It’s a question I’m asking myself regularly, and a situation that people in pastoral ministry face daily. Is it OK for a few, struggling people to take up a lot of my time? Is it right to keep supporting those who don’t seem to be getting much stronger or showing any real sign of spiritual fruit?
Of course, on the whole, there’s no question that we want people to grow and there’s no doubt we want to love in ways that are Christ-like. And whether we are having conversations with people in a counselling room, in a small group or over the kitchen table, we want God’s purposes to be progressed. But what about when their needs seem somewhat larger than average? Do we ever need to give up? Do we ever get to the point where we have to acknowledge that a fellow Christian is just too needy and getting in the way of God’s purposes for our church?
Maybe that’s something you’ve wondered. Maybe it’s a question you’ve been asked. The answer lies in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul sketches out the wonderful ways in which a church is like a body:
1. Christ’s body has many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)
The people in our congregation might be a diverse bunch but no-one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Spirit. Whatever gifts someone does or doesn’t have, a Christian is a miracle of God’s Spirit. They are united with us and we are called to be thankful for them. There aren’t any exceptions to that. From the most emotionally and spiritually robust evangelist, to the most broken individual barely able to speak, we are one body – and we are together for a reason.
It’s fair to say that not everyone in a congregation will have the gifts to stand alongside those who are profoundly weak. But some will have those gifts and others will grow those gifts as they care, and they are called to use those gifts in the service of God and in the service of their hurting brother or sister with whom they are “one body”.
2. Every part is essential (1 Corinthians 12:15-21)
It’s a truth that’s easy to forget but God has placed people in the body just as he wants them to be. Some weak, some strong – all different. Most will have gifts that are obvious (from the ability to pray to the ability to teach) but some can’t do anything. Some won’t be able to join a single rota all year. How does Scripture say we should treat them? With special honour – because they are indispensable! (v21)
In our society we tend to honour the powerful and the great. We tend to see the strong as the people we need most. But God turns that dynamic on its head. Why? Because that’s what covenant love looks like – love that counts for something even when we are getting nothing back.
3. God has made some parts with special needs for special care (1 Corinthians 12:22-26)
You see, our place in the body isn’t justified by our productivity. A broken person’s place in the body is justified because God chose to put them there and we should honour those with special needs with special care. To deny that care is to deny God’s character – after all, he loves to care for the weak and those who are far less productive than him – people like any one of us!
People with special needs – a spouse with dementia, a child with cerebral palsy, a person with a personality disorder or traumatised by childhood horrors – may show only slow or no progress. But they need special care, special honour, special resources which God has already given to our church with the intention that they be used for these brothers and sisters.
There is a place for sharing the load, working in a team that is large enough to ensure that no single person gets burned out, but there is no case for giving up. Weak people don’t break the church, they make the church what God has designed it to be, according to his Word. As we bear fruit by caring for them, they bear fruit by receiving that love and care – and we all grow in our faith.
Download the audio of Andrew Nicholls’ bible reading at our 2016 residential conference Where Life and Scripture Meet.