I can still recall a conversation I had many years ago while I was still on the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. A recent graduate came back to visit the campus and felt strongly that he needed to let me know, in no uncertain terms, how I had failed him in his preparation for gospel ministry.
He was a pastor now, for several months, and was called by God to “contend for the gospel,” which is sort of code for pursuing debate with fellow pastors, elders, and congregants to make sure the appropriate level of precise theological orthodoxy was being maintained.
My own teaching style and theology were not oriented toward training polemicists. I was more interested in exploring the Bible with my students and encouraging them to let the Lord surprise them through a careful and alert reading of the text–wherever that would lead.
You can see where this was going. My style was the very problem for this student, who took the time to seek me out and let me know. He became quite belligerent–even a tad condescending. I asked him to consider whether the Bible might have a thing or two to say about whether contending and debating without ceasing was the best way to spend one’s life in service to God’s people.
“What about love?” I asked.
Originally posted at PeteEnns.com.
“Love!?” he answered, “That’s what the liberals told Machen” [J. Gresham Machen founded Westminster Seminary in 1929 in opposition to liberal influence, and he was quite contentious in doing so, which has served as a model of ministry for many in that tradition.]
That brief exchange has come to mind a lot over the years. To live in a near constant state of theological vigilance, ready to strike down a brother or sister for (perceived) theological failings seemed not only a colossal waste of the one life God has given us, but at odds with what the Bible makes a big deal of.
Which brings me to my most frightening verse – actually two – 1 John 4:7-8:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
This verse frightens me because when I think of that student it does not take long before I realize that I am looking at myself. I am prone to fall into the same patterns of this young, deeply troubled, student I last saw a dozen or so years ago. Hey, I’m a type A, German, analytical, intellectual guy. Bow before me as I conquer the universe.
This verse is followed by another in v. 12 that drives the point home even further:
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
I am tempted to insert “but” after the semi-colon, even though there isn’t one in the Greek. Still, I think the same point holds either way:
The closest we ever get to seeing God is when we love one another, for that is when God lives in us.
I know the Bible sometimes makes absolute-sounding statements when something less threatening would do. I’m just not sure if this is one of those places. This actually sounds pretty foundational, especially since it’s hardly a minor theme in the New Testament.
Here’s what’s frightening:
What if this is one of those verses we are supposed to take literally?
And what happens if we do not love one another? Then what?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Christians should never disagree or exchange sharp words when needed. But… 1 John, and that conversation years ago, keep hanging around in the back of my head.
What if all that love business is as true and serious as it seems to be?
Peter Enns, Ph.D., is Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University.