Friday, 4 March 2016

What Should the Church’s Love Look Like?

2 John 6 reads: ‘This is love: that we live according to [the Father’s] commands. This is the command that you heard from the beginning: live in love.’

How is this command of love often (usually?) communicated? How is it expressed in actuality?

[The Lord] has told you . . . what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

And does this mean in practice? The misguided reading of Matthew 25:31-46 is often (usually?) deployed here, especially 25:34-36:

‘Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”’

This is love, undoubtedly. It’s not for nothing that James writes:

Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. (James 2:15-17)

So feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked – all these are good things, essential things, which any local church worthy of the name of Jesus must do. This is how Christians are to love – and it shouldn’t need a misguided reading of Matthew 25 to justify this stance.

But is everyone hungry? Is everyone a stranger? Is everyone naked? How does the church love those who aren’t hungry, who aren’t strangers, who aren’t naked? What form does the church’s love take for these people? Are we meant to spiritualise the parable of the sheep and the goats at this point, saying that everyone is hungry – for God; everyone is a stranger – until s/he meets Jesus (and gets placed on a church rota); everyone is naked – until clothed with Christ? I don’t think so.

I don’t think that’s the right approach. But I don’t have any convincing answers. I believe in many respects it’s easier to feed the hungry than it is to discern and meet the legitimate needs of the person whose belly swells below a broken heart and a crushed spirit. And I also suspect that the way for the latter person to feel loved isn’t simply for the church to encourage that person to engage in varying levels of social activism – or even traditional evangelistic outreach initiatives – in order to love the former person so peace and contentment may be found through obedience to the gospel. But is my perspective here flawed? Here’s James again:

My brothers and sisters, when you show favouritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.’ But to the poor person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, sit at my feet.’ Wouldn’t you have shown favouritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? [. . .] But when you show favouritism, you are committing a sin. (James 2:1-4, 9a)

I accept that the good news of Jesus Christ is biased towards the poor. Those who find themselves oppressed and suppressed by the uncaringly dismissive among the rich and powerful need the church – among other bodies, I should add – to fight on their behalf. I can’t stress this enough. But I do not accept that such a bias means favouritism. Let’s reverse James’s examples:

My brothers and sisters, when you show favouritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One is poor, is dressed in filthy rags, and hasn’t had a shower in days, while the other has an iPhone and fine clothes. Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing rags, saying, ‘Here’s an excellent place. Sit here while we prepare a bath and a meal for you. And then I’ll listen to your life story.’ But to the other person you say, ‘Stand over there’; or, ‘Here, let me deal with this person first, because I see you have a mobile phone, are well dressed, and probably have had a good breakfast as well. Or perhaps you can assist me as I see to our shabby friend.’ Wouldn’t you have shown favouritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?

So let me ask again: How does the church show love to those whose needs are not obvious? What form does love take for those whose needs are not obvious? And is there a genuine difference between the gospel’s bias towards the poor and the church’s romanticised favouritism towards the poor?

(This issue must be a March thing for me – see here!)


  1. The "church" can not in any sense practice love.
    Only living-breathing-feeling individual human beings can love - and perhaps in association with other human beings.
    And how does one even begin to incarnate love?
    And what does believing or even trying to be like "Jesus" have to do with the Incarnation of Love.
    First you have to become Truly Human - what that really takes is introduced here.
    Plus the instructions and callings of Saint Jesus of Galilee

    1. Hi Anonymous, interesting points. I would say that the 'church' *can* practice love, because the church at its best is simply a community of people united by the love of Christ.

      And I would say that following Jesus has everything to do with the Incarnation of Love. I believe that Jesus *is* the incarnation of love, and that by his Spirit dwelling in us he incarnates his love in and through our lives.

    2. Can't disagree with any of that, Harvey. Thanks for beating me to the trigger of love!

  2. Hey Terry, good article as always. I hear you, even if (as you know) I rather disagree about whether that reading of the 'Sheep and goats' story is in fact misguided. ;)

    I don't think we have to over-spiritualise that story in order to see everyone as in some sense 'hungry' or at least in need. You could relate it to good old Maslow's hierarchy - the needs for food and shelter are the most basic and therefore most urgent, but the needs and longings nearer the apex of the pyramid still matter.

