1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is also one of the most troubling. It is one particular aspect of the difficult and demanding nature of love that I want to focus on in this post. First, a wee bit of context.
When read at weddings verses 1-13 are often sentimentalised. ‘Love’ is abstracted to be a ‘lovely’ description of the loving couple in a day celebrating their love. The fact that ‘God’ does not appear in verses 1-13 makes it a particularly suitable text for this type of abstraction. ‘Love’ is everyone’s property. You don’t have to believe in God to believe in love.
The same goes for funerals. Prime Minister Tony Blair read these verses at Diana’s funeral in 1997. Now, I admit I find it hard to take Blair at face value in anything he says. But his overly-dramatic performance that day seems a good example of how ‘love’ in death is easily abstracted to become a sort of eschatological hope – that which ‘lives on’ after us when we are dead. Again, this hope is universal since everyone can love.
But 1 Corinthians is anything but abstract; it is highly specific. Paul writes to a church riven by division, bad theology, pride, arrogance, immoral behaviour and misplaced priorities over gifts.
So, as we read these verses they have a hard edge; there is nothing soft and fluffy about them. There are 7 positive descriptions of what love does and 8 negatives ones. A verb is used in every case – love is seen in what it does.
Love Rejoices in the Truth
Let’s take one example of a positive: love … rejoices with the truth (6b). It sits in opposition to love does not delight in evil.
The verb has a sense of ‘joyfully celebrates’ or ‘acclaims’ truth’ At first reading this sounds lovely does it not? But think about the implications for a moment.
In his NIGTC Commentary on First Corinthians Anthony Thiselton argues the emphasis here is not so much on ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ (eg the truth of the gospel) as on relationship. Love rejoices in truth that protects, fosters and strengthens relationship, even at cost to ourselves.
There can be powerful reasons NOT to rejoice in the truth.
Take two current examples in the Christian world
(1) The Church of England
Last week the Church of England published a ‘report into a report’; namely a review of their own first investigation into how allegations of abuse had been handled by the Church. The independent review found that the first report has been ‘botched’ and that negative aspects were downplayed in order to protect the reputational character of the Church.
(2) Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church
This story has been unfolding for some time and appears to be in the process of coming to a head. You can read about the details fully in a recent post by Scot McKnight (who was a member of Willow for many years). Serious allegations against Hybels had surfaced some years ago and had not been dealt with openly then. When more women came forward, the reaction was denial, calling the women liars and failing to implement a robust external investigation.
Now, at last, and only after enormous criticism and widespread concern both within and outside Willow, the elders and the two senior leaders have issued public apologies and promised to seek the truth.
The cost of rejoicing in the Truth
Both these stories are bad news and good news. They begin with the bad news of damaging behaviour. That was compounded by an instinctive reaction to hide the truth, or at least give a partial version of the truth in order to protect the institution in question. But the good news is that both are moving, at last, towards full disclosure.
In both cases, there were powerful motives NOT to rejoice in the truth:
- money (at all sorts of levels: potential court cases, to book sales and huge ministry budgets at stake etc)
- reputation and the deep cost of admitting ‘we got it wrong’ (and in Willow, protection of a deeply loved and charismatic leader like Hybels)
- power – and the threat of a loss of that power
- God (perhaps persuading ourselves that God needs protection – that the truth will damage the church, the gospel and good kingdom work)
I mention these cases because they are current and in the (very) public domain. If postmodernism has taught us anything, it is to have a healthy scepticism over how institutions tend to act to protect themselves – and that, sadly, is true of churches as well.
The tough calling of love is NOT to act in our own self-interest but in the interests of others, especially when there is a cost to ‘us’.
In both cases, love meant first seeking the good of those damaged and hurt rather than using manipulation, obfuscation or obstruction to hide the full truth and protect ourselves.
That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 is anything but a mushy feel-good ‘ode to love’, but is, rather, a very troubling and difficult text.
Comments, as ever, welcome.