Mr Rogers neighbor

Healthy Theology: Loving Neighbor

Last week, I started musing a bit on how we might achieve theological health. Riffing off the following from Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, I suggested that our starting point might be asking the question, “How do we best love God?”:

…theology that produces bad behavior loses its claim to be giving faithful stage direction to the Christian drama.

Today the question is, how do we do theology in such a way as to build in, from the get-go, the result that we become a people who love our neighbors as ourselves?

First, let me say a word about “neighbors.” I assume here that neighbors are the people who live next door to us, whom we work with, whose kids play on our kids’ soccer teams, whose daughters dance ballet with mine. Neighbor is not someone who does, or ideally should, agree with my theology. Neighbor is, as often as not, the religious and theological “other,” the “outsider” to our theology discussions.

As I was putting together my thoughts on healthy theology, my friend Sean Palmer tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.39.53 AM

How do we formulate our theology, our understanding of the gospel, such that “neighbor whom I love” rather than “sinner whose sin I hate” is, in fact, the dominant mental model with which I engage the people around me?

Standards of Love
There are two verses that lay out the posture with which we need to be developing our theology as we think about our neighbors:

  1. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31, etc)
  2. “Do to others what you would have done to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

These two commands summon us to some hard mental work. They require of us to put ourselves in the position of the neighbor and ask, truly, what would I want them to do to me if the shoe was on the other foot? How do I want them to think about me? How do I want them to view me with respect to God? How do I want them to treat me in light of their theology? How do I want them to view me as a member of the same community in which we are all trying to build happy and rewarding lives?

Where this gets tricky is when we get so stuck in the rightness of our own system that we can’t imagine standing outside of it. We might be tempted to say, “If I were erring the way that they are erring, I would want someone to tell me! I would want someone to grab me and force me back onto the right path—for my own good!”

But do you?

Imagine that the person doing the theologizing is Muslim, with a strict view of diet and dress. Do you want them to compel you to cover from head to toe? To compel your daughter to do so? Do you want them to have all pork products removed from the grocery store so that you won’t offend the Deity?

This is a clearer guide for us, Christians, when we think about what neighbor love looks like, than running through scenarios where we are trying to influence people to be Christians. It shows us how we want to be “done unto” by the person who is religiously different, and therefore provides a roadmap for how we should treat others who are religiously different.

Knowing Love When They See It
I know that those two verses are important for thinking through a theology that produces the life of love we’re hoping for. But there’s one more that I think has the power to cut through a lot of our self-deception. It’s this from the Sermon on the Mount:

Let your light so shine before people that they will see your good deed and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

Do you see what Jesus did there?

He put the judgment of our works, as the people of God, into the hands of the outsiders.

It’s we who are to shine, and the people of the world who are to see the light and recognize it as such.

Let me put a finer point on it: If someone has to agree with your theological system in order to agree that what you are doing is “love,” then you are not loving your neighbor as yourself.

People know love when they see it. And they will glorify God for it.

But first, it must truly be light.

Please share the love:

22 thoughts on “Healthy Theology: Loving Neighbor

  1. I can pretty much be relied upon to always appreciate a post that references Mister Rogers in a positive way. That said, the childhood memory I find myself musing on after reading this post comes from the “other” major PBS program:

    “Who are the people in your neighborhood?
    In your neighborhood
    In your neigh-bor-hood
    Yes, who are the people in your neighborhood?
    The people that you meet each day.”

  2. I’ll ask my question succinctly, because I am more interested in your thoughts on this than stating my own.

    If we judge Chriatian behavior by the ultimate criteria of “is it loving” (according to what we, or what outsiders, may think), without regard for “rightness” or “correctness”, are we adopting the philosophy of Situational Ethics (referring specifically to Joseph Fletcher’s work)? If not, what would the primary difference be?

    1. Don,
      I think Daniel is trying to get at the negative side of the criteria for whether our Christian behavior (and the theology/beliefs in which they are birthed), which is to say “if our actions and words can’t be seen as loving then we may be acting as though beliefs were more important than actions.” Which is clearly not the case for Jesus. The ultimate criteria for whether our behavior is loving is whether it manifests a love of God (in both thought and actions toward those whom God loves) and the penultimate criteria of love of neighbor (which is what Daniel seems to be working on–in speech and action toward those for whom we may not feel the love–in beliefs and behavior). As Daniel said in the just prior post, we should be doing the kind of theology that: “not only says the right things but … helps mold us more into the image of Christ.” What more needs to be said?

    2. Don, thanks for your question, and I apologize for my delay in answering.

      I would say that every situation does demand some sort of appraisal. Life is a combination of norms to be deployed and wisdom to know what that norm might look like in any given instance.

