The application should be obvious by now. Love and faith are the “interstitial doctrines,” that is, they fill in all the gaps. There are no gaps. No silences. No missing authority. It’s all there in two words.
Maybe a reminder of some fundamentals will help us hang some meat on the bones.
What is it that a congregation of the Lord Jesus is supposed to do? Believe and love. And so, how do they do this? Well, first they love each other (John 13:35), but they must also love those outside the congregation.
The gospel tells us that God loves us all and made us his adopted children, and so we must love one another as brothers and sisters in the same family. And just as is true in our earthly families, we may not much like each other, but we still love each other and we stand up for each other.
The church—the body of Christ—is, of course, much larger than any one congregation. We are to love the entire body of Christ. And so, there should be intercongregational fellowships of some sort, just as your own family has the occasional family reunion or Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not a duty — it should be an irresistible pleasure.
Congregational autonomy is well and good, but autonomy can never be allowed to divide brother from brother. After all, the family of God is forever. Even if I outlive all my earthly family and friends, I have a worldwide family that has to take me in. (“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” from Robert Frost, “Death of the Hired Man” (1914).) It’s a wonderful thought—never being lonely.
Of course, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for anyone who would believe in him (John 3:16). And God plainly wants all to be saved. Therefore, my gospel teaches me that I should want the same thing. And if that is true, I will zealously work to save the lost of the world as I have opportunity. Indeed, I’ll go out of my way to make opportunity. Love demands no less.
But my brothers and sisters—and the lost—have needs other than Jesus, and if we’re to be like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels, we must have compassion for the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and even those in prison. Again, love compels us.
Therefore, while we certainly should share the gospel with the poor, we help them because they need our help and because we have Christ-like compassion on them, not just in order to save them.
Suddenly, the Sermon on the Mount becomes not a rule book but a vision of the heart of God. And we find the Gospels to be rich with examples of how to live a life of faith and love—and how to be the Kingdom: a community that loves as God loves.
In fact, as we learn to think in these terms, we become less interested in doctrine (which remains important) and more interested in ethics. That is, if we really enjoy living a life of love, then the Sunday assembly becomes an opportunity to be with those we love and to be equipped to better express our love the rest of the week, rather than the drudgery of rule keeping. We become less concerned with five acts of worship and instead are overwhelmed with a desire to be spurred on toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
It’s time for another example. Let’s apply our principles to divorce and remarriage. Hardly the only passage, but a central one, is taken from the Sermon on the Mount—
(Matt. 5:27-32) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
It’s hard to imagine a more controversial passage in current Church of Christ thinking. Many churches have split over competing interpretations of this one. I will not attempt a complete exposition—just a few observations.
First, this part of the Sermon on the Mount is a series of contrasts between the Law of Moses, as it was understood, with the Law of Moses as it should have been understood. Jesus is not legislating. How could he? He came to free us from law, not to impose new, even more burdensome laws!
Thus, in the Sermon, Jesus comments on the Seventh Commandment, pointing out that his listeners all know not to commit adultery. But Jesus explains that the command is broader than just the sex act itself. If you’re married, don’t flirt with other women, don’t be infatuated with other women, don’t look at other women as sex objects, keep your thoughts pure.
Does the Seventh Commandment really teach this? Well, of course it does. How can I be free of adultery unless I am free of the things that lead to adultery? And doesn’t the command really mean that I should be faithful to my wife, and if that is so, how can I be faithful and lust after other women?
You see, Jesus calls us to a much broader view of ethics than mere rules. If we take the trouble to understand the purpose and heart behind the command, then we much better understand how to fulfill the command.
And in so doing, we avoid being hyperliteral. We understand that we don’t really have to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands. Those aren’t literal commands. They are figures of speech, and we are sure of that because we know that love truly requires us to keep our thoughts pure in order to keep our actions pure, but love doesn’t require us to maim ourselves. Hence, the love principle helps us see what the true scope of the teaching is and protects us from a Pharisaic interpretation.
Just so, in Deuteronomy 24, the Law of Moses plainly permits divorce and gives a procedure for divorce—the husband gives his former wife a document evidencing the
divorce, which in turn allows her to remarry. However, the Jews had concluded that therefore divorce is not a sin.
But Jesus declares that it is! How do we know? Because breaking faith with my wife is not a loving act. It’s not hard to see really. Jesus is not legislating a new rule; rather, he is telling us how to understand the rules that were already there. As a result, we cannot expect to find a complete theology of divorce in this passage. Jesus is not trying to give all the answers—he’s trying to show his listeners that they have entirely missed the point of the Law of Moses. It’s not just a bunch of arbitrary rules to be obeyed—it’s about understanding the heart of God.
