The Message of Love

For more information on this book visit themessageoflove website

An in-depth discussion of 44 questions asked by Ben Witherington


(March – April 2020 on The Bible and Culture and on FaithinIreland)

Patrick I’ve decided the best way to do justice to your very fine book is to have a running dialogue about it, rather than a summary review by me with a few potted questions tacked on. Answer at whatever length you like right after your name occurs….

BEN:  Patrick, this book is splendid, but it’s also rather like eating rich fudge…. one needs to chew it a little bit at a time to take it all in.   How long did you work on this book to get it into this final form, and why did you decide to focus on the particular topic of love? 

PATRICK:  First, thank you Ben for your kind words, they mean a lot coming from you – and I’m obviously not as disciplined as you when it comes to fudge!

The book took a couple of years, squeezing writing time into every bit of life. I felt compelled to write about love for a number of reasons. First, while any attentive reader of the Bible is aware that love is important, what we actually believe about love is often ill-defined or assumed. Yet, it only takes a bit of probing to realise that there are all sorts of biblical, theological and pastoral questions raised by this little four-letter word. Second, despite the fact that Christians talk and sing about the love of God all the time, it is a surprisingly neglected topic in academic theology and in the teaching of the church. For example, in the IVP Bible Speaks Today Themes Series there were 20 volumes published but not one on love. That’s remarkable isn’t it? I happened to mention this to Derek Tidball, the series editor and my former PhD supervisor, over lunch one day and things took off from there.

BEN: One of the things I appreciated about the book is while it has good detailed and contextual exegesis of particular relevant texts, it also takes a pastoral approach to providing guidance of how this material is relevant and can be applied today.  You didn’t leave the discussion up in the air with nice abstractions.  Unfortunately, this is all too rare in theologically and ethically rich monographs like this. Why do you think that is?  Aren’t we as Christian scholars supposed to be mainly doing this in service to the church?

PATRICK: The BST series is designed to expound the biblical text, relate it to contemporary life and be readable! This emphasis came from John Stott the series founder who, as you know, modelled it in his entire life and ministry. I did my best to fulfil that goal through focus on seventeen selected texts. My prayer is that it will give individual readers, preachers and anyone interested in Christianity a fresh vision of the love of God and his agenda for his people to be communities of love within the world. There is a study guide which should be particularly useful for groups.

In answer to your last question, yes I believe passionately that Christian scholarship should be done to help enable and equip believers to live lives of faithful discipleship to Jesus. When Christian academics end up talking only to their colleagues within the academy something has gone seriously awry. I understand why this happens. There are enormous pressures on young scholars to publish; it’s crucial to gain academic credibility and to finding employment in a hyper-competitive work environment. And so subtly, and without intention, focus shifts to writing primarily for ‘peers and careers’ rather than the church. It also comes up several times in the book how theological education has been profoundly shaped by an Enlightenment framework that prizes rationalism, propositions and systematics. A theme that emerges is the need to reappropriate a holistic vision of Christian theological education that embraces ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hands’ – with ‘heart’ (character and virtue, especially love) being the core from which the others radiate. But to really do that will need a radical transformation in how much theological education is done.

BEN:  In some ways the theme of love, gets lost in Biblical Theologies (and OT and NT Theologies too) and is sublimated to other concerns like, faith, or covenants, or justification, or eschatological, or the doctrine of God etc. Yet you have shown in page after page how love runs like a red thread right through the Bible, and describes God and his actions and what we are supposed to be like and do as well.  This is passing strange. How would you explain the neglect? 

PATRICK: I can hazard a few guesses. Culturally, in the Bible and in contemporary Western society, love is so ubiquitous a word that its meaning is assumed; what can be said that is not already obvious? Philosophically, as J K A Smith has spent a lot of time arguing, we have drunk deeply at the well of modernism and, as a consequence, naively imagine that if we get our minds right (‘know’ correct doctrines etc) then right behaviour (acting in love, Christian character) will follow. Theologically, the real ‘action’ is to be had in momentous debates about, for example, justification by faith and how someone is put right with God. Compared to the significance of soteriological questions like these, love is like the cream on top of the cake – nice but essentially an add-on to the real substance below. This, of course, ties in to the whole relationship between ‘faith and works’ or justification and sanctification. It would take far more room than we have here to unpack that, save to say much evangelical Protestantism has struggled to hold the two together in the way that the Bible does.    

BEN: One of the major points you make in dealing with the OT discussion about love, is that the caricature of the God of the OT being simply a God of wrath and the God of the NT being a God of love (going back at least to Marcion) is just that— a caricature, since God is portrayed as a God of love in the OT as well, and there is plenty of talk about God judging folk in the NT, indeed even Jesus being the final judge. Why do you think that the caricature still persists, even within the more conservative end of the church? Does it have something to do with God also being portrayed as a warrior and an advocate of holy war in the OT, but not so much in the NT?

PATRICK: I’m sure you’re right Ben. The imagery of God the warrior commanding what sounds to us like ethnic cleansing in the OT is powerful and troubling. It seems incompatible with the non-violent self-sacrificial mission of Jesus in the NT. Perhaps it is also due to a long tradition of distorted Christian interpretation that sees Judaism as a religion of works / law as opposed to the new covenant of faith / grace and liberty. I suspect that another reason the caricature persists is how in the NT love comes into sharper focus. An astonishing picture results: God’s love takes physical form in the utterly unlikely story of an incarnate Messiah who is God’s Son; human love for God responds to that immeasurable divine love; believers’ love for one another imitates that of Jesus and flows from the promised gift of God’s Spirit. This represents a remarkable development of how love is understood within the NT, but without care, it can all too easily be portrayed as discontinuous with the OT.

BEN: Early on in the book, you say that a contemporary portrait of love entails beliefs that love is unconditional and undemanding, it affirms the beloved just as they are and does not ask them to change, in other words it is non-judgmental, and that love is what life is all about (p. 5). What is wrong with this picture from a Biblical point of view?

PATRICK: That discussion is summarizing how the philosopher Simon May describes contemporary love in the West (his excellent book is called Love: A History). We tend to think ‘love’ has a universally understood meaning, but he shows how, when it comes to love, the past truly is another country and that our modern understanding of love is historically novel. It has become an article of faith, a religion if you like, in which true meaning, hope and transcendence is to be found. ‘God is love’ has become ‘Love is God’. If this analysis is accurate, and I think it is, then it becomes clear where modern love clashes with a biblical theology of love. It is naïve about sin, overly optimistic about the human heart, tends to assume love is easy and is the key to happiness. All this is relentlessly anthropocentric – a secular form of salvation.

BEN: Early on as well, you say “love is the golden thread that ties the doctrine of God, the Trinity, the cross, the story of redemption, the work of the Spirit, holiness, the calling and mission of the church, the goal of the Christian life and the eschatological hope together.” (p. 12). You might well have added it ties the OT and NT together, to some extent. In what sense is this true? Is love the glue that holds all these apparently different things together, or would it be better to say that it is the hermeneutic that helps us see the linkage between all these doctrines and praxis?

PATRICK: Yes, it probably would be better to put it that way Ben. The point I was trying to make is how each one of those things cannot be understood rightly if love is not front and centre in each case. Every one of them comes up in the book somewhere. I could have added in the life and teaching of Jesus (Part 3 of the book), a biblical theology of the body, sex and marriage (ch 5 on Song of Songs and ch 16 on Ephesians 5) and even how love is God’s ‘weapon’ in his cosmic war with sin and evil (ch 15 on Galatians 5).

BEN: Let’s talk about hesed for a bit. There are some 245 uses of this word in the OT, and overwhelmingly, it is translated in the LXX as ‘mercy’. It is found both as a description of how God relates to his own people, but also how he relates to others. I don’t really find the translation ‘covenant love’ as helpful, for several reasons. I much prefer loving kindness, or compassion, or mercy or the like, as do the translators of the LXX it would appear. I once had a chat with Walter Brueggemann about this and he was taking the traditional Reformed line about it meaning covenant love, and I said— ‘but it can’t be confined to that since it is also talking about how God relates to others not within the covenant, or even to covenant breakers– he has mercy on them not because he made a deal with Israel, but because that’s the kind of God he is. And in any case, God is not obliged to fulfill his positive part of the covenantal bargain if the covenant has been repeatedly broken by Israel. Indeed, he could simply implement the curse sanctions and move on. In short, I don’t think this has in the main to do with the covenant issue, it has to do with the character of God himself, inside or outside of the Mosaic covenant. In that respect, it seems more like the statement in 1 John 4 saying God is love. How would you react to this approach?

PATRICK: I’d agree. In the book I comment that hesed conveys a sense of deep relationship which can include covenant relationship (as in Exod. 34) but is not necessarily restricted to covenant love. It depicts a relationship marked by love, goodwill, loyalty, affection and faithfulness. In Exodus 34:6 it is closely linked to compassion, graciousness and faithfulness. The good news here is that God is reliable and trustworthy; hesed love means he is not fickle or vindictive. I can think of nothing more terrifying than an all-powerful God who is simultaneously capricious

BEN: At one point you say, in dealing with the key text of Exod. 34.6-7 if there had only been vs. 7, there would have been no land, no covenant, no future, no hope, and if there had not been 34.6, there would have been no kings, no temple, no prophets, no messiah, no incarnation, no atonement for sin on the cross (p. 24). In short, all this in some sense hangs on the love and compassion and mercy of God, who also judges his people (not love without judgment, and vice versa). How does one strike the proper balance between vs. 6 and 7 without on the one hand falling into ‘sloppy agape’ and cheap grace, and on the other prompting the caricature that the God of Exodus holds a grudge for many generations after a sin has committed by an Israelite? Do you agree with Fleming Rutledge when she says that God’s wrath is always exercised in the service of his good purposes, indeed it is the expression of his unconditional love and opposition to anything that gets in the way of his loving purposes?

