A long time ago I was sitting in a class at Regent College taught by Clark Pinnock. He was then, and I assume now, a pacifist. My contrarian mind came up with a scenario. What if I came upon him being mugged in downtown Vancouver and I called out to him, “I love you Clark but I can’t help you because I am a pacifist.” Continuing the train of thought, I assumed that the thing that would come to his mind would most likely be obscene and, of course, my professed love for him would be an abomination if I refused to come to his assistance in a dire situation.
In general to profess love for someone but to refuse to help them in their need is to turn love into something else. James, brother of Jesus, wrote about people who offered good wishes to people needing food, clothing and shelter (James 2:15-16). He did not indicate the response of those so “blessed.” It may not have been appropriate for Scripture, even though there are strong condemnations of self-centered behavior elsewhere.
In our own time there are people who think that tolerance of self-destructive behavior is a form of love and those who seek to stem that behavior are “haters.” What they may hear from the victims of their unlove is, “Why did you allow me to do those things?” I suspect there will be few who will answer truly, “We did it because it was in our own self-interest to not oppose your choices” just as it was in my hypothetical situation when I refused to risk physical harm for the sake of one I claimed to love.
The love chapter is, of course, First Corinthians 13. It was supposed to be a favorite chapter of our Sunday school class. However, I think we should be wary of it.
What Paul wrote to the Corinthians was the result of what he had heard of them. This was that they were engaged in a “spiritual competition.” This is evidenced both by their division into factions (1:10-12) and by arguments of which spiritual gifts were greater (12:1-11). Paul finishes chapter 12 by showing the value of all the spiritual gifts. As the letter was read in the church I can imagine everybody feeling good about themselves and their gifts at this point. Then the trap closes.
“And now I will show you the most excellent way” (Romans 12:31b, NIV). We might have heard a gasp out of the assembled Corinthians. They thought they were arguing over excellence—how could there be something better. Paul then tells them that love is better than spiritual gifts through providing them a series of examples of love, some of which are beyond most people’s capability and all of which we have difficulty with in our everyday lives.
It is impossible to have divisions and factions and competitions in our churches and still maintain we are being faithful to Paul’s teaching concerning our Christian lives and spirituality. Surprisingly, after telling the Corinthians that love is greater than faith and hope, Paul exhorts them to continue to desire spiritual gifts. The trap for us in the love chapter is that we, in general, do not go on to chapter 14 but are content to see chapter 13 as the high point and end of Paul’s instructions and leave the search for spiritual gifts to others of less orthodox persuasions.