Vincent Yeung—Cambridge, UK
The theme of unity is never too far away when we read Paul’s epistles. No matter what the main message or theme of the letter, Paul often returns to the same idea: the oneness of God’s chosen people. The common thread that ties God’s people together is not based on race, social status, gender, background or tradition—there is no distinction between Jews, Greeks, Gentiles, slaves and freemen, circumcised and uncircumcised, male and female (Rom 10:12; Eph 3:6; Col 3:11; Gal 3:28). God’s richness and His promises are the same to all; Christ is in all, and we are all one in Christ. Since all who are baptized have put on Christ and have been renewed according to His image, we have left behind our former conduct and identities (Gal 3:27–28; Col 3:10; Eph 4:21–24).
However, being human, we are all set in our ways. For this reason, Paul reminds believers to be mindful of the dangers of drifting away from one another, consciously or subconsciously. This is a clear and present danger, of which we must beware, making the effort to prevent and minimize divisions that could blow us apart. We need to learn from the past to avoid repeating these patterns of division.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus preached that we should not neglect, ignore or despise the “little ones” (Mt 10:41–42, 18:5, 6, 10, 25:40). Jesus was not only speaking of little children, but of the “least” of His brethren. Who are these little ones?
THE OVERLOOKED AND WEAK IN FAITH
It is common to see members
going out of their way to receive and show respect to God’s workers. But how
often do we show a fraction of this care towards those who seem less important?
We tend to view
things from a human perspective—we deem certain individuals more worthy than
others. Of course, the “laborer is worthy of his wages” (
These little ones are like babies—the ones who seem to be less spiritual and weaker in faith. They do not contribute much, but much time and effort is spent on them by workers who visit, exhort and pray for them. Sometimes, such efforts seem futile when they fail to progress in their faith. Frustrated and disheartened, workers may give up and begin to ignore them and their needs. However, Jesus warns us not to despise these little ones, because our Father in heaven does not want them to perish (Mt 18:10, 14). Therefore, Jesus proclaims: “Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me” (Mt 18:5; see also Mk 9:37).
Another way humans assign value is to categorize ourselves into groups—often subconsciously—and prioritizing the needs of one group above another. This happened in the early apostolic church, when the Hellenist widows felt neglected by the Hebrew followers in the daily distribution (Acts 6:1). We cannot speculate as to why this happened, but it is clear that one minority was overlooked or felt they were treated unfairly. Perhaps what they received was the same as the Hebrew widows, but was actually insufficient for their needs. If it can be so easy to misjudge the situation when it comes to serving food, how much more damage would we cause if we overlook the spiritual needs of the spiritually weak or the neglected minority?
In Jesus’ ministry, He often saw the multitude as lost sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36). Why did the religious leaders not address their spiritual needs at the time? The dialogue between Nicodemus and the Pharisees reveals the latter’s contempt for the general public—a people beyond redemption because they did not, and possibly could not, understand the law (Jn 7:49). The Pharisees were also prejudiced against everyone from Galilee (Jn 7:52), as the region had a population of mixed ethnicity, being in close proximity to large Gentile cities. Galileans were deemed to be slack in their practice of Jewish rites and religion. The attitudes of the spiritual leaders at the time are encapsulated in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30): the priest and the Levite did not want to defile themselves by helping the dying man; they considered their holiness more important than saving life and showing love.
THOSE IN NEED
We all have needs, and these needs change over time. In good times, it is easy for us to uphold our faith. However, in extreme situations, when we are under immense physical and mental strain, our faith may be severely challenged. Job was a faithful man, but his faith was put under duress when he lost his children, his wealth and his wellbeing overnight (Job 1:13–19, 2:7). Even his wife and close friends challenged his faith and integrity (Job 2:9, 22:15, 25:6). At the nadir of his faith, Job needed help, but help was not forthcoming. The little ones are not only those at the fringe of the religious community, but those who face faith-shattering experiences. Even the strongest of us can become a little one, longing for God’s deliverance and support from the community of faith.
I was touched by a sister’s testimony of when her child was born with a life-limiting condition—the sorrow she felt was only compounded when visiting church members asked her to trust in God. The advice, while laudable and biblically correct, appeared to put the onus on the sufferer, implying that her sadness was a result of not trusting in God. Should we not backup our exhortation with practical help, seeking to alleviate suffering through offering some physical care? As James reminds us, saying, “Depart in peace” but offering no tangible help is no real help at all (Jas 2:16).
