Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you. (1 Cor 15:1–2)
While receiving and standing in the word of God is indeed key to our salvation, it is equally critical that we hold fast to the word right to the end. This is consistent with the Bible's teachings about holding on to our faith and enduring to the end:
"Now the just shall live by faith;
But if anyone draws back,
My soul has no pleasure in him."
But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb 10:38–39)
And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. (Mt 10:22)
But he who endures to the end shall be saved. (Mt 24:13)
These passages point to the need to remain steadfast even in extreme suffering, adversity, and persecution. Regrettably, as we pore over old pictures, we are often reminded of brethren who were once fervent in the faith and zealous in service but are no longer in the church. They might have left because they were offended or disappointed in some way. While their departures were not without reason, it is sad that the triggers are often nowhere near the level of adversity for which the above Bible passages prepare us. Sometimes people leave due to the actions of others and, over time, seek to justify their departure by deviating from the truth they once embraced and picking faults with basic biblical doctrines. How can we preserve our faith and salvation when we face relationship issues that could eventually cause us to forsake the truth?
As the church is a body of diverse people who interact frequently, there will inevitably be instances of miscommunication and misunderstanding between members. These can rapidly deepen into mistrust if they go unresolved, resulting in further misunderstanding. Involved parties begin to view every conversation with suspicion, analyzing every word for hidden meanings, and scrutinizing every action as each person doubts the other's intentions. Relationships begin to splinter and break. Eventually, such broken relationships, particularly between those who were once best of friends, can lead us to distance ourselves from other members. This can then spiral into us doubting our faith and diluting the truth we once accepted with these same people.
We must recognize Satan's hand in stirring such troubles in church. As the apostolic church grew, Satan's insidious disruption also multiplied. The initial persecution came from external sources, with the arrest of Peter and John after the miracle at the gate called Beautiful. But Satan's subterfuge rapidly moved into the church with the corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 3–5). When both ploys failed, Satan started planting misunderstandings between members to divide the church:
Now in those days, when the number of disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1)
The daily distribution of food to widows was a favorable arrangement of love within the early church. Ironically, even a positive practice was hijacked by Satan to attack the church. The disagreement could have arisen from the oversight of the Hebrews or the oversensitivity of the Hellenists. However, to conclude that it was a deliberate, systemic, and malicious decision by the Hebrews would deepen any existing misunderstanding between members who were already one in Christ, who "were of one heart and one soul," and "had all things in common" (Acts 4:32). This was a dangerous development as it could have triggered deep division within the church as each community viewed the other with suspicion and animosity, resulting in individuals and households feeling unfairly treated.
Thankfully, the apostles had wisdom and guidance from God to handle this swiftly, resulting in a good outcome. The church was asked to appoint from among themselves seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, to assist the apostles in this matter. It is noteworthy that the ones chosen included people with Greek names, such as Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas, who were likely Hellenists. This was an elegant way to resolve sensitivities, as these seven men would have been trusted to be fair, given the representation from the Hellenists and the respect they would have had from the believers who selected them.
Similar challenges could occur in church today as Satan continues to disrupt the work of God. If unaddressed, such misunderstandings could build up negative emotions among members. Cynicism can set in if they cannot reconcile the perceived lack of justice or fairness in church with the word of God they hear, particularly if they already harbor prejudice against specific speakers or church leaders.
As we recognize Satan's ploys, we should increase our vigilance, "with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:2–3). And as we continue to embrace "the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…we should no longer be like children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:13–14).
