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Love is Not God

How important is “right doctrine” to Christianity? Apparently, not that important.

At least that’s the impression I got after reading Shawn Smucker’s much-linked post last week entitled, Christianity: Why It’s Being Trampled Underfoot. Here’s the crux of it:

Beliefs have become our salt and light. Taking the “correct” position on every issue imaginable has become our way of declaring the Good News. It’s no wonder church attendance is dwindling and the broader culture is becoming increasingly disenchanted with Christianity – when the message of Good News has been watered down to consenting to various positions or beliefs, the Good News transforms into the Right News. Which is actually rather annoying, and not much fun to listen to or to help spread.

Most of us Christians today, mistaking “right belief” for saltiness, have lost the very trait of saltiness about which Jesus spoke: love. Helping the poor (and not JUST voting for the candidate whose policies we think will benefit them). Jesus’ saltiness means having a love for our neighbor that transcends whatever belief system we espouse.

When Jesus encouraged his followers to be salt and light, these words weren’t couched alongside some sort of list of correct beliefs.

Jesus more closely associates salt and light with good deeds than good beliefs. Soon after the salt and light metaphor, he challenges the cultural paradigm of loving your neighbor and hating your enemy and says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He never said, “Make sure someone knows what you believe before you help them.” He never said, “Love them only after they fully understand that you believe what they are doing is wrong.”

This is salt and light: not right beliefs, but love. (emphasis mine)

Smucker’s piece, whether intentionally or unintentionally, fits nicely within the larger narrative that 1.) Blames the Church’s cultural disconnect on its unloving legalism and 2.) Downplays “sound doctrine” and “right beliefs” in favor of love and social justice.

Listen, I don’t know a single Christian who would say they don’t need to be more loving. When measured against Jesus, none of us ever lives up to the Standard. I’ve also witnessed the fracturing of relationships over petty doctrinal issues and the smug piety of individuals who aspire having all their ducks in a theological row. So I’m in total agreement that leading in love rather than unfurling a “list of correct beliefs” is the far better approach to the hurting, needy, and unsaved.

What I have a hard time with is the inference that “good deeds” are superior to “good beliefs.” As if “good beliefs” are almost inconsequential.

In fact, the very suggestion that Christianity SHOULD be something and not the other (i.e., Christians SHOULD be more loving than doctrinally nit-picky), assumes a set of “correct beliefs.”

So are SOME “correct beliefs” more essential than others?

There’s an often unspoken assumption in discussions like these that religious terms mean something. Christians. Christ. Faith. Terms like these appeal to and import numerous beliefs; they all mean something. Smucker himself references the Bible often in his post, as if it was an authority on this matter. Problem is, you must believe a series of things to reference the Bible with any authority.

Why should I believe what Jesus says at all if I don’t have “correct beliefs” about the Scriptures that quote Him?

In John 8:31-32 Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What is this “truth” Jesus speaks of? What is this “teaching” that sets us free? Do these involve “correct beliefs,” like beliefs about Him being the only way to the Father (Jn. 14:6), that we will die in our sins if we don’t acknowledge this (In. 8:24), and His returning to eternally divide the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Or are these beliefs tertiary, inconsequential? Yes, loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves are the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36-40). But this assumes we accept the Bible’s witness of Christ and His authority to tell us such things. Which involves, uh, beliefs.

As much as love is the defining Christian doctrine, it is not the only doctrine. Yes, there is more to being a Christian than having all your theological ducks in a row. They will know we are Christians by our love, not by our ability to recite The Apostle’s Creed. But without an idea or framework of “correct beliefs,” how can one know to even call themselves a Christian? After all, the term Christian means something.

Faith in Christ saves us, not doing “loving deeds.” Yes, real faith in the right Christ will inevitably lead to loving deeds. But emphasizing doing loving deeds above believing in the right Christ is deeply misguided. If not, eternally damaging.

I fear that many in the Church have replaced “correct beliefs” with a wishy-washy, counter-cultural, feel-good-ism. We have deified Love, rather than Christ. Of course, professing a “list of correct beliefs” won’t save you. But neither will performing “loving deeds.”

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{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Shawn Smucker October 31, 2012, 9:42 AM

    I’m intrigued by what you have to say here, Mike. Thanks for mentioning my post and continuing the conversation.