During a recent visit to a church in South America, a member disapprovingly shared how some migrant members would ask for prayer intercessions when they get in trouble with the authorities. There are many stories of detentions, deportations, overstayed visas, rejected asylum applications and heavy fines for tax evasion. Many of these troubles are self-inflicted, while others are borne out of a combination of bad luck, inequality and desperate choices. While we do not condone illegal behavior, or understand the motives or forces that lead some believers into these situations, we should nevertheless pray for them. We were all sinners when Jesus died for us (Rom 5:8), so we cannot deem someone more or less deserving depending on whether their actions fit into our own value systems. More importantly, we should not consider ourselves spiritually superior. Jesus even warned His disciples that they were no better than other sinners—they too would perish unless they repented (Lk 13:3).
We learn from the above examples that some members have unique and special spiritual needs, not experienced by the majority of members—increasingly, these situations involve wide-ranging mental health issues. The church has the responsibility to help, even when it is a hard or unfamiliar challenge. These members cannot be ignored. We should examine our mindset to eliminate any prejudices we may have towards such special situations.
Prejudice is an unreasonable opinion or feeling, formed with little thought, knowledge or context, and based on preconceived notions. Often, we respond to events based on our bias, and our gut feelings about the people involved, rather than objective evaluation. We can also become prejudiced through a lack of empathy—we assume that everyone should react and think as we would in any given situation or crisis. However, we come from different cultural and economic backgrounds, as well as having different skills, spiritual knowledge and secular experiences. We must realize that everyone’s experiences and responses will differ, and we cannot take a cookie-cutter approach when offering help.
Be Mindful of Barriers
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Mt 18:6)
It is sobering to consider that our salvation may be jeopardized if we become stumbling blocks to others. Of course, we would not intentionally prevent others coming to God, but we may do so unconsciously by acting according to our own values. The disciples prevented the little children from approaching Jesus, and rebuked those who brought them to Him (Mk 10:13). They asked Jesus to stop people performing miracles in His name, and told Bartimaeus to be quiet when he was calling for Jesus (Mk 9:38, 10:46–48). They even asked Jesus if they should send fire from heaven upon those who rejected them, much to Jesus’ disdain (Lk 9:54–55). The disciples put up barriers around Jesus, thinking He was too busy, and the people too insignificant to receive His time and attention. We should ask ourselves, what barriers do we put up today?
Barriers can be both tangible and intangible. A simple example of a tangible barrier is the service timetable. Some members are unable to attend Sabbath services because of socio-economic or personal reasons. Should the church ignore these members’ spiritual needs, on account of the sanctity of the Sabbath commandment? On the contrary, we should show love towards these members, and build up their faith until they are able to keep all of God’s commands. We can observe positive examples of churches accommodating such members by holding additional services outside of Sabbath, and providing support for those currently incapable of making the sacrifice. If our children fail to learn and follow our instructions, we do not cut them loose; we nurture and patiently remind them, using discipline when necessary, until they are mature enough to act independently. The same is true for the little ones in church—those stronger in faith should maintain contact with them, showing love and concern. When they are touched by the love of God, they will understand His grace and come to Him voluntarily (Lk 19:8).
An example of an intangible barrier is the feeling of being unwelcome at church. Those who are spiritually immature are sensitive to feeling unwelcome, ignored, and unloved when they come to church. If they cannot feel the love of God, they will stop coming altogether. However, those who are equally immature, but are comfortable in church attendance and service may be inclined to close ranks and focus more on those who are firmly within the community of faith. By doing so, these are no different from the Pharisees—well versed in the Scriptures, but not having the love of God in them (Jn 5:38–44).
Paul reminds us to emulate Christ, who saw people’s needs rather than their weaknesses. We should see the good in our brothers and sisters, reminding ourselves of the oneness of our faith, and dealing with one another with lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering (Eph 4:1–4).
Reconsider Our Values
During His ministry, Jesus often challenged the prevailing social values. To present things from God’s perspective, He re-framed and questioned the highest markers of success, such as wealth, power, intellect and outward piety. He received much criticism for socializing with sinners. Without shame, He said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17). He blessed the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who mourn (Mt 5:3–5), and He judged the widow’s two mites to be worth more than the great riches others had offered (Mk 12:43).
Elitism, whether material or spiritual, has no place in God’s kingdom. In most societies, the elite are typically served by commoners, but in God’s kingdom the first shall be servant of all (Mk 9:33–35, 10:45).
