What Love’s Got to Do With It

The Episco-media world is a-buzz about an op-ed last weekend by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in which he dares to ask the question, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Responses have varied, some acerbic and silly, others more thoughtful or contextual, but all rejecting the very premise of Mr. Douthat’s question. These respondents argue that liberalization is not creating the demographic hemmoraging that the Episcopal Church currently enjoys. It is merely a product of our changing culture, or it is something that all churches are experiencing equally, or–in a grand feat of naivete–some even claim that it really is not all that bad.

But what I find infinitely more interesting than the demographic question is a challenge that Douthat poses late in the piece. After exploring the various ways in which the Episcopal Church, along with most mainline liberal churches, has over-emphasized liberal social issues and politics while under-emphasizing things like the uniqueness of Christ, Douthat suggests that liberal churches stop worrying so much about what “they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” The question implied here is not just what scriptural basis underlies modern liberal Christian practice, but more broadly, what is it that the liberal Church offers to the world that makes it different from the world? There are thousands of organizations that help the poor or that advocate for various kinds of social change, many of them secular, some far better at what they do than the Church. Why should a person who currently has no religious affiliation become a liberal Christian? Why be an Episcopalian? Heck, why get out of bed at all on a Sunday morning? What do we have that is unique?

In two of the better responses I linked to above, Diana Butler Bass and Danielle Tumminio both answer that what we as Christians have to offer to the world is the love command, love of God and love of neighbor. Love is what sets us apart. It is a noble sentiment, expressed winsomely, particularly by Tumminio who is a friend and seminary classmate of mine, in addition to being an all around steller human being. Nonetheless, the Great Commandment cannot hold the weight that liberal Christians seek to pile on top of it. Tumminio would have it be the center of the entire Christian enterprise:

I think there is a clear answer to what we can defend and do offer uncompromisingly to the world, and it comes, traditionally enough, straight from the lips of Jesus:

‘”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:” I think that makes their caché for Christians pretty clear. Now, I would wager that most Episcopal clergy, indeed most committed Episcopalians, would agree with me that this is the guiding principle of our faith.

Herein lies the fallacy that sets traditional Christianity and modern liberal Christians apart. Liberal Christians believe that Christianity is about human beings figuring out how to be more loving in an ever-changing world. Traditional, biblical Christianity is about the love of God that is uniquely expressed for the world in the person of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.

There are several intersecting problems with trying to build a faith on our ability to love rather than on the cross. First and foremost, there is nothing unique about the love command. Virtually all of the world’s religions have some version of it. Jesus Himself does not invent it but rather borrows it from Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18 (something which was particularly emphasized during one of the Bible classes I took at my liberal seminary). Moreover, if we leave aside the loving God bit and simply focus on loving our neighbors, there are plenty of avowed atheists who excel at this even while rejecting the need for religion of any kind. So how exactly does promoting a message that everyone else in the world already promotes justify our continued existence as Christians?

More to the point, however, is the fact that Christ’s call for us to love God and our neighbor is a word of law, not a word of Gospel. It is meant to convict us, not to set us free. When we hear those words, that we are to love God with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, it should make us painfully aware of the fact that we do not do that even a little bit. And the reason we do not do that is because we are self-interested sinners who wish to be our own gods. The same Jesus who commanded us to love told us that we have sin within us which defiles us and prevents us from loving (Mark 7:21-23). “You brood of vipers!” He says to us, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7).

For traditional Christianity, this is the answer to the riddle of why it is as human beings that we are filled with longings that never get fulfilled. It is the answer to the question of why we die even though it seems so unnatural and wrong. And what Christianity offers uniquely is the answer to this problem. Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, died on the cross, taking all of our sin onto Himself, so that we might be made new again through Him. He died so that we do not have to die. Only in Him is there eternal peace. Only in Him is there hope. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” says Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Or as Saint Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

This is the Gospel, the good news that Christians are called to proclaim to the world, regardless of our demographics. And it truly is good news, because it means that our salvation is not dependent on us. It is not dependent on how good or how loving we can be, on how many good deeds we do, on how many points we score. It is about Him and what He has already done for us. His sacrifice is sufficient to take away all sin for all time, which means I am free to love God and my neighbor without having to continue to build my own personal stairway to heaven.

