In this blog’s statement of purpose we assert that when theological points are discussed in the United Methodist Church we talk past each other instead of to each other. What does this mean? It means we use words that have a different definition for one side than another. We use terms which only have meaning within a certain theological context that not all parties understand. When we talk the only people who can understand us are the ones who already agree with us.
One of the words with which this happens most often is “love.” This word is used with disparate definitions which leads love to be used in varying ways. Because people don’t often appreciate how others are using the term, we dismiss each other as sinful, heretical, hateful, or abusive. What are these definitions of love, and how can we get on the same page?
Some people use a definition of love derived from John 14:15 and similar verses in Scripture: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love is following God’s commandments, and loving other people is helping them also follow God’s commandments. This entails warning them when they are going against God’s law and helping them get back on the correct path. This is a Biblical version of love which comes from good intentions but can be perceived as abusive. If one does not agree they are going against God’s law using love in this way does not bring the perceived offender into the body of Christ. Instead, using love this way comes across as condemning someone for an action or belief which God does not oppose. Hence, the person trying to love the other into right action is not seen as helpful, but hurting.
Others use a definition of love which is derived from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and verses like it in Scripture: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a love which lifts up the oppressed, which liberates people from bondage, which gives freedom to those who are imprisoned by injustice. In the context of the debates over sexuality, these people believe that since God made people’s sexuality to reflect God’s gracious love to live into that sexuality is to live into God’s liberating love. A person is liberated from the injustice of a heteronormative society and able to live into God’s good plan for them. Because we approach the issue of sexuality from vastly different anthropological perspectives (this is for another post), this way of using and defining love can come across to others as heretical and sinful. If someone believes gay marriage is wrong, they will not be convinced that God liberated them into sinful action.
Are these two definitions, so often at odds with one another, all that “love” can mean for us? One aspect of Biblical love which I have not heard in our discussions is that demonstrated in Philippians 2:3-8: “…regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Neither definition of love described contradict these verses. Nevertheless Paul’s words in Philippians open to us a new way of loving one another. In these verses, the true nature of Godly love is incarnation. Jesus emptied himself to be with us. Jesus came to walk our walk, to feel our joy and pain, to literally take us on to himself so that we can know what true love is. The act of self-emptying makes love known.
The reason we don’t talk about this kind of love is because we as a church we have not emptied ourselves for each other. Instead we have taken sides. Imitating our political climate, we learn enough about what the other side thinks so we can counter with our own one sided position. We have not lived with, loved, and walked with those we don’t understand or disagree with. We speak from afar, through condescending blogposts, or by trying to get 51% of the Annual or General Conference to vote our way so we can win. We create organizations filled with people who already agree with us.
This is not emptying ourselves. This is not what Jesus did. Jesus gave up heaven, a place where God’s will is done perfectly, to come to earth with all its violence, arguments, sin, and despair, so we can know God’s love.
Imitating incarnational love is not most people’s first reaction. It certainly does not usually feel good to be in a place where people disagree, misunderstand, and are in conflict. In fact, it is difficult to be where people are not “us”. However, coming into those places is exactly what Jesus did, and this is the type of love we are to imitate. Jesus did not stay in heaven where everyone agreed with him and there were no theological controversies. He did the opposite. He came to where the need was greatest: to earth, among conflicted peoples, Jew and Gentile, and loved them. Let us show the same love for each other. Let us figure out how to talk to each other. Let us love as Jesus loved.
Eric Schubert is an elder in the Iowa conference and pastor at Greenfield UMC in Greenfield, Iowa.