Does Love Surpass Doctrine?
Does love surpass doctrine? Is unity of doctrine, knowledge and thought as important as unity of the Body of Christ itself? I suggest that most people facing this question would easily agree that love does surpass doctrine, right up until the moment they are confronted with a “significant” doctrinal difference. Sadly, Love rapidly falls by the wayside and the unity of the Body becomes a sacrifice on the altar of doctrinal purity.
In this article, I argue that love is not found in doctrinal unity. It is rather found in that we unite in common purpose and the joy of unity. Unity regardless of our doctrinal differences, as Christians, subject solely to one foundation, that Jesus came to work our salvation.
In this article:
- Unity is a function of Love
- Disunity brings about indifference and can lead to hate
- Unity does not arise from doctrinal purity
- Critical thought does not mean a lack of love
- Love is a basis of salvation
- Love is a basis of serving God
- Preaching is more about relationships than it is about doctrine
- Doctrinal purity does not stop us associating with others
Is it possible to love someone you are not unified with?
Look! How good and how pleasant it is when brothers live together! It is like fine oil poured on the head which flows down the beard – Aaron’s beard, and then flows down his garments. It is like the dew of Hermon, which flows down upon the hills of Zion. Indeed that is where the Lord has decreed a blessing will be available – eternal life.Psalms 133:1-3 NET
“I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.John 17:20-23 NET
I guess, to frame this properly, ask whether it is possible to love someone that you are not ‘unified’ with. In essence, unity and love are part and parcel together. Therefore, “does love surpass doctrine” really questions whether disunity over doctrine means that you lack love.
Can you Love someone you won’t associate with?
Some would argue that they do not cease to love someone from whom they have withdrawn over doctrinal difference. I suggest that those who so assert, would also seek to separate “phileo” and “agape” as concepts. They argue that phileo is about affection whereas agape is about a love that surpasses affection and is self sacrificing. I have seen this argument many times used to justify a “cruel to be kind” approach.
The unity of God and Jesus came from full assent and unity of purpose. It can’t be argued that there was unity of knowledge between God and Jesus, because Jesus was limited by his mortality. Suffice to say that Jesus was open to as much knowledge from God as he had capacity to receive. Anyone who truly seeks to serve God desires to grow in knowledge of Him to the extent of our capacity.
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. We likewise love the world. To what purpose? To bring them into unity with us in our joint desire to grow in obedience to God.
Unity is an Indicator of Love
Unity of two people is clearly an indicator of some sort of love. That’s clear. Can you love someone you are not united with? I think that love seeks unity and that unity can only be founded on love. A lack of affectionate love that engages the heart inevitably means that unity cannot be achieved. A temporary expedient unity for a short term purpose may occur without love. Unless love develops, that unity cannot last.
In John 17 (quoted above), Jesus links the unity and love inextricably. “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one so that the world will know that you sent me and you have loved them just as you have loved me.”
That’s a significant link between love and unity.
Love, practiced towards another results in unity, and unity around the things of God must result in love – both affectionate and a deeper desire to surrender all for the benefit of another.
Disunity leads to indifference and sometimes Hate
As one who grew up in a church divided many times around doctrine, I saw firsthand that disunity brought at least indifference and in many, sadly, something approaching hatred. This is entirely contrary to scriptural teaching.
Does love surpass doctrine? In many cases, sadly, among many followers of Jesus, love is subject to doctrine. Unity could only become possible through a farcical adherence to a semblance of doctrinal agreement.
Many denominations adhere to a statement of faith, but if you dig beneath the surface, it is difficult to find people who have actually studied their statement of faith and would actually wholeheartedly agree with each clause. Therefore, even those who claim unity around some form of homogenous doctrinal stance often do not have an actual homogenous doctrine.
So is it possible to achieve unity without doctrinal agreement, and is it possible to therefore have love surpass doctrine?
A Unified Body
Clearly, a unified body is central to God’s thinking. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, the eternal purpose of God is to expand His community with a body of immortalised, perfected beings. This cannot be achieved in a body of brawling, disunited, hating people. It has to be comprised of people who have learned love and peace with one another. The foundation of this love has to come from humility.
Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well.Philippians 2:3-4 NET
One of the dangers of treating others as more important than yourself is that sometimes we mistake this for meekly submitting and subjugating our own views to another because they are “more important” than us. Paul is not asking us to do this.
Unity does not mean the absence of Critical Thought
We should exercise critical thought in all that we read. I am fairly widely read and I am constantly needing to “spit out the bones” as it were. There are always elements to anything you read that you need to think deeply about and form an opinion on. That’s just exercising a mature mind.
The question “Does love surpass doctrine” is akin to the question “Does it matter what you believe”.
Both questions have layers to them. You have to kind of ask what your context is and what does the questioner really mean by those questions. In what context does love surpass doctrine? What do you mean by “surpass”? Does love surpass doctrine when it comes to salvation? Can love surpass doctrine when it comes to serving God? Does love surpass doctrine in relation to who we associate with?
The Perfect Love of A Perfect Being
I have tried to contextualise the question earlier in this article. WE Vine defines love as the perfect love of a perfect being towards imperfect being, provoking in them love towards the Giver of love (God), love to others who have also received God’s love and love to those who do not perceive God’s love so that they might perceive it. (my paraphrase). Love comes from God and provokes love in us. It is all about our relationship with God which unifies us.
Therefore love, expressed in unity, surpasses all else. As Paul says in the letter to the Colossians, “above all else, put on love which is the perfect bond”. (Col 3:14) Love binds us. The context here is around bearing with one another and forgiving one another. It is all about unity.
Does love surpass doctrine when it comes to salvation?
Well, yes. If God’s love was consequent on us being completely doctrinally accurate, we would all be in dire straits. If God’s love was constrained by the degree to which we are doctrinally accurate, then again, we would be in some difficulty. Are we so arrogant as to think we all have doctrine down pat?
Consider how many denominational differences there are. I get it, many think that their particular denomination has the “Truth” but this is demonstrably wrong. My “birth” denomination believes that they have “the Truth” and yet even within their own ranks, there is substantial difference and even (dare I say it) sheer ignorance of some topics.
A key doctrine that divides whole denominations from one another is the doctrine of the Trinity. Even a cursory search of references yields the fact that this doctrine is not expressly preached in the scripture. To someone who is relatively unversed in the bible, there is little difference to a critical thinker between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of God Manifestation.
I have, no doubt, just successfully upset both camps (among my few persistent readers!).
The fact is that in John 17:3, Jesus states that “this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God and the Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. The word “know” above in the Greek means that we should ever be growing in our knowledge.
This means that even in relation to the everlasting God, there is no such thing as perfect knowledge as a basis of salvation. Salvation comes from an ever expanding relationship and knowledge of God.
Does love surpass doctrine in relation to salvation? Jesus’ own words indicate that what saves is an ever growing relationship with God. That relationship is actually founded in love of course – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”
Does love surpass doctrine when it comes to serving God?
Our principal service to God is found in the great commission given at the end of the Acts – Go into all the world and make disciples. James (1:27) speaks of our service as “visiting the widows and the fatherless”. Action, not theory; Love, not doctrine is our service.
Fundamentally, belief is a function of relationship rather than of doctrine or theory.
Many argue however, that belief requires a set of beliefs to believe in and that’s true to some degree, however, I think there is really one belief that is central to all of scripture and that is all that we have to believe in. It is found in 1 John 1:1-2; 4:2; 2 John 7 (in the negative), in Hebrews 2:14-15 and in Romans 8:3 to cite just a few verses.
Jesus came in the flesh for our sins to obtain salvation for himself (as a son of man) and for us. Really, doctrine outside of this central truth, is a private matter between an individual and God. I am not saying that the scripture is by private interpretation, rather that there is one central truth as God has it and our journey to that truth is a matter between each person and God.
Fundamentally, Preaching is Based in Relationships
To work in the service of God to preach the gospel in all the world and to visit the widows and fatherless in their affliction is fundamentally about relationship, then about doctrine. Conversion is not a function of the bare Word of God, no matter how much you want it to be.