That is not to say that traditional Christianity is unconcerned about how we love our neighbors. Social justice did not begin with Vatican II. The Church is deeply concerned with how we treat one another and how we care for the world. Scripture is quite clear that we are to love one another, or else (see, for instance, the warning Jesus gives in Matthew 25). But it is impossible for us to love like that without first receiving Christ. John summarizes it this way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). It is only through Christ that we are able to love. If we start with our love and try to work our way backwards to God, we will never get anywhere. God must start with us, and we in turn must start by receiving what He has done for us before we can even dream of being any good to anyone else.

This is the great river that divides modern liberal Christians from traditional Christianity. For liberals, the Gospel is something that we do for the world. For traditional Christianity, the Gospel is something that Jesus Christ alone does freely for us. This is why traditional Christianity and modern liberal Christianity really are not two paths in one wider stream, but two separate religions. Until we understand this fundamental distinction, we will continue to argue over the effects rather than acknowledging the cause.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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24 Responses to What Love’s Got to Do With It

  1. Joshua says:

    I agree completely. On the issue of homosexuality, I think we should accept and help them. No one should feel like they are not good enough to go to church. Unfortunately, the TEC has done more to accept homosexuality than homosexuals. Strictly speaking, socialists admire Christ for his ability to get things done that we find difficult to do. By “we,” I mean nations, governments, towns, political bodies, schools, churches, and individuals. Christ was an effective minister to the poor, the sick, and the hungry. Were we as effective, there would be no national health care debates, food banks would be full, and our “homeless problem” would disappear.

    But the danger in thinking this way is that it is easy to confuse things. Jesus did not come to earth to demonstrate how to be a good socialist. He did not come to us simply to demonstrate how to obey the “Golden Rule” and get along like everyone does on Sesame Street. in limiting our focus to one aspect of Christ’s ministry, fails to see Christ’s divine purpose—that he came to rescue us from sin and hell, to reconcile us to God the Father. This is the central message of the New Testament.

  2. Mark says:

    Appreciate this article, thanks for thinking through that with us. I would suggest two thoughts. First, the river that divides us is rightly located in the gospel. I prefer not so sharp distinction between our doing and Christ’s doing. We the body of Christ, are living Christ to the world and can be seen in this way to be doing the gospel. Primarily where it seems liberals tend to get it wrong, is that they attempt a “gospel” that seeks to redeem culturally, or sociologically oppressed people from other people who oppress them. The gospel of Christ that the church is called to by contrast, starts will all mankind broken and sinful, and the gospel is about redemption from ourselves and our fallen nature, restored to the image and likeness of our creator. This culminates in a restoration and redemption of all creation (Rom. 8).

  3. Jay M. says:

    Fr. Jonathan,

    Once again you have hit the nail on the head here. It really is two separate religions being formed. I have friends that I love very much that call themselves Christians but who hold that all the supernatural elements of our faith are myth. I am sorry, but sometimes we have to call a spade a spade and if you do not believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ then you are not a Christian, no matter how much Christian “ethics and philosophy” you purport to follow.

    Here was another interesting reaction to the Douthat article from someone who is moderate to liberal. I share many of her sentiments but I believe your final analysis about the central message of the New Testament trumps all. I am just wondering what your thoughts are concerning what she is saying here, if/when you have a moment: http://rachelheldevans.com/liberal-conservative-christianity.

  4. Ian Edgar says:

    I was for years a liberal “Christian”, and you are right it is indeed another religion, or at least some kind of heresy! I still hold very much to the principals of social justice, and would go so far as to call myself a Christian socialist but a perhaps a non-statist one. I live in Canada so I have seen the real benefits of universal health care and other social programmes. However, I realize that they are in a great deal of danger from a number of sides. The greatest danger is, however, that we Canadian Christians who value these social programmes (as opposed to the growing “Christian right” who I would also, in all humility follow a different religion) have not realized that working for justice, maintaining our programmes and examining ways of making our society and churches more open to understanding and more accepting, should be expressions of our humility and trust in God. The point is not to have social justice, the aim is to have strive for faith in God and so humble ourselves before him, to make our offerings of charitable donations, our volunteer time, our working time and yes, even our tax dollars an offering of love to God. Maybe this isn’t a complete thought, I am still exploring and trying to open my heart, but I thought I would share it. Thanks for the excellent post!
    God Bless

  5. Margaret Chalmers says:

    Hey Jonathan! FWIW, I think that there is another fundamental flaw in the “it’s all about love” argument. The argument as I’ve seen it presented is that “because I am loved by God, I’m ok and what I do is ok.” This seems to justify all manner of behaviors that are inconsistent with our scripture and our tradition – because this is somehow “love”. As I see it, the fact that we are loved is only half the argument. It is about love, but a love that is so deep, so profound, so all-encompassing that it is transformative. God loves us, but in respose, we are called to love God. And frankly if one is doing it right, it isn’t easy. And this is what you don’t hear from the “its all about love” crowd. That love has a cost.