    • Katherine Coble October 31, 2012, 9:56 AM

      If I have one overriding issue of conflict with your approach to faith, Mike, it rests in the same niche as my conflict with so many Reformed and New Reformed believers.

      Y’all are so insistent that we be Right. That we think Right thoughts and that we not be lost in the crowd. Y’all fight the culture war because you seem to think that it’s okay to be in conflict with the neighbours we are supposed to love because…abortion and sex with horses. I guess.

      I–and the other Mennonites, Anabaptists, Peace Church Believers–tend to think that doctrine is “family manners” and love is “company manners”. Simply put, as a kid I had to ask to be excused before I could leave the dinner table. That was just a hard and fast household rule. But if we had company to dinner they didn’t have to ask. They weren’t family. We also had FHB and MIK (Family Hold Back and More In Kitchen) so that we knew the guests could get plenty to eat before we filled our plates. Those are company manners.

      Loving people unconditionally is our Prime Directive. Doctrine is for inside the fold.

      • Mike Duran October 31, 2012, 10:30 AM

        Katherine, I agree with you about the family / company divide. Which is why I said, ” So I’m in total agreement that leading in love rather than unfurling a “list of correct beliefs” is the far better approach to the hurting, needy, and unsaved”

        Moving from company to family is where beliefs seem to matter. I think Scripture emphasizes right doctrine to believers far more than to non-believers .

      • Melissa Ortega October 31, 2012, 11:54 AM

        This is possibly one of the best anecdotes I have ever heard on this topic.

        A good reminder too that it isn’t always a good idea to discuss theological issues in front of folks who may conclude, “hey if they expect this from each other, then they probably expect this from me.”

  • Carole McDonnell October 31, 2012, 10:27 AM

    Righteous deeds are still fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We are called to eat of the tree of live. As long as we are still thinking of loving deeds or love, we’re still into our works mode. It’s easy enough to tell someone they will go to hell for their bad deeds but trying to tell a person that they will go to hell for their good deeds is hard for them to fathom. We are called to do good deeds, mind you. But those good deeds we do when we are redeemed are God’s working within us, the effect of the tree of life…and not anything we consciously do. It is God who does the works.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller October 31, 2012, 10:45 AM

    Mike, I tend to think the deification of Love explains why some professing Christians want to discount God’s revelation of Himself in the Old Testament. He just doesn’t fit their image of what Love ought to look like.

    Yes, God is love. Infinite love. But He is so much more–infinite justice and righteousness and holiness and goodness and truth. How He is All is His transcendence. He doesn’t lose any of His character as love by exercising His justice. He doesn’t lose any of His justice by exercising His mercy. He doesn’t lose any of His mercy by displaying His holiness, and so on.

    But today it seems as if some professing Christians want to strip God of all other traits but love–which I understood to be your point. In so doing, I think we’re setting up a false god.

    The next question, of course, is how does understanding this translate into how a Christian should act? Maybe that should be your next post, Mike.


  • D.M. Dutcher October 31, 2012, 11:09 AM

    I agree with you Mike.

    Shawn is correct in saying that Christianity shouldn’t just be a set of beliefs you assent to in the head like being a Republican, but there’s problems his approach doesn’t seem to realize. A lot of what some say is love isn’t-it’s a desire to play nice, and the hope that if we just focus on the parts of Christianity that no one can possibly be offended by, we will be all right.

    However nice people often get bullied into accepting things, or often are willing to smooth over things so that everything is still nice. And you see this sometimes in practice, as even their love starts to fade away and become whatever the current societal attitudes are. If the doctrinal guy’s danger is in holding fast to a distorted view of Christianity in order to be against the world out of pride, the loving guy’s danger is in accepting the world’s ideas in order to avoid disharmony or being set apart.

    It really is like walking a tightrope, and I think each person really has their own side of the rope they are prone to falling off from. Thank God He leaves us a net of forgiveness!

    • Jon Mast October 31, 2012, 11:25 AM

      Walking that middle! Awesome illustration!

      Doctrine shows us what love looks like — not that we loved God, but that he loved us! Love isn’t “being nice.” Jesus wasn’t a very nice person. He pulled no punches, not only throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but calling the Pharisees and even Peter some not very nice things. “Nice” is not loving. Love is being selfless, going the extra mile for the person next to you. After all, if that person was important enough for Jesus to die for, he or she is important enough for you to take some time and serve!

