Bearing the Cross in Church Relationships
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said to His disciples,
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."
When I first began to follow Jesus Christ I understood these words to mean that in becoming a Christian I needed to be prepared to bear the attacks of the world because of my choice to be a disciple of Jesus. As time went on however, I discovered that the majority of the bruises, cuts and blows that I suffered were inflicted upon me, not by disbelievers and sinners, but by the very people with whom I shared a place in the body of Christ. It seems that at times the heaviest cross we are called upon to bear is the one we carry among ourselves in our church relations. For this reason, I'd like to examine the Apostle Paul's experience in this type of cross bearing. Perhaps his example can serve us today when we have to bear the cross of dealing with the unkindness and offenses that our brothers and sisters in Christ visit upon us.
Paul's Cross With The Church
We read a lot about the suffering Paul endured at the hands of the Jewish leaders and pagans, but there are as many instances of offenses and attacks against him by people who called themselves Christians as well. For example:
They attacked his conversion - Acts 9:10-14; 26
Paul's rejection and abuse began even before he was converted. Ananias, even after receiving a vision and command to go preach to Paul, is hesitant because of Paul's past reputation. We read in Acts 9:26 that after his baptism Paul immediately begins to preach Christ to his city, but when he goes to Jerusalem to be with the brethren they question the sincerity of his conversion, and won't associate with him.
They attacked his work - Acts 14:27-28; 15:1
When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they spent a long time with the disciples. Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
Note that after his first missionary journey, where he succeeded in making many converts and planting many churches, all done at the risk of his life (stoned and left for dead in Lystra - Acts 14:19), after all this effort, an attempt is made by some in the church to discredit his work among the Gentiles. As we read in Acts 14-15, legalistic brethren insisted that his work was in vain, and his converts needed to be circumcised. He received no encouragement, no confirmation or validation, only an effort to destroy his work.
They attacked his position - II Corinthians 3:1; 10:10
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?
For they say, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.
The brethren dismissed his credibility as an Apostle, and he was made to compete with false teachers for a position of authority within this congregation; a church which he planted!
They attacked his teaching - Acts 21:17-26
When he returned to Jerusalem after a decade of missionary effort all through the Roman empire, some brothers began to circulate rumors among Jewish Christians that Paul was denigrating and dismissing the Law of Moses. In order to keep the peace, he was asked to humble himself and acquiesce to their prejudice by taking a vow and making a public showing of his respect for the Law in order to placate them. This was something he was not bound to do but did anyway, and was arrested and imprisoned in the process.
They attacked his character - Galatians 1:6; 20; 4:12-16
Paul says to the Galatian brethren,
"Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?"
- Galatians 4:16
Paul was made to establish the fact that he was indeed sincere to the brethren who were casting aside the gospel of freedom and returning to the yoke of the Law. They had eagerly received and believed him as sincere at first, but now through the influence of the false teachers, they were doubting his integrity. He who was suffering in jail in order to bring them the gospel!
They attacked his motives - Philippians 1:12-17
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.
The final insult comes while he is in prison for preaching the gospel, and many remain free preaching in his place. Some are doing it to bring souls to Christ. Others, however, are preaching for self-glorification or profit and assumed that Paul had done so before with the same motives. As the people succeeded in their preaching they thought this would make Paul jealous, and have him chaffing at the bit to be released so he could be free to compete with them. They gloated over the thought that their preaching provoked Paul to jealousy and envy because they thought his motives were the same as their own.
Paul says that at the hands of unbelievers he suffered beatings, lashings, imprisonment, stonings and many death threats. But a simple review of his life also shows us that at the hands of the brethren he suffered rejection, doubt, attempts to discredit him, his ministry, his teaching, his motives, his honesty and character. The disbelievers beat his body to a pulp but it was the believers who tried to destroy his "spirit."
The amazing thing is that the one to whom this was done was, by any standard you wish to use, tremendously successful as an individual Christian and minister. For example:
- His life was above reproach.
- He was well educated (socially, intellectually, theologically).
- He received a personal calling of the highest/clearest nature and possessed an abundance of spiritual gifts.
- Through his preaching and teaching many churches were established and workers trained.
- He wrote a good portion of the New Testament documents.
You would think that he would be the last person who would have to bear a cross, and a heavy one at that, among those who call themselves Christians. I dare say that if any one of us would have had to suffer the mean-spirited doubting, meddling, rumor mongering and rejection that he endured we would have packed it in long ago. Yet, he bore this cross among his nasty brethren from the beginning of his Christian life until the end, and so I think he has something to teach in this regard; something to help us learn how to bear our own crosses in church relationships because we too will suffer rejection, offenses and attacks from brethren at some time in our Christian lives.
How to Bear Our Cross in the Church
Paul bore a heavy cross among his brethren and did it in the following ways:
He was not overcome by the evil of others - Romans 12:1-21
In this passage Paul gives all of us a pattern we need to use in order to mold our responses to unfair criticism, rejection, malicious gossip and other offenses made against us from time to time by other Christians. Look at the process he lays out in these verses.
Verse 17 - Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
Avoid the natural impulse to seek revenge.