      Love is a norm. More than that, love has a specific shape in the Christian narrative: it is the shape of the cross. God is love because God is the son-giving Father. The Son epitomizes love because he lays down his life for his friends. We are to love as Christ loved us–and gave himself as a sacrifice on our behalf.

      So, to ask in any given situation, What does love look like here? Is to ask, What does it look like to embody the story of the self-giving love of God in Christ? The answer will vary instance by instance, but the standard and the story remain the same. So it’s not a wide-open reassessment from ground zero.

      1. Thank you Dr. Kirk. I think that is also what Fletcher argued, that it isn’t just generic “love” but specifically Agape Love that is to be sought.

        So would you say that you are essentially in agreement with Fletcher’s Situation Ethics?

          1. Good response, I will have to chew on that!

            So would you say that the ethics you are advocating are deontological rather than consequentialist? In other words, are you focusing on the rightness or wrongness (loving vs. unloving) of the “means” (or actions) themselves, rather than any “ends” they might accomplish? How would you distinguish what “loving means” look like if you are not at the same time asking what “right ends” they might accomplish? For example, in the hot-button topic that has been discussed on this and innumerable forums, same-sex marriage, how would you assess whether performing a gay wedding was “loving” without first contemplating what the result of that wedding will be?

            1. I don’t think we are called to consider results. It doesn’t say, “let your light shine through, unless it will illuminate something bad.” We love the person who is sinning just the same as the person who is not, and let God handle the results. These people aren’t our children, we are not called to use the rod, and “tough love” isn’t in the Bible.

              A common philosophy these days is to legally limit “sinful” behavior- to stop non-Christians from engaging in sin “for their own good.” This is backwards. Jesus didn’t make sure the people he helped or healed were living right, he just went and loved the stuffing out of them and let them sort out what they would do after. The only people he corrected were the traditional religious leaders.

              1. “Jesus didn’t make sure the people He helped or healed were living right…..let them sort out what they would do after.”

                John 5:14 “Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.”

                John 8:11 “She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.”

                  1. In both cases, the individuals recognized their sinful condition – and Jesus was clear in pointing it out to them. With the impotent man, Jesus directly connected the man’s infimity to his sin; with a warning that further sin could result in worse consequences. With the woman, Jesus extended grace to her in the same sentence of ten words that He told her to sin no more – and then warned the crowd that a true Christ follower will not walk in darkness. The original poster said the Christ only corrected people that were traditional religious leaders – that’s not true; as we can clearly see: one had a physical defect due to sin and the other was an adulterer. Jesus’ mission was to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32) If we are to do His works, then we will too.

                    1. Uh, it isn’t in the texts that they acknowledged their sins or sinful condition. Hence, good point Daniel. Deh4utah, yup, Jesus called everyone to repent and believe the good news of the new covenant kingdom he was proclaiming and the apostles continued proclaiming. Any wiggling around the gospel call to repent of the sins identified by Jesus and his apostles just won’t cut it scripturally. Grace is extended especially to those who repent and believe the good news about Jesus; may more and more conform to the calling God structured in that manner.

                    2. Richard, in fact, it is in the text that the adulterous woman acknowledges her sinfulness when she responded with “no man, Lord” to Jesus’ question of whether there was anyone left who was an eyewitness that would start the stoning that day.

                      The Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Word of God to convict the sinner and cause every mouth to be stopped and all the world to be guilty before God. Again, back to the original poster’s proposition that Jesus didn’t correct anyone BUT the “traditional religious leaders.” Her thinking is typical of many who try to recast Jesus into someone different than revealed in His own Words – which includes every Word (red AND black) that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matt 4:4) Jesus’ purpose in coming was to seek and save those that are lost.

  3. Situational Ethics is as you say, a philosophical ethics. Daniel is working out a theological ethic. That is a major difference.

  4. Thank you for this post. It nails the trouble I’ve been having with how people use the phrase, “speak the truth in love,” which in practice tends to mean, “Tell someone they’re going to hell.” I know a lot of people who think the most loving thing they can do is share the Gospel, but then they proceed to share it in ways that are completely un-Christlike. Like you said, people don’t need to completely change their worldview to know if you love them. They’ll see it.

  5. What’s ironic about the guy who keeps up with the situational ethics meme is how literalists of all religious persuasions are more situational than anyone else. Most people would say genocide is always wrong, for example, but conservative Christians would argue that it’s OK if done by God or ordered by God. So who is really the proponent of situational ethics?

  6. Great post, Kirk! You might want to take a look at I plan to share your post. At the site you will see a video on the homepage by Dallas Willard on loving your neighbor. There is another one of Dallas’ on the same subject that I put up on Youtube that I will soon put on the website. I thought you might like to watch them. Keep up the great work!

Leave a Reply to J. R. Daniel Kirk Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.