On Loving Each Other Amidst Ethical Disagreements

If the recent intense conflict played out over the Internet regarding World Vision’s policy change and reversal in their approach toward hiring married gay people tells us anything, it’s that North American Christians don’t have much capacity or wisdom when it comes to loving each other amidst ethical disagreements.  Conservatives accused moderate evangelicals of abandoning the truth of the Bible when they supported the policy change; moderates accused conservative evangelicals of heartlessness toward children when they threatened to revoke their support due to the policy change.  There were a few examples of folks who sought to move the discussion beyond the ideological impasse, but they weren’t very successful.  And in the aftermath of the conflict, both sides are nursing their wounds, and wondering about the future of a church where such conflicts become so hurtful, so quickly.

I believe that the church would do well to return to the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, as it considers how to move forward.  By saying this, I’m not trying to put general principles like justice and love on a higher plane than specific ethical injunctions of Scripture.  I’m not in any way advocating an “either-or” sort of attitude toward the relationship between love on the one hand and faithfulness to Scripture on the other.  Rather, I’m concerned about our rather obvious inability to take the “both-and” sort of approach, embracing both the full message of Scripture in all its detail, and also the great and high calling to live lives marked, above all else, by love—the greatest Christian virtue and practice according to 1 Cor 13:13.  Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 13 that any form of Christian practice not characterized by love, however doctrinally correct or powerful or impressive it may be, nevertheless falls short of what God intends.

But this is extremely hard for us to live out in our present context.  Conservatives insist, “I’m not loving a gay or lesbian person if I fail to urge them to abandon behaviors which, I am convinced, will damage them spiritually and will alienate them from God.”  And so for them, love manifests itself as speaking the truth in a conflicted situation.  The difficulty, of course, is that such speech, even if it’s graciously intended, is often not experienced as loving by the person being admonished.  Many LGBT “Side-A” Christians (who allow for the possibility of long-term committed same-sex relationships among Christians) respond to this admonition by saying something like, “I tried to live that way, but it made my life miserable and was damaging to my spiritual life.”  So what may have been intended as loving is not received as loving, but as misunderstanding or condemnation.

We can note the mirror image of the problem on the other side of the debate.  Conservatives who removed their support from World Vision were characterized as heartless ideologues by many progressives. Yet these same progressives seemed to show little sympathy for the tensions and inner conflicts that the policy change at World Vision created in the minds and hearts of these more conservative sponsors.  As a result, what may have been intended as loving admonishment by progressives was experienced as heartless rebuke and a failure to understand, by the conservatives being addressed.

I realize that all this could be nuanced in countless ways, but the general principle remains fairly evident.  In situations of ethical conflict, responses which we may intend as loving are often not experienced by those with whom we disagree as loving.  Now here’s my point:  love worries about that!  I’d like to invite both sides of this debate to worry about that a bit more.  By “worrying” about this problem, I’m not suggesting that we simply avoid the conflict and “just try to get along.”  Rather, I’m suggesting that we need to devote our energy and attention at least to minimizing the way in which words that may be intended as loving are not experienced as loving.

Part of this problem is a result of the polarizing impact of the Internet itself.  Plenty of rhetoric on the Internet is never intended as loving to begin with.  Blogs and comments are far better suited to highlighting differences than they are at moving toward reconciliation.  Printed text lacks the rich emotional overtones, the facial expressions, and the pregnant pauses of voiced conversation.  When we type in our words on a keyboard, we lack the physical presence of the real human beings we are addressing, and so it becomes much easier to treat them like a caricature.  We suffer from the impact of this digital revolution in all sorts of ways in our society.  The most strident voices are the ones that get the most attention, and listeners split up into groups and only hear the voices they already agree with, the voices they hear on the TV channels they already like to watch, or the voices from those they already follow on Twitter or on Facebook.  So there are larger forces which push us away from loving those with whom we disagree.  The result in social psychological terms is group polarization.  Our views strengthen and stiffen when we are not exposed to differing viewpoints.

Here’s where I think 1 Corinthians 13 can help us.  Paul provides a list of descriptors, beginning in verse 4, that help us to make our Christian love more concrete and filled-out.  Let me walk you through the text in more detail.  Here are the verses I want to focus on:

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

First, Paul says that love is “patient.”  The Greek word here is μακροθυμεῖ.  The standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) gives the following definition: “to bear up under provocation without complaint, be patient, forbearing.”  The word suggests taking a long time before hitting the “anger” button.  What are the practices and disciplines that help us to do that, in a politicized culture that thrives on getting people riled up?  At the very least, we are invited to slow down, to resist that initial impulse to hit the “send” button, and let our emotions settle down a bit.

