There is no bane so avoidable in the church, and no missed opportunity for blessing so regrettable, as failure by saints in the body of Christ to hold the truth in love. Let us consider the scriptural imperative for carefully maintaining both of these balancing principles: truth and love.
The church of God is presented in the New Testament using several different analogies, including a “house” and a “body”. In I Timothy 3:15, we read of the necessity of appropriate behavior in the “house of God, which is the assembly of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth.” Pillars and bases (foundations) are architectural elements that go along with the picture of the church as a building, and we can understand from this passage that God’s revealed truth is to rest firmly here. Other religious groups or societies, including parachurch organizations, may seek to maintain Christian principles and biblical teaching, and that is commendable. However, it is to the assembly of God alone, functioning according to the New Testament’s teaching on the church, that God gives the commission for upholding (as on a well-grounded pillar) divine truth.
It should be clarified at this point that the church as such does not teach, as organized religion has commonly held over the centuries. Rather, the assembly of God is taught by those teachers and pastors (shepherds) whom God gives as gifts to it. The assembly, if in a good state collectively, then judges the truth or error of that which is taught in it, receiving and growing by the truth, and rejecting the error. Assembly discipline and even excommunication is appropriate when a teacher persists in teaching error, and especially so when that teaching denigrates the glorious person of the Son of God or the infinite worth of the work of Christ.
As vital as it is to maintain the truth in every local expression of the body of Christ, we find in Ephesians 4 some very specific teaching on how it should be held or practiced. We are taught in that chapter about the body of Christ and its essential and practical unity, of the gifts given to build up the body, of its end goal of growing up to the “perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The process of growth to that end, to the “unity of the faith”, assumes that the body of Christ is exercised in “holding the truth in love,” while taking care to avoid the deception of false teachers and their systematized error.¹
A Bible teacher once wrote: ‘But God is never satisfied with negative results, and it is not enough therefore that we should be shielded from error. He desires something more for us, that we, “holding [not merely speaking] the truth in love, may grow up unto Him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ.” The knowledge of the faith is, as we have seen, the weapon which alone enables us to “hold the truth” amidst the “opposition of science falsely so called.” But there must be a corresponding state of soul, showing that the truth is operative in the heart as well as the mind, that it is forming the affections as well as the intellect. Hence the truth must be held in love; for without both of these there can be no “growing up unto Christ in all things.” Where, on the other hand, the truth of God is really held, not simply as an intellectual creed, but in love, the believer will grow up unto Christ – will become more and more assimilated in his walk and ways to the blessed Lord.’ ²
Attempting to maintain the truth of God without being collectively exercised about the imperative of doing so “in love” will eventually lead to legalism and division. The apostle Paul by the Spirit is careful to direct the hearts of the Corinthians to the “more excellent way” of love, after laying out for them the principles of truth as the body of Christ in I Corinthians 12 & 13. Without love, there is a real danger of pride and sectarianism, as Paul cautioned in using the body analogy practically in the second half of chapter 12.
In his second epistle to the Corinthians, in chapter 2, Paul begs the assembly to reaffirm their love toward the man they had had to put away because of the truth, for fornication (I Corinthians 5). For to put away a person so that the assembly can “keep the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”, and yet to fail in being ready to manifest love toward such as soon as there is evident repentance, is to fail to hold the truth in love. If love is already in proper exercise in the assembly, this display of love in restoring the backslider will be no difficulty, but will flow naturally from the hearts of those who are controlled by the love of Christ (II Corinthians 5:14).
When a local assembly fails to maintain the truth as taught by the Spirit of truth, it fails objectively as a testimony to the One who is “the Truth”. And when such an assembly fails to maintain or hold that truth in love, it fails to subjectively demonstrate the love of God in Christ toward souls. Dispensing with the truth for the sake of an emotional love may draw in many souls with more interest in good feelings than truth. Conversely, lacking the exercised energy of God’s love (agape) and brotherly love (philadelphia)³ will cause assemblies that hold objective truth in a cold or clinical way to wither over time. Sadly, we have all seen examples of both of those imbalances.
The apostle John is occupied much with both truth and love in his gospel and epistles. He records the last hours that the Lord Jesus spent with His disciples in that upper room, where the Lord referred to Himself as “the Truth”, and then promised the “Spirit of truth” who guides into all truth. But even more of His time with them there was spent, in exhortation and prayer, to the end that they should love one another, as He had loved them, and to have in themselves the same love with which the Father loved Him.* Those eleven disciples (and some others) would form the original local expression of the body of Christ and house of God on the earth. It is the truth they taught, maintained in the love of Christ that they enjoyed in their hearts, that is still able to bring growth in the body of Christ, satisfying His heart, while we await perfection at His coming.
¹ Ephesians 4:11-16 (Darby translation). There is no word in the Greek for either “speaking” or “holding” in this verse; rather, the word for “truth” is given in verb form.
² T. B. Baines, “The Christian’s Friend” (1879): Edification of the Body of Christ
³ Romans 12:9-10; II Peter 1:7
* John 15:26; 16:13-14; and see all of John 13-17.