Who Defines Love?

I get frustrated when people flip-flop about the meaning of words in the midst of a conversation. This is not usually intentional; we may not even notice. I label these words as “slippery.” They take on multiple meanings or auras in our society, and their definitions are particularly subjective or floating.

For example, when I speak of our church, I am talking about the people, our church family. If I say, “I think we have a wonderful church,” I mean, “We have a wonderful group of people who participate in church life.” But the average person on the street—and many Christians—think I am talking about our church building. Others, who advocate a secular society, define church as “religion,” as in “separation of church and state.”

This confusion intensifies when we talk about emotionally charged words, like “passion,” “worship,” or even “faith.” One particularly slippery word is “love,” the focus of this article.

People perform amazing works of compassion apart from believing in Jesus Christ and apart from the Bible. Some of the most generous or compassionate people on planet earth are not followers of Jesus Christ. Christianity is true because it is true, not because it works best at making the world a better place. Jesus’ true followers are irresistibly drawn to Him. We do not believe in Him for utilitarian reasons. Making the world a better place is an important by-product of Christianity, but a by-product nonetheless.

When society, and perhaps even the majority of Christians, look at the word “love,” they agree—in some ways—with what the Bible teaches. They understand love to include concern for the feelings and situation of another. Certainly love includes putting yourself in another’s shoes and considering their best interest.

The real issue and main divide, however, is this: who regulates what is in the best interest of others? Would it be that individual person, contemporary society, some elitist academics, or God’s Word? To put another way, who has the right to define what is loving? Some people, for example, think it is loving to put handicapped people or the elderly to death since they have a limited quality of life.

Each of us can fall prey to the simplest logical fallacies. One such fallacy is called, “equivocation.” Wikipedia defines it as, “the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning.” Love is such a slippery term.

Some folks take the command to “love your neighbor” from the Bible, but they define the word “love” using the current culture’s definition of the term, not the biblical definition. That is like saying The Flintstones cartoons advocated homosexuality because their theme song included the phrase “We’ll have a gay old time.” Back in 1960, gay generally meant happy, not homosexuality.

The biblical concept of “love” summarizes all the commands and teachings of Scripture.

The two great commandments—loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:36-40)—summarize our responsibility as followers of Jesus:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

The Bible reveals that God’s commandments define what love is (1 John 5:3).

When added together, they can be summarized as the two great commandments. Like a curry (spice blend) powder made from combining numerous spices, we must add each spice to create the proper mixture. The two great commandments are not meant as a license to trash the particulars they summarize, but rather as a hands-on, big picture paradigm for us. Love is the curry, and we must acquire a host of spices to mix it up.

Since we cannot grasp the complexities of love without a full understanding of Scripture, no wonder love is the hallmark of spiritual maturity! Love involves seeking to please God in everything, the whole duty of each person, as defined in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14,

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

When we affirm the behavior of professing believers who are living sinful lives, we are not loving them by affirming them. Instead, we should warn them (2 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21).

When lost people behave in such ways, we are to leave the judging to God (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) while seeking to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and their general need for forgiveness and salvation (Matthew 28:19-20).

The Apostle John (1 John 5:3) writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” John is talking about God’s commandments directed to the New Covenant believer, not just the commandments uttered by Jesus.

As a matter of fact, Jesus endorsed the teachings of the Old Testament (Matthew 5:18) and trained the Apostles as His emissaries and promised that the Spirit would guide them in their teaching after He returned to heaven (John 14:26, 16:13). In addition, He trained them after His resurrection and commissioned them to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8).

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is inspired and all is profitable. Thus the words of Moses, David, the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles are all divinely inspired and profitable. We call this the doctrine of “plenary” (even) inspiration. 2 Timothy is just as much the Word of God as Exodus or Matthew.

Loving God and loving others is a nuanced skill. In its simpler forms—like helping someone who has fallen down—the way of love is obvious. But what really is in the best interest of another? Is it affirming their choices that run contrary to God’s revealed will? Is it helping a young pregnant woman to put her pre-born child to death to remove stress from her life? Is it letting the kids explore all sorts of moral options and exposing them to adult themes because that’s what their friends do?

The takeaway is this: we cannot say God wants us to love others and then define love by society’s definition. We must define love as God does, namely, a summary of all His commandments, including His commandments pertaining to attitude (like humility, not hating one’s brother in your heart, and remembering how God has forgiven you). Love, as God defines it, is a lifelong pursuit (1 Cor. 14:1), and it is connected to spiritual maturity (1 Timothy 1:5).

Ed Vasicek Bio

Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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