“By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
— John 13:35
“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”
— Galatians 6:10
You may not be aware of this, but in some churches, there is serious debate over the parameters of Christian love. The question is phrased thus: Are we, as disciples of Jesus, called to love everyone, or only other believers? At root seems to be the specific command to love “one another,” which is interpreted as being the full command of Christ regarding love. Even John 3:16 is taken not to mean that God actually loves the whole world, but only his believers, who, since they can be found in every nation, people and tongue, are therefore metaphorically “the world.”
I used to believe this, but over the past few years I’ve changed my mind. After all, does not Jesus himself command us to love our enemies? How can we love only other believers if we are also loving our enemies? No, the way I see it now is this: We are called BOTH to love the entire world and to love one another. They are two separate but interrelated callings.
Despite its appearance, it is not the case that the second command, to love other believers, is redundant in the face of the first, to love everyone. For the second command is truly the test case, the sign to the world, that our love is not human love but instead springs from the divine source. Our love for each other is crucial because, unlike our love for the world, it must be mutual. Love between Christians transcends all forms of purely human love most dramatically because it is reciprocal. And this is what will signify us as possessors of God’s Spirit.
What do I mean? Well, first let me explain why I think it’s important that our love be different — noticeably different. For this is exactly what God has always called his church to be. God has called us to be witnesses — not in words alone but in our very lives — of the presence of the supernatural, that is, the superhuman, that is, the divine. Consider Moses, words to the Lord in Exodus 33.15-16:
“If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?”
Notice the hinge in Moses, argument? It is this question: How will we be distinguished from everyone else? There are lots of nations on the earth, all of whom think that their ways are correct. How will they realize that their ways are not right, that they are separated from God, unless God himself is present with this one group of people? By going with the Hebrews as they move from Egypt to Canaan, God becomes himself the proof to the other nations that they are not yet with him.
This has always been God’s plan for Israel. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God tells his people that his plan is for them to be a nation of justice, of peace, and of prosperity. Why? For the benefit of the Israelites? No. For the benefit of the whole world, so that all nations may see the benefit of God’s ways and learn to walk in them. God’s plan all along is to reconcile all nations to himself. If the Israelites would obey God’s voice, not only would they find life, but they would be so attractive in the eyes of the world that all the nations would want to come and take part in God’s loving-kindness. We can see already that God does not love Israel alone. No, he truly loves all humanity — the whole world.
Note that this has nothing to do with any merit the Hebrews had in themselves. God tells them repeatedly that he did not choose them because they were righteous, or strong, or worthy of note in any way. Exactly the opposite. God chose them because they were small and weak. God set them up to be the most unlikely success story the world has seen. That is, God chose them because it would be clear to the world that this nation could not do what it did without divine help. God chose them in order to manifest his might power, that he might draw all peoples unto himself.
So how does this apply to the command to love one another? I said earlier that what distinguishes our love from purely human love is its reciprocity. Let’s spell this out more explicitly. The problem is that even if we learn to love our enemies, it remains a one-way street: they will not love us back. Nor can we expect that of them; they are, after all, our enemies. We may obey Jesus, command to love them, but that will not adequately distinguish the church as the living temple of the Lord of Love. God’s presence is discerned not through the action of one person, but through the reconciliation of two antagonistic hearts.
Let’s think first about who our enemies are. They’re the people who seek our harm, who oppress us, mistreat us, cheat us, kill us. They may be people trying to get rich off of us, or to gain power over us — people who would use us to further their own goals for themselves. But they may also be people who hate us because we are different: we belong to the wrong ethnic group, come from the wrong country, speak the wrong language, love the wrong gender. They may not be against us for material gain, but out of a sense of superiority over us, a superiority they feel gives them the right to keep us underfoot. We can love them all we want, but they have no reason to love us back. Our love often simply appears to them as weakness. It will take a miracle for them to change their ways.
But we are not always the victims. Far too often (and this is clear as early as the Book of Acts), we are the haters. There are groups we want to keep out of the church. Or that we can use to make the church more powerful. We are the ones committing the wrong. And as we know all too well, hatred only inspires hatred in return. Victims learn to hate those who abuse them; the oppressed learn to hate their oppressors. We know how hard it is to love those who hurt us. So we can see how hard it will be for those we have hurt to love us in turn. And again, why should they? They have every right to demand that we repay them in full for all the harm we have done. We have made them our enemies, and so they shall remain.
Think about it this way: Suppose we realize that our business practices are unfair to our employees and/or to our customers. Or that we do not treat other races, genders, nationalities as equals. That in some way, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And so we repent. We change. We strive to be honest in all our dealings with others, to make fair deals and not to make a profit off of other people’s weakness. Or we stop behaving as though we are superior to other groups, and take up the role of their servant instead.
So far, so good, right? No. Because these other groups, the ones we have victimized and treated unfairly, have good reason to remain angry with us. They deserve reparation. Our change of attitude cannot make up for the wrongs we have done them; it cannot bring back what has been lost. And so our love is still, despite our best efforts, a one-way-street. It will take a miracle for them to forgive us.
Which is why mutual love among Christians is so important: in the church, our one-way street gives way to God’s two-way street. For even when we choose to repent and to forgive, our human strength cannot bring our enemies to our table (hence Peter has to ask what to do when someone continues to need forgiveness). Only through God’s work can enemies be reconciled. It is therefore the presence of groups who (outside of the church) hate each other that signifies the true presence of God. Imagine Rush Limbaugh hanging out with Gloria Steinem (or the Jets with the Sharks) and you get an idea of what the church should be: a place where all cultural barriers are demolished. No divisions. Only the work of God’s love joining people together. You also get an idea of how impossible it is to bring about by human strength alone. Our mutual love is truly a miracle of the highest order.
In the church, all the dichotomies set up by the outside culture are broken down: man/woman; free/slave; citizen/foreigner; rich/poor; straight/gay; guilty/innocent; abuser/victim. The people we are supposed to look down on, we choose instead to serve. The people who have mistreated us beyond all reparation, we choose to forgive. And the rest of the world looks at us in astonishment: Why are we doing this? And how? We are going against every value the world has; we threaten its pride and its security. The presence of God’s love in our lives has shown the world the falsity of its ways and of its strength.
We should not abandon our one-way street: We should love the world. We should love our enemies. We should choose to look past the barriers our society has set up, and to love those whom the world despises. And we should choose to forgive those who have mistreated us. But until God intervenes on our behalf, it will remain a one-way street. What will distinguish the community of believers from every other community in society, what will show the world that God is truly with us, is the presence of mutual enemies seated together in fellowship and binding themselves together in repentance and forgiveness. This kind of love is reciprocal, and the world cannot understand how it could possibly come to be, unless the presence of God truly dwells therein.
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.