PATRICK: I began the book with a chapter on Exodus 34:6-7 for a couple of reasons. Chronologically, it’s one of the first occurrences of God’s love for his people in the Bible and is a foundational text regarding the character of Israel’s God. The text doesn’t flinch from proclaiming Yahweh’s extravagant love right alongside his fearsome judgment and this tension continues to run right through the Bible. It seems to me that, to be faithful to Scripture, Christians have to try to hold that tension.

I recognize this is far from easy. Today, ‘judgment’ has become a ‘bad’ word. To be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable; it’s a symptom of intolerance and is opposed to love. In the Republic of Ireland, where I live, Irish Catholicism used to use fear of divine judgement as a weapon of social control. Now, even to mention the notion of divine judgment in public is likely to land you in a lot of trouble. And this reaction against past misuse of judgment has impacted a large swathe of contemporary Christianity. Mostly, I think, by not overtly denying the reality of judgment but rarely, if ever, talking about it. Such silence says a lot.

Few people have taken on such silence with skill, passion and depth as Fleming Rutledge – I absolutely loved The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and blogged through the whole book. Her recent book on Advent is excellent as well, with much to say about the goodness and necessity of divine judgement. In the Exodus chapter I conclude that God’s judgment is never his preferred course of action – it is always a response to human sin and evil that imperils his good purposes. God is ‘slow to anger’. God would not be loving if he were not also a judge. It is not as if God’s love somehow ‘overcomes’ his wrath, he is wrathful because he is loving.

BEN: Why you think so many people have mistaken God’s love to mean unconditional tolerance of anything, or as something that is a substitute for obeying God, whereas Jesus says ‘if you love me, keep my commandments’ and that is found in the OT as well?

PATRICK: That’s primarily a cultural and philosophical question. I couldn’t get into this too much in the book but love has a fascinating history. What you describe is the culmination of an evolution of ideas that have become virtually sacred in the West.

I can only recommend Simon May’s Love: A History again here. He’d point to nineteenth century Romanticism as a crucial turning point that continues to exert enormous influence in how we understand love today. A core belief here is that love is unconditional, a spontaneous gift that seeks nothing for the giver, that affirms the loved one in who they are.

The cultural power of such beliefs means, I think, that many Christians have real difficulty in making theological sense of how the Bible consistently ties love and obedience together. I talk in the book about the ‘paradoxical nature of Christian love’ – believers are loved, forgiven and even become ‘friends’ of Jesus their Lord (John 15). Yet, as you note, Jesus is crystal clear that friendship takes the form of obedience to authoritative commands. And his core command is to ‘love one another’. That love can be commanded seems strange to us, perhaps because we too easily ‘reduce’ God to a loving coach enabling us to live our lives better. In researching and writing the book I was repeatedly reminded of the unequal relationship of love between God and his people.

BEN: Let’s talk about the circumcision of the heart, an important idea in both the OT (p. 37) and the NT. On the face of it, the text of Deut. 10.16ff. indicates that God’s people must circumcise their own hearts— they must repent, not be hard-hearted etc. and turn back to God and thus be able to love God.  But in the NT this act of internal circumcision seems to be the work of the Spirit. It seems to be something humans can’t do for themselves or to themselves, at least not without divine help. How do you view this matter? Where should the emphasis lie?

PATRICK: That’s a very interesting question. I think there are strong continuities here OT to NT. In both cases the great good news is God’s prior love which elicits a human response of love in return.

The chapter on Deuteronomy 10 is called ‘God’s love for the outsider’. Love is a major theme in Deuteronomy (think the Shema of 6:4-5) and in chapter 10 Israel is told to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (10:19). Verse 19 is paired with verse 16, “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Their love of the ‘Other’ does not come naturally, it requires repentance and a turning of their hearts (the seat of identity) to God. What ‘circumcision of the heart’ seems to mean here is internalising the generous and indiscriminate love of Yahweh himself who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (10:18) and remembering how they themselves were beneficiaries of such life-saving love.

There is a strong continuity here with Paul’s talk about true circumcision being a matter of the heart, a spiritual response to God not merely an external physical act (Rom 2:28-29). In both cases circumcision of the heart has to do with appropriate human response to God’s prior love. Yet it is not all dependent on human will. Deuteronomy 30:6 locates heart circumcision with God: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.” In the NT, it seems to me, this promise is fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit whose fruit is primarily love. Again, there is both continuity and discontinuity – the Spirit enables believers to love and be in relationship with God and one another in a way that was not available in the OT.

BEN:  There is a strong emphasis in your book on the church being the church, and you see the social side of the Gospel as a sort of overflow to local communities, but not a matter of a direct focus on the world and changing the world (p.283 especially). I was thinking about the Salvation Army while reading this, and thinking they at least would strongly disagree with some of this, with the church focusing on itself and loving itself, and simply being an alternative witness, rather than having a direct prophetic ministry in the culture, and a reaching out to better the culture quite apart from evangelism.  John Wesley once said there is no spiritual holiness without social holiness, and he went about prodding Wilberforce to get the abolition legislation passed in Parliament to the day he died. He went about founding orphanages, and poor houses, which is eventually where General Booth got the idea. I know you are not talking about the church becoming like the Amish, and withdrawing from culture and society, but could you articulate for us what you do mean to say a bit more clearly?

PATRICK: One theme that was continually reinforced for me in researching chapters on the Old Testament and the New, is how the Bible’s overwhelming emphasis is on the spiritual authenticity of the community of the people of God, called to obey and imitate their God in every aspect of their lives together. And love is what that life together looks like. I say on the page you mention that “There is virtually no focus, Old Testament or New, on transforming the world outside the covenant community.” Love for God and each other is the missional task of the Church.

Now, as your question suggests, that sounds like a pretty insular thing to say! If seems to fly in the face of a lot of evangelical social and political activism, but I think we need to take seriously how uniform Scripture is on this theme. I believe that the primary calling of the church is to be the church – a foretaste of God’s kingdom and justice in the present. I worry when I see Christians ‘leaving the church behind’ and becoming consumed with making this world a better place through social and political action. I wonder if this turn to politics is in part a disillusionment with the church and a lack of confidence in the gospel – as if persuading those in power to do the right thing will advance the kingdom. In contrast, I’m struck by Jesus’ and the New Testament’s rather magnificent disinterest in the affairs of Empire. The real king of the world is the risen Lord.

This is not to say Christians in their individual lives, and local churches in their communities, should not be busy showing God’s love and justice with those in need around them (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12). This is a ‘bottom up’ witness to the world, not a Christendom ‘top-down’ attempt to control levers of power. I could start to comment on (some) evangelicals in your part of the world Ben and their apparently uncritical support of a certain President in order to advance Christian values through profoundly unchristian means – but I’ve probably said too much already!

BEN:  Yes, God’s people are to love, even love their enemies, because that is the character of God himself, but since God is also a righteous and holy God that wants justice amongst his people and in the world, it seems to me that while love is not a social program in the Bible, nonetheless, it is a viewed, perhaps as a by-product, as a means to change society for the better.  Yes, we love the marginalized because God loves them, but that love has no concreteness to it if we are not trying to improve their living conditions etc. Jesus after all told us we need to be feeding, clothing, and visiting the least of these in prison.  That sounds like a social program to me, even if it’s motivated by love.   Comments?

PATRICK: I agree. Love is tangible action for the good of another. I conclude chapter 2 on Deuteronomy 10 with an appeal for Christian integral mission based on loving others in need as we have been loved by God. In regard to the global refugee crisis, for example, I say “One thing is sure: our hard-edged capitalist culture has no room for those who are not contributing to its ruthless system of acquisition and consumption. The church’s vocation is to provide, with generosity and love, that room for those forcibly displaced” (p.41).

As you know, the history of evangelicalism during the 20th century was marked by major divisions over the relationship between the gospel and social action. It was John Stott and Billy Graham who had a key role in Lausanne 1974 in helping the evangelical movement recover from an unbiblical split of the two that had characterised 20th century fundamentalism. I’m certainly not wanting to go down that fundamentalist path of retreat from social action. My critique is of a hermeneutical jump where the NTs overwhelming emphasis on love within God’s new covenant community is uncritically broadened to apply to the world in general. For example, where Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community subtly shifts to become a basis for political action to end all poverty.

BEN: Let’s talk about the Shema for a moment (pp. 56ff.). As you rightly stress, ahav is the word here for love, which is a more generic term used for the love of all sorts of things and people in the OT. It even is used for the love of mundane things— like Esau’s soup! And as you rightly stress, loving God involves cognitive as well as affective and behavioral love.  My issue with the Shema is— how in the world was hard-hearted Israel supposed to love in the total way described in the text when they did not yet have the ongoing internal presence of the Holy Spirit in them and in their community?  This sounds like the Don Quixote song ‘To dream the impossible dream’ or like Thomas More’s Utopia.  Even Christians who are full of the Holy Spirit have trouble loving God with all they are and have.  So how should we view incredibly demanding exhortations like this without trivializing them as just dramatic hyperbole?

PATRICK:  I guess that question could apply to all of the OT in comparison to the NT. As you know much better than me, 2 Corinthians 3 is probably the most explicit text in the NT in terms of comparing the ministry of the Spirit Old to New. It is with Christ and the gift of the Spirit that God’s people now have the ‘veil removed’ and are able to ‘see the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror’ (2 Cor 3:18). In regard to love, I see it like this: human love for God in Deuteronomy is obviously real. God doesn’t give intentionally impossible commands. But in the NT, humans can enter into a deeper transformative relationship of love with God through the Spirit of Jesus. The Old foreshadows fulfilment in the New. (And we should say, present new covenant experience of love in turn foreshadows perfection of love to come in the new creation – 1 Cor. 13).

