Do you love someone? If so, Valentine’s Day marketers suggest you show it with diamonds, expensive wine, or chocolates.
Christians are quick to criticize this excessive commercialization of love during the month of February because it promotes a misconception of love. Even so, most of us happily join the celebration.
What kind of love are we celebrating? Too often our concept of love falls short, reduced to a cultural definition that adversely affects the quality of our relationships, especially at church.
A primary example of this reductionist view of love in Christian circles is a common interpretation and application of I Corinthians 13. In this passage, the Apostle Paul poetically describes agape “love”:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (verses 4-7).
In Christian cultures, this passage is a favorite for wedding ceremonies. Sometimes it seems that we have reserved these words for the bride and groom whose life together is to be based on this kind of love.
“I Corinthians 13 is a passage about love within the church.”
That challenge to bride and groom is appropriate, of course. But a deeper reading of this passage suggests that Paul had other intentions in mind as he wrote this section of his letter.
One helpful strategy to get closer to the real meaning of a passage it is to look at its historical context. In this case, Paul was addressing the brothers and sisters in the church in Corinth. This church was dealing with troublesome issues, including arrogance, as one segment attempted to put down another by claiming higher levels of spirituality and knowledge.
This approach to biblical interpretation also considers the immediate context of a passage by looking at the surrounding chapters, in this case 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.
In chapter 12, Paul presents one of the most beautiful and challenging images of the church: the body of Christ. According to this image, all of the members of the church are a part of the body of Christ. Since we all have bodies, we can easily relate to this image. For a body to be healthy, it needs to live in harmony. On the contrary, a body that attacks itself will eventually perish.
Paul connects this description of a body with a church where all of its members have received different gifts to perform particular functions. These gifts are given by God and the Holy Spirit, and they represent the diversity of the body of Christ. While some gifts may be more noticeable than others, all of them are necessary for the body to function as intended. Furthermore, all of them must cooperate for the body to thrive and to fulfill its mission.
Thus, in this healthy body, or church, members should never turn against each other. Avoiding arrogance, self-interest and competition, they must live in harmony and work together for the building up of the body.
Paul then challenges members of the body to follow “the most excellent way” of love. He begins his eloquent discourse on love by noting that if a person speaks in tongues, whether human or angelic, or has profound knowledge of all mysteries, or gives all their possessions to the poor, or even surrenders their body to hardships, but lacks love, all these actions mean nothing.
The point is that it does not matter which one of the gifts is ours; if it is not used in love, it means nothing. Once Paul sets this background of true love in the body of Christ, then he is ready to address in chapter 14 the proper order in the worship service.
“This kind of love is hard. But we are not left alone with this challenge.”
Thus, I Corinthians 13 is a passage about love within the church. If so, why are we so fond of using it for wedding ceremonies? One reason is that it lets us off the hook. Let the newlyweds live according to this high standard for love; as for me, I prefer to be excused from this challenge.
However, Paul repeatedly tells us that in the body of Christ, all members must live this love that is patient, kind, truthful, hopeful, enduring and strong, and that rejects envy, arrogance, rudeness, irritability, wrongdoing and resentment.
This means I am to apply this kind of love to the deacon, staff person or committee chair I really do not like, or to the sister or brother who is giving me a hard time, or to the one who has hurt me.
Furthermore, as we go about the work of the church, we need to ask: What does this kind of love look like in our worship services? What does it look like at our social gatherings? What does it look like during business sessions? What does it look like in our ministries in the community?
This kind of love is hard. But remember that we are not left alone with this challenge. As in every area of the Christian life, we are given a helper: the Holy Spirit.
When the Church of Jesus Christ embodies this kind of love, congregations will become robust, powerful witnesses to the love of Jesus. That love will exceed and transform our society’s understanding and commodification of “love.”