Empathy and the Kingdom: Part 4, Do Good to All, But Especially to the Family of Believers

In these ruminations about empathy and the kingdom we've already tackled one sacred cow, the limits and problems associated with universalized empathy.

In this post I want to tackle a second sacred cow: Are Christians supposed to love the entire world?

Quick answer: Of course we are. The Golden Rule. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. And so on.

But that quick and obvious answer might need some nuancing. Throughout the NT Christians are called upon to love, but they are routinely instructed to concentrate their love on their Christian brothers and sisters. You clearly see that instruction at work in Galatians 6.10:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers
Do good to all people, but especially to the family of believers. 

As John Nugent points out in his book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, one of the best kept secrets in the Bible--because it's so awkward--is how Christians are asked to focus their love on the church.

To make this point Nugent quotes the assessment of Gerhard Lohfink (emphases in original):
In view of contemporary Christian consciousness it comes as something of a shock to realize as an exegete that in the New Testament--if we abstract from Jesus' saying about love of enemy--interpersonal love almost without exception means love for one's brother in the faith, love of Christians for one another. There seems to be hardly anything else in the New Testament which is as intensively suppressed as this fact.
To illustrate this point Nugent then goes on in Endangered Gospel to list every text in the NT that commands us to love to show that, in just about every instance, the focus is upon loving each other in the church. A sampling of texts:
John 15:12-13
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Romans 12:9-10
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Ephesians 4:1-3
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Hebrews 6:10
For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

1 Peter 2:17
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

1 John 3:16-18
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 4:19-21
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
This bias for loving brothers and sisters runs through the whole New Testament. And we can appreciate why we don't like to talk about it very much. We are uncomfortable and even scandalized at the cliquish and insular nature of this sort of love. We're also worried about how this sort of distinction might become toxic, creating an in-group vs. out-group dynamic.

When Christians talk about love we mostly talk about a universal love, a love for everyone in the entire world. And no doubt we are called to love the world as God loves the world.

And yet, can we love the whole world sacrificially?  Is a universal love possible or sustainable?

And by "love" I don't mean affection, I mean the sacrificial, laying down your life for your friends sort of love. Behavioral love. Being there for each other, day in and day out, sharing our burdens. Covenantal love. Hesed love.

What I'm wondering about is this.

Might the work of the kingdom, as we've seen with empathy, require a smaller, more local and intimate scale, if it is to be practiced relationally, sustainably and sacrificially?

Yes, we love the entire world, but for love to be put into practice, for love to become a concrete and daily aspect of my life, love needs a specific, particular, local and intimate sphere of action.

Otherwise, love becomes abstract and emotional (rather than concrete and behavioral), diffuse or unsustainable.  

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