    We talk of 'first world problems' and of course many of these are relatively trivial. But having had various brushes with mental health difficulties and relationship issues, I certainly think that troubles of the mind and heart can be as significant and important as those of the physical body.

    And no, I don't believe that the answer is to sign people up to evangelistic or social activism programmes (unless that's what they really want). Mostly it's just to listen to people, or to include and involve them, or to seek to help them develop in whatever path they feel called to (if they do feel anything of the kind), or simply to respond with compassion and welcome as much as possible... well, something along those lines I think. Not that I'm particularly adept at it.

    1. Again, can't really disagree with you on this - apart from your misguided understanding of Matthew 25. :)

      The poor person, though. . . Is this the twenty-first-century equivalent of the noble savage for many people?

    2. You're so agreeable today! :)

      Interesting question about the poor person and the noble savage - yes, I think that might be a fair point. I don't think poor people are any better than rich people generally... well, actually, deep down I do, but with a lot of caveats. I certainly don't think that poor people are perfect, or that relatively well-off people (which includes both of us) are scum.

      I suppose I'd say that poverty brings with it a particular set of moral challenges and spiritual issues, whereas riches bring a different set.

      Though a (doubtless misguided) superficial reading of the story of the Rich man and Lazarus might suggest that poor people instantly qualify for eternal reward...

  3. Even if I feed the hungry and nurse the sick, if I don't know love it's not an expression of Christ. The parable of the sheep and the goats is about recognising the humanity of others, their God-breathed dignity, and loving them in the same way that He has loved us: freely, unconditionally, non-judgementally, modestly.
    We're all broken in one way or another. Being followers of Christ recognises the brokenness in *everyone* in whichever way it manifests. Poverty, illness, etc., are examples, not a tick box list. We often miss that because we're looking for a solution -a list of 'Things I Must Do to Go to Heaven', or 'Things I Must Not Do', but that's an immature way to approach faith. It's like a marriage. I don't think my husband would be very impressed if I had a list of 'do's' and 'don'ts' and thought that if I followed them to the letter we'd have the perfect marriage. It would be like Sheldon Cooper's room-mate agreement from The Big Bang Theory: highly irritating and utterly dysfunctional.
    Marriage, and our relationship with Christ and those around us, is about relationship. Be kind. Be a good friend. Be generous. Be humble. "This is a large work I've called you into, but don't be overwhelmed by it. It's best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice." Matthew 10:41,42, The Message. The whole of Matthew 10, as paraphrased so well in The Message, applies, tbh!

    1. I wouldn't want Sheldon's particular roommate agreement, but sometimes I wish I did have one to consolidate my relationships with others!

      I appreciate the idea of relationship. But to labour the point, I think my concern is that I see instances where some people are regarded as more deserving of relationship than others on account of their backgrounds, be it sociopolitical, cultural, or whatever. I suppose it's always been like this, and James shows us that, in the world, there has always been a sinful bias against the poor. But the question persists, at least for me: Is there a genuine difference between the gospel’s bias towards the poor and the church’s romanticised favouritism towards the poor?

    2. Ah, I understand you. The trouble with romanticism is that it still fails to see people as people. It's offensive, actually, like the Victorian attitude of the 'noble savage'. We're *all* broken. Mind you, sometimes we also need to recognise when our perceived problems are an expression of our self-absorbed-ness! But God has room even for our self-absorbed moments, as long as we're open to listening to His solutions.

    3. Completely agree with you both about relationship vs tickbox lists of dos/don'ts and also about romanticism vs reality.

      I think the church's romanticised favouritism towards the poor, such as it is, is just the inevitably flawed human response to the gospel imperative to care for the poor. It's an attempt to follow Jesus and it's probably better than doing nothing (which is what I often do), but of course it's not the ideal desired response.

      The 'church' is, or we are, surely called to care deeply and fully for everyone, rich or poor, lovely and unlovely - but in practice we have to start somewhere. And perhaps if we start with those who don't have the material wherewithal to help themselves much, or whose needs are more basic and immediately urgent (food and shelter) then maybe that's okay. But we're not meant to end there.

      And yes, romanticised views of anyone as more noble or saintly than others tend to be dehumanising and therefore not fully loving.