As an aside, this relates to wider theological debates about love within the Christian tradition which I could only mention in passing in the book. Luther’s theology of love is particularly interesting and significant. He distinguished between divine love (amor Dei) and human love (amor hominis). Humans have genuine capacity to love, but this love is marred by sin. God’s love alone is perfect; it loves what is sinful (humanity) in order to make it good. We are not loved for our innate lovability, but out of God’s grace. It is being united to Christ through faith, that we are enabled to love both God and fellow humans aright. In other words, justification by faith leads to participation in God’s love. A couple of quotes from Luther illustrate the point: “Paul’s view is this: Faith is active in love, that is, that faith justifies which expresses itself in acts” (Table Talk, 1533). “[Paul] does not say ‘Love is effective.’ No, he says: ‘Faith is effective.’ He does not say: ‘Love works.’ No, he says: ‘Faith works.’ He makes love the tool through which faith works.”

BEN: Thanks for the good exposition on the Song of Songs. You are so right that the later Christian allegorizing of the text, spurred on by an ascetic and non-Jewish approach to sexual love, has done that text no justice. It reminds me of the advice we got in junior high at church in regard to the raging hormones, which amounted to this oxymoron: ‘sex is dirty, save it for the one you really love’.  Your book does one of the best jobs I’ve seen in striking the right balance between emphasizing the goodness of human sexuality and its expression, and at the same time emphasizing the right contexts in which that should happen without violating God’s demand for our holiness, and love of neighbor in the proper way. Comments?

PATRICK: I enjoyed writing every chapter in the book but this one was one of my favourites. The poetry is beautiful as is its vision of human erotic love. The text uses ancient imagery, yet it speaks right into our world in its depiction of a joyful sexual relationship of mutual desire and respect between the two lovers. As you note I’m not persuaded by later allegorizing of the text within both Jewish and Christian traditions. One reason for allegory is that the Church has had enormous problems with affirming the goodness of the body and of sex. Whereas the Songs rejoice in the touch, sound, scent and taste of another’s body without a hint of shame, from the early church fathers onwards sex and sexual desire have been inextricably connected with sin and failure to live up God’s higher calling of celibacy. You know something has gone deeply awry when comparing Augustine’s description of the first sex-scene between Adam and Eve in The City of God (free of lust, in command of the will, without passion and with calmness of mind, and with no corruption of the body, Adam lies upon the bosom of his wife!) with the uninhibited passion of the Songs.

I trace this in more detail in the book, save to say that today things have switched around dramatically. Within a hyper-sexualised culture, now the Church has a very difficult job articulating why on earth sex should be limited to marriage between a man and a woman. It seems to be a repressive ideology both to the unmarried and to those who are not heterosexual. In contrast to the church fathers, the idea of celibacy has become inconceivable nonsense within Western culture – and is an embarrassment within much of the Church. We face the challenge of affirming sex and the body as good gifts of God – Christian spirituality is not some sort of gnostic escape from the body with its tainted desires. Rather, sex is to be used within an exclusive relationship of monogamous marital love. Yet we also have much work to do to recover a theology of celibacy and singleness (I talk more singleness and a theology of the family in chapter 10 on Jesus’ teaching on discipleship love).

BEN:  On pp. 86-87 you rightly note that agape rarely occurs in the LXX of the OT and where it does occur, it does not refer to God’s love.  And yet agape and its cognates are all over the NT– quite the contrast. You suggest this is to be explained by the fact that a deeper understanding of love, presumably due to the Christ event, led to the preference for a term for love that didn’t carry previous baggage or issues with it.  Can you say a bit more about this?

PATRICK:  This is an argument from silence, but I think it makes best sense of the facts that you have summarised. I rely on Leon Morris’ classic 1981 study Testaments of Love here. The facts are striking. In the NT agapē appears 116 times and philia (friendship) just once. Of related words, agapaō occurs 143 times and phileō 25 times; adjectives agapētos (beloved) 61 times and philos (friend) 29 times. In total, agapaō words appear 320 times and phileō words 55 times. Other Greek words for love like storgē (affection) and eros (passion) do not appear in the New Testament at all. So why did the NT writers start using what was effectively a new word for love? I find Morris persuasive – he suggests that it is not so much that agapē creates a new meaning for love, but that the revolutionary gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ so transforms previous understandings of love that a new word is needed to express it. (I think this sort of thing goes on quite a bit in the NT in light of the Christ-event. Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’ fills that concept with new meaning in line with his unique understanding of his messianic mission; Paul and other NT writers ransack the OT and Greco-Roman culture for metaphors and images to explain the cross; John fills logos, a word known to Jews and Greeks, with revolutionary new Christological significance).

BEN: I love your chart on p. 105, and with your permission would like to nick it and use it for my students. The interesting thing is that John and 1 John are the texts with the most references to agape love, and after that Ephesians and then Romans. Pondering this for a moment, you hold up the notion that Paul should be seen as an apostle of love, as much as say the Beloved Disciple (whoever he was— but that’s a discussion for another day.  Bauckham and I agree it’s not John Zebedee).  What strikes me is that Paul and the BD are also the very ones who talk the most about conflict with others, being hated by others, judging the sins of various persons other than one’s self, and justice issues to some extent.  It seems we’ve have swallowed our culture’s message about real love being tolerant, non-judgmental, not demanding when it comes to various ethical mores etc.  What is your diagnosis as to why this has so infected or affected the church itself, rather than us being a change agent for real agape on the cultural notions?  How can we go about reversing these trends?

PATRICK:  You are welcome to nick the chart of appearances of agapē in the NT Ben! It comes from Robert Yarbrough’s BECNT commentary on 1-3 John. Before trying to answer your question can I point to the surprising fact that Acts is the only book in the NT where agapē does not occur – not once. Connect this to all those gospel sermons in Acts and a good case can be made that ‘God loves you’, while true, is not how the first Christians understood the gospel. The gospel is preached in Acts without mention of God’s love. Maybe that’s a discussion for another day …

To reply to your actual question (!) I think Paul and John talk so much of love because they understand from pastoral experience, and from theological revelation, that love is the essential requirement for their new communities to survive and thrive. They are anything but naïve. In the letters of 1-3 John there seems to have been communal tension and external pressure and this is pretty well everywhere in Paul. We struggle to appreciate just how unprecedented were the first Christian communities in the ancient world. It had never seen anything like Jews, Gentiles, slaves, slave-owners, men, women, Scythians, barbarians, Roman citizens, rich and poor belonging together in relationships of mutuality and equal status before their God. Such diversity is difficult and requires costly love; it means the ‘strong’ making space for the ‘weak’ (Romans), it means putting others first, it means leaving your ‘worldly’ status behind (1 Corinthians, James). It means being accountable to one another – including disciplining each other if necessary.

There is a spectrum in the contemporary church here. At one end are churches made up of a loose coalition of Western individualists with all their assumptions around autonomy, rights, liberty and self-sufficiency. This will be a church where the depth of mutual accountability pictured in the NT seems pretty alien. It’s doubtful such a church is going to go anywhere costly and difficult. At the other end of the spectrum are some missional churches who have confronted this head-on in creating ‘total church’ communities that demand very high levels of buy-in. While effective in countering Western individualism and rightly focused on mission, they can have a downside. Recent reports in Christianity Today recount the fall of one well-known leader over a bullying style and serious relational damage done in the churches and organisation he led. Strong leadership without love is also a dead-end. Love and mission, love and truth, love and accountability need to be held together – that’s a challenge of leadership and vision.

BEN: Another of your main themes is that love is inherently interpersonal. You even predicate this of God, talking about the relationships within the Trinity. I remember the famous saying of Vic Furnish that the love the NT is talking about is not like a heat-seeking missile that is attracted to something inherently targetable and likable in the object of the love.   I understand what you are saying here, but since we are all called to love our neighbor as ourselves, it seems to me that self-love is presupposed, and that is not interpersonal per se. Right? And that leads me to ask about 1 John 4, is the author really meaning when he says ‘God is love’ that God’s character couldn’t be described that way if God had no one else in the universe to love?   Really? 

PATRICK: This is an interesting theological question that impinges on worship as well. No, ‘God is love’ whether he has someone else to love or not. While John’s statement that ‘God is love’ is unique in the Bible, it is not as though love stands above all other divine characteristics (see John’s parallel statement in 1:5 that ‘God is light’). It is to say that all that God is and does is loving.

How much we can say for sure about the ‘inner’ workings of the trinity is debateable. As you know a social model of the Trinity has been advanced in different ways by theologians like Miroslav Volf, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Cornelius Plantinga and others. It has been popularised by people like Tim Keller in The Reason for God, and before him by C S Lewis. It is not without its critics, such as Fred Sanders, Stephen Holmes and Karen Kilby who say it is too anthropocentric – reading human experience ‘back’ into the incomprehensible mystery of the triune God. An example of what they criticise is the use of the Greek word perichoresis to describe the inner ‘dance of love’ between Father, Son and Spirit. I really like that image and talk about it in the book – there’s plenty of talk in John about the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father after all. But I accept its limitations and potential problems.

BEN:  Let’s deal briefly with some of the hard sayings, like those who do not love do not know God. In what sense is that true?   I agree that without God’s love, we could not have or receive salvation— true enough. True enough, we love because God first loved us.  But I have to say that I’ve met a lot of persons, for example some of my Muslim and Jewish friends, who know a lot about the Biblical God, and know the Bible often better than many Christians. Yet, I can’t really say that they love God in the way 1 John describes the matter.  They don’t really worship God per se, most of them are secular Jews or Muslims.  I suppose we could say they know about the real God in ways that are often accurate, but they have no personal relationship with that God, taking ‘to know’ in the deeper relational sense of the term. Does this make sense?

PATRICK: I don’t pretend to know the answer here Ben – I like where you are going though. Clearly very many people who have no Christian faith can and do love in remarkable ways, so I agree with you. It seems to make most sense of lived reality to say that John is referring to a specifically Christ-like love and those who do not know God will not be motivated to love in this way.