Then, Paul says that love is “kind” (Greek χρηστεύεται).  The word also carries connotations of goodness and generosity.  Kindness gives the benefit of the doubt to the other person.  We all can recall a favorite teacher who would correct our errors, to be sure, but always with kindness.  How did that feel?  How can we reflect that to others?

Paul goes on:  Love is not “envious” (Greek οὐ ζηλοῖ).  The BDAG lexicon offers the following extended definition of this particular usage:  “to have intense negative feelings over another’s achievements or success, be filled with jealousy, envy toward someone.” It’s striking how often the fact that someone has thousands of online followers intensifies our anger when we don’t like what they say.  Paul invites us to an honest sort of introspection as to our own motives and dispositions, before reacting to someone else.

Next, Paul says that love is not “boastful or arrogant” (Greek οὐ περπερεύεται, οὐ φυσιοῦται).  The first word focuses on calling attention to oneself; the second literally means “puffed up” or “over-inflated.”  One of the best ways to insure that words that you think are “loving” will be received as hostility is when they are accompanied by grandiosity and hyperbole.

Love is not “rude” (Greek  οὐκ ἀσχημονεῖ).  The BDAG lexicon offers this extended definition:  “behave disgracefully, dishonorably, indecently.”  How many times are we tempted to engage in behavior that others may perceive as outrageous, simply because we are convinced we are right?  Far too often in our Internet culture, being convinced that one is correct gives all sorts of license to be less than decent to others. Love resists that temptation to snipe on a comment list, or to embarrass the person with whom you disagree.

Love “does not insist on its own way” (Greek οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς)  The phrase literally means “does not seek its own things.”  This is a more difficult exhortation to interpret, particularly in the context of ethical disputes.  Does this mean that if I am to be loving, I can’t pursue the truth that I believe is out there?  I don’t think so.  I think that the issue here has to do more with self-interest. Not insisting on our own way may take a variety of forms.  Perhaps there is more than one answer to a particular question, and love recognizes that one’s own answer may not be the only one.  Or perhaps this calls us to recognize the subtle ways in which we stand to benefit by winning an argument, and we are invited to let go of those ulterior self-interested motives.  Love doesn’t have to be right all the time.  This is particularly hard to learn for those of us who are academics.

Love is “not irritable or resentful” (Greek οὐ παροξύνεται, οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν).  The first word “irritable” focuses on language or behavior that others find provocative—that is inclined to get others riled up.  This invites us to think about that moment when conflict escalates—are there ways to find a different path?  Is there a less inflammatory way to say what I want to put out there?  The second word which the NRSV renders as “resentful” is actually a phrase in the Greek text, and literally means that love doesn’t “add up evil in an account.”  The sense is that love doesn’t keep a list of all the wrongs that you perceive to have been done against you by particular people.  Love doesn’t hold a grudge.

Love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (Greek οὐχαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ, συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ).  Love doesn’t celebrate any sort of injustice (the core meaning of the word rendered “wrongdoing” here), even an injustice done to the one I disagree with.  But there’s also a subtle shift in the Greek of the second clause that doesn’t come through in most translations.  Both clauses use the same verb for “rejoice,” but the second form (συγχαίρει) adds a prefix—literally “rejoices together.”  In other words, the rejoicing in the truth spoken of here is not my own happiness in my own understanding of the truth.  Instead, it is the joy that comes from a shared apprehension of the truth, that brings joy to all involved—even to the one with whom I disagree.  What’s critical here is the way that love seeks common interests and common places to rejoice in the truth.

Finally, we come to the elegant closing of this section.  Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”  There are no limits on what love is willing to put up with, no limits on the extent to which love is willing to trust, no limits on the willingness to look for a positive outcome, no limits on the willingness to endure trouble along the way.  Paul’s language, particularly the language of “bears all things” and “endures all things” makes it clear that Paul isn’t operating with a kind of idealized vision here.  Love means dealing with nastiness and hanging in there, looking for a better tomorrow.  As a result, love never fails, or more literally, love never falls down or collapses (Greek οὐδέποτε πίπτει).  There is an internal strength to love that far exceeds initial appearances or expectations.