And just how can I know that these verses can only be parsed through the lens of love? Because Jesus says so.
(Matt. 7:12) So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
It is, of course, the Golden Rule, which we correctly paraphrase as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The King James Version is more accurate. Rather than “this sums up the Law and the Prophets” it translates “this is the law and the prophets.” What is really the Law of Moses? The Golden Rule. What is the Golden Rule? Love.
If in Jesus’ discussion on divorce he is interpreting the Law of Moses, and if the Law of Moses “is” the Golden Rule, then Jesus’ teaching on divorce must be simply the Golden Rule as applied in the context of marriage. There is no other possibility. And if we take Paul seriously when he repeatedly declares that the entire law is summed up in “love thy neighbor,” then we can be confident that we are reading truly.
Now I’ve not attempted a complete exposition of the Bible’s teachings on divorce, but I hope you see that whatever ethical interpretation some preacher or scholar might suggest must meet this test to be true: is the proposed interpretation not only consistent with the Golden Rule but also driven as a necessary consequence of the Golden Rule? If we have to suppose new laws and concepts in addition to love, we are on very questionable ground.
We should add to the mix Paul’s statements where he declares that love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14). Paul is quite clear that love is not only commanded, but it’s all that’s commanded. Of course, the love that’s commanded is an active, world-changing love.
(1 John 3:16-17) This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
The result of all this is a huge simplification of Christianity. These principles are grounded in the most profound of all concepts—the gospel (hope), faith, love, the sovereignty of God—but they aren’t hard. You don’t need a Masters in Divinity to understand them. And you don’t need to carry around a library of books helping you explain away half the Bible. You can even sleep through the sermons on generic and specific authority and still make it to heaven.
Now the Bible starts to make remarkable sense. Of course, it takes practice and discipline to change from a legalistic mindset to a faith- and love-based mindset.
Ponder all the controversies that we battled over during the 20th Century. Take, for example, orphanages. Does the Bible contain express language authorizing a church-supported orphanage? We’ve said no. Some have said the silence is a prohibition and others say the silence permits support as a matter of expedience. How foolish we’ve been! The Bible says to love and that congregations are to be made up of loving people who prove that they belong to Jesus by the intensity of their love. Jesus did countless miracles of healing because he had compassion for hurting people. And Jesus loved children.
Is caring for orphans loving? Does it violate the gospel? Faith? God’s sovereignty? Or does it demonstrate the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom through the body of Christ to help heal a hurting, fallen world? Doesn’t helping orphans in fact fulfill the very purpose of the entire story of God’s intervention in human history? It’s not a hard question. And then, why would we suppose that God has limited the authority of a church to do his will?
Amazingly enough, it’s a pretty controversial conclusion — taking Jesus and Paul at their words.
Now, we need to read the command to love in context of the Story of the Bible. The scriptures call on Christians to love for certain purposes. We love to build stronger marriages, to build churches as communities that serve the hurting and needy and to draw the lost to Jesus. We love because there’s no other way for the church to be united or the body of Christ.
The rub … the gnawing problem … is that if we take these teachings seriously (and I’ve barely begun to cite the critical passages), we have to let loose of some of our favorite “commands.” Suddenly, we have to find our identity in being God’s people who love with an unworldly passion rather than being the people who cared enough to find the rules in the silences of the scriptures. We have to surrender our sense of superiority built on our supposedly superior knowledge of scripture. Everything changes.
And maybe I’m wrong. But I just such a radically conservative guy, I think we should take the Bible at its word when it says —
(Mat 22:36-40) “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(John 13:34-35) “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(Rom 13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
(Gal 5:14) The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
(1 John 3:14) We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.
(1 John 3:21-23) Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
(1 John 4:7-8) Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
(1 John 4:12) No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:16-17) And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. 17 In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.
Some would prefer something more complicated, something more rule-based, more “positive.” But, you see, positive commands are easy and so we focus on them, hoping our obedience to them will save us. But the real commandments, well, they’re hard. Go read the Sermon on the Mount again. Love, as Jesus teaches it, is not an easy thing to do.
No one can read the great love passages of scriptures and go away feeling righteous or arrogant. And that’s what happens when we get our hermeneutics right. We become humble servants — and that’s the point of it all.