“I made Your name known to them and will make it known, so the love You have loved Me with may be in them and I may be in them.” -John 17:26, HCSB
A popular practice in the social media universe is to pit one’s study of theology (and the resulting doctrinal convictions) against loving one’s neighbor. I recently read a Tweet posted by an influential pastor, stating, “If your theology gets in the way of you loving your neighbor, you need a new theology.” Sure, that’s a very ‘tweetable’ quote – one that I’m certain many gushed over – but … what?
Are we talking about the theology of Muslim terrorists or of Evangelical Christians?
Of course, if your theology causes you to hate someone it should change. But do any of the major evangelical tribes of America really teach non-love towards one’s neighbor? Certainly the idols of nationalism and politics can lead to this, but as for an evangelical theology, I say “no.” So what provokes such claims pinning theology against love?
I believe there are a few things happening here.
Lack of Theological Clarity
If these criticisms were coming from outside the Church, we might simply attribute them to a lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually teaches. Could that also be the case with criticisms coming from within the Church? Perhaps. It seems that often the ones making such claims lack theological confidence, or, at the very least, the courage to speak their convictions (except for how disgruntled they are with Church people). When people are unsure of their theology, they tend to be defensive against those who have convictional and doctrinal clarity. This insecurity leads to ‘hey, let’s just love and not be divisive,’ just like Jesus … apparently.
One popular pastor recently wrote, “No one on the planet had better theology than Jesus, and yet we do not see Him drawing theological lines in the sand and excluding people who do not believe just like Him—in fact, we find Him often sitting with people who were nothing like Him at all.”
Besides being a misrepresentation of Jesus, that is a false dichotomy for the ages. A quick read of the Gospel of Luke could lead one to rename it “Jesus vs. The Pharisees.” Jesus drew strongly defined lines in the sand as an overflow of His theology. When it came to those who claimed to be devoted to the God of Israel, Jesus did not tolerate false teaching or anything that would lead others astray. He was very protective over His sheep. That same theology also led to unmistakable compassion. He is the one who declared that the “healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do” (Luke 5:31). Those ‘in need of a doctor’ were unbelievers trapped in sin – the people to whom Jesus often demonstrated the most patience and compassion. He shared meals and pointed them to something greater, Himself.
Jesus was a drawer of lines in the sand because He loved the Father and loved people – and these were never in contradiction.
Embarrassment of the Scriptures
A second reason why people within the Church may pit theology against love is that they believe the Gospel, but are a little embarrassed about what the Bible says (especially concerning homosexuality or gender). In the name of mission, they try to avoid highly sensitive topics, even where Scripture is clear on a decisive stance. Take the controversial issue of homosexuality off the table, for example, and nobody feels the need to tweet “if your theology causes you to be unloving, you need a new theology.” Certainly not every sermon needs to be about hot topics, but the concern here isn’t timing. The concern is the growing number of pastors who are unwilling to tell the truth about what the Bible says.
For example, the pastor who made the aforementioned claim about Jesus and theology also advises other pastors not to use the phrase “the Bible says” when preaching, and won’t touch the topics of homosexuality or gender, unless to say how badly the Church handles the matters. In the name of a pragmatic approach to ministry, the new method of operation seems to paint theology as divisive (and acceptance as the remedy), rather than exposing sin and false teaching as the problem, and pointing to faith in Christ and repentance as the remedy.
Reversal of the Commandments
A great area of confusion leading people to forsake the Bible’s teachings in the name of “love” is a reordering of the greatest commandments. We are taught that God is love (1 John 4:8), but we don’t know how to reconcile that with absolute claims that may offend or inconvenience people. So we abandon the greatest commandment (to love God), in favor of the second (to love people). We see this addressed by Jesus directly in the book of Matthew. When Jesus had drawn lines and “silenced the Sadducees,” the Pharisees had a theological question of their own:
“When the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: ‘Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.’” -Matthew 22:34-40, HCSB
Jesus answered the question, wasn’t vague, and ranked the commandments in order. He did not give a 1a and 1b, or declare a tie, but awarded a gold and silver medal, first and second place. The greatest commandment is that we love God. Striving to love God out of the love He first has for us will result in a genuine and biblical love for our family, friends, co-workers, classmates, and all people – which Jesus said is the second greatest commandment.
It is impossible to love God while ignoring, being ashamed of, or being indifferent towards His commandments. When I believe I am loving my neighbor by allowing a wedge to come between myself and the Bible, I am failing to love God. Or, I may be loving a very different god altogether. Is there a real need for some Christians to repent concerning their treatment of homosexuals and transgendered people? Absolutely. But that repentance must not be coupled with a denial of biblical teaching – and that is where we must be clear. Thankfully, the Gospel is for the homosexual and the homophobic, and God’s commands regarding our behavior come out of His love for us.
It should be our theology (our love for God, belief in Christ Jesus, faith in His gospel, and adherence to His Word) that produces missional love of neighbor. That love often requires drawing lines in the sand. Let’s not be deterred by the world’s lines of definition around “love.” Let’s not walk down roads disguised as love and unity that are actually paved with fear of the secular world that thinks we are fools. Let’s love the world enough to be very theological, because there is only One who can make the foolish wise.