Needy baby, murky bath

Loving your neighbour

It really couldn’t be simpler. “Love your neighbour as yourself”. The words appear nine times throughout Scripture. They are part of the law of Moses (Lev 19:18). Jesus quoted this commandment as the second of the two great commandments on which hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34). When a teacher of the law tried to limit the impact of this, Jesus explained its power with what is probably his most well-known parable (Luke 10:25-37).

Paul even ignored the first of Jesus’ great commandments and summed up the entire law as “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). James calls it the “royal law”, and says those who obey it are doing right (Jas 2:8).

It really couldn’t be simpler. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” God calls us to do so in his word. Those who seek to obey God will love their neighbour. It really couldn’t be simpler.

But as so often happens with the simple things of Scripture, the impact of these words has been obscured in a theological cloud. The direct command of God gets lost in a sea of theologizing. Over and over again it happens. Someone moves away from what has been clearly revealed in God’s word. Then comes the reaction: others reject the lack of balance in the new theology, and the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

This has happened with God’s call to love our neighbour. There are many who have expressed this call, or have defended it, with wrong-headed theology. But as others have rightly reacted to this, the command has then been lost in the backlash. The needy baby has been thrown out with the murky theological bathwater.

A recent example of this can be seen in the rise of what is called ‘incarnational theology’. Incarnational theology lays the stress on the incarnation as the saving act of God. The atonement takes a back seat as the whole idea of God-becoming-man is seen in itself as a saving act. The cross becomes little more than a demonstration of the incarnational principle—a display of the love of God. Evangelicals respond with an emphasis on the cross and its atoning significance.

Those who stress the incarnation see it as an affirmation of the dignity of humanity. They stress the innate goodness and the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of man (and woman). Evangelicals respond with a stress on the depravity of humanity, our sinfulness before God. They also stress the distinction between the brotherhood of Christians, and those who stand outside the household of faith.

Many incarnational theologians see the church as an extension of the incarnation. As Christ incarnated God in human flesh, so the church continues to incarnate the divine Spirit. The church becomes God’s hands and feet. Caring for others is a primary part of the mission of a church whose raison d’être is to show God and his love. Evangelicals have responded by stressing the priority of gospel preaching.

There is also an exemplary feel to the incarnational approach, as seen in the so-called ‘social gospel’ of the last century and the ‘liberation’ theologies of today. In both cases, Christ becomes primarily our example—a great reformer and teacher whose teachings would transform the world. Evangelicals come back to emphasize the uniqueness of Christ and the primacy of the gospel.

In all of this, it has been the incarnational theologians who have encouraged the love of our neighbour, seeing it as indivisible from God’s way of salvation. They stress neighbour love as the crux of gospel proclamation. The evangelical response has tended to throw the needy baby out with the murky theological bathwater. Among some, loving your neighbour has been marginalized or ignored. It is seen at best as an added extra—at worst, as a distraction from the main game.

It is right that we should be wary of any approach that has shifted focus from that which we find in the Bible. But there is no need to flip the balance. The biblical command is clear. And the Bible gives us clear reason to go on loving our neighbour.

1. The example of Christ

The gospel is far more than exemplary. Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God. His life, atoning death and resurrection are unique events in salvation history. We must never lose sight of that.

Yet Christ is an example. He is no mere example, but he is an example. The Bible says that more than once. Take, for example, Philippians 2. The words of verses 6-11 are favourites of many. They evoke so well the mystery of the incarnation, Christ humbling himself, even to death, and being exalted by God to the highest place.

Yet why does Paul quote this hymn? He tells us in verse 5: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus”. Paul outlines the mystery of the incarnation as an example to follow. He wants the church in Philippi to love one another; to not do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit; to be humble and other-person-centred. So he points the church to the supreme example of these qualities: Jesus.

The incarnation is an example for us, even if it is much more than an example.

