I often hear self-proclaimed Christians criticizing the church for a lack of love. Indeed, the modern church is largely perceived as hateful, judgmental and hypocritical. Unfortunately, however, the type of love people often advocate, which is undiscerning, universal and non-judgmental, is not the kind of love that is portrayed in the Bible. While the church admittedly has a long way to go, her accusers, even those within the church, are not without fault. It’s time for a bigger view of Christian love.
While it may feel right in our hearts to believe we should love and celebrate everyone and everything equally, Jeremiah 17:9 points out that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Thus, if we are to examine Christian love in light of scripture, we have to filter out what we personally feel long enough to hear what scripture actually says.
Jesus gives these directions in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault” in private. If the person continues in sin, take the matter before one or two believers. If nothing changes, the matter should go before the church. What is this if not judgment? We are directed to confront others about sin. Yet the whole purpose is to restore the person in love.
Ezekiel 3:18 explains the concept further when God says to Ezekiel: “When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” Given that sin harms the sinner, is it truly loving to uncritically accept them and their sin? Surely not. True love desires to keep people from harm.
Yet Matthew 7:1 appears to prohibit such judgment. Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” However, Christ is referring specifically to hypocritical judgment. Jesus clarifies himself later in the passage: “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Jesus is not telling us not to judge the speck, but to address ourselves first.
Christ is not advocating judgment in the sense that we normally think of it. While we tend to think of judgment as anything negative or critical we say or think of another person, the Bible is not this simplistic. Jesus models proper judgment for us throughout the Gospels. John 8:1-11 is particularly profound. Jesus has just been confronted by an angry mob of Pharisees that have found an adulterous woman and want to stone her. Jesus says to the crowd: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those in the crowd realize their own sin and slowly disperse.
Verses 10 and 11 finish the story: Jesus asks the woman: “Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’” In Greek, the word Jesus uses for “condemn” is defined by Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words as meaning to “pass sentence upon” or to judge worthy of punishment.
In not condemning the woman, Jesus is not writing her off. Yet his instruction to her to leave her “life of sin” is clearly a form of judgment and an expression of disapproval. He was not angry at the woman, but he wanted her to change for the better. In John 16:8, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit “will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” The Greek word for “reprove” means to bring embarrassment or to call someone to account for the purpose of correction. Thus the difference between correct and hypocritical judgment is the difference between conviction and condemnation.
Yes, Jesus hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes and all manner of sinners. Though he accepted them as they were, he did not leave them that way. Just as he said to the woman in John 8, Jesus commanded those who would follow him to leave their sin behind.
If Christians are to model Christ to all people of the world, we must recognize that though Jesus accepted all people, he did not provide for sin. Judgment must be carried out humbly, not hypocritically, and it must always have the restoration of the sinner as its goal. In this way, correction fits as an integral aspect of love. The words of Paul in Galatians 6:1-2 encapsulate the concept: “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”
If the church has failed, it has done so not because it has recognized some things as wrong, but because it has failed to be gentle in its correction; however, just because the church has failed in correction does not mean that it should give it up altogether. True love cannot exist apart from correction, for love involves seeking the best for its recipient. By all means, the church needs to love. It just needs to remember to do it properly.
Nelsen is a senior majoring in political science. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.