      Thanks for bringing in that word “nice” — because so often what people mean when they ask for “love,” what they mean is “nice.” The two may very well overlap in a lot of areas, but they ain’t the same!

  • Jon Mast October 31, 2012, 11:34 AM

    Mike, I wanted to ask for some elaboration. You wrote: “We have deified Love, rather than Christ. Of course, professing a “list of correct beliefs” won’t save you. But neither will performing “loving deeds.””

    Thanks for avoiding the black hole of works righteousness whose gravity can pull us in so quickly. Our doing anything doesn’t get us anywhere.

    Tell me more about this “list of correct beliefs.” I’m assuming you’re not tackling hypocrisy, saying that someone is merely speaking the words and not trusting them. But if a person says “Yes, Jesus died and took away all my sins,” isn’t that a (very brief) list of beliefs that saves him? To be specific, he acknowledges that it is Jesus, not himself, that saves him.

    Even Paul told Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (I timothy 4:16, NIV) That sure sounds to me like right beliefs DOES lead to salvation.

    (And to be clear: Faith is never alone. Works grow out of faith. Our hearts will move our hands to action! Yet, the origin is in faith.)

    And if the elaboration is in your original article — please forgive me! The comments in between may have muddled my recollection of what was up there. 🙂

    • Jill October 31, 2012, 1:14 PM

      “Our doing anything doesn’t get us anywhere.” This logically leads to “doing the right action achieves the sought-after result.”

  • Melissa Ortega October 31, 2012, 12:05 PM

    So far in my life I have learned (the hard way) that when it comes to talking people into goodness, talk is pretty cheap. Demonstration is better. Speaking the Good News – Acting out what we believe is Right – leaving the convicting to the Holy Spirit (who is always a gentleman) is a means which just seems to bear more fruit to me.

    Jesus warned about telling people about the specks in their eyes – because it automatically draws attention to the planks in ours. Now if someone asks what I believe about “x” I also don’t think I’m supposed to keep that a secret – but offering that info up of my own accord so that people know for absolutely sure they’re hellbound…I so far have not seen much good fruit come from that. Quite the opposite actually. But when people see that I love them by my actions and then later discover that I believe differently than they do, it surprises them – which I think is what the gospel does. It surprises us by loving us “as we are” not “only after.”

    Other people in my sphere are better at directing attention toward behavior – they can do it without causing even a blink. I, however, am terrible at it. It will come out wrong every time.

  • Jill October 31, 2012, 1:30 PM

    Having a doctrine of loving God and loving others is the ultimate right doctrine. Jesus said so. Yet, I see a whole lot more Christian claiming to have that one OTHER right doctrine (fill in the blank depending on the denomination) than I do of them engaging in loving God/loving neighbors. I don’t want to downplay the loving work that Christians do because most Christians toil away in obscurity for others, while the megalomaniac preachers who demand “right” doctrine make a lot of noise and, consequently, are the ones heard and seen. But because the loudmouthed preachers are the ones who are heard and seen, they have the ability to turn our heads away from the right doctrine of love, which brings people like Smucker out to correct the error. And then the cycle repeats itself. It’s really most annoying. After a while, for my own sanity, I have to ignore the loudmouths. I have a great commission to uphold, and they are not part of it.

  • Jessica Thomas October 31, 2012, 7:16 PM

    Excellent post Mike. I’ve wondered why I cringe when I hear “It’s all about love”. I think I cringe because of some of the reasons you pointed out here. The Bible teaches us how to love. *All* of the Bible, not just a verse here or there. Love doesn’t always look like we think it should, sometimes God practices tough love. Sometimes the most loving thing for Him to do is to “step back” and allow us to feel the depths of pain that our own selfishness has brought us to. Those moments aren’t warm and fuzzy. Also, if “love” is our highest priority and we have an unhealthy, skewed definition of of it, then much damage can be done in the name of “love”. We have to seek to understand and practice *God’s* definition of love, and to do that, we need the whole Bible, and we need to actually try to understand what the Bible says.

  • Patrick Todoroff November 1, 2012, 5:13 AM

    Wranglings over this issue always puzzle me. I wonder of we’re reading the same book.

    In the ancient Middle East, Salt was a Preservative. Not a Flavoring.

