God is love (1 John 4). The way the world will know that we are disciples of Christ is if we love one another (John 14). Repeatedly and unambiguously, Christ emphasized that love is God’s primary characteristic. And by extension, this would be the identifying mark of the true followers of God.
This is the complete antithesis of the primary M.O. of the ruling religious leaders of Christ’s day. They were overwhelmingly less worried about the disciples hunger than they were concerned with whether or not the disciples were breaking the Sabbath (Mark 2). They were willing to publicly humiliate a woman and use her as a tool to entrap Jesus into revealing His loyalty to the ecclesiastical laws (John 8). They attempted to do the same when asking Him to choose between helping a man with a crippled hand and conforming to their interpretation of lawful Sabbath activities (Matthew 12). They were actually incensed when a lame man was healed because it took place during Sabbath hours and because carrying his mat went against their approved Sabbath list (John 5). And they seemed oblivious to the miracle they witnessed because they were more focused on the fact that it seemed like Jesus was unlawfully extending forgiveness to a man who was paralyzed (Mark 2). Policies were more important to them than people.
Their mentality was the total opposite of Christ’s. But this was not exactly new. Isaiah chastised the children of Israel for perseverating so much on physical fasting that they did not bother to loose the burdens of the oppressed around them (Isaiah 58). God has always valued the treatment of people over prescription and adherence to rules. This was reemphasized by John’s warnings to the new church that loving God but hating our earthly family was impossible to do simultaneously (1 John 4). Loving each other is the unique identifier of those who are truly God’s children.
It is 2,000 years later, and this message seems to have gotten reversed again. Like the scribes and Pharisees of old, it is often emphasized by many religious leaders in our day that policy is paramount. Even our own church administration has suggested that using the practice of publicly humiliating their fellow leaders is a good idea and is a means to spotlight nonconformity. Where have we heard that before? However, unlike the woman caught in adultery, the “crime” of wayward leadership is going against church practices in an effort to be too inclusive. Somewhere along the line, exclusivity became the identifying mark of a true follower of our religion — whatever that religion is— because it sure is not the one Christ taught.
In this alternative religion, it is not unusual for people to complain about sermons or practices that seem too kind. A familiar experience shared by many pastoral colleagues is one of being confronted by church members upset that the pastors have been neglecting the teaching of foundational doctrines in favor of preaching too much love. It is as if those complaining have totally missed the point that the singular foundational doctrine of Christianity is love. Christ even explicitly says so in noting that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself are the basis of all godly teachings (Matthew 22). Yet, we have sincerely gotten it backwards—so much so that we are threatened by too much exposition of love and kindness.
Recently an article was published about a Christian group seeking to send a message to LGBT+ groups. The Christian group stood with signs at a gay pride rally displaying them to those participating in the marches. But contrary to what has been par for the course for many Christians who have held up signs at similar events, these signs expressed remorse for the decades of hatred the church has spewed toward that population. Not surprisingly, such tactics sparked intense discussions within Christian circles — including our own denomination. Concerns have been raised that these messages of love ought to be tempered with caveats . . . lest someone get the wrong idea! After all, it has to be abundantly clear that Bible-believing Christians have not compromised their stance on long held religious policies. Never mind the fact that no one insisted that caveats and asterisks crowd the placards held by Christians at gay rallies when the messages were focused on the need for LGBT+ individuals to repent from their ways. But these additions are a necessity when the messages highlight the need for the church’s repentance.
Those who argue in favor of an unvarnished display of love are often viewed with a skeptical eye. After all, with all this love talk, perhaps they are actually trying to subversively change policy. For one to talk about an undiluted display of love raises doubts as to whether or not that individual is truly loyal to the tenants of our church. Ironically, excluding others and pushing them away from God is not enough for someone to question your Christianity, but practicing love makes others suspicious that you are not really faithful to the church. Those who speak about inclusion and reconciliation are viewed with far less trust than those who espouse the opposite. Your “church cred” will not be questioned if you preach a message of intolerance — but preaching a message that highlights the importance of love immediately places you under scrutiny. Without a doubt, just for having written this article, my fidelity to the church will be questioned by some readers. How sad that displaying hate does not automatically get one’s religiosity called into question but displaying love will.
Indisputably, love is the default setting of God. Therefore, it ought to be that of God’s children as well. We have become so accustomed to our customizations that we have mistaken them for factory settings. It is time we do a hard reboot and get back to basics. God is love.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/authors/courtney-ray
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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