    Love calls us to go beyond ourselves, to purify ourselves, to transform ourselves into the likeness of Christ. It calls us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.” When you decide or choose to love like that, you make the decision to love even when it hurts or is inconvenient. The cost to loving God is to be faithful to the Gospel, even when that is hard or painful, or even resulting in one’s death. It is the same reason why mommas and daddys get up in the middle of the night to feed a baby, or to find a pharmacy at three in the morning for a sick spouse or child, or to spend years taking care of a sick spouse, or to protect a child from danger at the risk of one’s own life or safety. You do it because love doesn’t give you a choice. OF COURSE you are going to extend yourself this way because you can’t imagine behaving otherwise.

    So where the “love trumps all” falls off the rails is that there is never mentioned the second half of what happens when you love – when you are called to love there is something expected of you, and often that expectation means you must change your life. You conform your life to Christ because you love. You follow the Gospel because you love. You try to avoid sin because you love. You make hard choices about how you live your life because you love. You stop behaving in ways that “it is all about me and what feels good” because it is inconsistent with Christ’s teaching – even if that means chastity (e.g., no sexual relations outside of Christian marriage), or poverty (e.g., giving until it hurts), or having to be obedient to the dictates of the Gospel. Loving God in this way means that you are called to necessarily love your neighbor in a way that is consistent with the teachings of the Gospel.

    I think this is how the “love of neighbor” as a Christian differs from our secular friends. We do it from our attempt to conform our life to Christ, and it is part of our greater Christian struggle. It is absolutely necessary, because Our Lord told us to do it. But it must be done in that greater context of life transformation and purification, and not out of a secular sense of social justice. And this is also where secular social justice and Christian love may diverge, in that there are things that secular social justice may call for that the Christian says is sinful based on our Scripture and Tradition. It is not Christian love of neighbor to condone behavior that does not conform one to Christ. So the Christian looks at love of neighbor in a different way – I want to love, support, and build up my neighbor in ways that help him or her conform to Christ, or at least does not derail him/her on that journey. In conscience a Christian can’t support or help our neighbor sin – it makes us complicit in that sin, and that frankly isn’t love.

    Fundamentally love has a cost – and that comes with anyone that you love, from parents, to spouses, to newborns, to neighbors, to God. It is part of what makes true love transformative. And the difference I see is that I think those that are usually making arguments based on love is that they leave out this very important fact. The argument doesn’t end with “my behavior is ok because I’m loved.” It ends with “I love God so much that I am willing to sacrifice, suffer, and transform to do his will so that I am conforming my life to Christ.”

    Just my two cents…

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Margaret,

      To be fair, I think that many (most?) liberal Christians would agree that love requires personal sacrifice and a willingness to lay aside what we want for the sake of another. Where I think you have a point is in terms of understanding what love is. Love sometimes requires saying no to things that we think would be good or beneficial or even right because God has told us that they are not. The liberal response is either to say, a la the snake in the garden, “Did God really say that?” or else to deny that we can trust things like scripture at all. So it all comes back to an act of faith. Do we trust that God is right, even when it seems to us like He might be wrong, or do we trust ourselves to make the determination of what is best? How we answer that question sets up which path we take.

  6. Father Thorpus says:

    Stellar analysis!

  7. Thomas says:

    Great Law/Gospel emphasis. I read/hear about it on a lot of Lutheran websites I read and visit, and I’m trying to listen for it at the LCMS church I’m a member of, but sometimes it’s not as apparent as I wish it would be.

  8. MichaelA says:


  9. Joshua Bovis says:


    Liberal Christianity in my opinion is not liberal but rather is revisionist. The well known quote I think is a good description:

    “A God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”

    Yet liberal Christianity still continue to identify itself as such, even after it has jettisoned many of the beliefs that are fundamental to Christianity.

