We’re continuing a series about the apostle Paul’s theology of love. To recap, there are three great strands of love in the OT that also continue, now Christologically framed, into the NT (and Paul in particular).
1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people.
2) The responsive love of Israel (God’s people) to God’s prior redemptive action.
3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another
This is the first post in strand 3. If strands 1 and 2 were ‘vertical love’ (love of God for humanity; human love for God in response), this strand is ‘horizontal love’ – at a human to human level. It is also the strand about which the Apostle Paul has by far the most to say.
Indeed, he has so much to say about love for one another that I call him the ‘apostle of love’. He’s right up there with John in the frequency and importance of love within the community of God’s people. The love believers are to have for one another is to be THE distingushing mark of these fledging churches, reflecting their new-found identity in Christ and marking them as belonging to a different story and ethic to that of the surrounding nations.
We’ve mentioned earlier how Douglas Campbell calls this ‘agapeism’ – that love captures all that is important about Pauline ethics. And I agree, it does. Let’s take two broad themes in this post, and we’ll continue with others in the next post
The Missional Focus of Pauline Love
Here’s a sweeping generalisation – there is a strange lack of attention paid to the importance of love within Christian mission. There can be much discussion of context, strategy, culture, vision, leadership, apologetics and so on, but, rarely a sustained focus on the most important element of all – the integrity and attractiveness of the Christian community. (happy to be corrected here)
Paul, it seems to me, has a razor sharp awareness that love is essential for the health and witness of his Christian communities. There was nothing like them in the ancient world. No other communities embraced individuals across the profound religious, gender, socio-economic status and ethnic divisions of the ancient world. Believers now have a new primary identity in Christ as brothers and sisters (adelphoi) within God’s household. Previous identity – whether Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free – are relativised, not erased they are – radically – now of no spiritual significance.
In this vein, coming from a social-scientific angle, David Horrell (2016) makes the argument that Paul is primarily concerned with the construction of a corporate solidarity that acts to heal inner-communal conflict and draws strength from a vocation to holiness within an immoral world.
So, in Paul, love is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the defining characteristic of the first Christian communities in their new vocation to live lives worthy of the gospel under the Lordship of Jesus Christ within a world that is ‘passing away’ (1 Cor 7:31).
Love is only thing that could possibly hold such ‘households’ together. Love is essential to the life and witness of the church. Without love no church and no family can survive – and that’s as true today as it was then.
Love as following the paradoxical way of Jesus
For Paul, Christian love is cruciform love. God’s love is demonstrated and experienced through the cross of Christ. Cruciform love is costly, it acts for the good of others at the expense of the self.
This is the paradoxical way of Jesus.
Sometimes this can be misunderstood. Christianity does not call believers to be ‘doormats’ – walked over by others at every turn. Nor does it call for self-abnegation or self-hatred. Rather, it proclaims that real flourishing, happiness and purpose is found in loving others. Loving another means acting for their good, even at cost to the self. Christianity is a corporate faith, which is another way of saying it is orientated around living well with others within a network of mutually loving relationships.
This conflicts head on with Western individualism that says fulfilment is found in self-realisation, finding yourself, loving yourself, expressing yourself and so on. This sort of ‘expressive individualism’ is centered on the self rather than on loving others. It has no place for community and its ‘eschatology’ is consumerist – short-term individual pleasure or achievement. There is nothing ‘bigger’ or more significant than the self.
We see other-focused Jesus-type love applied by Paul to a multiplicity of situations and contexts. Here are some examples and we could keep going at length here:
- Other-focused love is seen in his repeated appeals to maintain unity (Rom 12:16; 14:1-15:7; 1 Cor 1:10; 12:21-27; 14:12; Gal 6:10; Eph 4:1-3; Phil 2:1-2; Col 3:12-13; 1 Thes 5:12-15; Titus 3:1-2, 8)
- In his many warnings against divisive attitudes or behaviour (1 Cor 3:1-4, 16-17; 6:1-11; 8:9-13; 10:24, 31-33; 11:17-34; 2 Cor 12:19-20; Gal 5:15; 6:3-4; Eph 4:25-32; Phil 2:3, 14-15; Col 3:5-9; 1 Thes 4:3-6; 1 Tim 6:2b-10; 2 Tim 2:23, 3:1-5; Titus 3:9-11).
- Converts to Christ are to act in love for each other (1 Thes 4:9; Rom 12:9-10; 14:15; 1 Cor.8:1; Eph 4:2, 15-16; Phil 2:1-2; Col 2:2).
- Famously, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, all Christian life and ministry is of no value at all if it is not done in love.
- The Colossians are encouraged to clothe themselves with love on top of a list of other virtues (Col.3:14)
- In 1 Thessalonians 5:8 all believers are to put on the breastplate of faith and love.
- Paul prays that believers’ love would grow as they await the coming of the Lord (1 Thes 3:12; Phil 1:9) and is glad to hear of a church’s love (e.g., 1 Thes 3:6; 2 Thes 1:3).
- In Philippians he is thankful when Christ is preached ‘out of love’ (Phil 1:16) – regardless of who the preachers are.
- He rejoices when he hears of believers’ love for God’s people (Col 1:4, Philem 1:5, 7)
- He encourages the Corinthians to show the ‘genuineness’’ of their love by giving financial help for brothers and sisters in need (2 Cor 8:8, 24).
- Rather than use apostolic authority, he prefers to appeal to Philemon about Onesimus ‘on the basis of love’ (Philem.1.9).
- And, as a pastor, it is significant how often Paul expresses his deep love for the communities to whom he ministers (e.g., 1 Thes 2:8; 3:12; 1 Cor 4:21; 16:24; 2 Cor 2:4; 8:7; 11:11; Phil.4:1).
That’s a pretty strong case for ‘agapeism’ right there. More to come in the next post.