I have been thinking a lot about the role of love in the Christian life and what that looks like. Two different things have been bringing this together. One is preaching through 1 John at our church and the other is some Twitter interactions with some very conservative evangelicals.
It is incredible how much of an emphasis there is on love in 1 John. You can find just one example here. John seems to see love a the defining characteristic of a Christian. I think he would go so far as to say that you cannot detect love in a person, they are not a Christian.
This is consistent with what we find in the Gospel of John:
“This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:35)
It would be difficult for anyone who takes the Bible serious to discount the importance of love. But what does that love look like?
For some reason, I get drawn into Twitter conversations with conservative evangelicals who, from my perspective, seemed filled with hate. They lift up the Bible as the rule of faith, so they are forced to reconcile this with what the Bible says about love.
Their claim is that when they attack people who they think under-emphasize or over-emphasize a doctrine, or who they believe have incorrect political beliefs, or who have a different (but orthodox) interpretation of the Bible, that they are fulfilling the way of love as God wants it to be demonstrated.
To them, the most loving thing that could be done is to destroy their opponents and to mock and insult those they disagree with.
In fact they would also say that those who treat people they disagree with in a respectful and compassionate manner are unloving as they are simply enabling people to remain in error (with the truth measured by their interpretation).
As someone who has studied the Gospels, this is not the love of Jesus that I see. Yes Jesus stood up for the truth and did enter into conflict, but it his love was not limited to proving his opponents wrong.
I think a helpful example is 1 Corinthians 8. In the Corinthian church there was a debate over whether one could eat meat that had been dedicated to idols. Paul agrees that these gods do not exist and therefore meat is just meat.
But Paul also emphasizes that what is important is not who is correct but how we treat each other. Not only should the group that accepts the eating of meat not try to force that view on the others, they should avoid eating meat if it will cause their brothers and sisters to stumble!
Christian love is not something completely unrecognizable from what “normal” people see as love. It is about putting the other person first and meeting their needs as we are able.
To think that the primary need of every person is simply to tell them how wrong they are is not the biblical model. There is a place for confronting but that happens in the context of a wider demonstration of love.
From Acts and Paul’s letters, we see that Paul seems to have had a strained relationship with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Some of them followed him around and tried to undo his work.
But when there was a need, Paul organized a widespread offering to provide for the very people who were making his life difficult. That was Christian love in action.