First Corinthians 13: An Evangelical’s Top Priority
In recent months I’ve sensed God’s call to write about ways in which Christians in Hampton Roads and in American society in general can work together, even when we have very different personal convictions. I’ve already written a few posts that go in this direction, including my most recent one on abortion, but there is much, much more on which Baptists and other Christians can and should come to agreement.
I’m going to begin with a series on modern American evangelicalism, describing how it was understood in the 20th century, and what it should look like today. I’m doing this because in popular circles the term “evangelical” has taken on so much political baggage recently that even many self-identified evangelicals have only a vague idea of what the term means. Even worse, evangelicalism as it is often understood and practiced today has become a tool for dividing Christ’s church, something that would have horrified leading evangelicals in the past. Evangelicalism was always supposed to be a unifying movement, a means of helping Christians of different denominations to work together to strengthen and expand the Kingdom of God on earth. But today, far too many evangelicals are busy drawing lines when we should be trying to live and spread the gospel message in the light of God’s Word.
(If you’re reading this and you do not identify as an evangelical, I promise that I will demonstrate how most of my blogging about evangelicals applies to all Christians.)
I have always identified myself as an evangelical, and I still do today. This does not mean that my theology has remained consistent: in fact, I’ve drastically rethought many things through the years. (For example, when I was younger, I would never have dreamed of marrying a non-evangelical Episcopal priest!) But I hold to the same core evangelical ideas that I had when I was growing up – many of them refined, to be sure, but with a consistent essence. The only way that I could not be identified as “evangelical” is if the definition of “evangelical” changes.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of evangelicalism, however, I need to address a fundamental Christian issue. As I suggested at the start of this post, a major problem for Baptists and Christians in Hampton Roads is our great, often public, disunity and division. If Jesus Christ really is the God-man who died for our sins and then rose from the dead, and if the Bible really is true, then Christians should be able to speak to a fallen world with a unified voice. Unfortunately, we all know that in 2022 we Christians often involve ourselves in bitter, public disputes that weaken us all and even bring shame to our savior.
This means that in Hampton Roads in 2022, Christian leaders must look for ways to reduce division in the body of Christ, so that we can work together to bring God’s love and grace to our fallen world. And the best way to heal division is to practice Christ’s (hopefully familiar!) command:
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34–35).
So according to Christ, it is love for other Christians, including Christians who have “gotten it wrong,” that is the mark of a disciple. And when we do not love Christians who disagree with us, we not only disobey Christ’s direct command; we also show the world that we are not serious disciples.
One of the best New Testament passages about Christ’s command to “love one another” is 1 Corinthians 13. While we might understand this famous chapter to be about love in general (many scholars think that it was composed apart from 1 Corinthians, then later adopted and inserted by Paul), Paul actually has a particular kind of love in mind. The book of 1 Corinthians is written to a church that suffers from rampant division and disunity, and chapter 13 is part of Paul’s program for healing those divisions. This means that as we read and meditate on 1 Cor 13, we must diligently apply its teaching to our Christian relationships. Otherwise, we miss the main point!
In the rest of this post I’m going to highlight a few important phrases. But I hope that all Christian leaders in Hampton Roads, and Christians in general, will think about how we can and should apply the principles in this chapter to our church lives.
First, 1 Corinthians does not merely describe love; it tells us that we cannot fulfill our calling without it. Verses 1–3 insist that if we do not have love, all our efforts to do good in the world are worthless. It does not matter if our theology is correct, or if we are boldly preaching against sin, or if we are explaining to the world what God expects from us and from our society. Even the intensity of our faith cannot get us anywhere. Sadly, it is not uncommon for church leaders to use strong words and take firm positions on things without showing even a trace of empathy or compassion for those with whom they disagree. They may gain attention from some human beings, but in God’s eyes, preaching that is not motivated by love is worthless.
First Corinthians 13:4–7 describes the love that Christ wants us to practice. This section does not give us a comprehensive definition, but there is enough in these verses to justify a long book or two. We need to take every part of this passage seriously, not just as we deal with our friends and supporters, but, even more, as we interact with those with whom we disagree. If you’re having doubts, keep in mind that in Matt 5:44–48 Jesus directly commands us to love those who disagree with us.
I’m going to highlight a few elements of 1 Cor 13:4–7 here, and encourage you to think about how to apply each element of this passage to our interactions with Christians who disagree with us.
Love is patient. When people with whom I tend to disagree try to explain their reasoning, I can lose interest quickly. If I can’t get them to stop talking so that I can correct them, I try to shut them out. Patience requires us to listen attentively even when we don’t like what we’re hearing. Patience also demands that we not get angry or frustrated when others don’t “get it” as fast as we think they should. The good news is that when we exercise genuine patience, people start to think better of us. People who feel that they have been heard tend to be more open to listening themselves.
Love is kind. According to the old truism, “it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.” Unfortunately, in 2022 too many of us seem to regard niceness as a luxury, offered to only a select few. Paul’s phrase “love is kind” requires us to try to be kind to everyone, friend or foe, whether or not there may be a cost.
It does not dishonor others. While we may be tempted to think that people who have erroneous beliefs are inherently immoral, we should never act on that assumption. People are worthy of respect even if they say and believe incorrect things – after all, along the way most of us have radically changed many of our own deeply-held convictions. Christians should of course try to correct error when we come across it (verse 6 tell us that love “rejoices with the truth”), but when we dehumanize others with insults and contempt, we lose our Christian authority because love has disappeared.
It is not self-seeking. One of the sure ways to gain admiration today is to stoke anger against our enemies, or our perceived enemies. This is the principle behind the nastier side of elections: candidates use attack ads because voters are more motivated to vote against “bad” people than to vote for “good” people. In the same way, we can score points with our listeners or readers when we attack our enemies. But this behavior is not loving. Love does not permit us to use others, even our enemies, for our own benefit.
It keeps no record of wrongs. I should not have to write about how often we Christians hold on to offenses said or done years or even decades in the past. Of course, bad words and actions can hurt us, and can be hard to forget. But we should not use wrongs committed against us to justify our words and behavior. We must take seriously Christ’s warning in Matt 6:14–15,
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
It is not very useful for Christians to talk about Christian movements like evangelicalism if we do not first commit to loving others. When we speak or act without love, we can be sure that we are not representing for Christ! Love needs to be our starting point. Evangelicals and Baptists can be powerful leaders and representatives of Christ’s kingdom, but only if we have love. Otherwise, as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 13:1, we’re just loud.