2. The cross of Christ

Similarly, the cross of Christ is much more than an example of Christ’s love. Jesus’ death is central to the gospel. It is uniquely able to save. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Pet 3:18). Without the cross, we would still be alienated from God and without hope of salvation.

But the cross is an example of love. It is so much more than an example, but it is an example. In fact, the words quoted above from Peter come in the context of the cross as an example. Peter paints this picture of the cross to show how Christians should respond to suffering. Back in chapter 2 he says it directly, “To this [suffering for doing good] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21, emphasis added).

The cross is much more than an example. But an example it is.

3. The love of Christ

John’s focus on the cross is a focus on love.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18).

Like Peter, John does not deny the atoning significance of Christ’s death. He says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10, emphasis added). But John still sees the significance of Christ’s death for our own behaviour, as he goes on to say, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another”.

The cross shows us what love means. And we should practise it.

4. The scope of Christ’s love

The stress in all of John’s writings is love for “one another”, for our fellow believers. In rejecting the ‘brotherhood of man’, many evangelicals have emphasized this “one another” love to such an extent that it seems as if the Bible were saying we need not love unbelievers. If we even begin to look for such limits on our love, are we not in danger of sounding like the legalistic teacher of the law who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29)?

When John points us to the cross as an example of love, we need to remember that God’s love is not limited in that way. It was “while we were still sinners” that “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8, emphasis added). Certainly the focus of our love will be the fellowship of believers. Christ wants us to love one another as he has loved us. But he also calls us to love our neighbours as ourselves. If we place limits on our love, we have misunderstood the cross, and we are failing, like the legalistic teacher of Luke 10, to love our neighbour. Paul summarizes well our priorities in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (emphasis added).

5. The people of Christ

While it is dangerous to talk about the church as an extension of the incarnation, there is a sense in which we could say that God’s people are his hands and feet. The all-powerful God chooses to work through human agents. Christians are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pet 2:9). We need not get bogged down in defining the church, or in what sense the church has a mission. The resurrected Jesus said to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Christians will do that both individually and corporately.

And while it may be wrongheaded to look at Christ’s ministry as a paradigm for our own, that does not mean that it is never helpful to look at how Jesus did things. We can see, for example, the priority he always gave to gospel preaching. We can also see that his preaching was motivated by love that was practical. Twice he fed large numbers with a small amount of bread and fish. In one incident, he had compassion on them because they were spiritually lost, like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). In the other, he had compassion on them simply because they were hungry (Mark 8:2). We can learn from that. Jesus’ love was real love. It focused on the need for eternal salvation. But it cared for all needs, both spiritual and physical.

If we love our neighbour, we will want to tell them the gospel. That is the most important thing we can do for them. If we care for their physical needs without telling them what God has done for them, our love for them is inadequate. But if we love them, we will not ignore their non-spiritual needs. If we preach the gospel without caring for their temporal needs, we treat them, not as people we truly love, but as potential scalps—another notch in our witnessing edition NIV.

What we need to do is think in the category of love. God is love. He wants his people to love. That love will lead to telling people about the love of God in Christ. It will also lead to practical care.

There are many ways we can practise the love of neighbours in our local churches—from delivering casseroles to the sick to visiting the elderly; from helping look after the children of harassed single parents to giving the unemployed direction and companionship; from financing and praying for development projects in the third-world to using the political influence we have to improve conditions for the poor. There are so many possibilities, it may seem hard to prioritize at times. But that is no reason to be frozen into inaction. We should not “become weary in doing good”, but continue to do good to people “as we have opportunity” (Gal 6:9-10).

It really is quite simple. Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Jesus showed us what love is. Jesus called on us to follow him. When people encourage us to love others but are wrongheaded in their thinking, don’t throw the needy baby out with the wonky theology. Love your neighbour as yourself. “Dear children, let us not love with words and tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Sandy McMillan pastors the Presbyterian Church in South Wagga, NSW

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