Tuesday, June 20, 2006


What does it mean to be a Christian? Theologians and other "true believers" have gone to war with each other (sometimes literally) over the answer to that question throughout church history. Is it about espousing a list of doctrinal positions, or about adhering to a particular list of dos and don'ts, or about immersing oneself in a subculture that spouts 'Christianese' lingo and wears evangelistic T-shirts?

Or is it about following the example of Christ, who sacrificially gave of himself to others, freely associating with the dregs of society and transforming the hearts of those around him, not by lecturing them about their 'sin' or using political power to coerce good behavior, but by modeling unconditional love and welcoming anyone who was willing to do likewise without question.

And certainly there are Christians today who follow that example, feeding the poor, comforting the hurting and helping their neighbors - but they're rarely the ones who spend time in the spotlight. The ones who speak the loudest about "Christian values" are most often those who do not give of themselves self-sacrificially, who instead advocate a "tough love" approach to dealing with sinners (particularly homosexuals) and heretics (by whatever criteria they use to define heresy).

The 'tough love' approach endorses the use of shame and ostracism as tools to coerce particular behavior from others (all for their own good, of course). It differs only in degree from the use of imprisonment, torture and execution by the church (both Catholic and Protestant) in previous centuries to save the souls of pagans, Jews and heretics, the reasoning being that the end of advancing the Kingdom of God justifies any and all means. Most modern advocates of the 'tough love' approach would recoil at the thought of killing in the name of Christ, of course, though some might silently approve if the government were the one pulling the trigger.

But can that really be called love? The Bible that these Christians claim their authority derives from seems to suggest otherwise:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Cor. 13:4-7, NIV)

Some might argue, perhaps, that since "love does not delight in evil," it is the Christian's duty to initiate hostilities against evil wherever it's perceived to exist, but there's little in the context of the passage, and even less in the example of Christ, to support such a creative interpretation.

One might possibly find support for 'tough love' elsewhere in the New Testament, but only if those passages are interpreted apart from the teachings and example of Christ. Separated from the context of Jesus' life and the self-sacrificial love he modeled, our reading of the rest of the Bible can very quickly degenerate into legalism, from which it's an alarmingly short distance to the torture chambers of the Inquisition.

And so Christians continue to go to war with each other (and just about everyone else) in the name of advancing the Kingdom of God and stamping out heresy. But if we are truly committed to being followers of Christ, what greater heresy could there be than failure to love self-sacrificially? Can any doctrine or moral issue even begin to compare to the importance of giving wholeheartedly to others with no strings attached like Jesus did?

Of course, that makes me a heretic. It makes most of us heretics. The monthly tithe I give is only a fraction of what I really have to offer, and certainly not sacrificial in any meaningful sense of the word. We can formulate the soundest doctrines, preach the best sermons, build the nicest churches, live the cleanest lives and pass legislation against all of the worst sins, but if we fail to love others the way Jesus showed love to others, we might as well not even bother.

It's easy enough to denounce 'sin.' It's a relatively simple matter to stand up and demand legislation to 'save' marriage by outlawing gay relationships. Attempts to usher in the Kingdom of God by force meet with resistance, certainly, but ultimately it's far easier to take up the sword than it is to follow the example of Christ. There's nothing at all easy about setting aside one's personal agendas to give everything one has to those who don't deserve it, without expecting anything in return. And yet, at the end of the day, it's the only way we can truly advance the Kingdom of God.

No exceptions, no conditions, no 'buts.' True love is costly to the giver and directly beneficial to the recipient; 'tough love' almost always costs the recipient more than the giver (if indeed it costs the giver anything at all). Every 'sinner' who met Jesus instinctively understood that he loved them; he never had to rationalize how some action that increased their pain was really in their best interest. If we truly love the way Jesus loves, our love won't require explanation either.


Peterson Toscano said...

Here's a little equation I've been working on--

Perfect Love casts out Fear

Therefore the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.

When I espoused the beliefs that gays and other "heretics" went to hell for their sins, I did so out of fear. The God of love did not compel me to picket abortion clinics, preach hell fire and brimstone on street corners (while handing out Chick tracts) and to practically destroy myself through impossible ex-gay transformation.

What motivated me was fear--fear that if we don't eradicate evil, society will unravel and we will all go to hell in a handbasket. "Tough Love" shielded me from a world that terrified me and threatened my beliefs and challenged my hidden desires.

Tough Love does save; it contains and that only for a time and at great cost.

But in spite of all the walls I set up, the weapons I hurled at family and friends, Love found me and helped me to stop the war within. "Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away."

Thank you Eugene for your insight.

Eugene said...


Good points. I think I'll put my response to them in a separate post, since a lot of people might miss them here in the comment section.

Steve said...

These are great words, brother.

The only problem is, the people who need to read them never will... because they don't read the thoughts of "Godless homosexuals."

Two years ago I wrote this little treatise on what the United Methodist Church had declared "incompatible with Christian teaching." The hypocrisy in that little decision still gags me.

It's been 25 years since the authors of Is The Homosexual My Neighbor wrote in their preface that "The question that makes up the title of this book shouldn't be necessary." Or, as the old billboards used to say, "What part of 'love thy neighbor' didn't you understand? - God."


Eugene said...

The only problem is, the people who need to read them never will... because they don't read the thoughts of "Godless homosexuals."

In many cases, true. But then again the author of much of the New Testament started out as a zealous persecutor of Christians, so there's always hope.