But I think John’s point is primarily about love as the visible evidence of an invisible spiritual reality. If I can quote myself (!): “to be in relationship with the God who is love, means that someone will reflect the character of God. Not to love shows that there is no true relationship. The vertical shapes the horizontal. John does not explain how this process works in practice; he simply describes an apparently inevitable implication of knowing the God who is love.” p.110

BEN:  P. 114 is one of the more important diagnoses in the book of what is wrong with the way Western culture views love.  Love as a legal right, non-traditional marriage arrangements as a legal right. But the Bible says love is a gift, not a right. It’s not something owed to us by society or the world. I like the quote from Simon May “Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artists or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is [thought to be] a democracy of salvation open to all.”  And you are right that modern notions that love itself can save us without need for repentance, or humility or obedience to God, are over-confident about the power of merely human love.  Without our sounding like the Grinch who Stole Christmas, how do we explain to people that real love is costly, is not free, and demands all that we are and have if is to be really transformative, and while we are at it— it needs to be God’s love that is the ultimate change agent of human personality???

PATRICK: I think it’s about where you start. Christians believe in the gospel (good news) of God’s victory over sin and death through the life, atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the living Lord. It’s this message that the great gospel sermons in Acts tell, they don’t begin with bad news. Similarly, when it comes to very different understandings of love, I think the best tack is to focus on how the Bible’s ‘Message of Love’ is packed with good news. That’s the message we have been given to witness to.

In the conclusion of the book I try to draw the three strands of love in the Bible together. Strand 1 is God’s relentless love unfolding through the OT and NT. Theologically it’s the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son who dies for us that marks a revolution in the understanding of divine love. Strand 2 is the call for a whole-hearted response of human love for God. Strand 3 is resultant communities of God’s people loving one another and their neighbours with Jesus-like love. As your late friend Larry Hurtado says, Christianity’s love-ethic marked it out as unique in the ancient world. We need to teach and inspire people with these truths – ultimately that’s why I wrote the book.

But words count for only so much. The challenge for us as individual Christians and churches is to ‘explain’ what love is by our lives and communities. It is our lives and churches that are the ultimate hermeneutic of the gospel. People are rightly sceptical of the church and its hypocrisy which says, in effect, ‘Don’t mind our broken relationships and toxic communities, believe our message of love anyway!’ John put it pretty bluntly didn’t he? He who claims to love God but does not love his brother shows himself to be a liar. Honesty and truth-telling is all we have (Hauerwas).

BEN:  As you say (p. 119), 42% of the love language in the NT is in Paul’s letters (320 aggregate examples), and yet Paul is not remembered as the apostle of love. Why do you think this is? Why do you think he is portrayed as the bad guy who suggests God only loves the elect, only chose the elect, and besides all that is hard on women, particularly women trying to do ministry?

PATRICK: Yes, I like now to call Paul the apostle of love and get surprised looks. It’s a fascinating question why the absolutely central place of love in his life, ministry and theology has been overlooked by both his fans and his critics – maybe there’s a book in there for some one!

I can only speculate but perhaps one reason is the dominance of justification in Protestant evangelicalism since the Reformation. The great truth that ‘we are justified by grace alone through faith alone’ can become a formula marking out our Protestant and evangelical orthodoxy against any form of ‘works-righteousness’. And so Paul’s teaching on the absolute necessity of love tends to get downplayed.

I call this the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ – fear of any sense of obligation or obedience in case they import works back into salvation by the back door. (Luther was very strong on the separation of works from faith / justification. Calvin integrated them better). At a popular level this anxiety leads to the strange situation where ‘good works’ are viewed almost as a threat to grace, and faith is little more than a decision to believe. In the book I quote Philip Yancey’s well-known phrase ‘Grace means there is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make God love me less’. While partially true, it gives the impression that a believer’s life of love and obedience doesn’t matter that much.

BEN: Explain what you mean when you say that justification has to do with the love of God. The very nature of the language (dikaiosune etc.) has suggested to many that it has more to do with God’s righteousness and justice. 

PATRICK: When we think of Paul we think of justification, and justification immediately brings to mind 500 years of contentious debate that doesn’t show much sign of slowing down. The point I make in the chapter on Romans 5:1-11 is that justification needs to be framed within a wider context of love. Love is both the motive and intended outcome of justification. Unless we see this, we risk getting lost in the (contested) mechanics of how justification works and missing the whole point of why God justifies sinners.

See Romans 5:8 for motive: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).I call this one of the great ‘love texts’ in the Bible. It is personal love ‘for us’. It is utterly undeserved – just in verses 6-8 Paul calls us ‘powerless’, ‘ungodly’ and ‘sinners’, and in verse 10 he adds ‘enemies’. And it is extravagant and infinitely costly – it takes the form of the death of God’s incarnate Son.

And love is also the purpose of justification – it is all about being brought into a right relationship with God through his grace. That’s why peace (5:1) and reconciliation (5:10, 11) frame the conversation. Love as the goal is made explicit in 5:5: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (5). The image is of an extravagant and ongoing outpouring of love by the Spirit. I like to think Paul is deliberately using ‘us’ here because he is talking of his own experience of God’s undeserved love. So justification is inseparable from a deep experience of God’s love and it is this common experience that is to unite Jews and Gentiles in Rome. I’m sure Paul would be saying to us today that if our theology of justification isn’t leading to this sort of outcome then we’ve lost the plot.

BEN: Sometimes I am amazed that any Gentiles ever believed Paul’s message of Christ and him crucified. They thought crucifixion was the most shameful way to die and had no redeeming value at all!  They were not looking for a crucified savior, much less a crucified and risen one. As you say, this message would hardly sound like Good News to Gentiles. It was illogical and counter-cultural (p. 123). Sometimes pastors and theologians who know this have fallen back on the suggestion that the preaching itself was so Spirit-inspired and powerful that it simply overwhelmed objections and logic and ‘made people an offer they couldn’t refuse’.  I’m not happy with this explanation since God doesn’t work like the Godfather in the movies, so far as a I can see.  God is a lover, a wooer of the lost, a persuader, as Lewis used to stress, and Paul uses the art of persuasion to convince, convict, and convert people. So what in the world in this message was finally convincing do you think?  Was it the Gal. 3.28 message of love, freedom, equality for all even the least, the last and the lost?

PATRICK: Interesting. Outside of Acts we aren’t given too much insight into stories of why Gentiles believed Paul’s gospel. I think I’d be slower than you to discount the role of powerful Spirit-inspired preaching and action. Doesn’t Paul say so much in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5? And in Galatians he reminds them that they received the Spirit through believing the gospel and God working miracles among them (Gal 3:5). Combine this with what you say about the gospel having radical social implications (Gal 3:28) and perhaps we begin to get a picture of the revolutionary impact of the gospel among Gentiles?

BEN: I’m a big fan of Fleming Rutledge who has spoken here at Asbury various times. I like her turns of phrase like when she speaks of the godlessness of the cross where the wrath of God falls on God himself by God’s own choice , out of God’s own love (p. 124). What wondrous love is this, O my soul!! I am also a big fan of Moltmann’s The Crucified God  in which he stresses that unless in some sense God is in that death of Jesus on the cross, how would it be different from pre-fallen Adam dying on a cross for the humanity that was yet to come? In other words, it’s too easy to say that Jesus in his human nature is all that was involved in that death.  How could that be universally and eternally efficacious for all sins past, present and future? It’s worth pondering especially since the NT doesn’t nicely parcel out things to either Jesus’ divine or human natures. Indeed, it doesn’t talk that way at all about him. He is discussed as a whole person filled with the Spirit.  I like to talk about divine condescension in the incarnation, a la Phil. 2.5-11. I take this to mean the Son of God, while not in any way giving up his equality with the Father, nonetheless accepted our normal human limitations of time, space, knowledge, power, and mortality. Notice I did not say sin, as sin is an acquired limitation through the Fall.  He’s 100% human and 100% divine, but that requires divine self-limitation. Put another way, the Son who continued to have access to the omnis while incarnate, nonetheless put the omnis on hold and accepted our human limitations. He was Adam gone right (hence the Pauline last Adam language) and interestingly Luke 4/Matt. 4 indicates that his main temptations were not merely ordinary human ones, but temptations only the divine Son of God would have. Though I’ve known many who could turn bread into stones, I’ve never met a sane human who thought they could turn stones into bread, but God and his Son could. Jesus however resists such temptations to push his God button. Nor does he just blow off the Devil by saying ‘I’m God, God can’t be tempted and tempts no one, go away Satan’. No he resists the Devil by the two resources all his people have— the Word of God and the Spirit of God. He lives a life that we can approximate and imitate using those same two resources. Similarly, that temptation in the garden at the end of the ministry is no normal temptation. I don’t know any normal human who thinks that their coming death might atone for the sins of the world, by drinking the cup of God’s wrath on sin, but Jesus did.    As you can see, your book produces major reflections on Christology, soteriology etc. in the light of God’s love.  What is your take on the above, or some part of it? Am I on the right track in reading the NT this way?

PATRICK:  Yes, I’m a big fan of Fleming Rutledge too. I read her The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ towards the end of writing The Message of Love and was determined to get some of her quotes into the book! The Crucifixion is the best book I’ve read in years – no question. We’ve got a mini-fan club going on in our church now.