The Corinthian church comprised many gifted and affluent believers, knowledgeable, eloquent, and full of worldly wisdom. They could have used their resources and blessings from God to further His ministry. Unfortunately, their pride took the front seat as they sought to glorify themselves, boasting of their gifts rather than glorifying God or edifying the church. And as they pandered to their ego, each elevated themselves above others. Some even felt superior to Paul and despised him and his teachings. They started to find reasons to differentiate themselves from others, including making distinctions between the workers of God, as though these workers were divided, with different views of the truth:
Now I say this, that each of you says, "I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor 1:12–13)
[F]or you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal? (1 Cor 3:3–4)
As Paul defended the unity of the apostles—that he, Peter, and Apollos were completely aligned—he also called out the error of the Corinthians:
Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that you may learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against the other. For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Cor 4:6–7)
Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. (1 Cor 8:1b–2)
We need to learn from the mistakes of the Corinthians and heed the teachings of Paul. Have we unwittingly allowed pride to creep into our hearts? If so, we could be in danger of exalting ourselves rather than glorifying God or edifying others. We may seek to establish ourselves through novel ideas or unsound new teachings just to stand out. Our pride may be further nourished by some who "will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their desires, because they have itching ears...will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Tim 4:3–4). As our fan base grows, we may turn a deaf ear to advice from concerned members as we entrench ourselves deeper in our deviant views. This is a common human reflex: defending ourselves rather than admitting that we may have been wrong. Our pride can stand in the way of our relationships in church as sound advice is deemed an attack. What should have prompted reflection sparks retaliation, and relationships sour as views diverge. This could eventually lead to parties departing from the faith or a split within the church.
As we recognize the devil's schemes and this potential danger the church faces, let us constantly humble ourselves, to let "nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself" (Phil 2:3). We must also guard against falling into how the proud person operates, as Paul observes:
If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth. (1 Tim 6:3–5a)
While the apostolic church was clearly led by the Holy Spirit and serves as a positive model for us on many fronts, we can also learn from records of human weaknesses among early church workers.
Euodia and Syntyche were good workers who labored with Paul in the gospel and with Clement and many others whose names are in the Book of Life. While both were sincere workers who could cooperate well with others, they could not get on with each other. The underlying reasons are unclear, but their animosity was so severe that Paul had to implore them to be of the same mind. Paul also urged other members to help these women overcome their differences (Phil 4:2–3). If coworkers cannot agree, they leave a foothold for the devil to disrupt the work of God and divide the church. Their disagreement may initially be due to different approaches to church work. But as distrust and animosity deepen, each may build up supporters who oppose the work of the other, even contradicting their teachings and views. At this stage, confusion in the word of God may surface among the members.
For the sake of the church, we must seek to disregard our differences and endeavor to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:2–3).
Peter and Paul also disagreed at a point in their ministry. At that time, there were different views in the church concerning Gentile believers. While Peter had accepted them and would eat with them normally, he withdrew and separated himself from them when some circumcised believers came to visit. His hypocrisy also triggered similar behavior from the other Jewish believers, including Barnabas. When Paul witnessed Peter's conduct, he confronted him directly (Gal 2:11–14). Such a clash between two leaders in the church could have led to a major crisis. Peter could have become defiant, defensive, or even adversarial from a bruised ego. After all, he was a key pillar in the church, and he might have wondered how Paul, being a newer worker, had the audacity and arrogance to tell him off so directly.
On the other hand, Paul could have continued riding his moral high horse, treating Peter with disdain and disrespect. This would have been disastrous for the ministry. Thankfully, both Peter and Paul were magnanimous spiritual leaders who could move forward positively. They did not let their clash drive them apart or cause them to diverge in their teaching of the word. On the contrary, they both converged and cooperated in their ministry. Paul's epistles were available to Peter, who referred to him as a beloved brother. In his teachings, Peter also reinforced Paul's epistles, urging believers to remain steadfast and not twist the Scriptures:
[A]nd consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked. (2 Pet 3:15–17)
While serving in church we may also experience clashes between coworkers. In such times, let us learn from the spirituality of these two early workers.
