The Kindness That Will Kill Your Church
This article by Trevin Wax first appeared on The Gospel Coalition Website.
We’ve all heard stories of churches filled with backbiting and gossip, the plotting deacons who rule the church or the abusive pastor who manipulates the congregation.
Some of you haven’t only heard these stories; you’ve lived them. You know firsthand what it is like to see the fruit of the Spirit traded for the rotten works of the flesh. Nothing will damage a church like falsehood, hate, and divisiveness.
Meanness should never be associated with a believer in Christ; nor should spite and vitriol ever find a foothold in our fellowship.
But there is another way a church can be destroyed. And this type of destruction is more insidious because it is more difficult to detect.
I’m talking about the church where everyone is kind to one another, but no one really loves.
Kindness vs. Love
Kindness, rightly understood, is a Christian virtue, a manner of being that is shaped by love. We are kind when we treat one another the way we want to be treated. We are kind when we lend a sympathetic ear, when we bear with others despite their faults, when we respond to conflict with empathy and gentleness.
But kindness and love are not the same thing, and whenever we separate kindness from love, we unleash a vice that masquerades as a virtue. Kindness apart from love devolves into mere “niceness,” and too often, niceties are employed to hide the disease of lovelessness.
The Kindness That Kills
How does kindness kill a church? By masking our indifference toward one another.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis explains what kindness divorced from love looks like:
Kindness cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided that it escapes suffering… It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.
Lewis is right. We don’t treat the people we love with mere “kindness.”
Our desire for our children to be good outranks our desire for our children to be comfortable. It is the indifferent parent who “kindly” permits a child to play video games all day long. It is a loving parent who does the hard work of instilling in a child a good work ethic.
The parents who love are those who want their children to become all they were created to be. For this reason, we are willing to put children through temporary discomfort and challenge their ideas of what they need to be “happy”in order to see them grow into maturity, even if it means a rebuke, a difficult conversation, or a loss of privileges.
The “kindness” that kills a church, on the other hand, is unwilling to put in the hard work of love. It is a subtle form of contempt, an unwillingness to rock someone’s boat when you can clearly see it sinking.
Kindness Grounded in Love
Love wants the best for the beloved, and true Christian kindness is grounded in a robust understanding of love. Lewis again:
If God is Love, then He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God. Because He is what He is, His Love must be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already so deeply loves us, He must labor to make us more lovable.
As those who are made in God’s image, learning to love as He loves, we are called to stir up our brothers and sisters to love and good deeds, and by love, we mean Christian love, not the sappy, sentimentalized caricature in our world that reduces love to tolerance or approval.
We imagine a loving church as a place where where everyone is all smiles, where no one is ever in conflict, where people are coddled and affirmed and can leave a worship service feeling inspired. But God’s love shatters such misconceptions.
The friend who truly loves me doesn’t nod to me kindly as I stray into danger, but calls me out for dishonesty, opens my eyes to my selfishness, and fights for me and the person God wants me to become instead of fighting against me by ignoring my flaws.
So, what does a loving church look like? Lewis, again, challenges our preconceived notions of what a God-like kind of love is:
Love demands the perfecting of the beloved (the growth, betterment, healing, improvement, uprightness, and goodness of the beloved). Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them; but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than even hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Love forgives constantly but condones least. Love is pleased with little, but demands all.
May God fill our churches with love that is “more stern and splendid” than mere kindness.
Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David.