I have the privilege and joy of teaching a module on Christology within our degree programme and its one of my favourite classes. I’m not sure I have a lot to add to your excellent reflections which come out of long years writing and thinking about Christology (quite a bit of which we use in class by the way). There is mystery here and also the need for caution. On the one hand, the NT’s multi-faceted picture of Jesus is incredibly ‘high’ Christologically speaking. The claim that Jesus shares God’s divine identity (Bauckham) does not depend on one or two texts, rather they are supported by a mountain of evidence that is overwhelming in its overall impact. On the other hand, as you say the NT authors do not tend to explain the ‘how’ of Jesus being both man and God. Your thoughts make perfect sense of that tension to me. They ‘fit’ the story the NT tells and the Nicene Creed and the Great Tradition of the church. But they are necessarily speculative to some degree. Stepping back a moment to look at the mountain from a distance, I’d want to connect Christology, soteriology with love. As a good Methodist I’m sure you agree it’s hard to beat Wesley: “Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

BEN: What do you think Paul really means when he says love is the fulfillment of the Law?  I ask this especially because it seems to me that by the Law of Christ, he does not simply mean Christ’s take on the Mosaic Law.  The Law of Christ seems to involve: 1) some reaffirmation of some of the OT commandments; 2) the new imperatives of Christ himself as redone in the latter part of Rom. 12 and 13, and 3) new apostolic imperatives like ‘let those who will not work, not eat’! It seems clear to me from Rom. 10.4 that Christ is the end of the Mosaic Law, the end of the Mosaic covenant, and this is surely what Gal.4 suggests when Paul says the Mosaic covenant was an interim arrangement for God’s children until they came of age and maturity, whereas the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one, which Paul does not equate with the Mosaic one. In short, Paul in Galatians and elsewhere is not in the main attacking nit-picking legalism, nor is he anti-law, rather he makes all sorts of demands he sees as part of ‘the law of Christ’ (see Gal. 6).  I do not think it’s adequate to say that Paul just believed that love in itself is the whole fulfillment of what God requires of us. Or at least, love has a very concrete shape and texture that includes all these other imperatives. I’ve not been happy with the New Perspective folks who wanted to say ‘works of the Law’ in Paul’s letters merely refers to the boundary rituals that divide Jew from Gentile.  This is saying too little.  What is your take on all this vis a vis love and Law?

PATRICK: That’s a big question in every sense Ben! I agree that we need to interpret Paul’s attitude to the law in a multi-layered way. Much difficulty I think has been caused by Old and New Perspectives pitting binary choices against one another. I find a threefold framework helpful (Brian Rosner).

1) The law is renounced as a means of justification (Gal.5:4). The Mosaic covenant has come to an end, the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled. The law has no soteriological function (Gal.3:21).

2) The Mosaic law is fulfilled by life in the Spirit (Gal.5:5-6); not through Torah obedience, but in love of neighbour (Gal.5:14). The law could not accomplish the ‘outcomes’ described by the fruit of the Spirit (‘against such things there is no law’ Gal.5:23). Galatian believers are to carry each other’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ (Gal.6:2).

3) But the law still has a key place in Paul’s thought. It is reinterpreted in at least two ways:

(i) As prophecy, witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dozens of examples exist. The story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians is one. The Torah itself affirms that God is a God of Jews and of Gentiles. Paul’s gospel is actually a consummation of the Torah’s promises.

(ii) As a source for ethics. In lots of places Paul continues to use the law as a source of moral guidance and wisdom. The ‘love command’ for new Christian communities, is developed from the Torah where it applied to Israel (Gal.5:14 / Lev.19:18). Paul does not include regulations on ‘boundary markers’ like circumcision, Sabbath, food laws and festivals because his focus is missional – on the place of Gentiles within the family of God. It is as if the law has been redefined or filtered in light of the gospel.

BEN:  You give an excellent example on p. 135 of the ‘gospel of self-esteem’. I was blown away that this is actually an articulation of a student’s credo or prayer in your secondary schools.  That deserves a wow!!  How does a Christian, in love, deconstruct what is wrong with such formulations without sounding like Dr. No, or some sort of cosmic meany that wants to squash our children’s hopes and dreams of self-expression and accomplishment? 

PATRICK: I remember listening that creed being read at a school graduation and looking around wondering was anyone else finding it as off-the-wall as I was. It ends with the lines “I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.” Yet, you’re right, it’s easy to sound like Scrooge if ‘Bah Humbug’ is all we have to say in response. I actually think many children and students see right through such nonsense – my daughters and their friends certainly did. They know not everyone can be the greatest, and they know it is only setting nearly everyone up for a fail. Children who do believe the hype up are going to end up disillusioned or conceited, with artificially inflated opinions of their own ability. That isn’t a loving thing to do, so maybe that’s the angle to critique it from.

BEN:  I see that you also have been influenced by John Barclay’s landmark book, Paul and the Gift, and I like the stress on the notion that God’s love doesn’t have preconditions (see the quote from Furnish in a previous question) but it is not unconditional, or undemanding.  In what way is God’s love demanding?  In some churches things are so bad that you hear pastor’s cynically say things like ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing of God, for they will not be disappointed’.  What’s wrong with the way we look at God’s grace and love???

PATRICK: I remember a wise teacher of mine saying ‘Grace is opposed to works, it’s opposed to merit’. Barclay’s point is connected – God’s grace is ‘unconditioned’ (not dependent on anything we bring) but non unconditional (it is conditioned on a response of faith and obedience). The whole purpose of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is to bring them to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:4) and his overriding concern in his letters is for the moral transformation of those first churches. Where this emphasis is lost we’re heading towards what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – ‘grace without price, grace without cost.’

Ephesians beautifully brings out this tension. A key theme of the letter is ‘walking’ (unfortunately obscured in the NIV by the way). They are to ‘walk in good works’ (2:10) not as the world walks (2:2) or as pagan Gentiles walk (4:7). Believers are to ‘walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us’ (5:2). That’s a pretty demanding vision. But its rooted in our identity as ‘dearly loved children’ (5:1). It seems to me that’s the task of pastoring and preaching – not to be afraid to aim high while envisioning people with the good news of God’s grace and love.  

BEN: One of the big ticket issues one confronts in Paul is the notion of the bondage of sin. It leads to questions like— if before Christ everyone was in the bondage of sin, what were all those commandments about in the OT, and why were there actually people called righteous back then and back there?  Was God grading on a curve in the OT, but not so much now since we have the renovating presence of the Spirit? I agree with Sanders that there is the grace of God to be found in the OT, but the question is, what effect did it actually have on God’s people.  Was the good godly law inherently frustrating– it could tell them what to do, but couldn’t enable them to do it?  Why then does Paul say in a remarkable passing remark in Philippians that in regard to a righteousness that came from the Mosaic Law, he was blameless!!!!  Really?  This sounds like no bondage of sin in Paul’s case. Or is he simply saying, I was not a law breaker, without implying his obedience to the positive requirements of love etc. was perfect?   What do you think?

PATRICK: Nice easy question Ben! It zones in the vexed question of continuity and discontinuity within Paul’s theology of righteousness when compared to the OT.  Sanders’s understandable reaction to forms of Protestant discontinuity, sometimes verging on anti-Semitism, led to him to so emphasise continuity that he concluded Paul’s only real problem with Judaism was that ‘it was not Christianity’. But this won’t do. While Paul is not setting up ‘failed’ Jewish legalism up against Christian grace, something profoundly discontinuous has happened. His own life is an example of radical change. I see it as Paul re-reading the Scriptures backwards in light of Christ, telling a restructured historical-redemptive story. ‘Faith’ was always the key to justification / righteousness long before the law existed (the story of Abraham in Romans and Galatians). Nor is the law opposed to the promises of God. Its fundamental problem is that it could never justify or give life (only faith in Christ and the regenerating work of the Spirit does that). So in this sense, yes, the life under the law in the OT is temporary and partial. Those who rely on observing it are under a curse (Gal 3:10). In terms of how were faithful believing Jews in the OT seen by God, I think we need to come back to texts like Deut 6:4-5. Wholehearted love for God leads to faithful lives of justice that please God. People can only live according to the light that they have received.

On Philippians, given Paul’s strong theology of sin as a power, I take his reference to being blameless as referring to his pre-conversion life – he was exemplary in keeping the law.

BEN: You quote our old friend John Stott positively as follows (P. 143): “the love of Christ is broad enough to encompass all mankind…long enough to last for eternity, deep enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and high enough to exalt him to heaven”. I totally agree with this and take very seriously John 3.16— God loves the whole of fallen humanity (the cosmos organized against him).  All this being true, it does not make sense to me at all to then also say, God has chosen and pre-determined a select number of human beings to be saved, culled out of a mass of unredeemed humanity. To me this denies the very nature of a statement like John 3.16, not least because love has to be freely given and freely received. It can’t be manipulated, compelled, or predetermined for that matter.  Election of a person or a people for certain historical purposes is one thing, salvation is another. Christ, as M. Barth said about Ephesians is the Elect One, and yet Christ didn’t need to be saved— these two things must then be distinguished. Believers are saved by grace and through faith, by responding to the Gospel. They become elect only by being in the Elect One, Christ, and that again transpires by grace and through faith. What is your take on these things? 

PATRICK: Yes, the study of biblical love does throw up a lot of big theological questions doesn’t’ it? I think some later systematic categories of thinking about election run the risk of imposing an artificial grid on the Bible and making it say more than it does – with unfortunate results. Like you I find it difficult to square texts like John 3:16 with God’s foreordination of multitudes to eternal judgment.

Ultimately this question comes back to the character of God. As I read the Bible, divine love is the great central thread to the whole story. The OT insists that God abounds in love. Hosea is a particularly moving example. God the betrayed lover woos back his unfaithful bride and refuses to end their marriage although he had every right to. Their love is not compelled or enforced – he is not a bullying husband. So, yes, the OT is a very particular story of God’s unbreakable covenant love for Israel, that but story is not an end in itself. Behind his election of Israel is his reconciling love for all. The big shift in the NT is how that ‘narrow lens’ is then widened to embrace all who respond in faith and repentance to the gospel of the Messiah, the Lord of all. No greater example of divine love is possible imagine than the cross of Christ.