    Jesus said specifically He came to testify concerning the Truth. (Jn 18:37) He said that He was the Truth and the only way to the Father. (Jn.14:6) The God of Love came down and said unless we believed in Him, there was no way to escape the judgment of Hell. (Jn.8:24 , Lk.12:5)

    I could go on and on, but sound doctrine is essential because Jesus’ teachings were intrinsically bound up in Who/What He claimed to be. It’s not that I have to be right – He is right and I have the responsibility accurately convey that message.

    The prime directive of the Church – and individual Christians – is to proclaim the Truth about Jesus Christ. The attitude/character with which we carry that out that mission is to be Love. But never at the expense of Truth.

  • Becky Doughty November 1, 2012, 9:02 AM

    Mike – this is why I keep coming back to your posts. I totally agree. Even when I don’t totally agree, I still read, because I find in you a heart for Christ that seeks to break down man-made barriers.

    Write on, Sir. Right on.


  • Nikole Hahn November 1, 2012, 9:03 AM

    I fear we have turned Jesus into a hippie. We have made Him so one-dimensional to fit Him into our life choices instead of fitting our life around Him; meeting Him at His level. I’m cautious nowadays using scripture in my blogs. Rebecca pointed out in her blog how, if not used in context, we could be doing exactly that–fitting the Bible to our life or our blog topic. Like Jesus is multi-dimensional, being Holy, the Bible is meant to be read in context. While one book talks about the poor or social justice another book will also say if man doesn’t want to work, let them starve. Helping people, but not enabling. Caring about someone, but being discerning so that more than their felt needs are met. But remembering no amount of good works will save us. People church hop so often we don’t stay to make connections, to invest in people’s lives, and to grow in the differences. We don’t allow church difficulties to stretch us, change us. And I wonder if that doesn’t have a lot to do with our family dysfunctions? Okay…playing armchair analyst now. LOL. Great blog.

    • Melissa November 1, 2012, 9:09 AM

      Excellent response, Nikole. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • sally apokedak November 1, 2012, 9:17 AM

    I agree with this post and with several of the comments.

    You cannot have love without truth and you cannot have truth without love.

    The church is not perfected–it’s full of sinners who fall off one side or the other.

    So call us to repent. If someone is focusing on love and sacrificing truth, call him to hold truth up. If someone is focusing on truth and sacrificing love, call him to be more loving.

    Most of the Christians I know are constantly over-correcting, swerving and weaving like drunkards as they stagger toward heaven. I know I do this. My responses and interactions are never perfectly weighted with love and truth. I want to be motivated by love as I speak the truth, always, but I am always praying, asking God to protect people from my sinful remarks and motivations. Because I know that I am unloving on the one hand and ignorant on the other hand.

    But what shall we do, failures that we are? Just shut up? Just not even try to speak truth to a dying world? How would that be loving? Feeding the dying people the gospel is far more important than feeding them food.

    We have to keep trying, even when they curse us. They cursed Christ first. They called him unloving. They hanged him on a cross. And for what? Because he told them they were children of the devil. Because he called them to repentance.

  • Lyn Perry November 2, 2012, 5:01 AM

    Quick quibble – you stated: Faith in Christ saves us, not doing “loving deeds.” It’s actually the grace of God as made manifest by the work of Christ that saves us. Faith is the response. Reformation doctrine: By grace, through faith. This helps me remember that, although some might not articulate their faith as “correctly” as we might want them to, it is God alone who sovereignly oversees the pathway that leads to heaven. And while I agree with you that words of faith (doctrine) mean something – and love isn’t the only variable in play here – it is in our following Jesus that we are determined to be his disciples.

  • Occupy Christianity November 6, 2012, 9:41 AM

    Well, I’ll stick with what Jesus said in Matthew 22. When confronted by Sadducees and Pharisees (who were overly concerned with theological correctness) about what should be prioritized, Jesus replied “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    That seems to cover a lot of ground.

  • Jacob November 18, 2012, 10:19 PM

    Mike, I just read 1 John and it made me think of this post because John connects loving actions with truth (right belief). It seems like John sees them as two sides of the same coin, or at least he sees them as so connected that he can’t sepperate them. I think it is much more than a cuase and effect relationship. It seems that keeping them connected may even be the main point of the book.

  • dana moonfire January 10, 2015, 3:03 PM

    All I will say is your god is so narrow and excludes a huge amount of people in the world, but all the children caught up in religious doctrine and dogma will grow up because the spirit is not flat.

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