On "Love"

Sometimes I feel like Jan Hus (I think it's pronounced "Yawn Hooss" in his native Czech), who like Martin Luther a century later, came to the realization that the Roman Catholic Church had gotten an important part of Christian theology fundamentally wrong. Hus was burned at the stake, but Luther started a whole new branch of Christianity based on pretty much the same insight.

500 years later, the pendulum has swung off-base in the other direction. Christians have gotten it wrong again, and where Luther was rightly offended (on God's behalf) that the Church was teaching that ordinary Christians could pay an "indulgence" (some money) for a "Get Out of Hell Free" card and then live like the pagans, the new version of the same heresy is that the Christians can get their "Get Out of Hell Free" card for no money at all, and then still live like the pagans. That is not taught explicitly in the church where I park my fanny on Sunday mornings, but what is taught is easily mistaken for it. The pastor clearly teaches (once every month or two) that our Christian faith should result in a behavior consistent with what God expects people to do, and rather more of his membership actually do that than happens in most churches -- the people who do not want to do it mostly don't come, and the pastor fully understands why his is a small church -- but from what I can see, the ones who buy into his teaching are still a minority of those who show up on Sunday morning. And unlike most preachers, this pastor gets it, sort of. Most pastors in most American churches are without a clue.

The pastor here is still a Relationshipist, that is, he devotes far more of his hortatory energy to "relationships" and/or "love" than he does to Doing The Right Thing. At least he preaches the Biblical text, with the "relationships" added on like gravy to the meat and potatoes that is there in the text. I never heard him preach "unconditional love" but he never objected when somebody else taught it from the same pulpit. I think he wants to believe it, but none of the texts he preaches from says any such thing, and he has not found any Scripture to preach from that does teach it (because there's no such concept in Scripture) and like I said, he does preach the text.

Bible Words for "Love"

First-century Greek had three words that might arguably be translated "love" but only one of them ('agaph') is used extensively in the New Testament, where it means nothing like our 21st-century notion of feeling good "love" but rather a self-giving concern for the other person's benefit without respect to our own, much more like "charity".

The second word ('filew') generally is used for the kind of mutuality sometimes intended by the English word "love" but is probably better rendered "friendly" or "like". Translators often get this one incorrect in John 21:15-17 where both words are used in the Greek to distinguish the kind of self-giving devotion that Jesus is asking for, from the friendship Peter is willing to offer.

The third Greek word ('erow' from which we get the English word "erotic") does not appear in the Bible. It is obviously not something God saw any need to tell us about.

Hebrew has only one word properly translated "love" but the self-sacrificial activity of the New Testament is not so well developed, so the same word gets used equally for God's love of Israel and Amnon's selfish desire for his sister Tamar.

There is another Hebrew word that the King James Bible rendered "love" but its usage appears to be mostly a term of affection in the Song of Solomon (and a few other places), perhaps better translated "honeybunch" or some such. The KJV also rendered a (female) Hebrew word usually translated "friend" as "my love" in the Song of Solomon.


The concept of "love" in the church is for me beginning to take on the moral dimension of fraud, where (like "inspiration" and "evolution" and "gay" before it, and now also "marriage") the victims are the Christians and the perpetrators are the forces of the Enemy. We do not need to let the Enemy win by fighting on his turf. Jesus told his Disciples,
I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [oNIV Matt.5:39-41]
If the Enemy wants to take away from you the meaning of a perfectly good word and turn it to evil, let them have it, and find (or better: invent) another word to take its place. We did that with "inerrant" against "inspiration" and won that battle (for a while).

I tried today (Jan.18) to make this point to the pastor without citing the Scriptural support, but he was not buying. Like the Amish, who will not give up their beloved horses in the face of cultural (in their case, technological) change, he would not back down. Perhaps he still also insists on using "gay" to mean "happy" or (as in the KJV, "shiny") and "study" to mean only "work hard" as in the KJV, and not "spend book time" (today's meaning) -- oh wait, the preachers who quote 2Tim.2:15 never tell you what that word meant in 1611. Although they are using the language change to their own advantage, it's still fraud, people are still being misled (see my essay "Selfish Love"). But I didn't say all that, it's a losing battle.

What do you do when the language has changed? People will not understand you if you try to use the old sense of a word, even when you make a diligent effort to restore to it its old definition. It's worse when the Bible translators got it wrong (see also "perfect" and "worship" and especially "heart" in my essay "Mistranslated Words in the Bible"). "Love" is one of those words.

When I was a child, all the conservative preachers (the ones who thought God wrote the Bible and meant what He said) preached out of the King James version, and they all spent much of their sermon explaining how "this word means something else than what you think." Now they (some of them) use modern translations and assume that's not necessary, but that's not true. This pastor uses a translation that still clings to the KJV heritage (it fixes some but not all of the word problems), so he spends a lot of time explaining word definitions, just not so much with the word translated "love." So it seemed to me a little disingenuous today when he argued that he was not about to tell his congregation that the translation is misleading.

