It’s far easier only to drive people you (and your shrieking baby) already know well to church. Just like it’s far easier only to invite like-minded people into your home, only to comfort or encourage those you understand, only to forgive the friends you want to keep around. It’s far easier — and far less like the “one-anothers” of Scripture.

Upwards of fifty times in the New Testament, we read of particular ways we are to treat “one another.” As our eyes speed over these commands — all the so-called “one-anothers” — our mind is quick to acknowledge two things. We understand what is commanded (verb), and we understand that it’s commanded of us (subject). We know we should

  • “love one another” (Romans 12:10),
  • “welcome one another” (Romans 15:7),
  • “[forgive] one another” (Ephesians 4:32),
  • “comfort one another” (2 Corinthians 13:11),
  • “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13),
  • “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Without realizing it, though, have we missed the who at the end of each of these commands? Have we neglected to even ask who it is that God commands us to encourage, love, welcome, forgive, comfort, serve, build up? When we do not ask God to define “one another” for us, we slip into choosing those people for ourselves. And the people we choose tend to be the people we like. And the people we like tend to be the people like us.

But have we really obeyed the one-anothers when we apply them only to those we handpick? If we never stumble our way through the one-anothers, have we been obeying them, or have we simply been spending all our love on all our favorite people? Apart from that chaotic car ride, I can’t think of a time when it was truly difficult to press into the one-anothers. Never had my efforts to care for someone been met with so much misunderstanding, not to mention screaming. I began to wonder: Who are the one-anothers really — not as we make them out to be, but as God’s word presents them to us?

1. They are part of the (global) church.

The New Testament Epistles contain most of the one-another commands. In them, “one another” refers to fellow believers. Consider Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where the phrase appears five times. Long before he says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20) — that is, with certain affection — he tells us he’s talking to

those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

The command is not given to Christians, “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus,” to apply to whomever they wish. Instead, Paul calls Christians to heed his words as “saints together.” And he doesn’t just mean the saints who live on nearby streets. He means “all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Which means he’s talking to me, and you, and the Christian in Kolkata, India. Were we ever to meet, the three of us are to greet one another as saints together, as those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ side by side, though several seas apart. Our mutual favor stems not from personal preference, but from our standing before God in Christ. One day he will greet us with pleasure, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). Warm welcome on earth anticipates the open arms of heaven.

Of course, we also should strive to apply many of the same commands to unbelievers far and wide. “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil,” says 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.” At the same time, we do love the watching world when we love one another especially. When we visibly care for those within, we offer a glimpse of God to those without. The one-anothers extend a compelling vision of what it means to be “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).

2. They are a part of our (local) church.

“One another” ties all believers together, and then it anchors us in the local church. Look with me at a second one-another passage in 1 Corinthians: “When you come together to eat [the Lord’s Supper], wait for one another” (11:33). I imagine you and I (and especially our sister in Kolkata) do not stand in the same line for communion. How do we respond?

We aim this command — indeed, every one-another! — toward our local church in particular, the fellow believers in our weekly (even daily) midst. That’s why Paul begins his letter by addressing

the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2)

Though we are “saints together” with Christians across all seven continents, we belong uniquely to “the church of God that is [insert the name of your church].” It’s here, among our local body of believers, that we park beside one another on Sunday, talk with one another as we walk inside, stand next to one another while we sing, bow by one another in prayer, and listen alongside one another to the word preached. Then we “wait for one another,” bread and wine in quiet hand.

And that’s just the Lord’s Day. God filled the church’s week with opportunities to devote regular time to one another. And these opportunities aren’t limited to a church building, but God plants individual members in particular neighborhoods, that we might open our doors to one another. We often talk about a local church’s “worship style.” Oh, that onlookers would say of our lifestyle, “One thing is sure: they never neglect to gather” (Hebrews 10:25).

3. They are every part of our church.

Even after we understand “one another” as fellow believers, and especially as those in our local church, we still often err while living out the commands. Whom do we gravitate toward, Sunday upon Sunday, after service? And whom do we seek out, almost exclusively, during the rest of the week? If the answer is only our dearest church friends, we have yet to hear the distinguishing mark of the one-anothers: love despite difference.

The words Scripture commands reflect the one Word pulsing behind its pages: Jesus. Apart from this Person, the one-anothers lack purpose and power. Upon whom does he lavish the one-anothers? Upon those like him, those he finds comfortable? Wonder of wonders, the answer is me. It’s you. In a word, it’s sinners. It’s rebellious, undeserving men and women. It’s fallen humans with whom the exalted Son of God had near nothing in common — that is, until he chose to humble himself, becoming one of us:

Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)

Who is “one another” to this Man? Not people like him already, but people he chose to become like. Not people he likes already, but people he committed to love “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Now he bids us, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

It’s no small task, going out of our way to love brothers and sisters unlike us, saints we may struggle to understand, sometimes even to like. But this is the love Christ has shown us, and his love empowers us to do the same for others. So may that love wash over any selfishness or natural inclination in us, and may we plunge our preferences into what brings him pleasure: showing his steadfast, widespread love to one another.

works from home as a wife, mother, and editor. She and her husband, T.J., live in Denver, Colorado, with their sons.