Exegetical Matters: Leon Morris on 1 John 3:17ff and the Christian’s Responsibility to Show Compassion

For some reason, I often have opportunities to get into discussions with people about the church’s responsibility to show love to others. Sometimes these discussions begin with words like ‘mercy ministry’ or ‘social action’, but in the end, for me, they are really always discussions about what it means to really love one’s neighbor. 

I find very often that one of the most common arguments people make is that the church doesn’t have a responsibility to show love to the non-Christian poor.

They say it a bit differently than that, but at it’s essence, that’s their argument:

“Yes, the church has a responsibility to its own. But nowhere does the Bible command us to care for non-Christian poor.”

“We mustn’t challenge the church regarding its responsibility to show love to the non-Christian poor, because it doesn’t have one.” 

“We should preach the gospel to non-Christians, but beyond that, it is automatically a distraction from the church’s mission to express the love of Christ in practical ways to people if they are not part of the church.”

Now honestly, at this point, when people say things like that, I usually become very discouraged and have a hard time imagining that we will get anywhere in our discussion. Love should compel me forward, but I sometimes have a difficult time even knowing where to begin because this way of speaking seems so foreign to the entire New Testament.

Obviously, there is a unique kind of love that believers should have for their brothers and sisters in Christ. We can absolutely agree on that. And the best kind of love we should show to anyone is for their eternal good. We are on the same page there. It’s not loving for the church to be distracted from showing the best love to people it can. Got it. But that doesn’t mean we as believers don’t have a responsibility to love unbelievers in practical ways as well. And if we as individual believers have this responsibility, doesn’t the church then have a responsibility to help believers learn how to do so in a way that honors God? That doesn’t mean that churches have to start soup kitchens or even that is the best way to love the unbelieving poor. (I have had several conversations with people who have come to our church who have actually thanked us for not giving them things the first time we meet them. Funny, huh? Yesterday in fact I was talking someone who had formerly been homeless and he told me that one of our members had cared for him and invited him to church, but as he did so, he said I can’t promise that you will get a job or that we will be able to find housing for you, but we do want to show the love of Christ as best as we are able and we want to help you come to know and love the truth. Or at least that was the heart of the conversation and this man who has been coming to our church for a while now, he said, that was so refreshing for him. It seems that sometimes people feel like churches are trying to manipulate them into coming by giving ‘gifts.’)

I actually think this is a better way to frame the discussion. How can we love those in need best? Not, oh, but we don’t have any responsibility to those in need like that. I was reminded of our responsibility reading Leon Morris’ wonderful book on love. I will try to include some quotes from him in the days ahead, but for now, consider his comments on 1 John 3:17.

He writes,

“That believers are to love the world of sinners is also evident in John’s view of the importance of helping those in want: ‘Whoever has this world’s good and sees his brother having need and shuts up his compassion from him, how does the love of God dwell in him?’ (1 John 3:17). The writer adds, ‘Little children, let us not love in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.’ (v.18) This cannot refer only to believers. It is of course true that we cannot see God’s love in someone who refuses to help a fellow Christian in need. But it is also hard to see God’s love in someone who refuses to help a fellowman in need. If a man ‘shuts up his compassion’ from a needy non-Christian, how does God’s love dwell in him.”

What I wonder is, if that’s true of us as individuals, why wouldn’t that also be true of us as a church?  Why couldn’t we say, if a church shuts up her compassion from needy non-Christians, how does God’s love dwell in them? 

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