Holding truth and love together
Imagine you hold in your hand some ordinary table salt, composed of two chemicals—sodium and chloride. Either of these substances by itself is toxic, but together they form one of the essentials for life, without which we would die. It seems amazing that two chemicals so harmful to us when separated, together should be so essential to our well-being. (1)
It is the same with truth and love. The tension between these two lie at the root of many conflicts in our Church. Errors have come when one of these aspects of Christian reality has been stressed at the expense of the other. The solution is to hold them together. Paul references this in Ephesians 4:14-15, when he explains what happens when the whole body of Christ works together: ‘Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ’.
Truth and love: essential components of a healthy faith. Like sodium and chloride, they are life-giving when together, but toxic when separated.
Love without truth
Love detached from truth becomes sentimentality. Sentimentality has been defined as ‘Misrepresenting the world in order to feel unconditionally warm-hearted about bits of it; misrepresenting the world in order to indulge our feelings.’ (2) We see a person or issue only in terms of sweetness, blamelessness, and vulnerability. Sentimentality is wrong because it misrepresents things as they really are, it warps the truth. It is a ‘fiction of innocence’. (3)
For example, many people see clergy sentimentally. They have a view of us which denies that we can have certain faults and attitudes. Once, when I mentioned in a sermon that I am subject to temptation and sin, someone told me they found that hard to believe. What they had done was to create a nice, but false, image of what a priest is like. This may sound harmless, but it is not. What it does is not only place an unbearable burden on the priest, but also gives the holder a wrong idea about themselves, that they will always be a “second-class” Christian because they have faults and clergy don’t.
Truth without love
But it is equally as damning to have the reverse. Truth detached from love becomes legalism, harsh and judgemental. Those of us who identify ourselves as orthodox, concerned for the truth, would do well to remember that Jesus reserved some of his most critical words for folk who held to tradition at the expense of love. He called them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs! (Matthew 23:27)
It is difficult to keep the two in balance. Which do you more readily identify with—truth or love?
In today’s society, the dominant feeling is that how you act towards someone is absolutely essential, but what you believe is a more private affair, open to personal judgement. This is a reaction to earlier ages when great stress was laid on the truth at the expense of love. This reaction has also happened in the wider church: we have come to emphasise love at the expense of truth.
Uniting the two
How can we unite truth and love? Jesus shows us the way. In one of the best-known passages of the Bible, the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus is faced with people who are so concerned to uphold truth, the Pharisees, that they completely ignore the personal needs of the woman they use as a ‘test case’. She is a mere pawn in their drive to satisfy their legalistic ends. How does Jesus react? Does he decry their legalism and act only with compassion, caring for the woman’s situation and ignoring the wrongdoing at the root of their charge? No. He upholds God’s law while showing concern. After all her detractors have left, he says to the woman, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more’ (John 8:11).
When Jesus died, God’s truth that sin is evil and must be paid for met with God’s love in sending his only Son to die for our sins in our place. In this way, mercy triumphed over justice (see James 2:13), and truth and love were joined. When Jesus and the victory of the cross are at the centre of our teaching, worship, and pattern of life, we will have a healthy Church—one which holds together truth and love.