Among the many metaphors that describe the church in the New Testament, the images of the family and the body resonate most personally. The world of unbelief is a cold place and when people are exposed to the family of God’s warm love it is refreshing. Upon believing in Christ as Lord and Saviour, lost people find a surrogate set of brothers and sisters who minister to them in the authority and power of the church’s head, the Lord Jesus Christ. As beneficiaries of God’s love in Christ, believers should demonstrate that same affectionate care towards the lost and one another. After all, the Lord Jesus Himself said that love would be the defining marker of a true disciple, John 13. 34, 35. Accordingly, each local church is to be an outpost of loving care, composed of redeemed people who are empowered by the God who is love, 1 John 4. 8.
The local assembly atmosphere should reflect the ethos of God Himself, because He is her founder. He gave His Son and His Spirit to create her, John 3. 16; Acts 2. 17. She was purchased ‘with the blood of His own’, Acts 20. 28 JND, and brought into being on Pentecost. Therefore, it was created by Christ’s redemptive death, victorious resurrection, and glorious ascension. The first converts instinctively craved fellowship with other saints. As one preacher put it, ‘The moment those 3,000 were converted, they joined the fellowship. Nothing could keep them away. Love for the brethren had become one of the biggest and deepest things in their lives. It had become more important to them even than the sweetest earthly ties. When people become Christians they want to spend all their time with other Christians, and they become concerned about them. The proof of Christianity is that it changes people, it gives them a new birth, and they belong to a new family. And this new family bond is deeper than natural or social or national ties. They are drawn together. They cannot keep apart from one another’.1 They threw themselves into life together, being intimately involved in building one another up in Christ, 2. 42-47. It was the outflow of new life, ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another’, 1 John 4. 11.
The apostles emulated the Lord Jesus in caring for the saints. Just as He had protected and guided them, in the same manner Paul acted both maternally and paternally, as the occasion demanded, in teaching and comforting the saints in Thessalonica, 1 Thess. 2. 7-12. Similarly, to the Galatian churches he spoke as a father figure, Gal. 4. 12-20. Perhaps no passage better exemplifies the habitual care of the apostles than Philippians chapter 2, where the mind of Christ is demonstrated in the selfless service of Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. In a Christ-like manner, Paul and his co-workers poured themselves out for the Philippian saints, Phil. 2. 17-30. Paul himself experienced his fellow-saints’ care on his way to imprisonment in Rome, Acts 27. 3; 28. 13-16. The Acts and the General Epistles reveal that the other apostles also exhibited the same care for the churches that Paul and his co-labourers did, Acts 4. 32-37; 1 John 3. 18.
The local church’s authority structure is especially designed for the spiritual nurture of the children of God. Christ condemned ‘hirelings’ in leadership who did not really care for the flock, John 10. 13; their unfaithful Old Testament counterparts were similarly reprehensible, Ezek. 34. True overseers feed the flock like shepherds, leading them to rich pastures in God’s word, Acts 20. 28. They are vigilant against spiritual wolves from the outside and heretics from the inside, vv. 29-31, thereby ensuring that sound doctrine is the basis of the saints’ spiritual health. Elders are to ‘take care’ of the local church with paternal attention, 1 Tim. 3. 5. Considering their collective qualities, 1 Tim. 3. 2-7; Titus 1. 6-9, they ought to be gentle, considerate, patient, wise examples who are governed by the scriptures and benevolently minister to the saints with Christ-like servant leadership. They are not domineering or dictatorial, 1 Pet. 5. 3, preferring to adopt their Lord’s lowly mind, John 13. 14. They do not serve for human praise or temporal reward, preferring to labour for the Master’s approbation, Heb. 13. 7; 1 Cor. 4. 1-5.
Spiritual gifts function in the context of the local church. This is not restricted to the actual meetings of the assembly; rather, it includes the interaction of the different members of the fellowship. Both 1 Corinthians chapter 12 and Romans chapter 12 locate the function of gifts within the body, 1 Cor. 12. 20-31; Rom. 12. 5-8, 16. The gifts are to be used lovingly, for mutual edification, 1 Cor. 13; 14. In love, the saints teach, encourage, rebuke, correct, and forbear each other, Col. 3. 12-17. Lying, fleshly anger, and immorality have no place in our interactions, and we are to be quick to forgive one another when our fellow believers repentantly seek it, Eph. 4. 25 – 5. 7. We are to pray for one another and share out of our physical and emotional resources, 1 Thess. 5. 11-22.
Each demographic in the local church has its unique way of showing care within the fellowship. For example, wives submit to their husbands, who in turn lead and lay down their lives for their wives, Eph. 5. 22-33. Older men are reverent assembly anchors, offering stability to the fellowship, Titus 2. 1, 2. Older mothers help instruct their younger counterparts, vv. 3-5. Meanwhile, the younger people offer a pattern of sound speech and action, vv. 6-8.
The Church’s care is further seen in the way that she carries out Christ’s teaching to specially support the weak and vulnerable. As in ancient Israel, particular emphasis is placed on the needs of widows and orphans, Jas. 1. 27; 1 Tim. 5. 3-16. The latter passage delineates principles for their support, making sure not to squander the saint’s support on people who manipulate the system.2 Elsewhere, the scriptures advocate helping the deserving poor, as opposed to the merely indolent, 2 Thess. 3. 10-13. Acts chapters 4 to 6 show the dynamic nature of the church as they ministered to the poor – even divesting themselves of property to supply the needs of the indigent. The twelve and Paul were fully agreed on helping the poor in their respective spheres of service, Gal. 2. 10, and the offering for the believers affected by the Claudian famine, Acts 11. 28-30, occupied the apostle to the Gentiles’ attention, 2 Cor. 8; 9. Although this activity on behalf of the vulnerable was churchwide, it does not negate the fact that it was administered at the local church level, 1 Cor. 16. 1-4. Every local church is to consider prayerfully how they may contribute to the needs around them and abroad, giving preference to their fellow-saints, Gal. 6. 10.
Opportunities for demonstrating care are practically limitless, for they flow out of the personalities, gifts, and resources of the saints. May the world around us see a loving outpost of heavenly care when they behold the local churches that the Lord has planted.