Michael Bird on Church Schisms and the Imperative of Love

We have to start with the ecclesiastical vision of the Johannine letters, since that shapes the theological context in which church life exists. Love is foundational to John’s vision for the church, its theology and practice. Love is absolutely central to the ethical vision of the Johannine letters. The exhortations are replete with commands to love others. Hence the words of the Elder: “We know that we have passed over from death to life because we love the brothers. The one who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14 LEB); “We have come to know love by this: that he laid down his life on behalf of us, and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of the brothers” (1 John 3:16 LEB); and “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18 LEB). These words exposit themes found in the Fourth Gospel about love being the surest test for discipleship (especially John 13). The Elder informs his audience that love is a sign of receiving salvation. Christian love is meant to be an imitation of love that is displayed from God through Christ to believers. Ultimately, love is meant to be expressed in action and not in empty slogans or good intentions. The discourse on love reaches a poignant climax in the latter half of the epistle:

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God.The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God sent his one and only Son into the world in order that we may live through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we reside in him and he in us: that he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world (1 John 4:7–14 LEB).

In a nutshell, love is part of the saving reality that God ushers in through the incarnation. Love is the true measure of authentic discipleship. Divine love is meant to be like a ray of light shone down on believers who in turn reflect it on others like living mirrors. Love is both the indicative and imperative of Christian ethics. Love is what God has done for and expects of us. The entire grammar of Christian theology is simply an unpacking of divine love and the profession and practice of love for others.

One could aver from all this that the theologic of divine love in John’s understanding does not countenance the possibility of schism. Divine love leads us toward imitation of Christ and never toward separation within the body of Christ. Love is given no criteria, no conditions, no qualifications, and no exception clauses. Love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never optional—it is commanded. As Thompson states, “We must never lose sight of the fact that the struggle to maintain Christian unity (in the Truth) is itself the first step of love towards others. We do not learn to love people by separating from them.” In which case, since schism causes the fracture of loving relationships within the church and the rendering of the body, and marks divorce proceedings within congregations, schism is the very antithesis of walking in love and loving each other.

* * *

Adapted from Mending a Fractured Church: How to Seek Unity with Integrity by editors Michael Bird and Brian Rosner. Pre-order the Logos digital edition today for the best price! The print edition will be available soon.