Verse 18 - If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Search for peace, not victory or vindication. This is what we should be praying, begging for in prayer; not just a way to get even or get justice! Peace is more profitable than justice.
Verse 19 - Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord.
Trust in God's justice when it comes; it will be good and fair.
Verse 20 - "BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD,"
Your response towards your offender is doing what is right and good; this is what you should seek to do. This is profitable and mitigates evil.
Verse 21 - Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Don't permit yourself to be overwhelmed by someone else's evil, let your own goodness be what dominates every relationship, especially relationships within the church. Let your goodness be the thing that sets the agenda, not the other's offense. When evil wins over good in any single relationship within the church, we are all made weaker. Goodness must always triumph in the kingdom of God.
Another way Paul bore his cross successfully was that...
He was always thanking and praising God - Philippians 3:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul, the victim of so many attacks by the brethren, offers the perfect remedy for the fatigue caused by cross-bearing within the church - joy, more joy and fervent prayer.
In Romans 1:21 he describes how men were cast headlong into darkness and ever increasing disbelief and sin because, "...they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks..." I believe the opposite is true. A constant stream of praise, prayer and thanksgiving not only strengthens personal faith in God, but also discourages mistrust and offenses between brethren. Praise and prayer act like a spiritual de-icer (what they use on planes to prevent ice build-up) that prevents the hardening of attitudes and hatred towards one another, and this allows our lives to be lifted up beyond anger and the thirst for revenge.
When offended, misused, underestimated or disregarded, I have found that turning the event over and over in my mind, and looking at it from every angle only increases my resentment and tempts me into planning strategies for revenge. I feel much better, however, when I begin to douse the smoldering embers of my anger with a review of the things concerning the character of God that cause me to praise Him (power, wisdom, kindness) and follow that with heartfelt thanks for the many blessings I enjoy. When this is followed by sincere prayer for help to bear this particular cross and the one who causes me to carry it, it is amazing how light the burden becomes.
Obviously Paul knew this, for he clearly expresses the results of such spiritual exercises by describing the peace he felt brought about by his own rejoicing and prayer; a peace which began in his heart, but in time permeated the entire church. You see, the prayer and praise come before the peace, not after. And after peace comes joy!
Finally, in Paul's crossing bearing...
He made sure that he wasn't distracted - II Timothy 4:5-8
But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
In his instructions to a young evangelist, Paul makes sure that he prepares him for the worst. Despite the difficulties, he exhorts him to endure hardship and not let the obstacles outside or inside the church keep him from doing what he must do as an evangelist. Don't let cross bearing distract you!
I suppose this advice is apropos since it seems that preachers, by the very nature of their work, are called upon to bear with many attacks, and usually carry a heavy cross within the church. Paul is confident of his reward as he sees the end in sight, and so he encourages Timothy not to use the many offenses that occur within the church as reasons to quit or become sidetracked, but rather see these merely as obstacles to be overcome in giving God glory through perseverance to the end. God is never glorified by quitting, He is glorified by perseverance! Paul absorbed the shocks and blows but kept doing his job without distraction or stopping until the end.
The life of a Christian is one of cross-bearing, with those on the outside of the church and many times with brethren as well. Paul experienced both but used these occasions to deepen his relationship with Christ and heighten his anticipation of being with the Lord in heaven.
For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
- Philippians 1:21.
Brothers and sisters, there will always be offenses within the church, there will always be the need to bear the cross among the brethren. This is so because we are all sinners. Forgiven sinners, heaven bound sinners, but weak and sinful nevertheless. We should, therefore, be ready and not surprised when this happens to us. Let us not use these as an excuse to sin, to get angry, to cause trouble, or to quit the church and go back to the world, or to quit one congregation and go in search of another where there will be no offenses.
When our turn comes to bear a cross among the brethren, try to remember some of the things we've looked at in this study:
- Overcome the evil in others with the good within yourself.
- Invest your emotional energy into praise and prayer, not anger and resentment.
- Don't permit personal offenses within the church keep you from bringing the good news to those who desperately need it on the outside of the church.
If we set our minds to carrying our own personal crosses in this way:
- We will contribute to unity and love within the body as antidotes to divisiveness, and promote spiritual healing.
- We will be able to maintain our own sense of spiritual balance despite the weight of the load we carry.
- We will be able to give God glory by persevering our own souls despite the offenses we bear, and as a bonus, bring others to Christ with our example.
In the end I firmly believe that the crown we will receive will be worth the cross we bear.
In closing I want to remind you that sometimes we are the cross that someone else has to bear, we are the cause for offense, we are the person that puts the burden on a brother or sister because of our unkindness, insensitivity or disrespect. It is helpful to remember, therefore, that there will be times when we bear the cross, and other times when we are the cross.
Of course, as good a model as Paul is for cross bearing, Jesus remains the ultimate example of one who carried the cross. He not only endured insults, rejections and offenses in order to preach the good news of the kingdom, He also offered His innocent life as a sacrifice so that all those who offended Him could be forgiven. This is the cross He bore for us, are we willing to bear ours for Him?