Is Christian Love Unique?
If you have a moment today read 2 John, a short letter addressed to the “elect Lady” and her children. John personifies the church as the one whom Jesus loves and cares for as his “elect lady.”
As I read this letter, there are a couple things that jump out to me.
- First, there is a relationship between love and truth… to walk in truth one must practice love, and to love is to practice obedience to God’s truth.
- Second, the word “abide” appears several times, being the glue that holds truth and love together. According to John, these attributes abide in us as we walk in them.
I want to look at the notion of Christian Love and provide a practical way to build our love for one another in the church. I.H. Marshall wrote,
“All who have come to know the truth are brought into the same bond of mutual love which exists between elder and this congregation. Acceptance of this truth involved active love, where love is absent, truth has not been accepted.”
The notion or idea of Christian love was not taught in a vacuum, it wasn’t a new concept introduced by Jesus, but one both grounded in the ideas of the times and challenging to the ideas of the times. So, before we understand Christian love, we must survey what “love” meant at the time of Jesus’ teaching.
At the time of the church’s application of Jesus’ teaching on love, there were several groups teaching about it, and some were teaching it as a technique of sorts.
- The Roman Poet Ovid wrote his “Ars Amatoria” to instruct men in the ways of love. Written in 2 AD, this work taught men how to find, win, and keep a lover with very little regard for any sort of ethical questions.
- Meanwhile, it was reported by well-known historians Josephus and Philo that the Qumranites and the Essenes, Jewish sects at the time of Christ, practiced celibacy and were accused of being misogynistic. While those claims can be debated with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls which display their work, it is still a label that these groups have to this day.
- There were other groups, like the Stoics and the Cynics who claimed that wise men had more important things to do than to worry about love, there was little use for it. Love was a disruption to peace of mind. In other words, the end goal of life is virtue, not pleasure, and it can only be obtained by independence of all earthly possessions and pleasures. (http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/stoicism.html) These men would come off to us as indifferent and aloof.
Interesting enough, it was the Stoic Philosopher Epictetus who wrote that the end goal of love was “If a man is unhappy remember that his unhappiness is his own fault, for God made all men to be happy.” (Discourses 3.24) Happiness as the end goal of love is not a Christian concept, but a popularized Stoic concept.
Love in John
John’s notion of love differs from these types of love. For Jesus, and also for John, a Christian can have a longing and desire for someone whom they marry and enjoy, but the church’s call to love is a different type of love altogether.
The word love is used by John 42 times in his Gospel, and it is used 46 times in 1 John…which means that by the time we have arrived at 2 John, this notion of love has been well established as foundational to the church. So, let’s understand John’s notion of love and how it is different.
- First, love comes from God who is essentially love according to 1 John 4:9. The foundation of love starts with God who loves us.
- Second, God has loved us in a very particular way. The laying down of His Son’s life was necessary so that the world would know the love of God. (John 14:31; 15:13; 1 John 4:10)
- Third, we as a church must dwell or abide in Christ and in His love and this confirms that God is present in the church and thus the world.
Jesus taught that He and the Father are ONE, and that unity defined love (John 10:30).
Jesus prayed that His disciples would be ONE, and that unity defined love (John 17).
John sees the proof of God’s love being the Unity of the church; moreover, the love between believers in Christ is to be a witness to the world of the power and presence of God. When this unity breaks down, the witness is broken. When this unity is present, the witness is powerful.
For John, the command to love God is the first and greatest command. The second command, love your neighbor (or each other), starts within the church community as loving your brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that our love for one another should fall in line with the foundation upon which it is built:
- Our love for each other honors God and obeys His will.
- Our love restores, encourages, and gives life to each other!
- Our love, producing unity, bears witness in a divided world that God is among us.
Christian love is a distinct love. We will know we are obedient to God’s command and we will see a practical difference when we abide in these two important aspects that set Christian love apart from other concepts of love:
- The foundation it is built upon God, who is love, and His Son who laid down his life for us. It is not a matter of desire or being good enough, it is matter of whose we are and to whose family we belong.
- The end goal of Christian love is not physical reproduction or emotional happiness; but a spiritual reality that God is among us and we experience God in relationship with each other.
Jonathan Woodall is the minister for the GracePointe church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA and blogs on the church website www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org and on his personal page at www.jonathanfwoodall.com. He is the spouse of Hayley and they have two children–Brynn and Aidric. Jonathan has also served as a worship minister, campus minister, and adjunct instructor of communication.