What exactly is agape, or “love” as it is translated? The NT tells us:

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself

We read such passages and tend to assume at once that “love” means what it does to us in modern times — in this case, a mushy sentimentality that never says a harsh word and never steps on the toes of others. The same word is used in 1 Cor. 13 (though translated differently):

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

The question at issue: how is all of this actually worked out in practice? Does agape mean not confronting others with error or sin? Do we need a deep relationship (a “25 ton bridge” as one friend calls it) to relate to a person and to correct them? On the surface this is an obvious no-brainer, since of course the writers of the NT were constantly confronting others on various errors, even people they obviously could not have known well (even if we assume, wrongly, that they related on modern, individualist terms!). It takes a “politically correct” stretch to argue otherwise. But there is a more moderate view: We can confront, but can only do so politely. Well, that too is a no-brainer on the surface, given the many abrasive comments given by Jesus and by Paul to their opponents (i. e., Pharisees, the Galatian “Judaizers”) and even to fellow believers (like Peter and the “Satan” quote) who went awry. Indeed, rhetorical analysis of Paul’s letters indicates that he used some very sharp rhetorical tactics which would have seriously shamed his opponents and even his readers.

The answer is found in one of two places: 1) The NT teaches but does not act out agape; 2) We are not really understanding what agape means. And as it happens, the social science data tells us that #2 is the way to go.

A key difference in understanding the meaning of agape is to recognize that our culture is centered on the individual, whereas ancient Biblical society (and 70% of societies today) are group-centered. What is good for the group is what is paramount. Hence when the NT speaks of agape it refers to the “value of group attachment and group bonding” [Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, 196]. Agape is not an exchange on a personal level and “will have little to do with feelings of affection, sentiments of fondness, and warm, glowing affinity.” It is a gift that puts the group first.

With that in mind, what of the passage which tells us to “Love your enemies”? How is this reconciled with places where Jesus calls the Pharisees names, or Peter “Satan”? How is it reconciled with where Paul wishes emasculation on his Galatian opponents (Gal. 5) and shames the Galatians with his rhetoric? How is it reconciled with even confronting others with sin and error, for that matter?

Given the definition of “group attachment” above, it may be best to understand agape as a parallel to another known concept of today — not love, but tough love. For the sake of popular culture awareness I will allude to perhaps the most famous example of such “tough love” known today — the New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark (whose story was told in the movie Lean on Me) who cleaned out his high school and made it a safe place for those who wanted to learn.

Clark was no soft sentimentalist! He kicked those out of school who disrupted the learning of others. He used physical compulsion to do it as needed. He used a bullhorn to get people’s attention. Is this agape? Yes, it is! It is the Biblical form of agape in which Clark valued what was best for his students as a whole versus what the individual wanted.

Now consider this understanding in light of, for example, Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and others. It will take a complexity of emotion we find foreign, but conceptually, it is certainly possible to love one’s enemies, and yet also attack them; and the same for one’s disciples or allies. Like Clark’s disruptive students, the Pharisees were a threat to the well-being of others; so likewise Peter when he made his error. They spread deception and falsehood and kept others from entering the Kingdom of God with their deceptions; or else led people down the wrong path and away from spiritual maturity. In such a scenario, not only is it right and proper, for the sake of agape, to confront and confront boldly; it may be the only responsible thing to do to keep the “disease” or error from spreading and afflicting more souls! (In the ancient world, and even today, insults and polemics were a way to shame and discredit an opponent; see here.)

So agape does include verbally attacking and discrediting one’s opponents, or confronting other believers, when they are in the wrong. Jesus speaks to these men not as his enemies, but as enemies of the truth. There is no indication that he speaks to them as personal enemies, for all of his comments reflect their deception of others; the personal relationship between the parties does not even come into the picture. They were enemies for the sake of the Kingdom of God. By comparison, one would hardly suppose that Matthew 5:4 would restrict one from joining an army and fighting in a war against a Hitler or a Stalin. This becomes a case of having agape for the greater number, and generally innocent, at the expense of the lesser who are guilty. Jesus’ situation with the Pharisees and others attacked was very much in this category, since their actions imperiled the eternal fate or the spiritual maturity of others.

One may reply, “But what then of the example of the Good Samaritan? He was kind to an enemy.” He was kind to a personal enemy; the man was not spreading lies and deceiving others! Here is food for thought: If Jesus had been attacking a Pharisee, and the man had suddenly clutched at his heart and dropped to the ground, would agape have us give the Pharisee CPR? Yes, it would. We are thereby making the man our “neighbor” and extending the hand of welcome into our fellowship. From there what happens? The Pharisee may keep on his attacks against the truth after he recovers; if so, he is still an enemy for the sake of the Gospel and one to be publicly addressed in disparaging terms. But if he drops to the ground again we will still work to save him. Our modern society has lost this ability to distinguish between sin and sinner; it is often assumed that to attack the position is to attack the man! Such is the bane of “tolerance” and political correctness.

By James Patrick Holding

[Printed by permission from Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministries]

Related Article on ESN:

Loving What’s Right Means Hating What’s Wrong (Includes “Is It Wrong to Judge?”)


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