Last month, when I first tried to make this point, he said, "I don't think the four of us in this room are confused about the meaning [of 'love']." Except that two of the four of us (he and the guy on my right) had already demonstrated such a confusion in that same meeting, and speaking for myself, I know I get confused when I try to use the same word to mean two very different things, and I know it has happened to me with the word "love" in the last year (most recently three months ago). Maybe the fourth guy is never confused (I have seen no evidence, one way or the other), but I already blogged the third guy last month, and the pastor's confusion is demonstrated in his consistent and repeated misquote of Rom.5:8 "...while we were yet sinners, God loved us" [his words, Paul actually said "Christ died for us"]. Nowhere does the Bible say "God loves sinners." John 3:16 gets interpreted that way, but it actually says "God loved the cosmos" = His created universe, which He created perfect and "very good," but it fell and was cursed with Adam, nevertheless it will be restored at the end of time by removing the people who do not want God to reign over them [Luke 19:27] leaving only those people who actually do God's commands and therefore are loved by God [John 14:20,21], and because there is no past nor future with God, He sees their future works and loves them through all time, including during their temporary depravity "while we were yet sinners" (repeated also in Eph.2:4,5). The pastor admitted in my hearing having trouble memorizing Scripture, that he thinks it's good enough to get the sense right. I happen to agree with him (I have the same problem), but because I am sensitized to the problem of "love" I immediately detected the discrepancy, where the pastor would not have gotten that sense wrong if he were not confusing the two meanings of "love" in his own mind. At least that's what would happen to me when I do the same thing.

Anyway, I have this policy not to fight a pastor in his own church (see "Forgetting Anger Management" three years ago), and this is his Religion (it defines for him what is "don't confuse me with facts" non-negotiably True), he's not going to change his opinion even if he's Wrong (that's what Religion is), so I need to stop talking about it, maybe just politely tune out.

It's not Religion for me, I was persuaded by facts, and if you have better facts, I might be persuaded again in some new direction, but probably not if it's Religion for you, because you will thus be disinclined to look for and see these new and better facts. But if you think you can, here follows some themes (plus more in the links at the bottom) that you probably need to overcome:

God Is Love

This line appears in two verses, both in the same paragraph in one chapter, where its point continues a theme begun in the previous chapter, that we ought to give up our own selfish desires for the benefit of each other -- basically the Golden Rule (GR) which was also taught be Jesus and Moses and Paul -- and these two verses are offered in support of that larger theme. 1 John 4:8,16 do not stand on their own, they are each part of a larger sentence in a larger context. The point of the larger context is not some abstract prime attribute of God, but a down-to-earth command by Jesus that has not been rescinded: you ought to be doing The Right Thing for your Christian brothers, because if you can't or don't, you aren't a Christian at all, and God does not love you. Jesus said that. Charity (your Bible incorrectly translates it "love") is doing something Good for somebody else that does not benefit you at all, and God did that for us in Christ, and God's command for all people everywhere -- that's my inference from  Luke 10:25-28, based on the assumption that Jesus gave the man an honest answer, not a deceitful impossible puzzle -- is to do it at all times in every circumstance, because if you cannot do that in Heaven, it would not be Heaven for the other people there.

God is many things: God is Light, God is Holy, God is Righteous; "God is Love" is only one undistinguished attribute among many. I said a bit more about this topic several years ago (see "Selfish Love") but I include the relevant part here in case you are not into following links:

Some time in the last century or so American Christianity changed the gospel from "Repent" (as taught in the Bible) to "God loves you" (which is not in the Bible, at least not as a gospel preached to unbelievers and pew-dusters). This is a topic I have examined extensively lately (see "Relationshipism" and its links), so I won't dwell on it here, except to note that this theological aberration is now affecting the English Bible translations. "God is love," one author insisted (citing 1John 4), "verse 8 in particular clearly presents John's God-inspired dogma about love's preeminence." A careful examination of that verse and its context shows no such preeminence in the text, not like the preeminence given to Jesus in the next verse. This "love" is merely one attribute of God among many (another attribute mentioned three chapters earlier in the same book tells us "God is light"); there are perhaps a couple dozen more attributes of God in other parts of Scripture in the same form, "God is ___". None of these attributes are given, by the words and grammar of the actual text, any particular preeminence over the others, it is only our preference for the warm fuzzies that gives a presumed preeminence to love. Let me repeat that: there is no prominence nor emphasis in any part of Scripture for God's attribute of love over His other attributes. That "God is love" is only mentioned in two verses of one chapter of one small epistle, where the author uses it to argue that we Christians ought also to love each other. Paul mentions God's love to believers, but he also speaks of God's wrath and God's foreknowledge and God's Son. Only the Son is given explicit preeminence. Love (more accurately "charity" in the KJV) is given supremacy over faith and hope in 1Cor.13, but it is our love (charity), not God's.