On another occasion, Paul and Barnabas had firm but differing opinions about whether to take John Mark along on their missionary trip. Their contention was so sharp that Barnabas took Mark, Paul took Silas, and they parted ways. Again, this appeared to be an unfortunate development in the ministry and put a regrettable strain on the relationship between two good coworkers (Acts 15:36–40). Both Paul and Barnabas had valid reasons for their opinions. To Paul, missionary work was not to be taken lightly, and John Mark had indeed left the missionary work midway in the past (Acts 13:13). Conversely, Barnabas probably felt that John Mark was just a young, inexperienced worker who ought to be given a second chance and nurtured with patience. We may experience similar situations in church today. Again, given that both Paul and Barnabas were spiritual workers, they did not allow their contention to lead to deviation from the truth. They neither regarded each other with enmity nor viewed each other's work with disapproval. The church continued to prosper (Acts 16:5), and Barnabas also managed to turn John Mark around to become a good worker, beneficial to the ministry, which was acknowledged by Paul (2 Tim 4:11).
Just as disruption from within the church is more dangerous than external threats, a far more significant blow to our faith may, unfortunately, come from our family members within the church. This would be a double whammy, as our loved ones often impact us the most.
What if there are conflicts within our family despite everyone being supposedly within the faith? Would these conflicts affect our conviction in the truth, our faith in God's love, and our zeal in our service? Would we distance ourselves from church if we were privy to behavior we deemed hypocritical among our family members, who may be respected within the church, concluding that others in the church are similar?
For a start, we must recognize that nobody is perfect. Even the most spiritual people have flaws they have yet to overcome or moments of weakness when they fail to live up to God's standard. David, a man after the heart of God, fell into sin over Bathsheba and was unaware of his hypocrisy (2 Sam 11:1–12:14). Abraham, the father of faith, lacked the courage to protect his wife when he told Abimelech that Sarah was his sister (Gen 20). Peter and Barnabas were hypocritical in their behavior towards the Gentile believers (Gal 2:11–14).
Hence, even as we witness weaknesses and failures among our family members who should know better, let us not be overwhelmed by surprise, disappointment, or disgust. After all, their human weaknesses have no bearing on the faithfulness of God. We must also be careful not to be overly judgmental just because we are more familiar with these family members than others are—as Jesus warned us, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house" (Mt 13:57).
A more unfortunate and trickier situation would be when one or more of our family members stray from the truth or commit a mortal sin. As we interact with them, we may experience a deep conflict within as we try to defend the truth, tantamount to proclaiming judgment on our loved ones. As we struggle with the pain and turmoil within us, we may even question or blame God for the situation. Such circumstances are indeed unfortunate, and we may not always have immediate answers as to why they transpired.
However, our indignation will not help us to better understand or solve the challenge. The only option is to remain steadfast, continue doing what is right, and trust that God will have an answer for us eventually. We can learn from how Jonathan chose his spiritual relationship with David, established in the Lord, over his physical relationship with Saul, his father. He opposed his father's erroneous behavior and supported David instead (1 Sam 19–20). When the sons of Aaron—Nadab and Abihu—died before the Lord for offering profane fire, this must have been difficult, sad, and painful for Aaron. But he held his peace when God explained the reason (Lev 10:1–3). Abraham, when tested, offered his son, Isaac, on the altar. And God acknowledged that Abraham did not withhold even his son from Him (Gen 22:1–12). Hence, while we should love our family, we must recognize that such love must never exceed our love for God. For this reason, the Lord Jesus left the following teaching for us:
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Mt 10:37)
As we continue our walk of faith, our fellowship in the church, and our service to the Lord, it is inevitable that Satan will attempt to disrupt and derail our journey to salvation. There may be times when we experience challenges in our church relationships or conflicts within our family. We learn from the records of the apostolic church and the experiences of the saints that they also faced similar challenges. They were, however, able to overcome them to reach good outcomes. Likewise, whether we face disappointments, provocations, misunderstandings, or any other challenges within our relationships, let us not allow these to translate into doubts about the truth that we have embraced, and let us remain steadfast in our faith to the end.