This last line is what takes us out of merely human capacities, and invites a deeper reliance upon our union with Christ.  Let’s be honest, every human form of love will eventually collapse, if it is subjected to enough pressure.  Ultimately, to live out these verses, we must live in Christ, and draw upon his love and his grace.  Nothing less will enable us to embrace this big vision.  But when this happens, people sit up and take notice.  When Martin Luther King Jr. invited his followers to love their assailants, people stopped and took notice.  When you see a non-reactive response to a nasty post on a message board, it stands out.  This sort of love has extraordinary power.

Paul wrote all this to a Corinthian church that had more than its fair share of conflict and division.  They were divided over loyalties to different leaders, over ethical matters, over worship practices, over spiritual gifts.  Paul was inviting a community that knew all about conflict and divisions to “find a more excellent way.”  Love changes the way we engage with each other.  Of course truth matters.  Of course faithfulness to Scripture matters.  Of course we need to be open to being corrected, to learn, to recognize the possibility that we are wrong, etc. etc.  But I wonder, if we all took a time-out to meditate for a bit on 1 Corinthians 13, what difference it might make in the way we engage each other on the Internet, and elsewhere too!

So let me invite all of us today to take a deeper step in following Jesus, to take on the arduous task commanded by Jesus, of loving our enemies (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35).  Find someone who pushes your buttons, and think about how to show love.  Make it specific and concrete.  If you are in the same town, take that person out for a meal, and ask them some questions about their life.  If it’s an online conflict, slow down, breathe, read 1 Corinthians 13, and let your creative side find a fresh way to disrupt the cycles of meanness.  In fact, I suspect that this is the greatest asset that we have online:  the chance to pause and breathe.  Make full use of that asset, and you may find a different way of being present to others.

Doing this, of course, will complicate your life.  It will make it harder to divide up your world into neat, hermetically-sealed categories.  The sinners and the saints will not be so easily distinguishable.  You might even find your own opinions on some issues morphing in surprising ways.    And you might even make more progress in helping the person you disagree with to change!  You will definitely feel less in control, but you may find life more interesting.  Welcome to Jesus’ world!



8 thoughts on “On Loving Each Other Amidst Ethical Disagreements

  1. Dr. Brownson, this is a fantastic post! I endorse every word. I am both convicted and encouraged. And yet, please forgive my pessimism but my heart has been so heavy as of late. What you have here is a message that relies on it’s hearers already having a conviction somewhere, even if buried deep down, that the people we demonize on the other side of the aisle (or pews as it were) truly are our siblings and coheirs in Christ. And I guess my hope is waning that people even see this as a possibility anymore, except for perhaps a small number of moderate Christians that get caught in the cross hairs of all of this back & forth. I hear so much harmful rhetoric. I have been told to many times that I am a heretic, that “WTS used to be Christian” that you cannot be gay or be a voice of LGBTQ advocacy and be a true Christian.

    Conversely, the left shoe of condescension and condemnation fits equally as snug and I have wore it all too often: preaching seeing Christ in everyone only to have traded my old enemies for new ones: “those conservatives are the problem.” I can’t do it anymore. I am cut to the core and convicted and I want to love my conservative Christian neighbor as much as my gay cousin. And the thing is I’ve met them, they’re out there: those moderate-conservative evangelicals who take a conservative stance on all things LGBTQ but still accept their gay brother or sister in Christ as such (though they would counsel them different than me as to partnerships). The only thing is I’ve met them in the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal denominations, and even at Baptist churches.

    I’ve yet to meet someone in the Reformed tradition like that. I don’t know if it is something inherent about us as a people or maybe I am just having a bad day, month, year. I would like for just one of your many detractors in our denomination who slander your name or talk trash about your book, or me or “lost Hope College” or the two “seminaries that are going down the tubes” to say: “Yes Wayne! Of Course I disagree with you and Jim and your gay cousin who is in a long term partnership honored by his church. But you are all still my brothers. I will still break bread and take the cup with you.”