Half of Galatians

One of the early casualties of this mistaken emphasis on "love" is Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, and with it a proper understanding of God's Law. This is so important, I built a complete essay on the topic "The Law of Love." The main point is that
...the Law, the Torah of God, written down by Moses is correctly understood as a set of commands, Do's and Don'ts. Murder, stealing and adultery (three of the Ten, for example) are forbidden. You are required to give all of your devotion and priority to God. The Golden Rule (GR: "Do unto others as you would have them do to you") is there in the Torah. Also in the Law are specifications about circumcision, kosher dietary rules, special holy-days, and a whole bunch of stuff about sacrifices and ceremonial cleansings. And there are a few strange ones, like bulls goring people and getting tattoos. They are all there scrambled together, with little or no distinction given between them there in the Torah, they are all God's Law, given by Moses to His people Israel.

But that does not mean there is no distinction. Jesus told people that Loving God first, last, and always (he called it the First Great Commandment) is binding on all people everywhere, you cannot get to Heaven without it, and the GR is almost as important (Second Great Commandment, after the First) is also binding on all people everywhere. There were other Laws in the Torah that Jesus sort of brushed aside, "Concentrate on Justice, Truth, and Mercy" (otherwise known as the GR), he said, and "not neglect" (his words) the little stuff like tithing and the Sabbath. But if for some reason you can't do both, do the GR.

The Apostle Paul was much more explicit. Some of the Law (he named several items like stealing and murder) are "summed up" in the GR, they are obligatory on all people everywhere, but especially you Christians. You don't understand the GR? That's what the detailed Do's and Don'ts are for, to explain (like a teacher, "schoolmaster" in the King's English) what you should be doing. Once you get the GR, you don't need to memorize all the example Do's and Don'ts, because you will already be doing them. Other parts of the Law (he named several items like circumcision and kosher foods and special holy-days) are not intended for you Gentiles. It's pretty much exactly the same distinction Jesus made. These laws here on the left, the Jewish ceremonial stuff, are not for Gentiles; you want to do that stuff, do it all. But don't make life tough on the people who understand that it's not for us. These laws here on the right, do them. He drew a bright shining line between the two kinds of laws, Do the Right Stuff, not the other stuff.

So when preachers confuse charity with unconditional affirmation they see Paul using the word "freedom" in Gal.5:1 "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." Yay! No rules! And they stop at verse 12, just before Paul starts listing a bunch of rules he expects you-all to do, like good slaves of Jesus Christ. What they have done is drawn a different line around the Law than Paul and Jesus. Paul gave examples of the Law that the Galatians were not bound by, and it was circumcision, it was not giving up your own convenience for the benefit of other people (GR). Right there in Gal.5, Paul draws that big bright line between ceremonial laws and the GR. And the preachers who draw a different line around the whole Law completely missed Paul's point. Because they forgot that the Greek word the translators unfortunately rendered as "love" in English really means giving up rights and priviledges, it does not mean "No Rules" (which is what the English word means to almost everybody, including most often those same preachers). So the "gospel" they preach from the three-quarters-epistle of Galatians is in fact "another gospel" like the one Paul condemned in Gal.1:7, because it is not God's (and Paul's) gospel, but something very totally other.

I don't know about tattoos, but the bull that gores people is very definitely an example of the GR. The preacher here who mentioned it in his sermon as if it has nothing to do with what we Christians should do, but he didn't read the rest of that Rule in the next verse. If the farmer knows the bull is in the habit of hurting people, then his negligence is a capital offense when people die; if nobody knew the bull was dangerous, then it's an accident, and the punishment is lighter. You don't want to be the person the bull killed, so the responsible thing is to make sure nobody else is either. Putting some teeth into the law helps encourage farmers to do The Right Thing. It is definitely a part of the GR, and obligatory on all of us who are responsible for dangerous animals [and machines]. Doing it doesn't get you into Heaven, but it wouldn't be Heaven for the rest of us if you refuse to behave that way. That's why not doing the GR keeps you out. All this is explained more fully in my essay "The Law of Love."

Tom Pittman
First Draft: 2020 January 18, Rev. 20 Feb 6


The Counterfeit Religion of Relationships (including links to other essays on the topic)
Why the word "relationship" is not in the Bible (in my larger essay "Mistranslated Words in the Bible")
Language and Love
Selfish Love
The Job Affair
Love, A Christian Perspective
Relationship, Not Inference
Love Is Selfish
Relationshipism Gone Bad
Love Is God
Charity vs Love