We should not assign greater value to those members who are more physically, financially, intellectually or spiritually capable in church (cf. Jas 2:3–5). As we can see from the three parables in Matthew 25, such factors do not count towards how God will judge us in the end. In a nutshell, in order to be saved, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Mt 25: 1–13); utilize our God-given talents (Mt 24:14–30); and manifest our love to all, especially the least of our brethren (Mt 25:40). Our love should never be partial or selectively dispensed only to those we deem deserving, according to subjective or societal values. God’s love transcends such divisions.
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, we read of a dispute between the believers. We can see that it was concerning food, but the exact details are unclear (Rom 14:1–3). The issue certainly had nothing to do with salvation, as Paul opposed any link between food and salvation (Gal 2:12). However, divisions were fomented because one group of believers ate certain things, while another group abstained. This caused mutual discontent, as each group despised or judged the other.
Misunderstandings are often not one-sided affairs, neither are they always the fault of the “stronger” party. We naturally try to infer or surmise why a misunderstanding occurred, but the situation is usually too complex, with unseen factors, for us to apportion blame. For example, the Hellenist widows felt neglected, but they might have been overlooked for a different reason, not necessarily cultural ones (Acts 6). A more contemporary example is when an English-speaking member within a multi-ethnic church complained that the elderly Chinese members rarely spoke to her. Of course, the elderly members should consider this member’s comfort and greet her warmly; but on the other hand, if we consider the language barrier and the difficulty of mastering a new language in old age, we can understand why they may lack the confidence to approach this member and converse with her. We can view any situation from a positive or a negative perspective. But it is vital that we understand the needs, habits and limitations of each party.
Paul writes, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22b). This does not mean that he compromised his beliefs or behavior; rather, it means that he learned to understand the needs of others. He sought to avoid being a stumbling block to those who seek God. Elsewhere, he reminds us to look out not only for our own interests, but for those of others too (Phil 2:4).
Every decision or action taken by the church should take into account the needs and wellbeing of all members. We will usually find that the “spiritually strong” majority have fewer needs, so greater care and honor should be bestowed on the “weaker” and “less honorable” parts (1 Cor 12:22–26). When planning the timetable, social events, meetings and pastoral visits, we should cater for the needs of the minority. If travel costs for a church trip are prohibitive for some, could the church subsidize their costs? Have we adequately trained interpreters for the minority who do not speak the language in which sermons are delivered? In the heated discussion of a general members’ meeting, do we bypass the interpreter, resulting in confusion for the minority language speakers? Do we only assign church work to those we deem good enough, based on our personal standards? The questions are endless. But the key is to understand other people’s viewpoints and opinions, and to communicate without judgment when misunderstandings occur.
We are all new creations in Christ, having been renewed in knowledge according to His image (Col 3:10). Though we have our differences in church, we should bear with and forgive one another, as Christ forgave us (Col 3:13). It is God’s love that binds us together in perfection (Col 3:14). We may esteem spiritual gifts, but these are temporal, whereas love endures (1 Cor 13:1, 3). Therefore, we should reach out to those who are different from us, and not neglect or despise those who behave differently.
Pay more attention to the little ones—those who have special spiritual needs, and are most likely spiritually immature or traumatized by life-changing trials. We should consider the needs of others and offer tangible help, whether or not we believe it to be deserved. In doing so, we unknowingly feed, clothe and visit Jesus in our midst. Elder James writes that pure religion is visiting orphans and widows in their afflictions, and keeping oneself unspotted from the world (Jas 1:27). We work hard for the latter, but rarely take note of the former. Today, the orphans and widows refer to anyone who needs our prayers and physical support. As John writes: “My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). Jesus demonstrated this by healing and comforting the sick and the poor, as well as encouraging the young rich man to give up his wealth to those in need (Mt 11:5, 19:21). The apostolic church carried this out by looking after the physical wellbeing of the members, alongside preaching the gospel (Acts 2:44–47).
Some members are deemed to be weak because they are spiritually immature, have insufficient faith, or their actions and ethics do not meet biblical requirements. However, Jesus never gives up on the weak ones, so neither should we. We should speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), patiently exhort, and guide them until they can stand on their own two feet. We should imitate Jesus’ boundless patience and compassion upon the multitude by looking past our own prejudices and values, reaching out to the little ones, and understanding their needs. Only when we learn to bear one another’s burdens will we be able to fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2).