BEN: On p. 153 you say that discipleship is in the end about who or what we love most dearly?  I thought it was about taking up our cross and following Jesus, which I don’t imagine most of us think of that as something we love most dearly. Bonhoeffer famously said when Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. Again, that doesn’t sound like something we would be enraptured about.  Even Jesus said, if it be possible let this cup pass.  Perhaps what you meant was that the one we love most dearly is the one we are the disciple or follower of?   Explain.

PATRICK:  I’m zoning in on Jesus’ words demanding that disciples love him before any other commitment, even family. This echoes God’s command to Israel to love him with heart, soul and strength (which has Christological implications but that’s another story). Love in this sense is wholehearted allegiance. This is costly love – it’s going to mean self-sacrifice, serving others, being willing to endure persecution. No other ‘gods’ are to get in the way. This is why I argue that discipleship is first and foremost a matter of the heart – which is why I’m sometimes dismayed by ‘cookie cutter’ discipleship programmes that seem to be mostly about information and techniques but assume that our hearts are already rightly orientated. That’s a big assumption, especially in a Western consumer culture.

BEN: There seems to be a clear tension in Jesus’ teaching between the physical or birth family and the family of faith, with the latter getting priority in Jesus’ teaching. Honestly, I don’t know of many churches who really teach or practice life that way. Instead, the church is all about nurturing the nuclear family rather than BEING a family.  Where have we gone wrong, and what’s the remedy, do you think?

PATRICK: Jesus is deliberately shocking to his listeners: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37). Contrary to Messianic expectations his ‘sword’ will divide families. Disciples are to love Jesus first, before even our deepest other loves. This is perhaps one of his hardest sayings, especially in a Western culture that tends to idolise the family as the source of fulfilment and happiness. We invest immense significance in finding the ‘right’ person, and children are a source of ultimate significance to parents. I know I’m generalising, but I agree with you that the church has bought pretty uncritically into this narrative. The family is seen as the goal, those who don’t fit in are marginalised in a hundred different ways. A remedy first requires a diagnosis. Once the issue is recognised (and it’s often not) then it’s a question of leadership to teach and model a different narrative within the church family. One that celebrates singleness as much as marriage. One that teaches about marriage NOT as a private relationship between autonomous individuals ‘in love’ who construct their private nuclear family, but a porous relationship that is orientated outwards for the good of others in hospitality, service and friendship.

BEN:  I completely agree with you that Jesus’ strong advocacy of being single for the sake of the kingdom is a new emphasis in Judaism. One of the side effects of it in that highly patriarchal world was that it allowed women like Mary Magdalene or Joanna to play roles other than that of wife or mother. In some ways it was more freeing for women than for men, which is perhaps why we hear about so many women involved in the early church, even to the point that Celsus was latter to carp and say ‘it’s a religion of women, children, and slaves’.  Honestly, I think the modern church by and large has done a horrible job of affirming singleness as a potential Christian calling. I was once in a church that had a Sunday School class called Pairs and Spares…. as if single persons were like spare tires. What a horrible theology that is. I also think that precisely because the church has not held out two options, fidelity in marriage as well as celibacy in singleness, and emphasized that both callings require a charisma  as Paul puts it, a grace gift, to successfully pursue such a life, we have a lot of people feeling like they need to get married to be happy or to find community day by day…. which leads to all sorts of train wreck marriages and messy divorces. Some Christians just don’t have the gift of being married.  When’s the last time you heard a sermon about that?   How do we recover a healthy positive affirmation of singleness (like Jesus himself) for the church?  How do we get the church to really be family to those single folks so they don’t feel so alone, and don’t run off and marry out of desperation?

PATRICK:  I was speaking at a church retreat last weekend and this topic came up in one of the talks. We had a Q&A afterwards and I was asked something along the lines, ‘You are a married man with children teaching about the calling of singleness – it is a case of do as I say not as I do?’ That’s a fair question. There’s a lot of heartbreak among single believers who would like to be married (I don’t have research to hand but my impression is that there’s also a collapse of celibacy as a viable option among Christian young people). I think I replied that it’s a broader challenge of recovering theologies of marriage and singleness in the church and how they both confront Western cultural assumptions. I say ‘both’ because often it’s assumed marriage is the default goal and singleness becomes a ‘problem’ to be managed. Yet the irony is that this is a complete reversal with early Church history where celibacy was the higher calling. It just shows how deeply shaped we are by a culture which now sees any teaching advocating celibacy as bizarre and harmful. So it will take sustained and intentional action within a church community to open up these issues. Of hearing not just married men like me speak, but singles sharing their calling and experience. How often do we hear stories celebrating singleness and being freed to serve Jesus in ways a married person could not (1 Cor 7)? Certainly I’ve been struck by how every time I speak about this issue people will come up to me afterwards to say thank you for talking about it. And, at a macro level, fostering a vision of the church as an eschatological community living in the ‘now and the not yet’ of the kingdom helps to put marriage and singleness in bigger perspective.  

BEN: On p. 156 you stress how the church’s legitimizing of singleness symbolized the need for the church to grow by conversions.  Rodney Stark makes the opposite sociological case. He says the church, because of his high life ethic and high valuation of children, basically grew by baby making and extended family growth, AND by avoiding abortions, and rescuing abandoned children , not to mention freeing slaves.  None of this necessarily involved evangelism and conversions.  So….. is there a balance between these two means of growth in the early church?

PATRICK: Fascinating. Stark’s case makes perfect sense. In a way this was not so much a ‘strategy’ as a by-product of Christian ethics that were revolutionary in the ancient world. So I’m sure it is a case of ‘both and’. I quote Stanley Hauerwas here that the really radical edge of the church’s teaching about singleness was not the giving up of sex but the giving up of heirs. To make such a move is extraordinary. It speaks of a confidence that one’s identity and future do not rest on family and ‘this life’, but on eschatological life within the kingdom community of the church. That was profoundly counter-cultural then and still is today.

BEN: On p. 163 you say “if marketing is all about identifying and satisfying customer needs, Jesus does a terrible job at ‘selling’ a life of discipleship within the Kingdom of God. He pulls no punches, sweetens no pill. Rather it seems as if he is trying to make it as difficult as possible for the listeners to follow him.”  This sounds like the exact opposite of the prosperity Gospel to me.  It seems many people don’t want a costly discipleship. They want a gift of salvation, and then freedom to live the life of conspicuous consumption— and God bless our standard of living.   John Wesley preached a powerful sermon entitled ‘On the Use of Money’. In the second half of the 18th century Wesleyan Revival it was the second most preached sermon by him, after Justification by Faith’. In that former sermon he said you should make all you can by honorable and ethical means, save all you can, and then give all you can (while living a simple life style). He says if you only do the first do but don’t give all you can, you may be a living person, but you are a dead Christian.   One wonders how many Christians today John would see as ‘almost’ rather than ‘altogether’ Christians. What does de-enculturation look like in your setting?  

PATRICK: That quote is referring to Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies in vv27-36. Jesus catalogues what disciples should consider blessings: nice attractive things like poverty, hunger, weeping and being hated. And then goes on say love those who hate you and mistreat you – without expecting to get anything back. A few questions back Ben you said you were amazed that any Gentiles believed Paul’s gospel of a crucified Messiah – it was illogical and counter-cultural. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think that we need to feel that same amazement and discomfort today concerning what it is to be a Christian. If absent then it’s a sign that we have probably domesticated the gospel and Jesus’ call to costly discipleship.

We were talking in theology class this week about the weirdness of Christianity. Tidy, conventional, conservative and easy it is not! The more we try to make the gospel undemanding and comfortable in order to attract Western consumers, the less like Jesus we sound. This is where the recent apocalyptic turn in NT studies is on to something important – there is something profoundly disruptive about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. De-enculturation has to be about recapturing the shocking unreasonableness of the Christian life in a culture that prizes wealth, comfort, pleasure, security and individual autonomy.

BEN: I like the quote from my friend Darrell Bock on p. 165 about how unnatural and abnormal it is to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.  As he says, it is the opposite of all natural instincts, and requires divine love to make it happen. Tolerating the enemy is one thing, blessing them and loving them is another. As you point out, such love of enemies makes no rational or financial sense, as there is no guarantee it will be fulfilled. How you treat your enemies will reveal what sort of God you believe in (p. 168).  I agree with this. We have a God who not merely loves his enemies, in the person of his Son he died for them!  We are to emulate God’s own conduct.   Can you unpack this for us a bit?  

PATRICK: I like the comparison of a mirror and a window. Are we (the Church) a mirror to this broken and divided world, reflecting back its hatreds and injustices? Or are we windows, through whom the world can catch a glimpse of another reality – a kingdom of love, grace and forgiveness? This is why we are called to enemy love – not to ‘win’ them over or even expect peace to break out (it most likely will not) – but because this is how God loves. Love is itself the goal.

There is no ‘rulebook’ and everyone is different, but in the book I tell the story of a friend (name changed) who was sexually abused by her brother when she was a young girl. She’d grown up and moved on with her life as best she could, despite deep damage done to her inner being. She was in her 30s and had become a believer when the past came to public light. Suddenly she was confronted with the pain she’d long buried, this time as a Christian. What did it mean to love her enemy? To cut a long story short, eventually she began to pray for him and this unlocked compassion for his lostness. It was a long process but she can say today that she loves him and has forgiven him. Forgiveness has released her from decades of bitterness and hurt. Such love has no guarantee of a ‘return’ – her brother remains estranged. He hasn’t faced up to what he did. But she felt her calling was to love her enemy and that’s what she’s done.   