  10. MichaelA says:

    “Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery.”
    – William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury:

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      MichaelA, that’s a fantastic quote. Any idea where it is from?

      • MichaelA says:

        Fr Jonathan, thank you … :)

        It becomes more apt with each passing year… :(

        I believe ++Temple originally wrote it in his “Readings in st John’s Gospel”. It is cited in recent books: “I believe in the Historical Jesus” by I. Howard Marshall and “Jesus Remembered” by James Dunn.

  11. I would say, Fr. Jonathan, that the real division may be around the question, “What is the status of the Kingdom of God?” If you believe, as many “liberal” Christians believe, that the Kingdom is here, now, then the focus might rightly be on living into the Gospel teaching of Jesus so the blind can see rather than focusing on Paul’s attempts to keep the faith alive until the impending return of Christ and the inauguration of the Kingdom…thoughts?

    • MichaelA says:

      Small Farmer, orthodox Christians believe in living into the Gospel teaching of Jesus so the blind can see, as well as keeping the faith alive until the impending return of Christ. Also, the Kingdom is here among us and yet it will also be inaugurated in a new heaven and earth when Christ’s return.

      As to how effective liberal Christians have been at doing either, that would be a long discussion!

      • mkivel says:

        So Michael, there are two Kingdoms? If we trust in God why should we spend so much time worrying about a future kingdom when we have this one to build up now? And forgive me, but seems to me the idea of orthodoxy may be part of the problem…seems to me less worry about orthodoxy and more concern about orthopraxis might make more sense for the Kingdom…thoughts?

      • MichaelA says:

        I don’t know about two kingdoms, really its the same one at different times, now and after the redemption of the world. But if you are really concerned about how many kingdoms we should classify it as, I am sure there is a theological textbook somewhere that will assist … :)

        And who is “worrying about a future kingdom”? I don’t see it as a worry at all.

        “seems to me less worry about orthodoxy and more concern about orthopraxis…”
        Why would we distinguish between them? Don’t you live and act out what you believe?

      • mkivel says:

        Well said, Michael! I would offer the thought that the Kingdom of God was, is, and will be no different than what we have now…if we put down the baggage on our backs we can stand up and see we’ve been here all along, we’ve simply been unable to see it because we’ve been unwilling to see it…as for orthodoxy and orthopraxis: we believe in how we live, but I find we often only consider it’s rightness after we’ve been challenged by an Other and are loathe to doubt ourselves. Thoughts?

      • MichaelA says:

        But don’t Christ and his Apostles teach that there will be changes? Christ will return and cleanse the whole world, there will be a day of judgment, the world will be renewed etc. So yes its the same Kingdom but its also in some important ways going to be very different from what we see now (thank goodness, I might add!).

      • Robert F says:

        mkivel, what you’re asserting here sounds more like Zen Buddhism, or the gospel according to Thomas Altizer, than Christianity. In the fulfilled Kingdom of God there will be no more sin or death, no more predation or violence; rather, there will be shalom and no more killing in all of God’s holy mountain. It is not just a different way of seeing things. It is a different dispensation altogether.

  12. Jon Parks says:

    A wonderful articulation of the Gospel, Fr. Jonathan. Thanks for this post.

  13. Clay Calhoun says:

    Fr. Jonathan, thanks for this post. My wife and I have been thinking and talking about this very topic lately, and your article is most welcome guidance. I don’t know that I would state that ‘liberal Christianity’ and ‘traditional Christianity’ are two different religions simply because I think the terms could be so debated (i.e. what is ‘liberal Christianity’?), but based on your qualifying of those terms, I agree with your assertion. The premise (i.e. our work or God’s work) is fundamentally different. Thank you for the insight.
    I also like what Margaret Chalmers’ commented; love does indeed have a cost, it is the ultimate commitment. I don’t, however, like the references to the ‘love trumps all’ and ‘it’s all about love’ crowd. I understand to whom she is referring, but I think this confuses the issue. Because, I believe, it is all about love; love is indeed the overcoming, definitive heart of the gospel, indeed of God Himself. As Saint John says, God is Love; He does not simply love, but Love is the very essence of God, the Divine Charity. The difference, as you noted in the post, is that traditional Christianity proclaims that it is God’s love, not ours, that makes all the difference.
    I hope you don’t mind if I include your blog on my own blogroll. Thanks again!

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