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What is this thing called love?

The Love sculpture is a famous monument by Robert Indiana located at JFK Plaza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Love sculpture is a famous monument by Robert Indiana located at JFK Plaza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | iStock/Olga Kaya

Back in high school, I played a piano arrangement of the jazz standard, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” I resonated with its haunting melody and chords but gave no thought to its theological significance. Many decades later I see this question as core to much disagreement, guilt-feelings, and confusion within the Church. Is the term “love” interchangeable with the terms “affirmation” and “inclusivity”? It is certainly used this way by churches,individuals closely identified with Christian activity, and many of my dear friends.

The almost universally accepted go-to passage in the Bible for an understanding of love (agape) is 1 Corinthians 13. It is popular across the theological spectrum. Although this chapter is commonly posted on Facebook pages or read at weddings, its immediate context deals with navigating the use of spiritual gifts within the Church. (How wonderful it would be if we read texts in their proper and larger contexts?) Still, this passage, among and in conjunction with others, brings timely clarity to the biblical ideal of love.

The qualities of patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, and forgiveness mentioned in verses four and five not only reflect our Lord’s character but provide especially good guidance for those of us who hold to a historical view of Christian values, including love. Besides being obedient to Scripture, to behave otherwise just doesn’t allow for meaningful dialogue. (Am I the only one who has made cringeworthy comments in the defense of orthodoxy?)  

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Now notice the oft-overlooked verse five: “[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth.” This infers that such concepts as objective unrighteousness and truth exist and are not just individual preferences or cultural constructs that come and go. Furthermore, it suggests that to be genuinely loving, unrighteousness, whatever that is, should not be affirmed. In fact, it is unloving to celebrate it.

Given our pluralistic reality today, can we know what qualifies as unrighteousness? I think we can safely assume that what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 as unrighteousness still meets his criteria in chapter 13. In fact, he uses the literary device of inclusio to provide an especially somber warning for practicing unrighteous behavior: 

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, not swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”

Two brief points:

1. I believe the unrighteousness mentioned above relates to actual practice and not a temptation that is resisted. Otherwise, we would all be disqualified from entering the Kingdom of God, even Jesus (Hebrews 4:15).

2. I know that now, almost 2,000 years after this letter was written, some have found a new understanding of what Paul meant by using the Greek word “araenokoites” other than referring to homosexual behavior. I do not believe the evidence supports such a discovery, but I do not have the space (or expertise) to elaborate here. (Click here for fuller discussion among Greek scholars.)

Before leaving 1 Corinthians 6, notice in verse 11 that Paul believes supernatural regeneration, justification, and sanctification can effect changes in someone who previously had practiced unrighteous behavior: “And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of your God.” The mere suggestion that refraining from such behavior is possible or even desirable is provocative and potentially damaging to one’s reputation in today’s broader culture. Who said love was safe?

Since we have seen that agape love does not affirm unrighteousness, that those who practice unrighteousness will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and that through the supernatural work of God one’s unrighteous practice and life can be changed, what is the most biblical and loving response towards those practicing unrighteousness or supporting such behavior? One large denomination has worked to create a “big tent,” to allow for differing practices and views on such matters. This vision, however, has been problematic to realize.

Two clues are from the half-brothers of Jesus. James 5:16-20 emphasizes the power of prayer and informs us that when we turn a sinner from the error of his way, we will save his soul from death. Like his brother, Jude 20-23 advises us to pray, build up our own faith, and save others by snatching them out of the fire. This sounds like eternal-life-saving love to me.

Thus, it appears that agape love is neither always affirming nor does it just accept the status quo as inevitable. Yet, it is always clothed in patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, and forgiveness. It flows from deep personal faith, belief in God’s ability to change lives, and fervent prayer. Finally, it keeps top of mind the high Kingdom stakes that are involved in truly loving others. Given this comprehensive view of love, we should completely agree with all those Facebook posts and bridal couples that love is indeed the greatest Christian virtue.

Ronald Sloan is a retired academic administrator who served at both public and Christian institutions of higher education. He currently teaches as an adjunct music instructor at Taylor University, volunteers at his church, and serves as a court-appointed advocate for children needing special services. 

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