We all know that love means all sorts of things, from never having to say your sorry to tearing down walls to dismantling prejudice to erasing all borders between people. In fact, it clearly means everything except opposition to the popular issue of our exact cultural moment. And while there is something compelling about that imagery, and even a small kernel of truth in it, at the end of the day “love” by this definition is, well, it’s much more akin to the way we might expect a tyrant to behave than it is to the Biblical picture of love outline in Scripture. Articulating that picture of love is the point of Jonathan Leeman’s latest book, The Rule of Love: How the Local Church Should Reflect God’s Love and Authority.
(If this topic sounds vaguely familiar when connected with the name “Jonathan Leeman”, that’s because at least some of this book is a (non-gritty) reboot of his previous book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love.)
The Rule of Love begins with an overview of “love” as defined by the culture and by theologians through history. For example, our culture makes certain assumptions, namely that:
- “No moral boundaries or judgments can be placed on love.”
- “Love means unconditional acceptance and the end of judgment.”
- “Love and authority have nothing to do with one another. Authority restrains. Love frees.”
- “… love is anti-institutional.” (18-19)
Theologians have had more mixed positions on love, but there has been a marked trend in at least some streams of thought towards the modern culture’s view. Kierkegaard and Nygren, carrying out implications of some of Luther’s theology, are especially highlighted as tending in this cultural direction. The trends are contrasted with theologians like Augustine and Aquinas who hold to a Biblical view of love. It is this Biblical view that the bulk of the (short) book is dedicated to exploring.
So what is love according to Scripture?
“Love is affectionately affirming that which is from God in the beloved, and giving oneself to seeing God exalted in the beloved.” (102)
On reflection, we can see that Leeman has given us what is obviously a better, more accurate, and more Biblical definition of love. If I say I love my wife, and that that love has no boundaries and no rules, I’m either wildly ignorant of what “love” really is or, more likely, I don’t actually love my wife at all. What I really love by that definition is the opportunity to express myself without restraint, which is another way of saying that I just love myself. Of course there are rules and boundaries and authorities and institutions, love is properly relating to God and to others within the context of these rules, boundaries, authorities, and institutions.
And if it’s true in a marriage, how much more is it true in the church? Leeman ends his book with a discussion of the role of love in the life of the local church. Even here, perhaps especially here, love is no unfettered tyrant straining to run amok at the whim of either individuals or the congregation as a whole. Which is certainly not to say that there aren’t deep and authentic emotions involved. Just that those emotions exist within proper channels and are driven according to the rule outlined in Scripture. To find out what that looks like specifically, well, you’ll have to read the book.
Which you should do, because it is excellent and well worth reading.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO.