Last week I started writing some articles about what a healthy church looks like and I argued that the one most neglected mark is the one that Jesus and the New Testament argues is of first importance, Love.
But there is a risk if we just talk about “love” without thinking carefully about what it means. The concept of love has been so often misused and misinterpreted. Think about the boyfriend pressurise his girlfriend into sex for the first time “If you love me…” Think about the abusive partner both claiming to love his wife and arguing that she must stick with him and accept his behaviour out of love.
One concern raised with me and that I’ve seen reported a number of times is that the command to love one another in John 14 and 1 John 4 has been used to silence abuse victims in church. So, a wife is told that she must return to her abusive husband and forgive him when he attacks her and beats her. Meanwhile the victim of sexual harassment and assault is told not to go to the police but allow the church elders to deal with the supposedly penitent youth pastor in house.
So, if we simply say that love is the mark of a healthy church without showing what love is then, we could continue to do damage by giving the impression that some very unhealthy churches are loving. Therefore, it is important to say that love is not the opposite of justice or righteous anger.
The Biblical and doctrinal basis for saying this is that our reason for loving is that “God is love (1 John 4:8). So, whenever we talk about love, we need to see it first and foremost as one of God’s characteristics that we seek to reflect.
When we see the statement that “God is …” we are reminded that God is simple. By simple we mean the opposite of complex (not complicated or clever). A complex entity is made up of parts (like your watch, your computer and come to think of it, you). God is simple which means he isn’t made up of parts you can chop off so that he can still be God. If God isn’t love then he is no longer God (the same with his other characteristics including holiness, Spirit, being eternal, power, infiniteness etc).
This means that whatever the Bible says is true about God doesn’t just describe one part of him but the whole of his being. This means that each characteristic is giving us a perspective on the whole of God’s nature and that means that they are not in competition or tension. We therefore what to say that God’s justice is holy, loving and eternal. Equally, we want to say that God’s love is just, holy and eternal. It is not that God is love but also just and so in his mercy he chooses to overrule his need for justice.
Love is not an absence of justice. Love is not an alternative to holiness.
This means that if someone asks you to do something that is unjust or unholy and claims that this is the loving thing to do, then they are lying because without justice and holiness it cannot be loving.
A church that claims to be loving whilst ignoring the cries of victims for justice is not a loving church. A church that fails to confront bullies is not a loving church. A church that is careless in allowing sin in its midst to go on undealt with is not a loving church.