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Issues Facing Missions Today: 53d. The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community (4)

Issues Facing Missions Today: 53d.  The Dynamics of Divine Love in a Divided Community (4)

[This is the fourth post on 1 John and the division that took place in this early Christian community.  These four posts are part of a larger series on mission as church renewal.  Divisions have taken place in major, oldline denominations over matters of doctrine, ethics, and practices.  The purpose of this study is to show the necessity to allow divisions where fundamental matters of Christian faith are involved--over against those who think that unity is an absolute virtue applying to community despite differences in faith, ethics, and practices.  New Testament authors would reject this idea out of hand, and this last post on 1 John drives the point home by showing the relationship between 'love' of others in the community and following God's commandments.]

(4)  Love in the Christian Community through Obeying God's Commandments

The previous point established that love in the Christian community is not a matter of setting aside divisive moral laws in favour of fellowship, which would be a false community, but is a matter of living according to God’s commandments.  John says,

1 John 5:2-3 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.

If love of God is obedience to His commandments, love of others in the community (‘the children of God’) is also a matter of obedience to God’s commandments. 

If anyone wonders about this in more general terms, just think about the second half of the Decalogue (commandments five through ten).  The Decalogue is made up of 4 commandments related to loving God, and 6 commandments related to loving others.  As the Ten Commandments could function as categories of law that other laws fit into, Jesus’ observation that all the laws hang on the two laws of love makes sense (Mt. 22.37-40).  For example, the law not to murder is the category in which other laws related to abusive treatment might be found.  This is, in fact, what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount.  He lodges teaching about anger, hostile speech, and broken relationships in this commandment (Matthew 5.21-26).  Other commandments in the Decalogue (see Exodus 20.12-17) cover honouring parents (a broad category in itself), sexual immorality in general (under the law against adultery), any sort of fraud or theft (under stealing), issues of dishonesty (under bearing false witness), and any wrongful desires (under coveting).  Any breaking of these laws in the second part of the Ten Commandments and the other laws related to each of them would break the law to love one’s neighbour.

The logic, then, of loving others and obeying God’s commandments is foundational for the Old Testament.  As John writes, ‘we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments’ (1 John 5.2).  John actually identifies specific ways in which the heretical faction that has left the church has broken God’s commandments and therefore not been loving towards other believers.  First, he warns against hatred in the community, which he—in light of what was said, above—not surprisingly understands is related to the law against murder instead of the law of love (1 John 3.11-12, 15).  This hatred is defined in terms of not helping those in need in the community (1 John 3.17).  Second, John says that love of the world is sinful, and this is further explained as ‘the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, [and] the pride of riches’ (1 John 2.16).  These three sins also relate to the Decalogue: immorality is related to the commandment not to commit adultery and covering ‘desire of the eyes’ and ‘pride of riches’ is related to the commandment not to covet.  Paul also equated sexual immorality with wronging or exploiting another person (1 Thessalonians 4.3-6).  The law of love is not abstract or left for people to figure out on their own: it is a law that explains the logic of other commandments of God, such as to avoid sexual immorality.

Strange, is it not, that, in our day, people have argued that loving others means not putting commandments on them—not pressing one’s morality on someone else.  Strange, is it not, that acts that Scripture calls sinful are now being permitted, even encouraged, on the grounds that a loving community gives people license to do what they wish as long as it does not (ostensibly) harm someone else.  John would reply to this that there is no separation between God’s commandments and the law to love others.  Sexual immorality—defined Biblically as sex between two persons outside of heterosexual marriage—is in opposition to the law to love one’s neighbour.  Greed and riches that are not used to help those in need are also examples of sin that is not loving towards one’s brother or sister.  John is not saying that the community should learn to love one another by learning to live with their different ethics regarding sex and money.  Rather, he sees these differences as definitive for what it means to be a Christian.  No amount of dialogue to understand each other's differences and still appreciate one another in a so-called Christ-like way would be of any interest to John, who simply understood the other group as not Christians in the first place: 'they went out from us because they were not of us' (1 John 2.19).

In a nutshell, true love for others is a fulfillment of God's commandments for them, not some other kind of love that leaves persons in their sins, let alone encourages them in their sinful ways.