BEN: As a Christian pacifist myself, I really resonated with what you say on pp. 172-73, affirming my fellow Methodist Stan Hauerwas’s repeated teachings on such things. I agree that this is the clear thrust of much of the Sermon on the Mount, and the clear witness of the life of Paul who was converted from violence against the church, to the Gospel of non-violence for the sake of Christ.  When Jesus said love your enemies he didn’t mean love them to death by killing them!   Interestingly, Martin Luther King Jr. was finally convinced of this Gospel by reading E. Stanley Jones’ biography of Gandhi when he was in seminary. Jones was a Methodist missionary to India, and a graduate of Asbury college.  Recently there was an excellent movie entitled Hacksaw Ridge, which told the story of a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who served as a medic in the Pacific WWII, who was the first soldier to be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army without carrying or firing a gun.  And he rescued many people in battle at Hacksaw Ridge, both friend and foe.  I used to think when I was younger that there’s no way I could serve in the military… but perhaps I could do that, and still serve my country without violating my conscience or the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount.  Would you see this as plausible, or as an unhelpful compromise?  After all, you could be said to be patching up soldiers so they can go back out and kill some more. 

PATRICK: I really wanted to get over how enemy love is not confined interpreting a line or two from the Sermon on the Mount. What tends to happen then is Jesus’ teaching is reinterpreted as hyperbolic or idealistic. Richard Hays has an excellent discussion in his classic book The Moral Vision of the New Testament of all the attempts made to soften Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies. None of them are convincing. Jesus’ teaching shapes that of the first Christians – Paul, Peter and the early church. The overwhelming historical evidence is how the pre-Constantinian early Christian movement repudiated killing in all forms – abortion, war and capital punishment. The shift after Constantine (Augustine especially) to legitimise ‘just’ violence in order to suppress heresy or expand Christendom was, in my opinion, a disaster to the witness of the church. Similarly in the 20th century for Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of ‘just war’. It isn’t a question of whether Christians are to be violent in certain situations, Jesus calls disciples to be non-violent full stop. Of course this seems crazy, but that’s the point – enemy love is the good itself. It’s the window to life in the upside-down kingdom. I saw Hacksaw Ridge in Dublin a couple of years ago and read up on the story of Desmond Doss on which it was based. While I don’t think I could sign up for the military, his was an inspiring example of how Christian non-violence requires considerable bravery.  

BEN: Let’s reflect a bit on John 15— vine and branches and remaining/abiding.  I heard a good sermon about how branches are not called to be sucking the nutrients out of the vine. Rather the way the viticulture actually works is the vine forces its good sap into the branches. All the branches have to do is hang in there!!!  That’s an interesting take on ‘abiding’. The title of the sermon (typically American!) was ‘We Are Not Called to be Sap Suckers!!’  Does this fit with your understanding of ‘abiding’? I note that love is a condition for abiding in Christ. 

PATRICK: A memorable title for a sermon for sure. And it’s a good image which captures how the vine is the life force, it’s only by remaining connected to it that the disciples will bear fruit (John 15:2, 4–5, 8). But I think there is more to it than passive ‘hanging in there’. To remain (abide) includes active obedience. John is crystal clear – “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love” (15:10a). And those commands involve loving each other (15:12, 17). The foot-washing story in John 13 leads up to a new command “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (13:34).

That love can be commanded feels odd to us Westerners – doesn’t love have to be freely chosen between equals if it is to be authentic? But John has no problem at all linking love with faithful submission to authoritative commands. There is mystery and wonder here. John’s exalted Christology means that the only appropriate response for disciples to Jesus, the Logos and Son of God, is obedience to his commands. This isn’t obedience out of fear, but out of love for the Messiah who gives his life for his friends.

BEN:  On pp. 192-95 you broach the issue of philos.  It is interesting how seldom the actual Greek language for friendship really comes up in the NT, whereas the familial language of brother and sister is ubiquitous.  But we do have it briefly in John 15. You are certainly right that in an age of arranged marriages, friendship was often the most intimate of bonds, like with David and Jonathan. Jesus considers us his friends, but there is a condition— you have to do what he commands. This seems quite different from some modern laissez faire friendships which think it rude to demand something from a friend.  How should we view friendship as Christians today do you think?

PATRICK: This links pretty closely to the last question. In our Facebook era the word ‘friend’ doesn’t have much weight, you can have hundreds of ‘friends’ many of whom you may never have met face-to-face. But in the ancient world much attention was given to philos in both Greek thought (Aristotle for example) and Roman culture (hierarchical frameworks of friendship between patrons and clients). Also, in the OT, Abraham and Moses are both called friends of God. It’s impossible to know exactly what lay in the background of John’s use of friendship, but it’s clear that believers’ friendship with Jesus is unparalleled for at least four reasons that should lead Christians today to worship.

1) It was unheard of for ‘God in the flesh’ to give up his own life for his friends. I say in the book at “If depth of love is somehow proportionate to that which is given up for the good of others, then the cross represents the greatest act of love in all of history.”

2) Believers’ status changes from slaves to friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.” This is a welcome into a new status and relationship. Again, this is astonishing.

3) Unlike Greek or Roman notions of friendship, such a change of status does not depend on being virtuous enough or worthy enough to qualify, rather it is a gift of grace: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you” (15:16a). This is very good news.

4) As we said in the last question, there is no contradiction between called Jesus’ friends and faithful obedience. Disciples are chosen so that they might “go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (15:16). Love is transformative.

BEN:  We are called to love self-sacrificially, as Christ loved. That seems a very high standard indeed which we can only approximate at times.  But it does make clear that Christ expects a lot of us. ‘To whom more is given….’.   I have grown tired of the mistranslation of the famous verse in Philippians which actually reads ‘I am able…… all things in Him who strengthens me’. It seems clearly, in light of Paul just saying he has learned contentment in good times and bad, with and without material well being that the appropriate way to read that verse is not ‘I can DO all things…’ but rather ‘I am able to endure with contentment all things… etc.   Comments??

PATRICK: Yes, in John’s Gospel disciples are commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved them. Indeed, loving one another is the only duty that is commanded in the whole Gospel. What that means is spelt out – Jesus lays down his life for his friends. This is love orientated to the good of others at cost to the self. It’s the very heart of Christianity. Of course all of this is much easier to understand in theory than do in practice! In the book I quote Francis Moloney, ‘Words about love can come easily enough; lives that demonstrate love are harder to come by.’ I live with someone whose life does demonstrate love, but I agree with you that it’s a tough calling. It’s a long way from the sort of naïve positive thinking that you mention. I fail to be loving every day to the people I like, let alone to the ones I don’t! This is why life in Christian community is where the rubber really hits the road. Love hangs in there. It’s open-eyed about human failure – including our own. It seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s honest. Churches are made up of all sorts of people and love is the only thing that’s going to hold it together if it’s going to flourish and grow. Perhaps it’s only such authentic communities of love that are going to make an impact on a (often rightly) sceptical world.  

BEN:  It seems to me that 1 Cor. 13 is perhaps the most abused text in the Bible when it comes to love. The passage is not about marriage or marital love, but rather about the manner in which all Christians should use their grace gifts.  It does not say that love is a gift, rather elsewhere in Gal. 5 it is called part of the fruit of the internal working of the Spirit. It’s clearly not a discussion of eros, not least because Paul is addressing all Christians in Corinth in all kinds of circumstances and relationships. And of course the operative term here is agape, which is to say it’s about God given love, the sort of God has and gives to us to share.  I quite agree with what you say about this sort of love being the mark of the Christian, or at least it should be.  All gifts should be exercised in love, including, perhaps especially when we wield the sword of truth.  Without love, spiritual gifts become just an ego display of Christian immaturity.  How many times have we seen very gifted Christians who are so immature, they don’t know how to exercise their gifts in ways that comport with self-sacrificial love? I’ve found this, sadly, often shows up with Christian musicians, of which I am one. What in your view is the relationship between love and forgiveness? I like the quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Over time, I’ve discovered that forgiveness is as important for the giver as for the receiver. If one doesn’t forgive, a root of bitterness grows in one’s soul.  Forgiveness is not optional. But sadly, forgiveness offered is one thing, forgiveness received is another.  In a sense that situation is like unrequited love.  And there is nothing normal or natural about such forgiveness. It’s a God given ability.  I wonder if you think it’s true that the opposite of active love in some situations is not hate, but rather indifference and inaction as a result.  On p. 218 you say love is the believer’s defense against evil. How so? Unpack that idea for us. You rightly note that the Greek actual says ‘love never falls’, often translated ‘love never fails’ but are these one and the same?  Sometimes even the best godly love does not accomplish its aim, surely. Right?

PATRICK: There’s a lot in that question Ben. Maybe if I say a bit about the text first, then something on love and forgiveness. In the book, rather than a warm comforting poem to love, I call 1 Corinthians 13 a ‘searing searchlight’ whose light exposes the Corinthians’ (and our) failures to love. Yes, love is described in inspiring and beautiful terms, but the ‘way of love’ is set against the ‘way of unlove’ with the aim of calling the Corinthians to self-examination and repentance. If we don’t read the text that way then we’ve missed hearing its call for followers of Jesus to embrace the difficult discipline of love. And this is no optional extra – those extraordinarily stark illustrations at the beginning of the chapter reiterate the point that without love anything a Christian says or does is of zero value. Without love, however gifted an individual, however ‘successful’ a ministry, or however ‘impactful’ a church – it’s all utterly worthless. In our pragmatic culture that values results, those are radical words that we need to hear again and again.

The quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die is so true isn’t it? I see love as a choice and forgiveness is a good illustration. We can choose the way of resentment, bitterness, hatred but that leads to ‘self-imprisonment’. Or we can choose the way of not letting wrongs of others define us, of letting the past go, of moving towards forgiveness and possible reconciliation (which depends on the other responding). This leads to freedom. Of course it’s easier to say this than do it. It’s a process that can take years and will be different for each person. I don’t think forgiveness can be forced on someone. And it certainly is not to dismiss deep hurt caused by others, that needs to heard and acknowledged. And if #metoo and experiences like Bill Hybels in Willow Creek have taught us anything, it is that forgiveness does not mean hiding sin. 