It is a function of relationship. Of the believer introducing the unbeliever to God and then facilitating that to the extent required whilst being careful to get out of the way whilst God works with the individual. It is not my role to impose every nuance of my understanding on another, but merely to be the vessel who teaches the other to engage with God and learn for themselves.
Consider the Ethiopian eunuch as a prime example. This man was striving to understand Isaiah and failing. It needed God to send him Phillip to explain it to him. If the doctrine was enough of itself, he would not have needed Phillip. Instead, he needs a teacher who forms an initial relationship with him, who then performs baptism on him and the result is that the man then goes on his way praising and worshipping God. The further development of that Eunuch was between him and his newfound God.
Did Phillip Preach Doctrine?
I can hear the counter arguments already. “Phillip preached doctrine to him”. He actually preached what John later encapsulated in a few words in his Gospel. “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
The prophecy in Isaiah specifically points to Jesus’ work of Love.
Do you truly think that a brief chariot ride culminating in a baptism designed to align the eunuch with Jesus could possibly cover much doctrine at all? What converted the Eunuch? An understanding of the Love of God shown in Jesus.
So, the fundamental purpose of the disciples from the 1st Century until now is to convert through love. Indeed, Jesus tells us, “By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another…” (John 13:35)
The most effective service to God is to demonstrate our love to Him and to one another.
The greatest tool in the toolbox of conversion is our otherworldly love for one another. When we demonstrate this love, others look at it and desire it greatly. Peace with God and love for Him and each other is truly compelling.
I think it needless to say that all other examples of Christian service including visiting the widows and the fatherless are fairly empty if they are not driven by love. Does love surpass doctrine in our service to God? Of course it does.
Does love surpass doctrine when it comes to who we associate with?
I have argued in another article that association is really not our choice. I won’t rehash the arguments here but suffice to say, fellowship, salvation and association are really not the same thing. Fellowship is something that either exists or it does not. Salvation is in God’s hand and association is about relationships. Preach the gospel throughout the world. Our preaching is pretty pointless and ineffective if it is not underpinned by a love that emulates that of God in wishing to save the world.
I still fundamentally believe that my preaching is not about teaching so much as about introducing people to Jesus, in much the same way that Phillip did with the Eunuch. Therefore, by its nature, it is about introducing people to the love of God and then getting out of the way of the developing relationship between the person and God.
Look, there is no doubt that part of what happens in that relationship is some transmission of knowledge, but it is not about me ensuring that each doctrinal point is crystal clear. The relationship between God and His new son or daughter (as distinct from the broader children of God) is one that develops over time and as the son or daughter grows.
That’s why the foundation is simply understanding that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
John and others state clearly that Jesus came in the flesh and this is our foundation belief. Does love surpass doctrine? Love is the foundation doctrine on which all others must be based. It clearly surpasses doctrine.
If you then profess this, what practically does this mean?
If you profess that love surpasses doctrine, then how does this play out in your life practically? Certainly, it can’t be in exclusionary tactics based on doctrine.
John says that many deceivers have gone out into the world that do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh (2 John 7). He counsels strongly against receiving such people into our houses or greeting them.
That’s the only concrete exclusion really preached in the New Testament where the basis is doctrine. Just remember however, what is being said here. These are deceivers who are actively preaching and denying the love of God in sending Jesus in the flesh for our sins. I suppose that some will try to extrapolate this foundation into the Trinity or some other construction around the Atonement, but let’s just stick to the text here.
Unity with Deceivers
John is saying that these are false teachers who are actively denying the work of God and Jesus. That’s it. Deceivers of this nature damage our great commission and at a fundamental level destroy believers before their faith can take hold. Association with them creates confusion that contributes to this destruction.
Professing love over doctrine means that whilst you develop in your relationship with God, you pursue His will and daily seek to introduce people to Love Himself.
You can do this by living a life of otherworldly love, of relationship with God and Jesus and of speaking the Gospel and work of Jesus where ever you are.Speak always the truth as you understand it, but do not get in the way of the developing relationship between those you speak to and the God you have introduced them to.
Trust God to help them develop and grow in knowledge of Him.