    That is really all I ask for. I don’t want to “win” anymore. Sure I want to see my cousin be able to get married. But I don’t want to win an intellectual argument with another pastor. And as far as a more loving response, I recognize that is the work of the Spirit in my life or him or her that is going to bring forth such a response. I just want peace. Everybody is saying peace, peace. But there is no peace. Because it seems the majority of the Christian left and right (at least the in the reformed arm of the church) is whispering anathema under their breath.

    I am sorry my comment became nearly as long as your post. Please don’t take my skepticism as a lack of endorsement to the hard work (yet paradoxically free gift) of unity in Christ that you and the Spirit are calling us to.

    Towards Shalom,

    Wayne Bowerman

  2. Thanks, Jim, for the thoughts.

    While I can agree with much of what you have said, it is with the title that I have most trouble. You categorize the matter as an “ethical disagreement”. I can’t share that view. This is more than an ethical matter. It is a theological one (and I wonder sometimes if its even more than that: a gospel matter).

    That being said, 1 Corinthians 13 (as you have well argued) should still be very relevant (and telling and convicting personally) here.

    Blessings, David

    • Hello David. We’ve never met in person (to my knowledge). I think we have had some brief exchanges on twitter, and if memory serves me I may not have spoken/tweeted they way Jim has encouraged us to do here. For that I am sorry. And I hope you will receive this as a genuine question, not as me trying to pick a fight or corner you: When you question whether the this might be a gospel matter do you mean it might be a status confessionis issue, as in the core of the gospel is at stake? I understand our perspectives on human sexuality are different from each other. I am aware that you take a conservative stance. And I think we’d both agree serious matters like how we read, interpret and apply scripture are at stake and that is a pretty big deal. But are you convinced (or at least leaning towards the possibility) that such gay and Christian or LGBT advocate and Christian are such an egregious theological error that it might be an oxymoron? Or to put it short, simple and sweet: Can we come to the table and commune with Christ there together or do you believe our visible unity is too broken by this very important disagreement?

      • Hello Wayne:

        No need for any apologies. You have only been charitable in our interchanges in a few settings.

        I would rather not hijack Jim’s blog with a personal interchange. Perhaps there is a better place or context to converse. That being said, allow me to briefly point out that I said “sometimes I wonder.” I am not saying this IS a status confessions matter, but I do sometimes wonder about it. Because of some other things that have had to take much of my time and energy this past year, I have not had opportunity to reflect widely or deeply enough about the matter. That’s where I am at.

        Blessings, David

      • David, you’re right about the exchange. I’ll hit you up elsewhere soon. And I deeply respect and appreciate your “sometimes I wonder” I think if us reformed folk are all too often guilty of unflinching certainty in our very intellectual tradition.

        Peace to you,


    • Thanks for the comment, David. I certainly don’t mean to diminish the significance of the conflict by referring to an “ethical disagreement.” In fact, if we are to take Paul as our guide, most ethical conflicts are at root conflicts over how to live out the gospel, and thus deeply theological. But I think you will agree that there is something wrong when our conflicts over the truth of the gospel lead us to ignore the great commandment at the heart of faithful response to the gospel!

      Certainly there are times where Paul does things that his opponents will not experience as “loving” when the truth of the gospel is at stake. I doubt that those whom Paul was opposing in Galatians immediately felt loved by him! Nor, I suspect, did the man whose excommunication Paul urged in 1 Cor 5. But in the case of Galatians, it is the well-being of the Gentiles, whom Paul also deeply loves, that is at stake, and he is willing to offend others for their full inclusion (as well as for the truth of the gospel). In the case of 1 Cor 5, I suspect that for Paul, the public witness of the gospel is certainly part of what concerns him–the possibility that the church might get wrapped up in public scandal, discrediting the gospel. That is certainly one of the primary focal points of discipline in our tradition.

      In other cases, for example food offered to idols in 1 Cor 8, Paul also argues that the truth of the gospel is at stake, but here the gospel calls for tolerance and for respecting the conscience of those with whom one disagrees. Here in fact, Paul warns explicitly that destroying others “for whom Christ died” is unthinkable (1 Cor 8:11ff.).

      So which of these provides the best analogy for the contemporary dispute? They are all theological at their root, and all involve the gospel, but they suggest different “vectors” for contemporary application. That’s an important conversation!

      • But in I Cor 5 Paul says to expel a brother if he continues in sin, and treat him like an unbeliever. Is that loving? I would say emphatically YES if it brings the brother to repentance, or prevents another from falling!

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