BEN:   Gal. 5.6 is a remarkable claim— the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Why should we not see this as typical hyperbole by Paul in a letter full of hyperbole (like ‘you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me!!!’)????

PATRICK: Yes, it’s remarkable and I liked it so much that I made it the strapline of the book. The danger of making it hyperbole is that it becomes too easy to downplay how what Paul says here is fully consistent with his pervasive theology of love – I’m thinking 1 Corinthians 13, or 1 Cor 16:14 ‘Do everything in love’, or how love fulfils the law in Galatians 5 and Romans 13:8-10, or walking in love in Ephesians, or Colossians 3:12, ‘And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity’.

‘Faith working through love’ has a sense of dynamic power, Paul knows nothing of faith that is not transformative and love in this sense is the goal and purpose of faith. In other words, I don’t think it is too strong to say that Paul sees love as God’s ultimate agenda for his people. This tends to get missed in hot debates about justification by faith. Paul’s passion in Galatians is not only to correct a false gospel but also to heal a community riven by division who were ‘biting and devouring one another’. It’s fruit of the Spirit, whose first characteristic is love, that is the only remedy to Galatian divisiveness. In this sense love is a ‘weapon’ in God’s war against the powers opposes to his good purposes. And if that’s the case, then yes absolutely – love is the only thing that counts.

BEN:  Paul speaks of Christ setting us free from something and for something. The problem, at least in my context is that Americans here this and think freedom means ‘free to do as I please’ whereas I assume Paul means something very different— freedom from sin and freedom to do as God pleases.  As you say ‘we are not set free to live for ourselves, but to love one another as Christ loved us.’ (p. 229).  How do we best get this idea across to an increasingly narcissistic and selfy-oriented western culture???

PATRICK: Christian freedom is a paradox. Galatians 5 begins “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1) but Paul goes on to make clear that it is liberation is found, not in doing whatever we desire, but in serving one another humbly in love (Gal 5:13). Or as the NRSV translates it “but through love become slaves to one another.” The irony is that Paul has been pleading with then not to go back to a life of slavery, now he is commending it!

I guess a start would be to feel the offense of this paradox today in our teaching and preaching within a culture which prizes individual liberty and pursuit of the authentic self. Perhaps this is a particular challenge for the church in America, the home of ‘freedom’ and capitalism, where freedom is virtually worshipped as an end in itself. Self-made individuals neither need anything from others nor expect to be obligated to others. Capitalism fosters the belief that all we have belongs to us – including our possessions, our time, our bodies – and no-one has a right to tell us how to live. That’s a long way from “become slaves to each other in love”. If our preaching and teaching leaves Christians untroubled in a cocoon of wealth and self-sufficiency, then it’s not doing its job!

BEN:  I like the way in your discussion of Ephes. 5.21ff. you point out how Paul is busily renovating the traditional patriarchal orientation of the extended family in his day, not merely baptizing that structure and calling it good.  The exposition of ‘submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’ is helpful, and it shows the direction Paul is pointing the family in.  I have a doctoral student who has done a detailed study of Paul’s use of isotes in all its occurrences in Greek literature in that period, and it always means equality, not fairness. In other words, Paul in Colossians is even saying, masters treat your slaves as your equals, and serve them as they serve you. Now this is just as revolutionary as Ephes. 5.21.  Unless you see Paul the pastor as starting with the existing household codes and then modifying them in light of the Gospel in a more equitable direction, you’ve missed the thrust of passages like Col. 3-4 and Ephes. 5-6.  Would you agree?  Paul is not trying to change society directly, but indirectly by changing what happens in the Christian home and house church meetings— right?

PATRICK: Right. I used the title ‘Subversive Love’ to describe what’s going on. It isn’t as if Paul is confronting Greco-Roman culture head-on, I don’t think that’s his primary motive. He’s working out the good news of the gospel within fledging Christian communities in relation to different sets of relationships that commonly appear in the household codes. But he must have been well aware that the implications were revolutionary. The way Christians are to relate to one another necessarily undermines the patriarchal and hierarchical structures of existing household codes. The new communities were to be characterised by mutual submission (5:21) – a profoundly Christian concept. Love, humility, service of others, dying to the self – these are all Christ-like characteristics that all believers are called to.

So when it comes to husbands and wives, it is not as though husbands are somehow exempt from Christian submission! There’s a long history of interpretation that tries hard to separate 5:21 (all submit to one another) and 5:22 (wives submit to husbands). Some Bibles even insert a heading after verse 21 that breaks up the text – which, as you know, is one long sentence in Greek from verses 18-23. Yes, wives are told to submit to husbands (and children / slaves to obey parents / masters), not the other way around. But this is best read not as some Pauline mandate for a timeless ‘gender role’. The apostle is recognising cultural realities of the household codes but subverting them as he calls believers to follow the way of Jesus in whatever social role they happen to find themselves in.

The irony of so much discussion of this text is that it is not really focused on changing the behaviour wives at all – but it IS focused on challenging the behaviour and attitudes of husbands. They are told four times in nine verses to love their wives. That husbands were to love wives self-sacrificially turns Greco-Roman ideas of status and patronage on their head. He is to treat his wife as he has been treated by his own head (Christ). The husbands ‘headship’ takes the form of loving and caring for his wife as his own body. It’s a subversion of cultural expectations – he nurtures her. He is to treat her as he, the man with all the power and privilege, has been treated. Unless we get this sense of radical subversion I don’t think we’ve heard this text. And this is where many complementarian readings miss Paul’s gospel edge. They end up reinforcing the very Greco-Roman cultural norms that Paul is busy subverting. 

BEN: On p. 248 you stress that Christian marriage is not a private relationship in which you have all your love concentrated and all your love needs met.  As you say, Paul sees marriage as exhibit A of the larger relationship Christ has with his body, his bride, the church. “The primary location for love is not the nuclear family but the community of the church.” I agree, but this is not what most people mean by a family church (that usually means a church that nurtures nuclear family units, or worse still a church run by a singular nuclear family). Help us to better understand how in an individualistic age we get across that the church is the primary family. 

PATRICK:  I say to students sometimes that there’s a ‘weirdness’ to Christianity that we need to feel otherwise we’ve probably domesticated the gospel. I mean by that that Christianity is profoundly ‘out of step’ with many assumed norms of Western culture – and marriage is one example. Conservatives tend to idealise a 1960s version of the nuclear family – a phrase that probably conjures up in our minds images of 2 parents and 2.5 children living in a detached home on a suburban street. Conservatives tend to want to ‘recover’ this lost ideal as a way of promoting social stability. Western liberalism tends to prize love, sex and the option of marriage all belonging to the private domain of the individual lovers, regardless of gender.

It seems to me that Christian marriage challenges both social conservatism and radical individualism. While it is an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman, it is not a private relationship. In Ephesians 5 the couple’s love is to exist within the wider network of relationships that is the church (ekklēsia appears multiple times in this text). They are first and foremost members of Christ’s body called, like any other disciples, to love brothers and sisters across deep divides around religious and ethnic background, gender and social status. This relativises marriage – it is not an end in itself. It is not the place the couple’s love rules supreme and which might perhaps ‘overflow’ to others. It’s the other way around – as disciples they learn to love within the community and take that Christian love into marriage. As Hauerwas says, ‘Love is a characteristic of the church, not the family per se.’  This means that Christian marriages ‘belong’ within community – they are to be ‘porous’ (places of hospitality and welcome) not impermeable (the self-sufficient nuclear family).

This perspective gives space to recover a proper theology of celibacy and singleness as an equally (if not higher) calling than marriage – which is also a radical challenge to idolisation of the nuclear family.

BEN: Last question!!!  Your useful chapter about money talks about love gone wrong, love for things instead of people, and the using of people to get things. In short, the sin of greed and acquisitiveness. I was once watching TV in New York and Reverend Ike came on the TV and said the following: “our Scripture for today is from St. Paul ‘the lack of money is the root of all evil’.  After dismembering Paul’s actual words he then went on to say ‘if money is causing you problems and temptations, then send it to me, and I will relieve you of that temptation’ and so on. I remember well a little pamphlet my old prof at GCTS, Gordon Fee wrote called ‘The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel’.  What do you see as the cure for that disease, the cure for misdirected love??? 

PATRICK: Gordon Fee commenting on I Timothy 6 asks that given the strength of the warnings about the spiritual dangers of money why would any Christian want to get rich? Riches are a temptation and trap that ensnare those that desire them. If that sounds odd to us maybe it’s because we are shaped by a culture where the pursuit of wealth is seen as a good thing and accumulating riches equal ‘success’. There is a nest of issues here around the heart, misdirected love, destructive desires, greed and dissatisfaction – always wanting more. The Bible’s unvarnished diagnosis of this is idolatry – seeking purpose, fulfilment and security in money and the power it brings rather than in God.

Regarding a ‘cure’ – I guess the first step is diagnosis of the problem. And that needs courage by pastors and teachers, perhaps particularly within American Christianity which exists within probably one of the most acquisitive cultures that has existed in human history. When did you last hear a sermon about greed I wonder? Yet, as is often said, Scripture has far more to say about money than pretty well any other ethical issue. Imagine if the church’s ‘default’ attitude to wealth was caution and warnings about its potentially toxic effects. That would be a huge shift and bring us back closer to the attitudes of Christians of the early church. A second step is de-idolizing money through rightly-directed love. It’s fascinating how Paul’s ‘answer’ to the problem in 1 Timothy is not a list of rules – he goes for the heart. He has confidence the power of the gospel to transform hearts, minds and behaviour. Love of money is a spiritual problem, the ‘treatment’ is to find our security in the love of God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17b). To be people of contentment, hope, generosity and other-directed love. An acid test of where our security and hope really lies is how generous we are with temporary resources with which we have been entrusted.